How teachers fail ... and how they can succeed

By Rory Duncan

Failure and success — while working in academic management I have noticed certain patterns of failure amongst teachers, not just in terms of lessons, but also in how they interact with the job. I wonder: “Did no one tell them it was going to be like this?” or “Why isn’t it obvious that this behaviour is a bad idea?”

In 2015, the book “This is Going to Hurt” was published, detailing the experiences of a doctor in the UK and his difficulties there, something many comment on but know little about. It served not just to illustrate how difficult things are, but to help doctors form clearer understandings of their career paths.

In the same way, I hope to use a brief collection of my own experiences in several areas to encourage teachers to reflect on their practice and how they may have fallen into bad habits, to describe how they can get out of them, and to warn new teachers away from them.

Anxiety and serenity

Let’s start with something every teacher has experienced: being anxious about work. We all want to teach the perfect lesson, be adored by students and colleagues alike, and get a good mark in our observations. There is just one issue with these ideals though: they don’t exist in real life. Activities go wrong, students have bad days, and we don’t do as well as we wanted to. Even if this doesn’t happen, the fear remains.

There are two types of anxiety: pre- and post-lesson. The pre-lesson anxiety is something that tends to go away with time and experience. Teachers become more familiar with their books, their students, and generally increase in competence. The biggest task here is maintaining the will to persevere and just knowing there will be a time when this fear will end can be enough. For others seeking more reassurance, it can be helpful to know that everyone in the room wants you to succeed: you, the learners who paid, and the observer who wants you to teach well and improve further.

Post-lesson anxiety usually comes after a difficult lesson where the teacher feels like they will suffer some kind of consequences as a result. Usually, this will be unnecessary catastrophising and the same ideas about everyone wanting a teacher to succeed apply. However, if one is worried about their performance, there is nothing wrong with asking for help from colleagues in the form of peer observations and lesson planning. Even for observed lessons, if you are unsure about what to do, academic managers will help.

Frustration and satisfaction

Another common ill-feeling among teachers is frustration. There are two main categories: language frustration and behaviour frustration. The first, most will feel around the 30th time they “teach” the present perfect simple (and by “teach” I mean “remind students to use the past participle”). Teachers are filled with annoyance and doubt about themselves and their students. Are they stupid? Am I teaching it the wrong way? The second frustration will be most familiar to YL teachers facing down a class of belligerent teens or rambunctious young learners. You have told them at least 57 times to “sit down and pay attention” (by this we mean “Sit down and stop speaking in your native language!”).

Teachers often make the mistake of assuming progress is a linear process with a gentle incline showing improvement over time and reaching ever higher towards the golden C2 level. This is not what progress looks like. If it were, we would not constantly see people making the same mistakes. Our students have lives outside the classroom and will be unlikely to be able to put 100% effort into everything we want them to. That class of teenagers also has maths homework, and their various social obligations to worry about. That class of VYLs is completely new to the learning experience and has no idea what you want from them.

Teachers should recognise such factors, take a deep breath, and be ready to explain in different ways, to be calm and patient, to recycle language in new contexts, and be ready to help when needed. Incremental progress can be achieved, but remember the word “incremental”.

Anger and placation

Frustration and anger often go together and while it is easy to manage our own expectations as teachers, those of others can be more difficult and leave us feeling helpless and victimised. For example: parents demand results and get upset when they don’t appear. This all seems so unfair; the teacher is only one half of the equation and you are trying your best but it often seems like others (and perhaps even yourself) are blaming you for everything. Anger is the result and it will often be taken out in places and on people who least deserve it.

This is difficult in the heat of the moment, but one place to start is by saying to yourself “Stop”. After that, we have to ask what does the angry parent want to achieve. It is unlikely they are angry just for the fun of being angry. They are likely paying a lot of money for that class in the desperate hope their child can have a better life than they did.

Once we stop the anger response and recognise that the people making us angry are not looking to achieve that, then we can sit down and work out a plan to make things better. This can be as simple as explaining what was already highlighted about the nature of progress, or working out a plan for more targeted homework.

Things beyond the classroom will also affect teachers living abroad where standards of living are lower, and cultural expectations in terms of planning, organisation and time are different. The accommodation you stay in is not like an apartment in your home country. People are late to meetings. Your colleagues fail to appreciate your efforts to make things tidier. The end result is often anger.

In an extension to the point about classroom anger, one can add another part to the equation of dealing with such things: “What can I do to be part of the solution?” Getting angry seldom accomplishes much (and the world often fails to notice it anyway), but moving past it and seeking solutions to problems both helps the situation and how you feel about it. You have a greater sense of control.

Disappointment and breakthrough

You can’t control everything of course and, despite your best efforts, things go wrong. Students fail their tests. Your ingenious grammar presentation doesn’t go to plan. You lose control of a class. You feel like a failure and everything you do and have done up to this point has been for nothing.

Disappointment after failure is natural. What is important is moving past this point and not lingering on the bad emotions. Managing expectations beforehand can greatly help. One way to do this is by having a plan for your classes and sharing this with students so they can see what is expected. Then they can do their own research to brush up on areas where they feel rusty. If you have sufficient academic freedom, you can even negotiate these plans with your students so they do not feel trapped by the expectations of others.

You can’t prepare for every failure though, and it is important to reflect when it occurs. Less confident/experienced teachers can do this privately or with trusted colleagues at first, but it can be beneficial to ask students after the failure “Why did that go wrong?” The answers can be rather insightful. Recognise the mistake, learn from it, and develop a plan to move forward. Carrying your feelings of failure with you will not help.

Dis-ingenuity and authenticity

Most of us have met teachers who were truly inspirational and a credit to the profession. They always had a smile on their faces, seemed to know the right level of challenge and how to motivate students. They never gave up and encouraged us likewise. We all want to be that teacher. There is nothing wrong with having a role model. We all learn from each other.

There are two problems with this which must be mitigated, however. The first is a failure to recognise you are not that person. The second is a failure to recognise that you are your own person with your own strengths and weaknesses. Both can lead teachers to create impossible standards, which they fail to meet and thus inflict tremendous damage to their sense of self. You have no idea the process your role model went through to be who they are, but you can have an idea of what it might take to get you to a similar place.

It helps to outline a plan for improvement. Pick the key areas and research techniques that can be used to get there and measure the progress you make. Create a timeline for getting from where you are now to where you would like to be, always keeping in mind that the results you achieve will be unique to you and different from a role model who isn’t you. To illustrate this with an example: consider what happens with people who work out in the gym. They all want to improve and they do get where they want to be but a quick glance at any picture shows their results — while similar — are unique to them.

So, keep the role models and have a plan unique to you, but be aware that where you wind up will not match anyone else (the same was true for your role models when they did this!). The last word in this area will be to make sure the role models and aims you choose are actually something you want and not just what someone else is expecting of you. There is nothing more disappointing than reaching the summit of the wrong mountain.

Conclusion: injury and recovery

To conclude, teachers should be aware of potential pitfalls in terms of their beliefs about the job if they are to succeed and be ready to push past them. The anxiety will pass, the frustration can be managed, the anger should subside to proactivity, the field of disappointment can contain the seeds for breakthroughs to come, and a realistic self-concept can be the foundation for inspiration.

If one lesson can be taken from this article (and we stick to the mountain climbing analogy from the previous section), it should be that students and teachers are on an adventure up the Everest of language learning. As with mountain climbing in real life, it will not all be easy and there will be complaints along the way. But if we aim for the right summit, learn from the past and keep going, we can all enjoy the end result.

I have written this article with the mistakes that teachers make in mind, but I am aware that managers are far from perfect themselves and so would like to end with an invitation for a counter-article looking at how management and schools fail teachers and students in the cause of helping institutions learn from similar common errors.

Author's bio: Rory Fergus Duncan-Goodwillie, from Scotland, is the Senior Senior Assistant Director of Studies for Young Learners Aged 10–16 and Cambridge Exams at BKC-International House, Moscow. Aside from Russia, he has lived and worked in Ghana, South Africa, East Timor, Fiji, and across the United Kingdom. When not teaching, he writes extensively, and is the author of three books and several articles.