Who or what should teachers be committed to?

10 03 2013

Blog post 14 wordle

Teaching is not a mission; it is a profession, and like any other, it requires a certain set of knowledge, competencies, skills, and behaviors. In this post, I would like to zero in on one of such dispositions or behaviors – commitment. After all, who or what should a teacher be committed to?

First of all, in the case of a teacher who is not self-employed and works for an educational institution, commitment to this institution should be expected. Abiding by its rules and regulations and embracing its philosophical and pedagogical principles are reasonable requirements. Of course, in a progressive, learning institution, such rules, regulations, and principles need to be constantly negotiated with the teaching staff, who need to feel comfortable to question them and suggest advancements. Once negotiated and defined, however, rules, regulations, and principles must be adhered to.

Other stakeholders besides the institution also need to be considered. For those who teach children and teenagers, there is also the need for the committed professional to keep students’ parents informed of what goes on in class. Parent-school partnerships need to be strong to guarantee the holistic and effective education of our young ones. An unusual behavior in an English class may be the result of a bigger problem also affecting other classes at school. Coordinated actions to deal with such problems are more efficacious. In an ELT Institute that students attend in addition to their regular school, this is harder to do because it is impossible to establish this close relationship with all schools. Thus, the close contact with parents is even more essential in cases that need special attention.

An effective educator also needs to be committed to the profession, for example, by being a member of teaching associations and developing a professional learning network. Being committed to the profession also means engaging in formal or informal continuous professional development, as discussed in an earlier post this year, a topic also thoroughly explored by my blogging colleagues in the beginning of the New Year.  In the case of EFL teachers, besides the need to keep abreast of latest developments in education in general and ELT methodology in particular, they also need to be lifelong learners of their subject-matter: English. Native or non-native, effective and committed EFL teachers should read extensively in English, in a variety of genres; keep up with new idiomatic expressions and slang, as well as specialized vocabulary if they are engaged in ESP; be updated with regard to the songs, movies, sit coms, etc. their students are interested in so as to use them as cultural and linguistic reference in class. In short, we need to be constantly aware of the English around us and how it changes with time in order to be effective teachers of English.

Nonetheless, as important as the dimensions of commitment above may be, in my opinion, the greatest commitment of a true educator should be with the STUDENTS and their LEARNING. I would even argue that a commitment with the students and their learning may sometimes even justify lack of commitment in the other aspects described above.  “My institution adheres to the ‘English-only’ principle but I feel my students will benefit from translation in this class” is an example of a “breakable” commitment. “ I won’ t be able to attend the local Braz-TESOL one-day seminar on Friday because I haven’t prepared my Saturday lesson well enough so that my students will fully benefit from it”  is another noble decision that implies “ breaking”  a commitment. “I know this teenager misbehaved and I should tell his parents, but I think I will gain his trust if I try to deal with it myself first” is yet a third instance in which not adhering to a commitment is justifiable.

A teacher who is truly committed to students is one that puts students’ learning and interests above everything else. It’s a teacher who knows that the continuity of the work started with students during the term/semester or school year is essential and does their best to comply with the commitment they’ve made.

teacher helping student

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Fortunately, I know many teachers whose primary commitment is with their students, and here are some characteristics they have in common:

  • They choose materials that meet the learners’ needs, not theirs. It’s tempting to choose textbooks and other materials that are intellectually stimulating to us, but we should assess whether they are appropriate for the group of learners they are intended to.
  • They plan the lesson with the learners in mind, taking into account their specific interests, dispositions and difficulties. It’s also tempting to use texts, songs, movies, TV shows, etc. that we like, but it’s best to opt for the ones the students like.
  • They make an effort to mark students’ exercises/assessments on time so as to provide immediate feedback and minimize their anxiety.
  • They make it a point to know all the students’ names as early as possible in the term.
  •  They pay attention to their students and notice when something is wrong, or when they’ve had a haircut, for example.
  •  They feel rewarded by students’ successes and frustrated by their failures, and in the latter case, they reflect upon what they could have done differently to prevent such failures. It’s not that they always blame themselves; it’s just that they take responsibility.
  • They never see even the most disturbing and difficult students as enemies. They understand that such behaviors may stem from difficulties in other dimensions of these students’ lives and feel stimulated to help.
  • They want their students to be successful in their use of the L2 and want to help them become more autonomous learners.
  • They provide opportunities for students to keep in touch with them and practice the language outside the classroom, by way of classroom blogs, Facebook pages, and the like. For these teachers, answering a students’ query by e-mail is not a hassle, but a pleasure.
  • They really believe that everyone can learn and provide conditions for this to happen, including individualized attention.
  • They try hard not to allow their personal problems or needs affect their classes. Even when they have to miss work, they find ways to minimize the effects of their absence on students by: providing a detailed lesson plan for the substitute teacher; whenever possible, choosing a day in which their absence will jeopardize students’  learning the least; if choosing the date is not possible, rearranging the content so that the most challenging aspects will be dealt with on a day they will be present.

I’m not suggesting here that a teacher should be so dedicated to students that they can’t have a life or should always forego their own personal needs and interests.  It’s just that you can’t call yourself a REAL teacher if you are not committed, first and foremost, to your students and their learning.




13 responses

10 03 2013
Gilmar Mattos

Another impeccable post, Isabela. Thanks for bringing such important points for consideration. I agree 100% – teaching English is a Profession and must be seen as such by those who want to be recognized/respected in the ELT field. They must remember the saying “No pain, no gain”, though.

10 03 2013

That´s right, Gilmar. It´s all about the students, isn´t it?

11 03 2013
Ricardo Monteiro

Another thing to remember is that teaching is a two-way road. Surely, the more we dedicate our efforts and devote time to our students, the more we are likely to be “rewarded” by their commitment and enthusiasm

11 03 2013

You’re absolutely right, Rick. Thanks!

11 03 2013
claudio azevedo

Very inspiring. It sounds so obvious, but the truth is that many teachers do not realize what commitment is all about. I loved reading this post.

11 03 2013

Thank you, Isabela, for such a serious view of our profession!

11 03 2013

Thanks, Aldenir!

13 03 2013
marcia ribeiro

Teaching is indeed a very noble profession.

13 03 2013

You can say that again!

23 03 2013
Beto Arruda

This is a very interesting post, indeed. Although it may come across as patent, this description of a committed teacher enumerates some issues the language professional must keep in mind in a constant self-evaluation process, which ideally ends with the conclusion “Yes, I am a REAL teacher.” Interestingly, the post describes commitment as a discretionary act not influenced by outer factors. There is a need for a deeper analysis of professional commitment that goes beyond characterizing it. A discussion on why it happens or not may bring a better understanding to the matter, as well as help describe what a real teacher actually is.
One issue to be considered first is how altruistic this profession is, and, most importantly, how altruistic it should be. A balance between self-abnegation and self interest is needed (Higgins, 2010). It is a complex matter, and this balance depends on several issues that are not always within the teacher’s reach. This balance is actually in the students’ best interests. Higgins explains that “in order to cultivate selfhood in students, teachers must bring to the table their own achieved self-cultivation, their commitment to ongoing growth, and their various practices, styles, and tricks for combating the many forces that deaden the self and distract us from our task of becoming” (p. 190). If the teacher is not able to maintain this self-cultivation, how can he promote it among students? How much autonomy is given will influence the teachers’ investment in themselves.
Teaching involves investments made by all stakeholders. Unbalance in these investments leads to negative results. Following the principles of equity theory (Adams, 1965), Taris et al. (2003) explain that a balance between the investments made in a relationship (such as time, effort, and skills) and the benefits gained from it (e.g. recognition, pay, appreciation) is a goal people want to achieve. Taris et al. cite research that support such assumption, “e.g., inequity in work relationships has been shown to be associated with lack of organizational commitment (Schaufeli et al., 1996), absenteeism and turnover (Cropanzano and Greenberg, 1997; Geurts et al., 1999), employee theft (Shapiro et al., 1995) and burnout (Van Horn et al., 2001).” These behaviors are problems present in many schools, and dealing with them require much energy from all parts involved. They are, except for theft, part of the given description of what a committed teacher should not do.
Taris et al. (2003) conducted a research with 1,309 Dutch teachers, and the results support the assumptions that inequity generates emotional exhaustion, depersonalization toward one’s colleagues and students, and lowered organizational commitment. The observed behavior represents a tentative of balancing the inequity status, although the research shows they may not be always effective.
The sense of inequity affects employees’ psychological well-being, and it can develop into burnout, “a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, and is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism and professional inefficacy” (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001, p, 397). The social and interpersonal origin of burnout lies on the inequity present on the violation of the psychological contract (Robinson and Russeau, 1994). As described in the original post, rules, regulations and principles, which are “constantly negotiated with the teaching staff,” must be adhered to; however, when these rules become “flexible,” allowing a someone to be absent when others are not, there is a violation on the psychological contract, which contributes to psychological withdrawal.
Turnover may be the most visible consequence of lack of organizational commitment. Schools should take the time to evaluate the reasons underlying teachers deciding to leave their jobs. It is a naive assumption to blame turnover on lack of commitment. Actually, solving this problem must be a top priority if the students are a priority for the institution. It is certainly detrimental to students’ learning having always a novice teacher.
Commitment not only involves the teachers’ agencies, but also their working conditions. If the REAL teacher is the one absolutely committed to students and their learning, it is his prime objective to find the working conditions that will enable such commitment before diminished organizational commitment and depersonalization regarding the students start jeopardizing the learning process.

Adams, J.S. (1965). Inequity in social exchange. In: Berkowitz, L. (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 2, pp. 267/299. Academic Press, New York.

Cropanzano, R. and Greenberg, J. (1997). Progress in organizational justice: tunnelling through the maze. In: Cooper, C.L. and Robertson, I.T. (Eds.), International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Vol. 12, pp. 317-372. Wiley, Chichester.

Geurts, S.A., Schaufeli, W.B. and Rutte, C.G. (1999). Absenteeism, turnover intention, and inequity in the employment relationship. Work and Stress, 13, pp. 253-267.

Higgins, C. (2010) Introduction: Why we need a virtue ethics of teaching. Journal of Philosophy of Education, vol 44, no. 2-3, pp. 189-208

Maslaeh, C, Jackson, S.E., & Leiter, M.P. (1996). Maslaeh Burnout In- ventory: Manual (3er ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologist Press.

Robinson, S.L., & Russeau, D.M. (1994). Violating the psychological contract: not the exception but the norm. Journal of Organizational Behavior, vol. 15, pp. 245-259.

Shapiro, S.L., Trevino, L.K. and Victor, B. (1995). Correlates of employee theft: a multi-dimensional justice perspective. International Journal of Conflict Management, vol. 6, pp. 404-414.

Taris, T. W., Van Horn, J. E., Schaufeli, W.B., & Schreurs, J.G. (2003) Inequity, burnout and psychological withdrawal among teachers: a dynamic exchange model. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 103-122

Van Horn, J.E., Schaufeli, W.B. and Taris, T.W. (2001). Lack of reciprocity among Dutch teachers:
Validation of reciprocity indices and their relation to stress and well-being. Work and Stress, vol. 15, pp. 191-213.

24 03 2013

Dear Beto,

I’m both surprised and honored by your interest in my post and your brilliant analysis of its content, delving much more deeply philosophically and academically into the subject than the post itself purported to do. Bloggers write to be read, seeking both approval and criticisms from their readership. I’m thrilled that, just when I thought that readership and interest in this post was diminishing, your thoughtful and thought-provoking comment came in!

First of all, I’d like to mention how rewarding it is to see the result of a colleague’s academic endeavors in these past two years. I haven’t heard of or from you in a while, and I wasn’t aware that you had dedicated part of your studies to organizational psychology, such an intriguing and complex field, to say the least. I look forward to reading more about it from you.

Now, regarding the post itself and your comments, I couldn’t agree more when you say that a teacher’s primary objective should be “to find the working conditions that will enable such commitment before diminished organizational commitment and depersonalization regarding the students start jeopardizing the learning process.” A teacher can only be committed to students the way I described if he/she is within an institution that caters to his/her emotional well-being, and my assumption in my post was that this was the case. I didn’t mean to define commitment as a discretionary act, uninfluenced by other factors. In a complex dynamic system such as an educational organization, everything is intrinsically and dynamically interrelated. Of course, it is utopic and naïve to think that an institution will always be able to cater to all its staff’s needs, for these are influenced by experiences, beliefs, dispositions and expectations that may also be beyond the institution’s reach. I also concur that the very first condition for any commitment to occur, be it to the institution, the stakeholders, or the students, is the balance between a teacher’s efforts and what is gained from them, resulting in the teacher’s feeling of self-worth and self-cultivation. Again here, the aforementioned perception of “balance” will not be the same for everyone. For some, gain can be recognition, opportunities for professional growth, or working conditions and resources. For others, gain might be primarily material, and no matter how satisfactory and even fulfilling the other conditions might be, there won’t be a perceived balance if what is gained financially does not meet their expectations. And here, when it comes to material gains, I believe not a single teacher in this country, even the best-paid, earns what he/she deserves to earn. The teaching profession does not receive its due recognition and value in our society. Educational institutions are also sometimes victims of this unbalance in investments by stakeholders, resulting in their inability to invest in their staff as much as it would be appropriate. For private educational institutions, which, differently from public institutions in Brazil, have to make ends meet, the issue is even more problematic in a society where education has become a commodity and institutions with very low tuitions and, thus, very poor investment in teachers, are growing by the minute.

You touch upon inequity and its result in teachers’ commitment. How can one disagree with the premise that inequitable conditions will lead to burnout and, as a result, affect commitment? In inequitable working conditions, no one can display the type of commitment described in my post. Since I don’t know the underlying assumptions, context, or situation that led you to mention inequity, though, I can’t really comment any further. You also mention allowing “a teacher to be absent when others are not” as violating the psychological contract. Please clarify if you are referring to a specific situation whose contextual clues I’m unfamiliar with, but institutions are not in a position to “allow” teachers to be absent or not. Being absent is a right. The best the institution can do is deal with the absences and their consequences and take measures to encourage its teachers not to be absent unnecessarily, recognizing and rewarding those that are assiduous and taking measures against the ones who abuse of this right, if this is the case.

Another aspect you point out, Beto, is that it’s naïve to blame teacher turnover on lack of commitment. I don’t think I made this claim that teachers leave an institution because they are not committed. Likewise, we can’t say that turnover derives necessarily from poor working conditions. Yes, teachers may leave an institution because they’re not satisfied with their working conditions, and absolutely, institutions need to assess if this is the case and take action. However, I also observe that teachers leave institutions even when the working conditions are satisfactory. You see, people have ambitions and desires that lead them to seek different work opportunities, experiences, and environments, and pursuing these goals is part of one’s commitment to their professional and personal growth. In our contemporary world, the abundance of opportunities and the characteristics of younger generations such as Generation X and subsequent ones make it only natural that people remain a shorter time in their jobs. I don’t think this is different for teachers and I don’t think it means lack of commitment. In my personal case, I always have the pleasure of bumping into many former colleagues who pursued objectives that the institution couldn’t have propitiated, due to its conditions and purposes, and are making other substantial contributions to the field. As a matter of fact, just today I was made aware of the fact that English teachers are leaving their jobs to work in other fields that require knowledge of English, due to the booming market, especially in Rio. It’s on O Globo: http://moglobo.globo.com/integra.asp?txtUrl=/emprego/escolas-cursos-de-idioma-enfrentam-difculdade-para-achar-professores-de-ingles-7921763

Anyhow, your response to my post is very intriguing and I thank you for having given me the opportunity to reflect upon and comment on the very relevant issues you brought up. I wish you all the best in your academic and professional endeavors, as I believe you have finished or are about to finish your Master’s. Time flies!

27 03 2013
Gabriel Santos

Clear-cut and truthful. Great job, Isabela!

27 03 2013

Thank you, Gabriel!

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