Is self-sacrifice part of being a teacher?
“When is the last time you sat down and reflected on yourself while having someone listen to you with dedication?”
I often ask this question in my teacher-training workshops, and one of the most common answers I get is: “I can’t even remember when the last time I reflected on myself was.” What does this tell us? It is that many teachers are willing to take care of others by putting their own well-being at the bottom of their to-do lists. These teachers are usually highly influential to their students, and the degree of their influence on their students sometimes goes beyond imagination.
I work as a Learning Advisor (“advisor” hereinafter) whose job is to empower learners through one-to-one reflective dialogue, help learners become more autonomous, and support learners to be more capable of taking charge of their own language learning (Kato & Mynard, 2016). The field of Advising in Language Learning (ALL) has developed into a specialized language education and professional area, which involves a set of unique skills and knowledge from a broad background, such as counseling, life coaching, mentoring, and teaching (Mynard. & Carson, 2012). In recent years, I have been providing workshops domestically and internationally for teachers/advisors to introduce how to conduct reflective dialogue with learners in a variety of educational contexts and how to apply reflective dialogue to their own professional development.
In the past 15 years, I have conducted over 4,000 one-to-one advising sessions where I listen to learners’ struggles and success, enthusiasm and anxieties, tears and laughter. I have seen learners encountering “aha!” moments in the sessions, which sometimes drastically change the foundation of their learning. Advisors listen not only to learners’ learning issues but also to their life stories, since learning and other life events cannot be separated.
Through listening to learners’ stories, I began to notice that there are two main reasons for learners to become highly confident or highly unconfident in their learning. The top two reasons are parents and teachers. Needless to say, parents are influential in either building or reducing their children’s confidence. However, the stories I hear from the learners about their teachers can be truly heartwarming or heartbreaking. For example, some confident learners would say with sparkling eyes, “I started to like learning English because of my teacher. She kept encouraging me by saying my English is getting better;” while other students would say, “My teacher said my English is poor in front of the whole class, and I will never forgive my teacher for doing that to me,” with tears in their eyes. Either way, positive or negative, one statement or even one word uttered by a teacher can drastically influence students.
What if one of those teachers were to say, “I usually sacrifice myself for others as I am always too busy to take care of myself.” Will it have a positive influence on learners in the end? The answer is an obvious NO.
Teachers’ positivity is vital for learners, as learners are highly sensitive to picking up on teachers’ wellness. Teachers’ emotions are highly contagious for learners and. therefore, happy and healthy teachers provide more positivity to their learners. Mercer and Gregerson (2020) say in their book Teacher Wellbeing that “you matter enormously to your workplace, your learners, and also to your friends, neighbours and family” (Ch.1, para 3). Therefore, teacher well-being should be treated as a top priority in professional development.
Co-creating well-being as a first step
Well-being is more than just being happy. It is more about finding meaning and connecting to others. Well-being has several dimensions, such as described in Seligman’s PERMA (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment) model (2011), which was expanded to Oxford’s (2016) EMPATHICS model, which included nine components primarily focusing on language learning. Oxford mentions that character strengths, hope, empathy and resilience have not been investigated in the field of language learning and teaching. Well-being is also treated in self-determination theory, which emphasizes that when the basic psychological needs (autonomy, relatedness, and competence) are supported and satisfied within a social context, people experience more vitality, self-motivation, and well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2017). As these three theories demonstrate, well-being is more than just happiness. It has numerous components that affect it in different ways, and it is vital for us to understand the components of well-being before we pursue it.
Well-being is not a magical trait that some are blessed with and others are not. We can practice enhancing our well-being. However, the question is, “how can teachers increase their own well-being?”
I would highly recommend teachers conduct reflective dialogue. What differentiates reflective dialogue from other types of reflection is that the reflection is done through a dialogue with others where you assess each other’s thoughts and feelings by asking questions. This process helps the participants broaden their perspectives by revisiting their experiences and emotions. It sometimes serves as a turning point when you suddenly become aware of something extremely important for you. I have witnessed such moments in sessions, and they are so powerful and moving that they have a deep impact. Moreover, one of the benefits that reflective dialogue provides is gaining the feeling of “being accepted” as you have someone listen to you with empathy.
One of the great ways to conduct reflective dialogue is to share life stories, as telling a life story is part of the process of answering the question, “Who am I?”
I have conducted life-story interviews in mentoring programs for teachers and advisors (Kato, 2022). In life-story interviews, the storytellers tell stories that they choose to tell. They don’t have to share anything they feel uncomfortable sharing. The listener is a guide and, together with the storyteller, the two are collaborators who co-create a story. When life stories are told, the storyteller and the listener create a new shared meaning between them (Atkinson, 1998). In other words, sharing and listening to a life story is a co-creative process where “his/her story” becomes “our story.” Thus, life-story sharing usually establishes stronger relationships between the listener and storyteller, and it usually ends up as a memorable session for both parties.
Using reflective dialogue through life-story interviews would naturally fill in many components of well-being, such as engagement, relationships, meaning, hope, empathy, and resilience. In this sense, life-story sharing could provide us with greater self-knowledge and a stronger self-image, leading to enhancing our well-being. However, if life-story sharing sounds a bit heavy for you, how about starting by reflecting with someone on the following questions as a first step?
Why did you become a teacher?
What part of the teaching is fulfilling for you?
What makes you keep going?
What is a metaphor for teaching?
We have long known that reflection is an important part of learning, but let us also acknowledge that it is an important part of well-being as well, whether that means your students’, your colleagues’, or your own well-being. In fact, maybe it is more than important; it is necessary.
I dream of a time when I can ask teachers: “When was the last time you reflected on yourself?” and instead of their answers being “I can’t remember,” it becomes, “Well, just yesterday, with some other teachers, and we found something precious in the process.”
Atkinson, R. (1998). The life story interview. Sage.
Kato, S. (2022). Establishing high-quality relationships through a mentoring programme. In J. Mynard, & S. J. Shelton-Strong (Eds.), Autonomy support beyond the language learning classroom: A self-determination theory perspective (Chapter 9). Multilingual Matters.
Kato, S., & Mynard, J. (2016). Reflective dialogue: Advising in language learning. Routledge.
Mercer, S., & Gregersen, T. (2020). Teacher wellbeing. Oxford University Press.
Mynard, J., & Carson, L. (2012). Advising in language learning: Dialogue, tools and context. Pearson Education.
Oxford, R. L. (2016). Toward a psychology of well-being for language learners: The “EMPATHICS’ Vision.” In P. D. MacIntyre, T. Gregersen, & S. Mercer (Eds.), Positive psychology in SLA (pp. 10-88). Multilingual Matters.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation development and wellness. Guilford Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish. Free Press.
Satoko Kato (Ph.D.) is an Associate Professor at Kanda University of International Studies, specializing in promoting learner autonomy and teacher autonomy through reflective dialogue. She is also the chair of the JALT Mentoring and Orientation Committee.