By - Myles Klynhout
Isolation in the teaching profession is something of a paradox.
Classrooms are crowded places buzzing with conversation and interaction. English language teachers (ELT’s) see anywhere between 20 - 120 students per day. Yet, teaching has been described as a ‘lonely’ profession where teachers experience a lack of opportunities for discussing their work with other school personnel.
Whether it is physical (ie. living in remote areas/ a foreign country) or environmental (ie. the only language teacher in the school), isolation can affect job satisfaction and ability to perform at our best.
Teacher isolation has also been explored as a psychological state rather than as a condition of the physical environment. As described by John Goodland, this thinking locates the workplace inside the individual as it is created and continually recreated through the filtering and processing of information. For instance, teachers might be generally aware that there is a lack of communication and support where they work but they don’t know how to approach resolving such schoolwide problems.
So, isolation may depend more on how teachers perceive and experience collegial interaction, rather than the actual amount of interaction with their peers. We also can’t rule out the impact of the physical environment and working conditions have on the teacher’s sense of belonging.
Putting private language academies aside, ELT’s often make up a minority in their schools with very small departments. If you are teaching in a country where English is a second language, your resources and materials will be in a different language to the other teachers. Resources can still be shared, but the language barrier creates a sense of isolation from other departments.
As a subject area, ELT’s suffer from a particular perception by other teachers who don’t take the study of second languages seriously. And the professionalism between teachers in our own field is constantly brought into question. Labels such as ‘backpacker teachers’ unfortunately can result in further friction between teachers.
However, this perception and the sense of marginalisation that comes with it can be combated. Regardless of your entry point into the field of teaching, ELT's could all take more interest in second language acquisition (SLA) research and the findings that inform our practice. And there are more and more initiatives online helping to mediate academic findings for practitioners, such as Research Bites.
Isolation can occur at many different points in a teacher’s career. During initial teacher training (e.g. CELTA/TELF) ELT’s usually engage in individual planning and teaching. With few exceptions, assignments and evaluation are individual efforts. The experience may mean that teachers start out their career unprepared to engage in reflective practice with others and respond to criticism.
Anecdotally, I was unaware of the importance that collegiality and feedback (both positive and negative) would play in my future professional development. It was the lack of action from the teachers in my own school to organise that led me to join a Cooperative for English Teachers. This bumpy induction to teaching-life could explain the current isolated situation ELT’s find themselves in.
The resulting sense of isolation can be quite overwhelming even later in the teacher’s career. The pressure for creating engaging and effective lessons falls on the shoulders of the individual teacher. It is further exacerbated if they have no immediate way of sharing ideas and resources with others. This can greatly increase the pressure a teacher is feeling, and can contribute to future burnout.
Teachers benefit both from sharing and learning from each other; the more this atmosphere is fostered, the less isolated all teachers will feel.
Teachers feeling isolated can look for support in many areas and schools should go out of their way to promote these avenues to reduce the extent of the problem.
Myles is a DELTA qualified ESL teacher and member of Cooperativa de Serveis Lingüístics de Barcelona. He is currently based in Helsinki and works as a Community & Product Specialist at the Freeed. Freeed started out in Finland and now connects teachers around the world to share ideas and find resources.