7 Ways To Transform Your Relationship With Teaching

“I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.

I think it’s a very simple statement saying that all the good things life can offer are there for us to grasp, but that the influence of some dark force in our natures prevents us from seizing them. ”

Roger Waters, Pink Floyd

This article takes a look at the darker side of teaching.

When I say darker, I mean the shadow side of our motives. The bad news is that, as people, we are conditioned by nature and nurture to become limited in our thinking, and that’s why great change often comes too slowly to keep motivation alive.

This article is an answer to a challenge put forth by Nick Michelioudakis when he responded to my article on ‘Why Teachers Teach’. Nick wrote a very thought-provoking article which dared us to cast light on those parts of ourselves that we fail to acknowledge. Here are my new perspectives on Nick’s new perspectives.

Nick wrote a list of seven points where teachers’ motives may be suspect, and how this raises serious questions about our relationships with each other and our relationship with the field of education. I will take each point, give my perspective and then suggest some transformative outcomes.

1) Some of us teach because we strayed into this field by accident.

In my original article I asked hundreds of teachers on various social networks why they taught, and it’s fair to say that no one mentioned that they had just wandered into the field.

However, for me, regardless of whether we were born to teach or whether we ended up straying into in the profession, the real question is why we stay and what we get out of it. My original article had many positive and inspiring responses, which goes to show that there are many passionate teachers out there. We must, of course, take into account that other teachers who are not into professional development have probably not read the article, and therefore are not represented as such.

Yet, despite the positive tones of my original article, I believe that all teachers are represented because all of us are vulnerable to the dark side at different stages in our careers.

Personally speaking, I may be a drifter myself. There is no doubt that I’ve loved reading, writing and literature since I read my first book at the age of five. I studied literature in university simply because I loved it. There was no smart plan or career move in place. In the end though, I qualified as a teacher because I didn’t believe that I could earn a living writing. I also wanted to travel, so teaching was the key to that. This kind of professional walkabout is not a bad thing. I wonder how many ‘stray’ teachers have made a difference in teaching just because they are ‘different’?. Teaching is one of those professions which thrives on diverse influences. Conformity is the enemy of reform.

I think that in ELT many teachers were first globetrotters or writers. I also think that it’s not an easy profession, and for that very reason, ELT has created many innovators and passionate people blazing trails in education. Necessity is the mother of invention. As ELT teachers all over the world work under some appalling conditions, the spirit cries out for some justice. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Many of our agents of change are those who were tested by poor salaries and the walls of gloom in their teaching establishments.

From this perspective, we can ask, for example, why globe-trotting native speakers of English in ELT stayed in the profession. My answer would be that the sensible ones packed up, went home and got a steady job in their own countries. The eccentric ones, on the other hand, got fired by the need to find meaning.

“That so few dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.”
–from ‘On Liberty’: John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Those eccentrically creative ones are ELT leaders today working in far flung countries all over the world. Why do non-native English teachers stay in the profession? I’d like to think that they love the English language after having mastered it so well. We have some very influential non-native English teachers leading the world stage in English Language Teaching. On the other hand, it’s true that some ‘teachers’ are running schools to make profits without soul, and it’s very sad. It’s hard for students to excel under such conditions, which is why a higher purpose in teaching is needed more than ever.

One way or another, wherever or however we teach, we are all vulnerable to being hijacked by the dark side. There may be many of us who are discouraged by conditions, lack of resources and poor salaries. Or perhaps we are burnt out and forget what inspiration feels like. Perhaps our students fail to respond no matter how hard we try.

Tip number one for finding a new sense of purpose is to reach out to others in our field for support.

The internet and online education have created a new impetus for all of us to shine. There is no excuse anymore not to reach out to those with whom we may resonate in our personal learning networks. My ‘tribe’ of inspiring professionals called The Edupreneurs keep me going when I face tough challenges. In the past year I’ve experienced professional development through ongoing MOOCS on WizIQ such as ELT Techniques and Moodle MOOC 2. I also reached out to other inspiring networks through The Electronic Village Online, and recently #RSCON. There is enough reality and enough transformative change sweeping the globe to keep you inspired for several lifetimes.

2)Money means a lot more to us than we admit (that’s why many of us prefer examination work – which offers no scope for creativity whatsoever)

First of all, of course money means a lot to us. Money gives us power to make a difference. Money is a human right to help us fulfill our basic need for survival. Beyond that, money helps us to bring up our children and create educational experiences that can transform learning. Why people feel guilty about wanting money is the real dark side. Why teachers should feel guilty for wanting a paycheck is beyond me.

I have lived with the reality of examination work for most of my teaching career. I came to realise that students prepare better for exams if there is some focus on the arts, music and games, as it helps their memories and confidence. Therefore it doesn’t have to be without scope for creativity.

Let’s consider a situation where someone doesn’t enjoy teaching but is just doing it to pay the bills. In this case, such a teacher needs to look beyond this trap. First of all, teaching is usually a far from lucrative profession, so doing something you hate for a meagre salary is soul destroying. We a living in days of relentless economic insecurity and these realities can certainly kill the spirit. Giving into depressing realities, however, means that we stop thinking outside the box.

Some soul searching is necessary when you feel you don’t want to teach but are stuck in an economic trap.

Tip number two is to get back in touch with the things you really love doing.

Are those things you love compatible with teaching? My love of literature and psychology influences my teaching. Understanding how story, poetry, creativity, and social/emotional understanding can make a difference helps me to experience teaching as a way of life and purpose rather than a dead-end job. Knowing how I can help my own children through knowledge and caring is the biggest gift of all. That’s why I feel that it’s very limiting to view teaching as just another profession. It touches every aspect of our lives if we have children or relationships. Life is about learning and sharing.

When you get back in tune with what you love, then you will want to share your passion. Whether you do it officially in schools or establishments or just in your personal life, you will still be transformed, and so will your relationships. If you finally decide that teaching as a profession is not for you, it’s a good idea to plan, re-train and find ways to transfer your skills and talents into other parallel fields. It may take time and patience but you will have taken responsibility for your dreams and you will make it happen.

3) We are obsessed with status (cf Maestripieri 2012 – ch. 2) and a major reason behind the materials we prepare and the articles / blogposts we write is status-enhancement.

This is such a challenging dare. I don’t know where to begin. Personally speaking, I love writing and blogging. If I weren’t blogging about education, I would write about children, fantasy, and psychology. Happily, I think I kind of blend all of these things together anyway, so I find it very fulfilling. I admit that I’d like more time to write stuff for my children, and I’m not without my own dark side or vulnerabilities. However, my children write their own stories because they see me writing, and this may be the best form of teaching.

As for status enhancement, all writers and bloggers want to have readers. All lesson plans need students to learn from them. I believe that life has subtle ways of balancing out over-inflated egos. If all you think of is your ego, then your articles will lack a creative spirit and people will stop reading them. If you write lesson plans without truly caring about the essence of the lessons, they will fall flat too. Again, most of us do this successfully because we inject our own passions into our work. Nick Michelioudakis, who came up with these points from the dark side, writes his own lesson plans using his passion for comedy and psychology to inspire him. We all do that, or else we just don’t write or create content.

My tip number three is for avoiding the ego trap

Keep an eye on what others are doing in your field. When I see what others can achieve I am humbled and inspired, and any small achievement of mine is kept in proper perspective. However, ego can also be inverted into an inferiority complex, which is based on fear. If you feel inadequate instead of inspired by others, you are fighting the biggest shadow that we all have to face. To overcome this irrational fear you can gradually challenge yourself to be daring and just do what you want, regardless of what others think. No one can do what you can do because your contributions are unique.

4) We are often less than happy if our friends become more successful than we are, etc. etc.

This is something that no one likes to admit. It’s natural and understandable, but it is also very easy to overcome with a slight shift in focus.

In some ways the ELT field can be seen to create a kind of competitive mindset with all of its award ceremonies. Awards are usually for innovation or outstanding contributions. It’s easy to award those who have made themselves visible to the educational community. Yet, there are those whose work does indeed go unnoticed, and these are the ones who create the invisible ripple effects through the stories that are never told. But why not? Why are they never told?

Nowadays those of us who work in the public eye are more likely to get noticed. Activities like blogging, holding webinars, making You Tube videos etc. attract attention. Yet, this is no magic formula. We also work extremely hard, and that has to come from passion or else you would just burn out.

When we come to awards such as ELTONS, we are really notching up the level to great achievements. The calibre of creative innovators at the ELTONS is amazing. Yet, some of those will win awards and some won’t. I’d imagine that anyone who gets to the ELTONS is grateful to be there and it would seem to me that these people have learnt to function beyond plain envy or jealousy.

Anyway, the question of whether we can be happy for our friends regardless of our own disappointments depends on the amount of empathy or mindsight we have developed. With mindsight you are able to tune into the feelings of other people, see the bigger picture and no longer feel so separate from the rest of humanity. We all have this ability but society can knock it out of us before we grow up and then we can perpetuate this lack of empathy when influencing future generations.

My tip number four is for feeling more connected to your colleagues.

Develop your sense of appreciation by really looking at their achievements. Your colleagues will feel your authenticity and this will become more important than the achievement or award itself. Also, in such cases, the rapport that you create will make some of that magic rub off on your own work.

Another thing to consider is that rewards are hollow if you don’t enjoy the journey. If, on the other hand, you are enjoying your teaching journey and your own little innovations, you won’t need a hollow accolade. Some recognition may come your way through natural affinity, but it will never be mercenary or wrapped in cloak and dagger jealousies.

5) An important reason why we do voluntary work for organisations such as TESOL / IATEFL is to network and get ahead.

I think that this is okay if it’s not the only reason. Life is all about relationships and networking. Getting ahead is all about expressing yourself and your creativity and sharing it with the world. Receiving monetary reward for getting ahead can make the world a better place if your heart is in the right place.

All people are wired to connect and wired to share. If our voluntary work makes a difference to others, then deep down, whether we admit it or not, we feel good, we feel validated, we feel human. Sometimes, it’s our light side we refuse to acknowledge and not our dark side. We are cynical about our own human nature. If you really don’t care about helping people, your voluntary work will be nothing and go unnoticed. Phony motivation is also very easy to spot. The vibes will mess up your body language and you will perform perfect self-sabotaging stunts of deceit.

My tip number five is for nurturing your sharing spirit.

Pay attention to your feelings and be accepting of your own valid reasons to shine for the rest of the world. Always remember that sharing is part of your basic nature. You don’t need to apologise for getting ahead as long as you are happy for others to do the same. According to Stephen Downes, we create more value for ourselves and others when we share freely. Success flows when you just give. Stephen says that “Communication is more about feeling than about cognition.”

6) We closely monitor whether anyone gets ‘preferential treatment’ (e.g. invitations to speak / give webinars etc.) but this does not apply to us or our friends and we very rarely get worked up over brilliant colleagues who are nonetheless neglected.

I don’t have the time or the incentive to monitor these things, but if you do, what does it mean?

It can mean that our brilliant colleagues are above glory and don’t even need to be noticed. I know several brilliant professionals like this. Even if they are offered awards they may not accept them. They are people who know the importance of the journey and that how we do things is more important that what we do.

It can also mean that our ancient clannish instincts are still alive and kicking. I have to admit that this is probably true. It is one of our human faults and it’s not a pretty part of our evolutionary make-up.

My tip number six for this is to perhaps conduct a personal experiment. This would also be a great thing to do in schools with our students. Make a point of finding one person who is quietly doing amazing things in your field and who doesn’t expect the spotlight to shine on him/her.

You don’t need to wait for official award ceremonies to publicly appreciate each other from grass roots levels. We, the community, have all the power through our blogs, for example. This is actually something I instinctively did with my facebook groups, and I noticed that as soon as someone was validated for their contributions they just gave more, which inspired others to do more. When I’m inspired by people I often blog about their contributions. We should also do this with students.

With regard to coveted speaking engagements and so on, don’t wait for invitations to present at webinars. Host your own webinars. As soon as you act independently you will stop seeing yourself as part of a pecking order.

As a freelance free-spirit, perhaps I’ve been spared all the politics of ‘preferential treatment’ policies. I focus on my own work and don’t concern myself with such things. We’ve got to carve out our own successes and not wait for a pat on the back from the establishment. 2013/2014 are turning out to be very active years for me with regard to webinars and other collaborative projects. There is a lot behind this, however. From an experiential point of view, I have conducted over 100 free classes and webinars since I started online three years ago. I have done as much blogging or more. The blogging and webinars have given me the experience and insights to be where I want to be right now. My motivation is fuelled by the need to experiment and create. The essence of my classes, webinars and articles are maps of my deeper experiences and I share everything – the substance of what I do, teach and learn. To do things like this you’ve got to give 110%.

No extrinsic motivation or status-seeking behaviour could fuel the energy necessary for such commitment. For me, any free work I do goes under the ‘hobby’ section of my life or the ‘me’ time. When other people watch soap operas I do my free work. One or two free hours a week seems little, but it adds up to a lot. I believe that volunteering 10-20% of your working time to what you really care about (whatever that may be) is the way to live a fulfilling life and create change. This also has serendipitious benefits. Your special 20% that matters could yield 80% of your results – according to Pareto’s Principle. Think of your last great achievement. Was it something you ‘had’ to do for the money or some great inspiration you couldn’t resist?

7) We promote our friends (even above other, more deserving colleagues) in the hope they will reciprocate in the future.

This is also a relic of the old school clannish mindsets of our closed societies. I believe that online networks are opening things up and making a big difference.

My ‘friends’ or colleagues are ones I network with because I admire their work and not because they are my next-door neighbours, so, by default, I have already voted for them by adding them to my network.

If you find yourself really stuck in the rut of people–pleasing it cannot be a good feeling. Firstly, even if they vote for you in future it won’t feel like a fair ‘victory’. It’ll feel like bribery and dirty politics. Your friends will hardly feel special if they know that you are just flattering them, will they?

If I had to choose between two equally brilliant colleagues I could just exercise my right not to vote at all.

My tip number seven for this is to follow your gut instinct.

If you don’t want to vote for someone, don’t do it. Currying favours will not catapult you into the legions of greatness. You will just be a used-car salesman. You will be the Grinch, whose heart was too sizes too small.

Welcome to the new paradigm

The nature of education is changing because we are changing at grass roots levels. It’s a social and global revolution. Evolution cannot keep up with revolution.

It’s far from apparent yet in reality. When I look at my children’s schools, not only do I see no change, but I see a what looks like a return to the dark ages.

In contrast, the online teaching world has already created a new social infrastucture. The old school politics which are still apparent in bricks and mortar schools would kill your online business in a matter of hours. You cannot thrive online without integrity or a sharing spirit. Without a network you don’t have a business. Without a tribe you would wither. Online teachers don’t hide from recognition and neither do they beg for it. Online teachers are also in a position to spread positive influence. We don’t talk about ‘the way it is’. We ‘see’ the way it can be and then do something. We are builders and dreamers. We create whatever we want to create. When this filters out into our schools around the world through passionate innovation, our work will be done.

I am an edupreneur who also does free stuff. The concepts of making money and sharing time and talent are now inclusive – mutually inclusive.The days of selfish capitalism can now give way to humanistic entreprenuerialism. We can love money for the good that it does, but love people more for the good that they are.

Teachers all over the world are expressing themselves and finding a voice. Let’s enable our students to do the same.

I think that the miracle of life lies in self-expression.

I will finish with examples of three initiatives that seem to be casting light on our dark forces.

If you want even more you can check out this list of 100+ presentations and key notes speeches at the recent Reform Symposium.

Firstly, the #30GoalsEdu is a movement whereby teachers from all over the world are encouraged to network together and achieve goals together. I have met many new colleagues through this movement and we all surprise each other with our thoughts and ideas. This is grass roots inspiration. This is where the magic happens. The newest goal is called Dare Them.

I think that Nick Michelioudakis has already fulfilled this one by daring us to look at ‘the other side’ of the teaching coin.

Secondly, I will add a link to a key note speech by Chuck Sandy called ‘Miracles’.

You have to watch this to know what I mean.

Thirdly, here is a stirring webinar called The Dickensian Turn by Luke Prodomou that I attended yesterday. Do we still cling to a Dickensian mindset? This multi-faceted presentation shakes up complacency and helps us all to take a fresh look in the mirror. It mostly shows us that we must teach for humanistic reasons. Petty minds create a world of poverty, whereas rich minds create beauty. Now would be a good time to choose which part you want to play in the creative process – as a teacher and as a human being.

You may also be interested in these two related articles:

How To Build Up A Thriving Personal Learning Network

The Five Laws Of Edupreneurship.

Take these seven tips to heart and, like the Grinch, your heart will grow three sizes today 🙂


is an online English teacher, writer and blogger who facilitates professional development online. She uses brain-friendly techniques to help students and teachers around the world. She designs educational materials, develops courses, writes resource papers and publishes ebooks. Her work is the result of much research into the psychology of learning, as well as hands-on experience with multi-media technology.

Comments

  1. Brilliant, Sylvia!! So inspiring!!! Thanks!!! Dr Nellie is a Genius!! So glad to be connected with two masterminds!!

  2. Brilliant, Sylvia!! So inspiring!!! Thanks!!! Dr Nellie is a Genius!! So glad to be connected with two masterminds!!

  3. Many thanks, dear Sylvia Guinan.

  4. Many thanks, dear Sylvia Guinan.

  5. Sylvia Guinan Says: October 23, 2013 at 11:25 am

    Thanks a lot Dr. Nellie – and thanks for being our leader in this revolution:)

    • That’s very kind of you to say, Sylvia. Yes, it’s a revolution that teachers within and outside the system need to join. Together, we can make a difference in how our kids are being educated.

  6. Sylvia Guinan Says: October 23, 2013 at 11:25 am

    Thanks a lot Dr. Nellie – and thanks for being our leader in this revolution:)

    • That’s very kind of you to say, Sylvia. Yes, it’s a revolution that teachers within and outside the system need to join. Together, we can make a difference in how our kids are being educated.

  7. Awesome! Awesome! Awesome! Thank you for sharing.

  8. Awesome! Awesome! Awesome! Thank you for sharing.

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