Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

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 now supported by the Austrian Science Fund with funding to the amount of 389,684.34 Euros.

The project

This project builds on the construct of Teachers’ Psychological Capital (TPC). Our model of TPC brings together the positive psychology and ecological psychology perspectives, by adding the notion of affordances to to the positive psychology array of constructs (e.g., hope, efficacy, resilience, optimism, positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments). The project aims to establish the ecological validity of TPC and to understand how TPC 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 that would elicit the views of teachers with different years of teaching experience in Austria and the UK. This should help to refine our theoretically generated model, and ensure more ecological validity. Following that, we proposed a large-scale online questionnaire survey that would build on tentative findings. These data should help to create a number of prototypical teacher profiles. Finally, we proposed interviewing language teachers representative of each profile type about their professional life history. This should help to retrospectively reconstruct their professional trajectories and ecologies. By putting this information together, we argued that we should be able to better understand how the TPC profiles emerged over time in specific teaching contexts.

1Focus GroupsRefined conceptual framework
2Questionnaire SurveyTPC Profiles
3Life History InterviewsDevelopmental trajectories

Table 1 – Overview of the Teacher Psychological Capital project

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 was made up of three members. As Principal Investigator, Prof. Sarah Mercer 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, the 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.

Project MemberRole
Prof. Sarah MercerPI; setting goals and coordinating writing of the bid
Dr. Achilleas KostoulasWriting the methodology section, budget, human resources description, timeframe; revising the literature review; in charge of revisions for resubmission
Mag. Astrid MairitschLiterature review

Table 2. The project team (preparing the funding bid)

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 wanted 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. We were also to including the perspectives of UK-based teachers in our research, was because we expected that this international collaboration element would improve our chances of receiving funding. Mag. Mairitsch was asked to start working on a literature survey, and report back on 1st March.

First 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 actually see resilience taking place. The problem with this was that resilience is a process of adaptation to distress, and we could not assume that our population, let alone our sample, would experience distress during the timeframe of the study. Prof. Mercer then suggested that we could focus on Psychological Capital instead, which was likely to be a more stable trait-like characteristic. Mag. Mairitsch was instructed to revise the scope of her review to accommodate this new research orientation.

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 the vice-rector for research, the proposal was submitted to the Austrian Science Fund on 27th October 2016.

Rejection of the original proposal

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, although the reviewers praised the proposal for its robust methodology and clarity of exposition (Reviewer A, Fachgutachten zum Antrag 30203-G29, p. 2). The principal reason for the rejection appeared to be the reservations, by one of the reviewers, regarding the focus on positive psychology, and the lack of practical relevance to language teaching and learning.

I am not convinced, either, that this project will do anything more than serve as a platform for a very interesting study of TPC, which seems not to lead anywhere in particular.

Reviewer B (Fachgutachten zum Antrag 30203-G29, p. 4)

These valid criticisms reflected a key weakness in our design, namely the mismatch between our ambition to conduct a psychological study and our project team’s uneven psychological expertise. This was reflected in an over-emphasis on positive psychology constructs, with which we were more familiar, at the expense of organisational and ecological perspectives.


A meeting was held on 30th May 2017, between me and Prof. Mercer, to discuss the reviewers’ conflicting feedback, and to plan our revisions. In the meeting, I was asked to make the required revisions during the summer, with a view to re-submitting 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. The most important change involved incorporating into our proposal the construct of affordances, which was derived from ecological psychology, and I had used extensively in my own research.

Most of the changes I made to the proposal were approved during our meeting with Prof. Mercer on the 13th July, at which time I was asked to make only minor clarifications to the text. A finalised version was sent to Prof. Mercer for approval 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 postdoctoral researcher (who would coordinate 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, who are assisted by the indefatigable David Leersch. Additional support for the international aspects of the project is provided by Dr. Jim King.

Project MemberRole
Prof. Sarah MercerPI
Dr. Jun JinPostdoctoral researcher
Mag. Sonja BabicDoctoral assistant
Mag. Astrid MairitschDoctoral assistant
Mr. David LeerschTechnical assistant

Table 3. The project team (October 2018)

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

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