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Why Develop? It’s Easier Not To
Dr. Susan Barduhn

Think back to when you decided to become a teacher. Were you a child? Were you in secondary school? Or did you fall into it? Did circumstances move you along and suddenly you found yourself in this career? I, myself, became an EFL teacher by chance: at the age of 18 I was invited to visit some relatives who were on a UNESCO contract in Colombia. When their contract finished I was too deeply fascinated by the Latin American culture to even consider leaving, so I got a job teaching English to support myself. (In those days it was enough to be a native speaker of English to get a job at some schools.) I liked teaching immediately, but it was still only a means of supporting my love of living in other cultures before I really decided to make it my career. I wonder if any of you found yourself in the teaching profession without having first chosen it.

Now think back to your first year as a teacher, when you were a novice. How much time outside of class did you spend preparing lessons? How did you feel about that? That first year was most likely full of hard work and little sleep. Depending on the first institution you worked for, you were probably either full of enthusiasm or fear. Or perhaps both. Yet many teachers look back on those years as the happiest times in their careers.

What happens to teachers as they gain in experience? We get married, have children, take on mortgages, worry about our ageing parents and our own futures. Maybe we have to work in more than one job, and spend time running from place to place. We are forced to learn to balance our daily lives and our social lives, exams, inspectors, courses, reading, administration, planning, the syllabus, new ideas, etc.!! As you see, we become super-human! But at what cost?

Certainly one potential cost is burnout:

BURNOUT is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. It culminates in a build-up of negative feelings about our students, colleagues and administration. As motivation decreases and frustration increases, we lose the desire and energy to be creative, developing teachers. Physical and emotional stress play on self-esteem and we lose the sense of being in charge of our lives.
Maslach, C. (1982). Burnout – The Cost of Caring, p. 3.

According to Maslach, studies have shown that most teachers – as well as those in the other helping professions such as nursing and counselling – will experience one or more periods of burnout during their careers.

When we get ‘stuck’ in one of these ruts, we feel stale and cynical. Our enthusiasm dwindles. That ‘high’ we once thrived on seems far behind us. What was once an adventure becomes a treadmill. We lose interest in our students and becoming unwilling to take risks.

There are advantages to remaining in this state! If all we’re concerned about is just surviving, we don’t have to think or worry so much about our teaching. We don’t have to update our lesson plans. If we keep re-using the same notes, we can go to school, do our jobs and leave them behind so that we don’t get so tired. We don’t have to stick our necks out in meetings, arguing for changes in administration. We don’t have to try new, risky things out in the classroom, nor jeopardize our safe standing in the staffroom (Claxton, G. 1989). The price, however, is the loss of satisfaction, real communication with our colleagues, idealism and self-respect.

I would like to suggest here that feeling good about yourself is your top professional responsibility. We teach who we are. We may think we are teaching grammar or literature or exam preparation, but studies have shown that the amount of success which students experience is less dependent upon the knowledge and experience of the teacher than it is on three factors or attitudes. The first of these is “congruence.” This means that whatever the teacher is on the inside is also what he or she is on the outside. Teaching is unlike some professions in that we cannot have one set of values at home and then successfully operate at work under another, for as teachers we are transparent to our students. Whether we will it or not, we are always in some degree of power over our students. We decide whether they pass or fail. This makes it critical for them to be able to ‘read’ us, to discover how best to please us. When we try to withhold who we really are, we actually interfere with their learning, because what they receive is confusion. Carl Rogers, in Freedom to Learn, gave us this description of a congruent teacher:

He is engaged in real activities which are meaningful to him. When he gives a lecture, he does so because the topic is important to him. He doesn’t do it to fill the hour or entertain the students. For him it is the real thing. In this sense he is a real and genuine person pursuing his own interests. He eschews trying to control the interest of the students, for this tends to confuse them by directing their attention toward the instructor’s goals rather than their own.
Rogers, C. (1969). Freedom to Learn, p. 39.

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