Entrance sign of the ELT Research and Methodology section at the University of Graz

The psychological capital of foreign language teachers

Between 2016 and 2018, I was involved in the preparation of a funding bid for a 36-month international research project that aimed to investigate aspects of the psychology of foreign language teachers. Following a successful application, the project, entitled The Psychological Capital of Foreign Language Teachers, is supported by the Austrian Science Fund with funding of 389,684.34 Euros

The project

This project builds on what we defined as Teachers’ Psychological Capital (TPC). Our model of TPC brought together positive psychology constructs like hope, efficacy, resilience and optimism, positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplisments, and the idea of affordances from ecological psychology. The aim of the project was to establish the ecological validity of TPC and understand how it develops in different contexts (Austria and the UK) for teachers at different career phases teaching different foreign languages.

To do this, we proposed a three-stage, mixed-method study that aimed to answer the following questions:

  1. To what extent does the TPC model describe the psychological capital of foreign language teachers at different stages of their careers?
  2. What types of TPC profiles can be identified in the foreign language teacher populations in Austria and the UK at the secondary school level?
  3. What age, gender or geographical differences are there in the distribution of these profiles?
  4. What leads to teachers’ current TPC profiles from an ecological perspective?
  5. What implications can be drawn for teacher professional development and policy support for foreign language teachers across the career trajectories?

In the first stage of the study, we proposed to use focus groups composed of teachers with different years of teaching experience in Austria and the UK. This was expected to help us to refine our theoretically generated model to ensure more ecological validity. Building on these findings, we would then conduct a large-scale online questionnaire survey. These data would be analysed to create a number of prototypical teacher profiles. Finally, we would interview language teachers representative of each profile type about their professional life history in order to retrospectively reconstruct their professional trajectories and ecologies. This was intended to help us to understand how the TPC profiles emerged over time in specific teaching contexts.

The project proposal was submitted to the Austrian Science Fund in Autumn 2016 (Proposal P 30203-G29), at which time we were asked to revise and resubmit (FWF email, dated 15th May 2017). Our revised proposal was submitted in Autumn 2017 (Proposal P 31261), and was awarded funding amounting to 389.684,34 Euros spread over three years.

Putting together the funding bid

During the preparation of the funding bid, the research team comprised three members. Professor Sarah Mercer was the Principal Investigator, and was responsible for setting the goals of the project, and coordinating the writing of the bid. I was entrusted with writing most of the proposal, including the sections on research methodology, timeframe and human resources sections, as well as the budget. Mag. Astrid Mairitsch was involved, as an externally contracted assistant, in surveying the literature and writing the first draft of the proposal, under my guidance.

Initial thinking

Work on the project began with a meeting on 12th January 2016, involving Prof. Mercer, and myself, during which we discussed tentative ideas for a funded research project. At the time, I was involved in a series of projects on teacher resilience, and this interest was reflected in the initial design. Roughly, we envisaged a cross-sectional study involving pre-service, early-career, mid-career and late-career teachers, with a view to understanding their resilience development throughout the career trajectory. In addition to this diachronic element, we’d like the study to look into how resilience was ecologically situated.

This was followed up on the next day (13th January) with a meeting involving Prof. Mercer, myself and Mag. Astrid Mairitsch, when we discussed the aims, methods and scope of the FWF proposal. We also discussed possible target populations and decided to focus on compulsory education, both private and state, ELT and MFL, possibly including the UK. Mag. Mairitsch was asked to start working on a literature survey, and report back on 1st March.

Original submission

In our meeting on 1st March, it became apparent that our focus on resilience was conceptually and empirically untenable. I argued that for the research project to be successful, we needed to be able to see resilience (as a process) taking place. But we could not assume that this will be the case with our population, let alone our sample. Prof. Mercer then suggested that we could focus on Psychological Capital instead, and Mag. Mairitsch was instructed to revise the scope of her review.

Another meeting took place on 4th April, during which the broad conceptual strokes of the project were defined by Prof. Mercer and my proposals regarding the overall methodological approach (a sequential mixed-methods design) were approved. Mag. Mairitsch was asked to start writing a literature review, under my supervision.

These ideas were further refined in a series of meetings (15/4, 25/4, 27/4, 2/5 and 9/5) between me and Mag. Mairitsch, with occasional involvement by Prof. Mercer, who advised us regarding her expectations in terms of human resources. A first draft of the literature review and the budget were prepared (by Mag. Mairitsch and myself, respectively) by 24th June 2016, and sent to Prof. Mercer for comments. Taking her feedback into account, a revised version was prepared by 5th July.

The proposal was finalised by 17th September, at which time we concluded negotiations with Dr. Jim King (Leicester University), who agreed to provide assistance with empirical work in the UK. At that time, additional documentation, such as non-technical abstracts and project team’s CVs were prepared for submission. Following approval from the University of Graz research management office and vice-rector for research, the proposal was submitted to the Austrian Science Fund on 27th October 2016.

Resubmission

On 15th May 2017, we were advised by the Austrian Science Fund that a decision had been reached not to fund the project in that instance. A meeting was held on 30th May, between me and Prof. Mercer to discuss the reviewers’ feedback, which was at times incompatible, and plan our revisions. In the meeting, I was asked to make the required revisions in during the summer, with a view to resubmitting in October.

At the time, our research team was overcommitted: Mag. Mairitsch had decided to pursue other employment options, and Prof. Mercer was unable to meet with me before 13th July (personal communication, 31st May 2016). As a result, I took the initiative in making the revisions. Most of these were approved during our meeting with Prof. Mercer on the 13th July, at which time I was asked to make only minor clarifications. A finalised version was sent to Prof. Mercer for comments on 16th August; three additional rounds of revisions, which were implemented in September 2017, focused on making changes in the conceptualisation and timeframe of the project.

The revised proposal was authorised by the research management office on 9th October 2017, and the bid was submitted on 24th October. On 14th March 2018, we received notification that the funding application had been accepted, and we would receive approximately 400,000 Euros in funding over the next three years. Most of these would be used to fund the salaries of a post-doctoral researcher (who would co-ordinate the project, under the PI’s guidance), and two part-time doctoral students. Additional funds would be used for travel expenses, software and two dissemination events.

Ongoing work

Following my departure from the University of Graz in September 2018, the project team now consists of Professor Sarah Mercer (PI), Dr. Jun Jin, and two doctoral candidates, Sonja Babic and Astrid Mairitsch. Additional support for the international aspects of the project is provided by Dr. Jim King.

You can follow the development of the project in their website, and by following their Twitter feed (@teacherwellbei1)