In this article, I am reaching out directly to my colleagues – language teachers from around the world – to have a conversation about what motivates us. As language educators, we have many unique collective features that bind us together and forge among us a distinct identity. To demonstrate my point, I invite you to take a moment to look inward, reflect, and think about your own personal and professional experience in five different scenarios.
First, have you ever noticed the positive ways your language learners respond during those classes when you are really “on your game” (and vice versa, their apathetic sluggishness when you are less than your enthusiastic self?)?
Second, think back to the early days of your career, and even before that, when you were making decisions about what you wanted to do with your life. I’ll bet that for most of us, we thought that teaching would provide at least a modicum of meaning and purpose.
Third, when was the last time you were so engaged in something that you were passionate about that you lost all sense of time and place? Interestingly, there are conditions that must be met for us to find that state of “flow”.
Fourth, look back over the past week. Can you see dips and surges in your motivation inside the classroom? Can you attribute them to specific sources? My guess is that many of us share similar triggers.
Fifth, when was the last time you savoured a professional achievement?—not just felt a sense of pride – but really truly savoured something? Amazing feeling, right?
In my ELTOC webinar this year, I addressed the five ideas I’ve just touched upon. You can watch this in full right here and, just to whet your appetite and convince you it won’t be a waste of time, here is a bit of a summary.
Connecting teacher motivation to learner motivation
I will begin my talk by suggesting that the motivation we feel as teachers is not only imperative for our own wellbeing but also for that of our learners. This is because teachers play a vital role in their students’ engagement and motivation, and in particular, our enjoyment of positive emotions and our confidence in teaching positively influence these elements in our learners. That is to say, if we are motivated and passionate about our work chances are much higher that our learners will be too. Concentrating on our own wellbeing and motivation is not selfish – but rather it is pivotal to being an effective teacher because it fosters the best learning conditions for our learners.
Initial Motivations: The passions
After outlining how important teacher motivation is for language teachers and learners, the second part of my talk will consider the initial motivations involved in why individuals might become language teachers. An appreciation of these motives is essential to gaining insight into teacher engagement and our long-term commitment to the profession. We can draw enormous strength from reminding ourselves of the purposefulness of our initial motivation and aligning our current practices to allow us to repeatedly re-live the values of what enticed us to the job in the first place (Toward, Henley & Cope, 2015). Whereas in certain educational contexts across the world, social status and other extrinsic reasons may figure into our choice to teach, for many others, intrinsic factors dominate (Richardson & Watt, 2014).
The key is to find meaning and purpose in what we do. In positive psychology, contentment springs from using our strengths in meaningful ways that also contribute to something greater than ourselves (Seligman, 2011) and teaching is idyllically suited to engendering that brand of positivity when harnessed effectively. This is a fantastic website, use it to aid you in discovering your own personal strengths.
Finding day-to-day motivation and flow
The next consideration in my talk will be to contemplate ways that language teacher motivation fluctuates on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, it is perfectly normal for our motivation to go up and down across the course of a day, week, or academic year. It is important to recognise when we are experiencing a motivational dip so we can consider strategies that incite a re-discovery of enthusiasm. Can you distinguish between temporary drops in your motivation and those originating from issues that are more fundamental? In my talk, we will identify personal and institutional threats to our motivation and ways in which we might tackle them. That motivation is highly individual is a non-starter, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
A heightened form of motivation, “flow”, is “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1992, p. 3). Flow has two prerequisites: possessing the skills to do the task and having a task that suitably challenges these skills. Flow boosts the spirit transitorily and builds psychological capital over time, which is a major component of human growth and motivation. I will focus on what flow means and how we might foster it in our professional and personal lives.
Tackling apathy and demotivation
Next, I will reflect on additional threats to motivation and specific causes of demotivation and apathy. Apathetic individuals feel they have nothing towards which to strive and, as a result, the mental, physical, or emotional energy for accomplishing what in the past they may have valued disappears (Selzer, 2016). To combat these feelings, we can engage in a variety of activities—some of which I will share in my talk. We can also look ahead and set goals for our own development and growth, including creating future visions for ourselves.
A Sense of Achievement
The final key source of teacher motivation that I will address in my talk is a sense of achievement, which can come from successes in language teaching as well as a sense of improvement in our competencies and those of our learners. I’ll talk about different ways we can capture such feelings of accomplishment from both small day-to-day experiences as well as larger achievements. One key way of promoting this is to engage in appropriate and self-selected professional development activities. Boredom can be just as damaging to motivation and wellbeing as stress, so there is a fine balance to be struck between not taking on too much while still challenging ourselves. I will discuss individual needs for stimulation and the problems of overstretching ourselves while considering specific strategies and activities for teacher self-initiated and self-directed growth.
The notion that we are all language teachers – no matter from which part of the planet – brings us together with common purposes and goals. No matter where I’ve travelled across the globe to meet up with language teachers, I have always felt the camaraderie of shared passion.
Watch “Language Teachers Need Motivating Too!”, a session by Tammy Gregersen.
Tammy Gregersen is currently teaching and researching at the American University of Sharjah where she also coordinates their Masters in TESOL program. She has co-authored/co-edited several books, with three more in the press, on topics such as individual differences, nonverbal communication, positive psychology in the language classroom and language teacher education.
Tammy has presented at conferences and taught in graduate programs across the globe which deems an incredible privilege because it taps into her passions for travelling and exploring new cultures.