How can we rebuild ELT as a resilient profession?
A while ago, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno was being interviewed by Der Spiegel, a German news magazine, about the 1968 student protests. The journalist started the interview by saying that “two weeks ago, the world seemed still in order…”, to which Adorno replied:
“not to me”
This quote often comes to mind when discussing the COVID pandemic. No matter how much worse our professional lives seem when compared to the pre-pandemic norm, language education has been in crisis for a very long time. And maybe, as we tentatively move towards a re-start, there is an opportunity to make things (somewhat) better.
It looks like I’m delivering a plenary talk…
This is the backdrop against which I will deliver a plenary talk at the 10th ELT Malta conference, on 9th October 2021. The conference theme is ‘Celebrating Resilience’, which seems very timely: Language Teacher Resilience is all about sustaining our professional lives at the face of adversity.
I think that the reason why I was invited to deliver the plenary was because, alongside by former colleagues at the University of Graz, I was one of the first people who tried to apply the findings of resilience research, which was being carried out in mainstream psychology (e.g., Luthar et al., 2000; Masten 2019) to language teaching. This is what makes things awkward; I have now moved on in my thinking, and I believe that much of the early work on language teacher resilience –including ours– has been misguided.
To a very great extent, research in resilience and cognate fields (e.g., grit, hardiness, mindfulness…) has strived to understand what individual teachers can do in order to mitigate the effect of various stressors: precarious employment, unrealistic expectations, the ethical crisis of teaching in ways that do not align to our core values, and more. If you are cynically predisposed, you might note that such scholarly concerns emerged at the same time when social and professional support structures began to erode or be dismantled, and that they involve shifting the burden for professional well-being from the employer to the employee. But I digress…
My concern with resilience has been that we have been focusing too much on what Jordan (2013) called ‘the separate self’. We –myself included– have tried to identify what individual teachers can do in order to remain productive in their jobs, at the expense of what we can all do in order to best help each other. And the limitations of this approach became very clear when the pandemic struck, and we were all left to our own devices.
What I want to do in my talk is propose an alternative, complementary way of thinking about language teacher resilience. In addition to the existing individualistic perspectives, I would like to propose a relational type of resilience. That is, a type of resilience that foregrounds those ways of professional existance that contribute to the wellbeing of our professional community: our friends and colleagues, our students, our mentors.
This is not something I have fully worked out yet, and it is not something that I have thought about entirely on my own. I owe a debt of inspiration to an article by J. V. Jordan (2013), who made similar comments about the resilience of marginalised girls in school settings. But even though I do not have all the answers yet, I do believe that this is a discussion that we should start having now, and this is what I will try to achieve with my talk.
As we tentatively return to a sense of normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic, this talk problematizes what ‘resilient adaptation’ might mean in the context of ELT. Although resilience is not a new concept in our professional discourse, the pandemic is now forcing us to consider troublesome questions, including: ‘Are all ways of understanding resilience equally helpful for language teachers?’, ‘Are individualistic definitions of resilience still relevant to what can only be a collective process of recovery?’ and ‘How might we make our professional community more resilient for the future?’ To answer these questions, this talk will provide a brief overview of resilience scholarship in ELT. We will cover early work, which conceptualized resilience as a psychological trait, i.e., something that (certain) people have. Following that, we will turn to more contemporary perspectives, re-defining resilience as a process of adaptation to adversity, i.e., something that we all do. This discussion will foreground the role of social context (e.g., teacher associations, legislation, mentors) in supporting resilience; and it will also set the frame for problematizing potentially unhelpful ways in which resilience research is being co-opted to promote individualistic understandings of ELT. This discussion will provide us with a springboard for taking the definition of resilience one step further, as something that we all must do together. I propose that resilient action in ELT involves rethinking a number of the ways in which we view ourselves, our roles as teachers, and our professional action, and adopting a professional stance that is inclusive, intentional, and meaningful.