As the pandemic drags on its impact can be felt across the globe with language school closures, reduction of teaching contact hours (especially those on part-time or hourly paid type contracts) and changes in working conditions. In other words, the precarity of teaching has again come to the forefront. Whilst there could be criticism levelled at the ELT industry, or the handling of the pandemic by governments, this is not the aim of this blog post. Its aim is to develop a greater understanding of the challenges facing teachers today, and how these hardships could make us stronger rather than destroy us, without falling victim to toxic positivity.


My mom’s story

When I was five, my mom and dad had just gotten divorced, and my mom was working as a sales representative for a well-known dairy product company. She had an old white Ford Escort as her company did not provide them with company cars. I remember distinctly how upset she was when her car was stolen. She was lying in the bath in my grandma’s ‘blue bathroom’ and even as a young child, I could see how defeated she looked. She went for an interview with a truck rental company, called Nissan Truck Rental and when asked why she’s applying for the position as she knows nothing about trucks, she replied, “Because you offer a company car and I really need a car.”. She started with Nissan Truck Rental, moved into vehicle sales, became sales manager and helped open two dealerships, and eventually became the National Sales Manager for Mercedes Benz South Africa!



While there are many other career highlights and she has since become one of the most sought-after trainers on trucks and commercial vehicle sales, the story is more to illustrate how a serious setback for a single mother of two young children led to a career in the area that was her biggest weakness when she joined the industry. There were a few key areas that allowed her to turn a potential disaster into a huge success:

  • She had support, for instance, we all went to live with my grandparents for a while.
  • She responded when there were challenges, even if it was uncomfortable, like getting divorced.
  • She took risks, for example, going for an interview for a job where she could potentially have embarrassed herself.
  • She had transferable skills, namely the sales skills she had built up in her previous job.
  • She developed new skills, such as her vast knowledge of truck and other commercial vehicles.
  • She understood the need for priorities, which in this case was making sure my brother and I had a place to live, food to eat, and someone to take care of us.


What builds resilience?

In this Harvard Business review article, Marcus Buckingham looks at individual resilience and Covid-19. He hypothesized that countries which have handled the epidemic better would be more resilient, but he found the opposite. He actually discovered that regardless of age or gender, that resilience is generated on an individual level by exposure to suffering. He also found that we become more resilient if the threat is more tangible.



While there are many different ways of developing resilience on an individual level, these areas would be a good place to start:

  • Accept that change is a constant and often changes are here to stay.
  • Accept that change and challenge are the two key areas that helps you become more resilient.
  • Don’t gloss over reality. Be aware of the size of the challenge and accept it.
  • Hold your leaders accountable by not glossing over challenges.
  • Accept that fear and anxiety is normal in the face of change and challenge. There’s nothing wrong with fear, but find ways to operate and live happily within areas that you cannot control.

Realise that pain and difficulty is what gives our lives purpose in contrast to everything moving along happily. Think about someone diagnosed with a terminal illness (as in Marcus Buckingham’s article above). Life doesn’t end. It sure as hell hurts a lot, but often that gives a purpose and the ability to design a life within those challenges.


Avoid toxic positivity and face reality

Focusing only on the positive and thereby denying, replacing or ignoring the negative is toxic positivity. To investigate this further and to see how toxic positivity affects teachers, it’s worth reading Are Teachers Ok? No, and Toxic Positivity Isn’t Helping and Teachers Unite & Ask We Stop The Culture Of Toxic Positivity.

The main problem with toxic positivity in the current climate is that saying things like ‘Everything will be OK’ or ‘At least I still have a job even if it is only half the hours’ or ‘Look on the bright side’ etc. is that it does the exact opposite of what creates resilience. We have to accept the fact that our industry, our teachers, our staff, and lots of other business are under attack and we won’t come up with workable solutions or create the individual or organisational resilience we need to develop if we only ‘look on the bright side’.



Ways of doing this is to:

  • Critically reflect on how Covid-19 has affected your life and your family’s lives.
  • Be realistic without being overly negative or toxically positive. Recognise and appreciate what you have, be it family, friends, health, a job, skills, a house, etc. but don’t ignore or avoid the negatives.
  • Be constantly aware of your emotions. It is OK to be frustrated or sad (see the next section).


Avoid burnout

There is a misconception that burnout is caused by too much work. A key indicator in burnout is the inability to deal with stress, pressure or emotions, and these might not be work related at all. You might have lost your job and still be at risk of burnout.



Ways of finding burnout include:

  • Cry. That’s not a typo! Cry. It helps us process and release negative emotions.
  • Laugh. Whether that means finding silly cat movies online, or watching your favourite comedy or stand-up comedian, or just hanging out with friends, just like crying, laughter helps us to process and release negative emotions.
  • Exercise. Whether that’s a few sit ups and push ups while you are stuck at home, or a long ride on a bicycle, get some exercise for exactly the same reason as you should laugh and cry.
  • Get creative. Spend some time doing your hobby, gardening, drawing, and for lots of teachers I know; writing. Write poetry, a short story, or a song. Play music if you can.
  • Find affection. Cuddle with your pet, your kids, or your partner. Appreciate the time we have to spend with each other and make the most of it. But, also be open and share your concerns about the current crisis and listen to theirs. If you have young children, they might be very scared and not really know how to voice their concerns.


Understand your needs

Ann Howell wrote a great article in the Harvard Business Review on dealing with work and pressure during a crisis. It’s important to realise that this is not the first crisis we are facing, and it won’t be the last. These tough times generate resilience if we can accept the reality and learn from it. Understanding our needs are important, and Howell’s article refers to what she calls the ‘priority slide’ in relation to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Six months ago, you might have been working towards a management role, or a trainer role, or an MA, a Trinity DipTESOL, or a Cambridge Delta, and now you might be wondering where your next meal is coming from. Or you are wondering how you can continue to afford your house or feed your children. The focus on self-actualisation has suddenly slipped right down to basic needs. In the aforementioned article, Howell explains how a flood let her slip down the ‘priority slide’ and how she recovered.



Key areas to consider here, especially if you have lost your job or had your hours at work, could be:

Cut costs if you have to. If that means sharing a room with someone, renting out a room in your house and sharing a room with your kids, or moving in with a family member, then do so.

If you cannot afford your child’s music lessons for the next six months, then don’t. It is not responsibility to keep others employed if you can’t yourself. That is a strong sign of co-dependence, and you are not responsible for saving everyone.

Continue growing. Whether this means making money from your hobby (I did magic for a few years to support myself), creating a mini business online (like selling homemade crafts) or finding another job in another industry until there are more teaching jobs available again, take care of your finances first. If you get interviewed for a job at a school in two years and they ask you why you cleaned kitchens at McDonalds, or perhaps were an Amazon delivery driver, for 18 months, they will either see a teacher who hasn’t grown over the last 18 months, or one who faced a crisis head on and did what was needed to survive. You probably don’t even want to work for the former.

Ensure you are sufficiently rested and healthy enough to deal with what’s ahead. In the words of very good friend of mine on Facebook, Mike JC Smith, ‘But to continue paying the bills, you need to be alive and kicking.’ You will struggle to support your family if you are suddenly out of work, but you won’t be able to support your family if you don’t accept reality and look after yourself.


Looking forward

I like to have something positive to end my blog with, and this time I am going for a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892).

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will;
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill;
When the funds are low and the debts are high;
And you want to smile but you have to sigh.
When all is pressing you down a bit-
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.
Success is failure turned inside out;
The silver tint on the clouds of doubt;
And you can never tell how close you are;
It may be near when it seems far.
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit –
It’s when things go wrong that you must not quit.

This poem is in the public domain, date of origin unknown.


Follow up

For those interested in looking more at working conditions of teachers, Teachers as workers and Unite ELT would be good places to start.