Career Stagnation | Getting out of your comfort zone as a language teacher

 In Blog

A feeling of career stagnation has overcome me. I believe the reason for this feeling is linked to my resistance to challenge myself. 

Essentially, I’ve realised that I’m deeply entrenched in my comfort zone when it comes to teaching English online.

Before I explain what’s been going on with me, let me define career stagnation and go over the tell-tale signs of this state.


What is career stagnation?

First of all, Cambridge dictionary defines ‘stagnation’ as:

a situation in which something stays the same and does not grow and develop

Hence, a feeling of career stagnation suggests that your career development has stalled out. The condition is firmly associated with a lack of engagement with your job or career. 


What are the telltale signs of career stagnation among language teachers?

Some telltale signs that language teachers are experiencing career stagnation include:

  • An absence of challenge - Essentially, routine has set in and teaching has become so easy that you don’t have to push yourself to come up with the goods and then some;
  • Feeling bored - Counting down to the end of each class is never a good sign;
  • A lack of engagement - You may be less than eager due to not having the right skills to teach a particular group or course. Conversely, you may feel that the skill set you’ve honed through years of education and teaching experience is not being put to good use. It’s also possible that you don’t feel as if you can make a difference to your students and/or your school or institution;
  • No opportunity for learning - Continuous learning should be part and parcel of every language teacher’s career. However, you may be stuck in a school or institution where there’s no opportunity for growth. At the start of the school year, perhaps your Director of Studies promised that senior teachers would be organising countless teacher training sessions in the first few months. Yet, nothing seems to be happening;
  • No sign of a pay-rise on the horizon - Many people get into TEFL because they wish to make a difference to people’s lives a long way from home. Regardless of a language teacher’s dedication to their students, performance levels and commitment will lag eventually. Getting a pay-rise, or increasing your rates if you’re a freelancer, may turn out to be that vital “energy booster” you’ve been yearning for;
  • You’ve begun to blame your students for your state of mind -  Teachers often complain that their students are not ‘taking anything in’ or their skills have simply reached a plateau. Whatever students appear to have learned one week has all been forgotten a week later. Second language acquisition is a complex field. It’s no good blaming your frustration and stagnation on your students.


A feeling of career stagnation - but not due to my current students

As I admitted in the introduction, I’m stuck in my comfort zone. 

In recent years, routine has set in. I’ve done very little to challenge myself when it comes to teaching.

My current set of individual students and teaching online in general are not connected with the aforementioned confessions. I’ve built up a decent relationship with my students and I don’t intend to give up teaching them. However, I’m too attached to my comfort zone because every lesson follows a similar pattern and methodology.

In sum, this feeling of career stagnation won’t go away. I need to shake up my teaching schedule and present myself with a fresh challenge. 

Frankly, it’s not the first time I’ve been in this position. I’ve had to make changes in the past as a result of this feeling of career stagnation or burnout. I will now describe some of the ways I’ve ‘reinvented’ myself in the past.


How can you overcome the dreaded feeling of career stagnation in language teaching?

Now I’d like to share some of my ideas about how to overcome career stagnation. I shall make particular reference to the field of language teaching. 

I’m aware that career stagnation may not look the same for those who work in a language school or institution, and tutors who teach online. The personal experience I’m about to share mostly relates to my career as an online teacher of English. However, I do believe it’ll be of benefit to those who teach in-person.

1. Let your beliefs as a teacher evolve - Structure classes in a different way and try out some different teaching methodologies

One way to overcome a feeling of career stagnation that's related to tedium is to experiment with teaching methodologies. You need to try to structure your classes differently from time to time.

I can freely admit it. One of my most undesirable traits in recent years has been my stubbornness. 

During the first five years of my career in EFL, I absorbed whatever information and advice I could from colleagues and Directors of Studies in order to become a better teacher. Then, I did my MA in ELT. Naturally, I learned a great deal about language teaching methodologies and language learning strategies. However, my gradual shift towards the Lexical Approach, which my MA certainly triggered, perhaps had a more sinister side to it. By that, I mean, my beliefs as an ELT teacher mostly ceased to evolve after ditching the grammatical syllabus in favour of lexical teaching.

Honestly, I could never return to the grammatical syllabus and tense-based teaching because I don’t believe that language learning occurs in a predetermined linear fashion. Hence, you may now feel as if I’m just showing my sensitive side. So what’s going on in my mind then?

I’ve been advocating the learning of words, collocations and chunks of language for nigh-on 10 years. Although I believe in the basic principles of the Lexical Approach, I feel as if my complete dependence on the approach requires some serious self-reflection. 

I believe in the Lexical Approach. However, it can’t be the be-all and end-all when it comes to language teaching. 

Change your lesson structure and teaching approaches

A few years ago, I got away from the usual way I structure my online language lessons and briefly experimented with a task-based learning approach

Certainly, breaking the usual routine - that is conversation based on news articles - energised me. Unfortunately, my dabbles in task-based learning didn’t last long, even though I think both my students and I enjoyed leaving our comfort zones. 

Devastatingly, I’ve always been too stuck in my ways.

2. Connect with ESL peers and influencers

Over the past year or so, I’ve focused on growing my network on LinkedIn and dropping the odd message to like-minds to see how they’re getting on. 

I’ve also contacted several EFL professionals who I think might be able to contribute some valuable content to this blog, either through a guest post or an interview. 

In recent times, I’ve interviewed university professors on topics such as teaching English to refugees, the Nottingham accent and East Midlands English and how to go about teaching English pronunciation.

I always look forward to conducting interviews as it makes me realise I am not the know-all I probably think I am!

3. Start a blog or podcast related to language teaching or language learning

If you suspect that you’ve been overcome by a feeling of career stagnation, why not start a teaching blog or a podcast?

As the saying goes: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” It doesn’t have to be just teaching, teaching and more teaching.

There’s nothing against you getting all your emotions and frustration off your chest in a blog post. If you share this post on LinkedIn, some of your connections may well provide those all too important pieces of advice you’ve probably been yearning for.

4. Create materials which are meaningful to you, which are from the heart

Soon after I turned to teaching English online, I began to write texts about some of my own life experiences. For instance, I wrote texts related to travel, work and European cultures I had immersed myself in while teaching English abroad.

I think there’s nothing wrong with a teacher giving their students a glimpse into their life. Frankly, I didn’t write these texts to be the centre of attention. In fact, I was purely focused on providing my students with a thorough linguistic workout. The beauty of the texts is that they are written in the first person and contain features of spoken English, such as contractions.

Check out the text below. It contains plenty of useful collocations and constructions which are common in spoken English:

how to change language teaching stagnation

Finally, it's worth mentioning that these texts  gave me an idea to create Komified - a mobile app for English language learners. 

5. Change the length of classes or don’t even teach to a fixed length at all

I once wrote a blog post which claimed that the ideal length of a private online language class is between 15 and 25 minutes.

That seems like a wacky and controversial claim, right?

If you think long and hard about the feeling of career stagnation you may be experiencing, are those long 60 or 90-minute classes with distracted and inattentive students really doing wonders for your well-being?

These days I don’t even teach fixed length classes. My students pay for a bunch of minutes. So when they’re nearly ‘out of credit’, I ask them to top up their minutes again. If a lesson lasts 21 minutes, then so be it. 

In sum, the regularity of contact with a second language counts for so much more than the length of classes.

6. Find a teaching niche

In addition to holding classes based on conversation with my regular students, I’ve decided to spread my wings and offer preparation classes for the C2 Proficiency Speaking Test

Sure, there are plenty of tutors out there already offering preparation classes for the C2 Proficiency Speaking Test. However, I’m relishing the challenge of competing with those other tutors. 

Frankly, I have chosen the C2 Proficiency exam as my teaching niche as I think it’s the ultimate challenge for an EFL teacher. It’s not a walk in the park, as this teacher from Poland revealed. Nevertheless, I believe that the materials I have at my disposal are more than sufficient to engage and motivate proficiency-level students. Moreover, I am able to supply them with the language learning strategies to learn and retain low-frequency vocabulary and collocations which they need to produce in the speaking test. 

Paul Sallaway, Founder and owner of BabelTEQ, a platform which helps online ESL teachers to achieve independence, wrote this eye-opening guest post about esl teaching niches for English Coach Online.

 

Should you be worried about the so-called teacher performance plateau? 

At the start of this century, a popular notion pervaded the education industry that teachers are subject to a ‘performance plateau’. 

Essentially, studies supposedly revealed that teachers’ effectiveness reaches a plateau after the first three to five years or so on the job. After this time, teachers proceed to do their job routinely.

For a little more information on the findings of studies which investigated teacher performance, check out this fact sheet published by the United States non-profit organisation, TNTP (formerly known as The New Teacher Project). 

Sure, EFL teaching is quite separate from the TNTP and the public school system in America. Nevertheless, the concept of the ‘performance plateau’ possibly explains the feeling of career stagnation among EFL teachers.

Perhaps teachers’ effectiveness reaches a plateau after five years on the job because they’ve reached a state of contentment by that point. By that, I mean almost complete satisfaction that their teaching style and methodologies bring out the best in their students. 

In my case, I started teaching English in 2006. Personally, I believe my teaching skills peaked when I taught business professionals back in 2012-13. This belief stems from the fact I finally had faith in my teaching approach after years of tinkering and accepting and rejecting input from both human and published sources. Certainly, such confidence and conviction rubbed off on my students who were generally willing to develop their language learning strategies and language skills outside of the classroom.

It’s not all doom and gloom

Of course, the aforementioned studies on the teacher performance plateau must be taken with a pinch of salt. 

Two Associate Professors of Education and Economics at Brown University, John Papay and Matthew Kraft, wrote a paper on the myth of the performance plateau in 2016.

Essentially, Papay and Kraft referred to fresher research, including their own, which suggested that teachers can continue to improve substantially after the first five years in the profession. 

Logically, some teachers plateau, whereas others continue to improve. Moreover, according to the authors, teachers in some schools improve at greater rates than others. Hence, schools may either promote or constrain a teacher's professional growth.

I’m glad that Papay and Kraft convincingly debunked the myth of the teacher performance plateau.

As the authors pointed out, there are so many factors which enable teachers to improve after however many years it is in teaching. What about effective systems of peer collaboration? And what about teacher professional development and observed classes?

Since I turned to teaching English online in 2013, I’ve not benefited from having my classes observed by Directors of Studies or more experienced teachers. Moreover, I haven’t signed up for any training courses, nor attended many professional development workshops. Therefore, my individual circumstances determined whether my effectiveness as a teacher would improve or plateau. 

Maybe I’m not a worse teacher than I was in 2013. Perhaps it’s just a perception because of the transition I made from in-person teaching to online teaching.

Not that I'm knocking online teaching. It’s just that I’m completely entrenched in my comfort zone.

Reference

Papay, P.J, and Kraft, M.A., 2016. The Myth of the Performance Plateau, Educational Leadership - ASCD, PP.36-42
teaching English to refugeesCambridge B2 First speaking test