It really isn’t that hard to learn how to teach. Or should I say, a teacher can be trained to stand in a classroom without making an absolute idiot of themselves within about a week, from a standing start. For something which is only actually relevant for a very small proportion of a teacher’s career, training seems to generate a disproportionate amount of discussion.  The pre-service teacher or the teacher spending the first few months in the classroom needs to be drilled in ‘the fundamentals’*, but beyond that the teacher is largely in need of development rather than training **. Guidance or mentoring from senior staff, advice and hints from colleagues in the staff room, encouragement from peers in formal or informal communities – development rarely takes place alone, but it is often initiated and directed alone. After the first year or two this often becomes a practical necessity, but I suspect is also what most of us prefer.

As so many of us plan our own professional pathways, we need to know what we are aiming at. Something of which we are infrequently reminded is that we will stumble off the path on a fairly regular basis. Teachers fail. For example.

A new class is misjudged early in the course and the teacher gets stuck in a cycle of student demotivation.

A teacher changes context (new institution, new country, new…) and finds his or her hard-won expertise meaningless.

After attempting to implement too many innovations, a teacher burns out with exhaustion.

Many longitudinal studies by mainstream education specialists and sociologists have followed teachers to identify developmental patterns and life cycles. ELT has its own too, notably Rose Senior’s “The Experience of Language Teaching“. This blog has been up for nine months now, and I have been promising a review of the book after which it is named – Michael Huberman’s “The Lives of Teachers“, a study of 160 secondary school teachers in Switzerland. If you were at IATEFL 2010 you will know that Tessa Woodward has done the job for me. If you weren’t, or you missed the plenary, or something, you really ought to watch it here.

What I particularly like about Huberman’s study is its recognition of failed outcomes, dead ends and dangerous trajectories. Self-doubt, personal crisis, lassitude, disenchantment, apathy… all possible or even likely stages in the life of a teacher. Stability can be rewarded with stagnation, rather than harmony and satisfaction. Expertise is not a permanent state, and teachers can easily slip back to previous stages of development. Everyone ends in disengagement. If you are lucky, it is serene. If not, bitter.

These are not the little failures of the novice who forgets to set up a listening, or speaks too quickly, or doesn’t know how to field an unexpected question. After a time (and given a full teaching schedule) such mechanical issues are resolved and many of the processes of teaching become automatised. If they don’t, this may spark a crisis, not uncommon after the first two years of teaching. In ELT the teacher/tourist may quit before reaching either proficiency or crisis – without, even, the concepts crossing his or her mind….

For those who continue in the profession, and reach a certain level of expertise, the next danger area is in the eight to ten year bracket. Stagnation, exhaustion or a full-blown existential crisis are all possibilities. The potential stimuli for difficult periods change as one goes through life as a teacher, but are always there.

If you are new to the profession, or in a sticky patch at the moment, I apologise. But this post is not supposed to be a negative one (or a patronising one). My point (via Huberman) is that by accepting the inevitability of difficulties, by being aware of the danger zones in the career cycle and how particular vulnerabilities manifest themselves, we have a far greater chance of reducing their impact, getting through them more quickly, and perhaps (just perhaps) avoiding them altogether.

“The teacher who had not experienced one or more difficult periods in his career was very rare…. In effect, the ‘fickle’ nature (of triggers) meant that teaching moments of exhilaration are just as fragile and ephemeral as moments of distress…. ” (p. 257)

Or shall we say, the distress is just as ephemeral as the exhilaration?


* Although even this can be approached in a more self-directed fashion. A nice link here with Tessa Woodward, too – the unplugged CELTA concept has a flavour of loop input to me.

** This refers largely to EFL or ESL teachers, who I believe are largely responsible for their own development from the very beginning – financially and practically. If we consider postgraduate degrees or diplomas to be formalised development rather than training, then I can only count five weeks of training in ten years of my own career. However, I would be interested to hear from UK ESOL, which I understand to have a much more standardised system as part of mainstream education. I would also love to know about training programmes in larger institutions such as International House and the British Council.

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11 Thoughts on “the importance of the expectation of failure in the life of a teacher

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention the lives of teachers » Blog Archive » the importance of the expectation of failure in the life of a teacher --

  2. A wonderful piece of writing/thinking – bookmarked!

    I too liked Rose Senior’s book and even considered it as a text for my practicum students however decided against it because of its focus on teaching adults. Still, a keeper.

    Teaching and our own development is a roller coaster ride. Whenever a teacher says they can’t go on, I always remind them that in a week, a month, a few months, they will come beaming into the room, smiling and thinking there couldn’t be a better job. That’s the nature of the beast. Pain is part of growth.

    As you mention, we all need continual “refreshing” and “inspiration” – I really believe all good schools should have a support program in place for teachers which actually forces them to reflect on their practices. Either having coffee together or more formally in written reports or blogs. In fact, blogging is one sure sign that we might not be going backwards as a teacher (so much).

    Thanks for the read.


  3. I’ll second that, I popped over for your general URL and found that you’ve been writing a more indepth thought-piece than my own on classic failures 🙂

    I also found Tessa Woodward’s plenary fascinating – it really hit home on some of the thoughts that I’ve been having and your notes on the types of failures we go through as TEFL teachers are all ones that I’ve faced in my career.

    My feeling regarding training and professional development are that we must never ever stop tinkering: messing about with what’s new, what’s available, what we have never tried before. But most importantly I think, we have to be willing to dedicate the time to our own training continuously. I see so many teachers who simply do not go to workshops or conferences, even when they are in their own cities and available at a low cost – let alone those who don’t set aside some tax-deductible funds once every couple of years for something slightly more costly.

    I think, as I have mentioned elsewhere many times (sorry folks) is that it boils down to the cash incentive. Many people will scoff at that statement and in their uber-let’s-be-self-sacrificing-teachers-driven-by-the-call-to-teach, think me wrong because why should pride of work be related to salary?

    And to them I will say: seriously? You think that seriously?

    What I tend to hear mostly, when I say to a colleague that the author of xyz is coming to present at ELTAS, wouldn’t you like to come… is a “why?” The why is because they can see no tangible benefit to them sacrificing 3hrs on a Saturday. The why is an honest question that I respect – I know that it won’t make a blind bit of difference to what they earn and just because I take joy in learning something new doesn’t mean (in fact I know it doesn’t) that others do.

    Until we are able to provide a process where further study, visible lines of professional development actions (like writing blogs :), are considered within the pay scales then we will continue to see teachers not pushing on with training.


  4. Angela Buckingham on May 18, 2010 at 8:10 pm said:

    you seem to produce beautiful pices of writing that resonate exactly with my experiences! I was very struck by the part where you say
    “A teacher changes context (new institution, new country, new…) and finds his or her hard-won expertise meaningless”. It is amazing how thrown we can feel by new experiences: I have started teaching a mixed level community class this term, and I have been very surprised by how difficult this experience has been for me. It has totally shaken me out of my ‘comfort zone’. No bad thing, but you’re right, it’s the sense of ‘Have I learned nothing after all these years?’ that throws you, before you can even begin to start enjoying the challenge of learning new things, new strategies, new ways to listen to learners and deal with their emergent language. It’s a shock to the system.

    As for UK ESOL, in the further education context at least, there has been something of a shake-up in recent years. Continuous Professional Development is now mandatory, evidence Of CPD has to be provided annually to the Institute for Learning, full-time staff have CPD sessions built into their timetables (at least they do at the institutions where I work) and a generic teaching qualification (not only a CELTA or Cert TESOL etc) is compulsory for work in the state FE sector.

    However it occurs to me that for sessional staff such as myself, who have lots of different hats (teaching, training, writing), it is quite easy to be missed out of the loop. I wonder if that is true in most countries, where the part-time staff perhaps are not given the same opportunities for formalised development as the permanent staff. To me, this is where your PLN and this fantastic connection with other teachers via blogs etc comes into its own. Even if you’re not in the staffroom or attending regular staff development sessions, you are still connected to the ‘big picture’: you still have support, and you can still learn new things.

    There’s an interesting debate going on on Ken Wilson’s blog at the moment about the amount of support needed for newbie teachers. And it’s true. But for all of us, development surely comes in fits and starts.

    I have really enjoyed thinking about this for the last few days- many thanks Darren.

  5. darren on May 19, 2010 at 3:27 pm said:

    Thanks everyone for the kind and thoughtful replies. I can’t stress strongly enough how much I love Huberman’s book, (I guess the fact that I pinched the title for my blog gives it away) and how excited I was to see it heavily referenced by someone I also greatly admire in Tessa Woodward’s IATEFL plenary.

    David – I worry about the word ‘forced’. If we accept that we go through developmental stages as a teacher, then do we accept that some teachers are ready for meaningful reflection whilst others aren’t? I am always trying to find ways of surprising my students in their reflection, either with the questions asked or the methods used, and the same applies to teachers. Written reports are little help to anyone, but opportunities for teacher discussion and sharing are vital. A good staff room, with a communal area, scheduling which enables collaboration, free coffee!

    Karenne – Yes, do I get paid for this? Or worse, do I have to pay for it myself? I have a university research budget which takes care of expenses (to a point… a lot comes out of my own pocket too). We shouldn’t sneer at those who choose not to be mugs and spend personal time and money on development! Tangible benefits? Well, one can earn kudos, a professional reputation, but hard cash? hard to tell.

    Angela – I’ll come clean and admit that all three of those examples are from my own career. We all like to think we are different but I look at Huberman’s model and I can pick myself out, true to form, doing just about what I ought to be doing at this stage. But once again, the beauty is that his model offers us choices… because some teachers come through sticky patches and learn from them and others get more and more oppressed. His overall message is that teachers who attend to their own learning are more likely to succeed in the long run.
    Thanks for the insight into UK ESOL… a challenging question, perhaps, but would you say it is a good working model for teacher development?

  6. Hi Darren et al.

    Just going to add my 2 pence worth here regarding UK ESOL about:

    1. the requirement for teachers to complete a generic teaching qualification as well as any CELTA/Trinity English language teaching qualification they might have

    I think this is a good thing, as it does make you aware of a wider teaching landscape. I’m of the opinion that different disciplines can definitely learn something (however small) from each other, so putting the people who are going to teach them together for their studies in education can be a good thing.

    2. Continuing professional development

    Angela mentioned this above. I believe that there’s a requirement for staff to do CPD whether they are full/part-time or sessional and that the amount they are expected to do is pro rata how much they teach (if you’re full-time you have to do 30 hrs CPD in the year). The college where I work also provide in house training sessions on a variety of different things, from teaching techniques to using our virtual learning environment. I’m not sure how easy it is for sessional staff to get to the training, since it might happen when they are not in college (or not able to get to college). The interesting thing about this CPD is that it encompasses a wide range of activities – basically if you can reflect on it and it then has some impact on your teaching practice or admin duties, then it’s CPD – I am racking up the hours doing all this reading of blogs 😉

    I think the fact that there is a requirement to do this CPD is a bone of contention (certainly for some of my colleagues) as it’s seen as yet another thing to do on top of all the admin tasks that come with being a teacher in FE in the UK. However, and this is really my personal experience, this has then lead me to where I am now, blogging and interacting with fellow teachers like yourself – something I would probably not have done, if there was no requirement to do CPD.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  7. Angela Buckingham on May 20, 2010 at 5:41 pm said:

    Yup, in total agreement with Mike here. I hear a fair few huffs and puffs from the full-timers about being overworked and having to go off to do CPD which involves more form filling etc (it’s sort of seen as yet another staff meeting)- but my experience is that my development this year, especially regarding ICT, has really moved on apace and that does have something to do with the expectation that teachers in Further Education in the UK will do CPD. I think I would have got there anyway, but probably more slowly. (Interestingly I’m doing some staff development sessions this week for the Modern Foreign Language teachers as part of their CPD, so I’ll try to gauge the attitude from them too and see if they think it’s a chore when it’s obligatory.)

    It may be too early to say how useful a model it is. I think that there will always be those who resist development and for whom reflection is a remote concept (or it may just be due to lack of hours in the day). However, I do really like the fact that CPD is seen as an integral part of teaching, and I personally like the broad definition in that activities such as reading ‘count’ as CPD (ie it’s not all observations and fulfilling check-box criteria).

  8. Darren wrote:

    David – I worry about the word ‘forced’.


    I hear you and know what you mean and have the same concerns. But I really do think that sometimes teachers should be “forced” to attempt something that might better them. It just isn’t about reflection either but about encountering things/people/situations that we might never otherwise. I know a few times in my own career, I wouldn’t have grown if I hadn’t been forced to do something.

    I do see how it could get out of hand and in no way am I in favor of pushing for attendance without choice. Give teachers choice but make it mandatory that they do some kind of professional development during the year – and show proof of that. It could be as simple as a blog/journal or something more challenging like writing a paper, doing action research or just talking/recording conversations with peers.

    We are professionals only if we march towards wisdom and the good. Otherwise, we rot and are teacher only in name. Some teachers do this naturally, others do need a push – IMO. As the buddha said, “the only constant is change”. (or was it someone else???).


  9. darren on May 21, 2010 at 5:03 pm said:

    I was forced into reflective journalling a few years back, hated it, but now here I am… so I recognise how strong encouragement can be beneficial to the reluctant young teacher, even if it takes a while to sink in.

    What I like about the ESOL system is the freedom Mike describes – all this online stuff ought to be recognised, for sure.

  10. Don’t know who still looks at this blog, but I am Michael Huberman’s widow and I was extremely touched and pleased to see that his writings have provided inspiration for continuing thought and writing. What you have to say is so full of positive energy and insights; he would be very happy to know that his work had sown such seeds….


  11. darren on May 4, 2015 at 7:20 pm said:


    That is so wonderful to hear…. I have just been looking back through my own blog for this delightful entry to appear before me! I don’t know if you’ll see this either, but I just reread the book and felt as invigorated as always……


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