Language teaching is a highly skilled and multi-dimensional activity, and language teachers are dynamic and complex human beings. However, much attention has generally been paid to the pedagogical dimension of the work (doing), leaving the emotional (feeling) and personal (being) aspects largely under-examined. Language teachers are often confronted with the question ‘How do you teach?’, and are less frequently asked ‘How do you feel?’, or ‘What type of English teacher are you?’. In our British Council funded Teacher Activity Group (TAG) project, implemented by Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) in partnership with Hue University of Foreign Languages (HUFL), we consider understanding teachers and key aspects of their work, including the kind of English teachers they are and would like to become, their teaching practice, and how they feel about their job, as both a crucial starting point and an ultimate outcome.
In our first TAG meeting, English teachers from Thua Thien – Hue province were asked to write a self-introduction that described themselves as English teachers, including their personalities, the challenges they currently face when teaching English, and how they feel about their teaching job. One of the main findings is that despite teaching different levels of learners (primary, secondary, and high school) in different contexts (urban, rural, and mountainous areas), our teachers shared several similar personality traits, challenges in the classroom, as well as feelings about being an English teacher. In this article we present a summary of the teachers’ self-introductions and discuss how these findings inform our understanding and influence the direction of our TAGs project.
Question 1: “What are three adjectives that describe my personality as an English teacher?”
The first question that our teachers were asked to respond related to the concept of teaching as being and teacher identity. The teachers had to list three adjectives that best describe their personality, and these would later be used to compare themselves to an ‘ideal’ English teacher. Giving teachers opportunities to reflect on the characteristics they exhibit in their teaching and compare with an ideal teacher image is useful to help them better understand their teacher self and identify areas for development.
The results have been visually represented in a word cloud with the most common words enlarged and placed in the centre. The most common adjectives used all have positive connotations attached to them, such as enthusiastic, dedicated, hard-working, and friendly. These responses highlight several qualities of a good English teacher that our teachers possess, and demonstrate their dedication to their students as well as their passion for English teaching.
Question 2: “What challenges do I face in teaching English?”
The second question was more related to the concept of teaching as doing, particularly the pedagogical issues our teachers face. The teachers had to list the challenges they faced in teaching English. Ten challenges were identified as the most common responses that the teachers must deal with. Those challenges can be treated as direct factors that may impede the teachers’ desired positive teaching and learning results. The challenges can be categorised into three groups, student-related, teacher-related, and context-related challenges.
Effective English learning and teaching are in large part influenced by factors related to students, i.e., learning motivation, behaviours, personalities, learning abilities, and family backgrounds. Students’ lack of motivation is considered an obstacle in teaching, recognised by 24.1 per cent of the teachers, the second highest percentage among all the challenges. One teacher shared, 'most of my students are not interested in learning English, and they think English is difficult'. Furthermore, 21.5 per cent of the teachers found it challenging to deal with students’ naughty behaviours and different personalities, i.e., shy, lazy, not confident. When it comes to students’ learning abilities, which is concerned by 15.2 per cent of the teachers, one teacher wrote, 'many of my students are weak at learning the language [English]'. Finally, the percentage of teachers who are aware of their students’ disadvantaged background is 8.9 per cent. According to one of the teachers, 'my students come mostly from poor families, they have to help their parents to make a living, so they don't have time to study at all.'. Another teacher also mentioned 'lack of care from parents' as a challenge to her students’ learning of English.
Alongside student-related challenges, teacher-related issues were also identified, such as workload, teaching methodologies, and teachers’ English knowledge and skills. These also have the potential to negatively affect teachers’ performance. 17.7 per cent of the teachers feel stressed because of their heavy workload and “the endless paperwork and extended working hours”, as well as “the pressure of my students getting good results”. Additionally, a number of teachers expressed concerns about their teaching methodologies and their own English knowledge and skills. One teacher wrote, 'I am not good at speaking English, and my ways of teaching are not very interesting.'.
Context-related items involve classroom management, lack of learning and teaching facilities, and English learning curriculum and context. The most common challenge that the teachers face (40.5 per cent) is the struggle to monitor their classes due to large class size and student level discrepancy. In addition, the curriculum and learning context for the English subject at mainstream schools in Hue were a concern to 21.5 per cent of the teachers. Specifically, while some teachers were troubled by the limited time for such an elective subject like English, others mentioned the fact that their students have few chances to practice their English communication in real life. A smaller number of teachers (19 per cent) were also concerned about the lack of funding and facilities for English learning and teaching activities.
In articulating and sharing these challenges, it becomes clear that there are several common difficulties that English teachers in different contexts are faced with. The important thing is to understand what they are and find ways to overcome them. By collaborating with peers, reflecting on previous experiences, learning new ideas and techniques, and creating action plans to implement learned knowledge and skills, a teacher can be better prepared to deal with what lies ahead.
Question 3: “What are my feelings about being an English language teacher?”
The third question explored teachers’ feelings toward their English teaching job, which was related to the concept of teaching as feeling. Language teaching, like many important types of practice, is also an emotional experience. English teachers are therefore very likely to experience various kinds of emotions throughout their teaching life.
When asked to define their feelings about being English teachers, teachers in our TAGs used both positive and negative descriptors (see Wordcloud 2). Given the numerous challenges they report encountering in their teaching, it is not surprising that they may feel sad, stressed, frustrated, or worried. However, what is encouraging about the findings in Wordcloud 2: Teachers' feelings about being an English teacher.
As project facilitators, we hope to build on this initial understanding of teachers in our TAGs and foster a strong sense of learning, sharing, and collaboration within the TAG space. The ultimate goal is for our participating teachers to develop a better understanding of themselves as English teachers, become empowered to tackle challenges in their instructional practice, and be able to express and positively control their teaching-related emotions.
This article is written by Suong Hoang, Oliver Sowden, and Mai Nguyen, with contributions from Richard Silburn, Huy Nguyen, Phung Dao, Anthony Picot, Caroline Collier, Marijana Macis, Phuong Tran, Chau Nguyen, and Quang Nguyen.