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“We should start by putting ourselves first, not our students”

Students suffer when teachers are stressed out, argues Lara Statham

We always hear that we should be putting our students first. And I believe that many of us do just that.

We really want our students to learn and we reflect on our lessons with the aim of getting our message across more clearly; we adapt tasks to the needs of our students and supplement with extra materials to increase student motivation.

But outside the classroom, English language teachers are increasingly overstretched. And this is a serious problem that impacts on lessons. Not only for the teachers who are stressed or burnt out, but also for the students who, as a direct consequence, are not getting as good a learning experience as they should.

In the private language school sector, English language teachers are often required to teach across a wide range of course types, with very little time left over for lesson planning, deep reflection on performance and continuous professional development.

Combine that with contracts and pay that, in the UK and Ireland at least, can vary wildly. Then add the trials of accomplishing everyday tasks such as shopping, household admin and medical appointments.

I would argue that the difficulties in juggling this load directly obstruct effective classroom dynamics and learning. Not least because students find themselves struggling with exactly the same pressures in their own work and home environments.

‘Busyness’ has become truly toxic, and few of us know how to cope with the merry-go-round of demands in our lives.

“Few of us know how to cope with the merry-go-round of demands in our lives.”

On top of this, students expect to learn more quickly and effectively than ever before. So, in today’s world of fast-paced, technology-driven, and disruptive innovations, we need to change our approach to tackling these challenging issues. But not by introducing a new teaching methodology.

I believe we should start by putting ourselves first, not our students. Only then can we really provide a learning experience that matches students’ actual needs and expectations.

However, rather than expect schools, institutions and organisations to make our lives easier, we must take responsibility for our own well-being by developing healthier habits to ensure we are fit to step into the classroom, can apply effective classroom management techniques to deal with the pressures of classroom dynamics and respond constructively to our varying professional demands.

In short, we each must find ways to effectively manage ourselves before we can effectively manage others.

It’s really a win-win. Spending time on our own needs first allows us to be healthier and happier, more comfortable with ourselves and feel a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.

By focusing on our own well-being, our professional lives can flourish because we are able to focus more clearly, make more conscious choices and decisions and fine-tune our teaching so that our students learn faster and better.

Ironically, it is only by consciously slowing ourselves down and being more mindful that we really become more effective teachers, having a much healthier, meaningful and productive impact on our students and their futures as L2 speakers.

Here’s what we can do . . .

Be mindful

Being aware of our own breathing, body and mind by following a mindfulness meditation practice is a great way to de-stress, re-focus and reflect with more intention. Apps such as Headspace and Calm can get you started on your meditation practice.

Start with 10 minutes before leaving for work and 10 minutes when you get home. You will find that a calm, happy and more intentional demeanour can also affect your students, who will respond to your deeper self-assuredness and calm responsiveness.

Think less

Endless thinking about lesson plans and ruminating over different ways you could have done this and said that is simply exhausting. Put some strategies in place to prevent this energy drain.

First, start to notice when you are overthinking or running a commentary in your head. Step in with some slow, intentional mindfulness breathing to return to the present moment.

Then focus pragmatically on the things you need to get done in the here and now… and do them.

Set boundaries

Give yourself permission to say ‘no’ once in a while. Your time and energy are precious. But boundaries can also be fluid, so when the going gets tough you can politely delegate, and when you’ve got more headspace, giving someone a bit of extra time will be appreciated. People will see this and respect your time more than if you always say ‘yes’.

Treat everyone as individuals

Everyone has differences in their personality, beliefs and values. Learn to observe those differences carefully and respond to students individually.

To increase rapport, use a more direct approach with more dominant, gregarious students, and a softer approach for students who are more reflective and task-focused.

Think before you speak

Stop and think before you react to a comment or behaviour that irritates you. When you teach, you are reaching out to people who have similar pressures to you. Everyone is busy and struggling to get more done in the same amount of time.

A non-judgemental comment is far better received than a rebuke or ill-judged criticism when you don’t know what is going on for that student.

Swap roles

I show my teenage students a TED Talk by teenager Adora Svitak, who talks about the idea that adults can learn a lot from kids.

I follow this up with giving my students the option of giving a 6-minute micro lesson (I call it ‘6-minute teacher’) at the end of each class to teach us something about the English language. This is a great way to foster rapport and a productive learning environment.

Image courtesy of PIXABAY
Lara Statham
Lara Statham
Lara Statham currently works at the Università di Torino in the Department of Foreign Languages, Literature and Culture. She is also a qualified Life Coach and is interested in using coaching techniques to improve teacher well-being and to promote faster and better learning in the classroom. Email: website:
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