Building a support network

After spending five years researching language teachers’ social capital, and ten years supporting language teachers through various online and face-to-face projects, perhaps the time has come to write a post about support, after all that’s what this blog is all about.

Why support is important
What I have learnt from my recent research, and this mirrors the wider research on career attrition, is that language teachers who feel supported in their workplaces are statistically more likely to stay in their jobs than those who do not. There is also a healthy body of work that suggests that workers across many fields who feel supported are more productive, and in the particular context of education some important research has shown that in schools where teachers support each other, there are improved student outcomes.  If you want to read some papers reporting on my research (which also brings together other studies in the field), please check out my Academia page.

Anyone who has enjoyed the support of colleagues, staff, and administrators will know its value. And for any teachers who have been in situations where they do not feel supported, you will understand how isolating and debilitating it can be. Unfortunately this second group is far too common in language education. While the teaching in profession on the whole is become less and less valued a profession in many communities, it is heightened in the case of language teachers, who teach a subject that is often devalued, and often placed near the bottom of the curriculum hierarchy.

What does ‘support’ really mean?
I hear from teachers all the time that they want or need more support. But, what does that actually mean? What I have found, is what many teachers generally mean by support, is supportive relationships. Language teachers (and all teachers, really) want to be supported by their colleagues, their administrative teams, their leaders, their employers, and their wider communities. It means moral support in the form of acknowledgement and recognition. It means practical support in the form of adequate and equitable resources, workloads, timetables, etc. It means practical support in managing difficult classes or implementing new curriculums, or teaching this concept or buying this resource or writing this funding grant. And it means emotional support, providing a literal or metaphorical shoulder to cry on when times are tough, someone to listen to your challenges and successes.

Where and how can I get support?
The great news is, is that there is support out there, even for those who now feel like they are alone. And in this age even teachers who are the only language teacher in their school, or who are in regional or remote areas, are able to build a support network. The key, I believe, is to proactively seek out support, to be a supporter yourself, and to not take personally the opinions and actions of those who are unsupportive.

So, with that in mind, here are some places where you might be able to find supportive people and build a support network that can help you through the challenges, and celebrate with you the successes in your working lives.

Within your workplace
If there are other language teachers in your school, try to develop professional relationships with them. Find out what their areas of expertise are and ask them for advice. You don’t have to share the same exact views on how languages should be taught, but by asking for advice you open up the path for further dialogue.

Getting support from leaders can be difficult if you don’t have it to begin with. If your leadership aren’t supportive of language education, it will be like hitting your head against a wall trying to get it. So, my advice is to work around them. Build up your program, get your colleagues, students, and community on side first. Remember that change takes time, and don’t expect people to change mindsets easily. Take recognition where you can get it, but don’t expect it from anyone. It will just open you up to disappointment.

Find support in your schools where you can, not just within your own faculty. I have found that music and physical education teachers often provide important moral and emotional support for language teachers, as in Australia they all work under the same ‘specialist teacher’ conditions. So while these relationships won’t help much in terms of pedagogical support, they are able to provide moral and emotional support, as well as practical support and ideas for managing large classes, for example.

Find support in all areas of the workplace and not just at your own pay grade. Don’t look down at others who may have ancillary positions. I once had a bulb blow out on my projector and my school would not pay for a new one (this was some years ago when the prices were astronomical). One of the cleaners knew where the previous tech teacher (and apparent hoarder) had stashed a heap of equipment, and I was able to get a new one.

Language Teachers’ Associations
Language Teachers groups and formal associations are great because members will share your passion for language education. Joining in regular meetings will help you to get to know other teachers in the local area, who will each have their own areas of expertise and interest.

Informal teacher meetings
Support doesn’t need to be formal. Getting a group of like-minded teachers together for a coffee at the local café for a chat can be great for offloading stresses and sharing stories. While sharing horror stories and venting about problems is important, having a points of discussion pre-planned can help to bring a more positive and productive outcome for these types of meetings, which may be less intimidating than formal meetings for some teachers.

Conferences
Conferences are a great place to meet teachers from a wider geographic area, including interstate and international teachers. While all educational jurisdictions have their own policies and cultural nuances, engaging with teachers in other contexts opens us up to different ways of managing the learning of our students.

Online social networks
There are lots of groups online, some are more formal than others, some are broad while others are narrow in focus, some meet at regular times while others are more fluid. I’d like to write a more detailed post on social networks for language teachers in the near future, but for now I encourage you to search on Facebook and Twitter for groups of language teachers and try to join some groups that suit your needs. For example, I am a member of a group of Japanese Teachers in Australia on Facebook, with over 1500 members. Everyday teachers are questions and getting numerous responses, non-native speaker teachers are checking the accuracy of their Japanese, news and cultural information from Japan is being shared, and it is a friendly and welcome place for me to get ideas.

Finally, before I pass it over to you, please know that there is a line between not being supported, and being deliberately excluded or harassed in the workplace, then I would encourage you to speak to your leadership, or if they are the problem, to someone with experience in dealing with these issues, perhaps in your education department or teachers’ union.

 

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OVER TO YOU …

*What does support mean to you?
*Have you ever felt unsupported? What did you do?
*What advice do you have for language teachers who feel unsupported in their workplaces?

Add to the discussion in the comments below,
or in our Facebook comments.

 

 

Image courtesy of hin255 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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