When I last blogged about teacher wellbeing in August 2020, we were in the early throes of COVID, and Sarah Mercer and Tammy Gregersen had recently published their timely book about wellbeing (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020). Now, over two years later, it seems appropriate to take another look at the topic, to evaluate the status of the concept of ‘wellbeing’ in ELT.

Wellbeing as an object of study

The first thing to be said is that wellbeing is doing just fine. Since 1995, the frequency of use of ‘subjective well-being’ in books has increased by a factor of eight, and, across multiple languages, academic attention to wellbeing and related concepts like ‘happiness’ is growing (Barrington-Leigh, 2022). Interest in teacher wellbeing is no exception to this trend. There are, however, a few problems, according to a recent systematic review of the research literature (Hascher & Waber, 2021). There is, apparently, little consensus on how the term should be defined. There is little in the way of strong evidence that wellbeing correlates with good teaching, and, to my surprise, there is a lack of studies pointing to actual shortfalls in teacher wellbeing. Empirical evidence regarding the effectiveness of programmes aiming to foster teacher wellbeing is, less surprisingly, scarce.

Researchers in English language teacher wellbeing are well aware of all this and are doing their best to fill in the gaps. A ‘research group for wellbeing in language education’ has recently been formed at the University of Graz in Austria, where Sarah Mercer works. This is part of a push to promote positive psychology in language teaching publications, and the output of Sarah Mercer, Tammy Gregersen and their associates has been prodigious.

Next year will see the publication of a book-length treatment of the topic with ‘Teacher Well-Being in English Language Teaching An Ecological Approach’ (Herrera et al, 2023). It will be interesting to see to what extent teacher wellbeing is dealt with as a social or political issue, as opposed to something amenable to the interventions of positive psychology.

In the wider world of education, wellbeing is not as frequently seen through the lens of positive psychology as it is in ELT circles. Other perspectives exist: a focus on working conditions or a focus on mental health, for example (Hascher & Waber, 2021). And then there is neuroscience and wellbeing, which I am eagerly awaiting an ELT perspective on. I have learnt that certain brain patterns are related to lower well-being (in the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex/ praecuneus, and angular gyrus areas, to be gratuitously specific). Lower wellbeing correlates with patterns that are found when the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering (Bartels et al. 2022). All of which sounds, to me, like a strong argument for mindfulness practices. Keep your eye out for ELT publishers’ webinars (see below) and you’ll no doubt hear someone taking this line, along with some nice fMRI images.

Wellbeing and self-help

Academic study of wellbeing proceeds apace, but the ultimate justification for this research can only be found in its ability to help generate solutions to a real-world problem. In this sense, it is no different from the field of applied linguistics in general (from where most of the ELT wellbeing researchers come): it is its ability to solve problems which ‘alone justifies its existence in the first place’ (Widdowson, 2018: 142).

But here we run into something of a brick wall. Whilst it is generally acknowledged that improvements to teacher wellbeing require ‘structural and systemic levels of change’ and that ‘teachers should not have to compensate for fundamental flaws in the system as a whole’ (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020: 9), the ‘solutions’ that are proposed are never primarily about systems, but always about ‘me’. Take a look at any blog post on teacher wellbeing in ELT and you will see what could be called the psychologizing of the political. This process is at the heart of the positive psychology movement which so dominates the current world of wellbeing in ELT.

A look at the Teacher Wellbeing SIG of BRAZ-TESOL (on Facebook or Instagram) gives a good sample of the kind of advice that is on offer: write out a self-appreciation list, respect others, remember you are unique, be grateful, smile, develop emotional intelligence and a growth mindset, start with yourself, take care of yourself, look after your ‘authentic self’, set goals, believe that nothing is impossible, take small steps, pause and breathe, spend time with positive people, learn to say no, and so on. This advice is offered in all seriousness, but is not so very different from the kind of advice offered by @lifeadvicebot on Twitter (‘Are you struggling with the impact of sexism? Consider cultivating a sense of gratitude’ or ‘Worried about racism? Why not try stretching your back and shoulders?).

I don’t mean to suggest that mindfulness and the other nostrums on offer will be of no benefit to anybody at all, but, however well-intentioned such advice may be, it may be ‘rather better for its promoters than for its putative beneficiaries’ (Widdowson, 2021: 47). The advice is never new or original. It is rutted with the ‘grooves of borrowed thought’, lifting directly from the long tradition of self-help literature, of which it is yet another exemplar. Like all self-improvement literature, you don’t need any deep commitment to read it. Written in an accessible style (and in the case of the BRAZ-TESOL SIG in the form of illustrated inspirational quotes), there is a slight problem with all this advice. If you do decide to dive into it repeatedly, you will quickly discover ‘that it is not such a long way from surface to bottom’ (Lichterman, 1992: 427). Like all self-help literature, as Csikszentmihalyi (1990) observed on the back cover of his best-selling work, it will probably have no effect whatsoever. Whether you agree with Csikszentmihalyi or not, there is a delicious irony in the fact that this comment appeared on the back cover of his own self-help book. Like all positive psychologists, he thought he had something new and scientifically grounded to say.

There are also increasing numbers of wellbeing coaches – a thoroughly unsurprisingly development. Many of them are positive psychology adepts, some describe themselves as neuro-science based, and have a background in Neuro-Linguistic Processing. In the context of education, expect the phrase ‘life skills’ to be thrown in from time to time. See this article from Humanising Language Teaching as an example.

But self-help literature treads familiar ground. Work on the self may seem like ‘an antidote to the anxiety-provoking uncertainties of [our] economic and social order’ (McGee, 2005: 43), but it has nowhere to go and is doomed to follow its Sisyphean path. If research into teacher wellbeing in ELT cannot shake off its association with positive psychology and self-help, its justification (and interest in it) will soon slip away.

Wellbeing as a marketing tool

Wellbeing is ideally positioned as a marketing trope … as long as the connections between low wellbeing and pay / working conditions are not dwelled on. It’s a ‘new’ and ‘virtuous’ topic that sits comfortably beside inclusivity, sustainability and environmental awareness. Teaching is a caring profession: a marketing focus on wellbeing is intended to be taken as a sign that the marketers care too. They have your best interests at heart. And when the marketing comes in the form of wellbeing tips, the marketers are offering for free something which is known to be appreciated by many teachers. Some teacher wellbeing books, like the self-published ‘The Teacher’s Guide to Self-Care: Build Resilience, Avoid Burnout, and Bring a Happier and Healthier You to the Classroom’ (Forst, 2020), have sold in considerable quantities.

BETT, which organises a global series of education shows whose purpose is to market information technology in education, is a fascinating example of wellbeing marketing. The BETT shows and the website are packed with references to wellbeing, combining the use of wellbeing to market products unrelated to wellbeing, at the same time as marketing wellbeing products. Neat, eh? Most of these uses of ‘wellbeing’ are from the last couple of years. The website has a wellbeing ‘hub’. Click on an article entitled ‘Student Wellbeing Resources’ and you’ll be taken to a list of products you can buy. Other articles, like ‘Fostering well-being and engagement with Microsoft education solutions’, are clearer from the get-go.

All the major ELT publishers have jumped on the bandwagon. Some examples … Macmillan has a ‘wellness space’ (‘a curated playlist of on-demand webinars and practical resources to specifically support your well-being – and for you to return to as often as you like’). They were also ‘delighted to have championed mindfulness at the IATEFL conference this year!’ Pearson has a ‘wellbeing zone’ – ‘packed with free resources to support teachers, parents and young people with mental health and wellbeing – from advice on coping with anxiety and exam stress, to fun activities and mindfulness’. Last year, Express Publishing chose to market one of its readers with the following introductory line: ‘#Reading for pleasure improves #empathy, #socialrelationships and our general #wellbeing’. And on it goes.

Without going as far as to say that these are practices of ‘wellbeing washing’, it is only realistic, not cynical, to wonder just how seriously these organisations take questions of teacher wellbeing. There are certainly few ELT writers who feel that their publishers have the slightest concern about their wellbeing. Similarly, we might consider the British Council, which is ‘committed to supporting policymakers, school leaders and teachers in improving mental wellbeing in schools’. But less committed, it would seem, to their own teachers in Kabul or to their staff who went on strike earlier this year in protest at forced redundancies and outsourcing of jobs.

How long ‘wellbeing’ will continue to be seen as a useful marketing trope in ELT remains to be seen. It will be hard to sustain for very long, since there is so little to say about it without repetition, and since everyone is in on the game. My guess is that ‘wellbeing’ will soon be superseded by ‘sustainability’. ‘Sustainability’ is a better hooray word than ‘wellbeing’, because it combines environmental quality and wellbeing, throwing in ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘social justice’ for good measure (Kapranov, 2022). The wellbeing zones and hubs won’t need to be dismantled just yet, but there may well be a shift towards more sustainable self-care. Here are some top tips taken from How To Self-Care The Sustainable Way on the Wearth website: snooze your way to wellbeing, indulge and preen your body, grab a cuppa, slip into a warming bath, mindfully take care of your mind, retail therapy the wholesome way. All carbon-neutral, vegan and cruelty-free.

References

Barrington-Leigh, C. P. (2022) Trends in Conceptions of Progress and Well-being. In Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., Sachs, J. D., De Neve, J.-E., Aknin, L. B. & Wang, S. World Happiness Report 2022. https://happiness-report.s3.amazonaws.com/2022/WHR+22.pdf  New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Bartels, M., Nes, R. B., Armitage, J. M., van de Weijer, M. P., de Vries L. P. & Haworth, C. M. A. (2022) Exploring the Biological Basis for Happiness. In Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., Sachs, J. D., De Neve, J.-E., Aknin, L. B. & Wang, S. World Happiness Report 2022. https://happiness-report.s3.amazonaws.com/2022/WHR+22.pdf  New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row

Forst, S. (2020) The Teacher’s Guide to Self-Care: Build Resilience, Avoid Burnout, and Bring a Happier and Healthier You to the Classroom. The Designer Teacher, LLC

Hascher, T. & Waber, J. (2021) Teacher well-being: A systematic review of the research literature from the year 2000–2019. Educational Research Review, 34 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1747938X21000348

Kapranov, O. (2022) The Discourse of Sustainability in English Language Teaching (ELT) at the University of Oxford: Analyzing Discursive Representations. Journal of Teacher Education for Sustainability, 24 (1):35-48 https://sciendo.com/article/10.2478/jtes-2022-0004

Pentón Herrera, L. J., Martínez-Alba, G. & Trinh, E. (Eds.) (2023) Teacher Well-Being in English Language Teaching: An Ecological Approach. Abingdon: Routledge

Lichterman, P. (1992) Self-help reading as a thin culture. Media, Culture and Society, 14: 421 – 447

McGee, M. (2005) Self-Help, Inc. Oxford: OUP

Mercer, S. & Gregersen, T. (2020) Teacher Wellbeing. Oxford: OUP

Widdowson, H. G. (2018) Applied linguistics as a transdisciplinary practice: What’s in a prefix? AILA Review, 31 (1): 135- 142

Widdowson, H. G. (2021) On the Subject of English. Berlin: De Gruyter

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