Connect, Grow, Thrive

Not surviving but thriving: Teacher psychology and professional wellbeing: A conversation with Sarah Mercer

Rachael Harris

Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, where she is also Head of ELT Methodology, and Deputy Head of the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Arts and Humanities. Her research interests include all aspects of psychology in language learning, focusing on issues of self and identity. She is author and co-author of several books, including Towards an Understanding of Language Learner Self-concept (Springer, 2011), Psychology for Language Learning: Insights from Research, Theory and Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Multiple Perspectives on the Self in SLA (Multilingual Matters, 2014), New Directions in Language Learning Psychology (Springer, 2016), Positive Psychology in SLA (Multilingual Matters, 2016),  and Exploring Psychology for Language Teaching and Learning (Oxford University ELT, 2016). This interview took place during the 33rd ETAS Annual Conference and AGM in Zürich, 21st January 2017, shortly after Sarah’s plenary on the subject of relationships in the classroom.

First of all, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for ETAS Journal. Could you tell me a little about how you got interested in psychology for language learning?

Yes of course. Basically, I was teaching a course at university on strategy training and in the final session I interviewed the students to see how they had got on with the course. The thing that struck me the most was that the most powerful effect of this strategy training wasn’t in anything linguistics but in the increased confidence students felt in tackling new situations. What can be more powerful than if students feel they can transfer that confidence into a different setting? This triggered my curiosity in the ‘self’, which was the first construct in psychology to interest me. I started to do some research and investigation, and then just got carried away.

Learning a new language can shake someone’s confidence, especially for adult learners ­– to find themselves in a situation where they are not in control is quite a challenge, don’t you think?

Yes, it can be quite threatening. You can’t express your whole personality, you lose your ability to express humour, you don’t have the same banter, and sometimes you can’t even express the simplest of things. You were used to being able to communicate your needs and your personality, but suddenly all that disappears when starting to learn a language, and that can be very uncomfortable and frustrating because you’re not getting the real ‘you’ across. I think there’s an enormous amount of psychology involved in learning and using a foreign language.

Could you tell us more about teacher psychology? We read a lot more about learner psychology and seem to forget about teacher psychology.

Yes, I’ve started to feel very strongly about this. It is understandable that we focus on learners, after all they are the beneficiaries of our teaching, the people we are supposed to be helping. But I think with movements such as the learner-centred approach, we’ve neglected the teacher a bit. We are so focused on the learner, on materials, on methods or resources that we’ve neglected the teachers and what they need to be a creative, effective, and passionate teacher. I just feel that we have to start paying a little more attention to teacher needs. It doesn’t mean that learners aren’t important. Although, it will always be incredibly important to understand and support them, teachers can do this best when they are in a good place psychologically. I think we need to take a step back and look at what we can do to provide teachers more support in their professional wellbeing, to make sure they can ‘flourish’ in their jobs, not survive but thrive as someone once said.

It’s true, teachers have always something they can be working on, which can become quite draining.

It tends to be a job that people are passionate about and dedicated to, and teachers tend to be very giving of themselves. Demands on teachers in terms of regulations and increased administration are ever increasing. The job is becoming more complex, particularly in language teaching where a lot of people are on temporary contracts. There is a lot of stress that go with being a teacher. Although stress is not inherently negative, we need to avoid excessive stress and we need to talk more about teacher wellbeing and needs. Sometimes we can be a little more teacher-centred in our discourse and we shouldn’t feel guilty about that.

Towards the end of your book you talk about the main principles, many of which struck me as particularly powerful. The first one was to remember to be group-centred as well as learner-centred.

Yes, in the work that I’ve just done for the British Council we talked about the paradox of trying to tend to individual learners and at the same time to the whole group. This is a perpetual tension for teachers. We found that it was important to look at group dynamics and relationships – the needs and the personality of the whole class. We have to try and understand individuals, but we must also understand how they function together and how we can support group dynamics and understand the constellation of relationships in the classroom.

I think this is very helpful for teachers; we feel we must be more learner-centred and give individual instruction though it’s not easy in a group setting.

That’s right and there’s a tendency towards differentiation at the moment, which has a lot of positive potential. But I think we have to be very careful when we are differentiating that we are doing it for the right kind of reasons and that we don’t start to label learners, which can be quite restrictive. When using differentiation, we must do so in a way that allows for change and growth, that doesn’t categorise learners, especially if it’s according to ability, as this can restrict learning potential. I think there’s a lot to be said for autonomy and choice, and we should develop this where possible, but teachers have to be realistic about teaching a whole group. The essential is understanding your group and understanding the processes, the psychology, and the needs of the group rather than getting caught up in the 25 individuals in front of you.

As a teacher of teens, I related to your second principle – learners’ lives beyond the classroom are central to whom they are.

Teachers are focused on what happens in the classroom as that is the focal point of our relationship. But no one comes as blank sheets of paper to the classroom. We’ve all got experiences beyond the classroom and it’s nice for learners to make those connections, bring that part that they are willing to share to the classroom, and connect their English learning to their lives beyond the classroom. It’s also important for us teachers – we’ve got lives outside the classroom as well, and we need to reflect on how we are managing to be ourselves in different roles and contexts.

Another principle concerned promoting the belief that everyone can improve, a view you mentioned in this morning’s plenary in relation to mindsets.

Yes, I feel very strongly about this, which started off when I bought Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: How You Can Fill Your Potential (Dweck, 2012) at the airport. I read it and was bowled over by how powerful this notion was for education and particularly for language learning. There is such a strong discourse about the myth of the natural-born linguist and the natural-born language learner, and it’s quite prevalent in language teaching. This idea that there is a gift for languages, a natural talent for languages is so inhibiting and restrictive for many learners. How many times do we hear people say languages aren’t for me, I’m not a languages person?  This is wrong because everybody has potential, although we must be realistic and accept that not everybody’s going to achieve the same levels, and it would be unfair to create the impression that everyone can be a brilliant polyglot. However, everyone can improve to various degrees depending on factors such as how willing they are to learn, how much time they can invest, how motivated they are, and what kind of support and strategies they have put in place.

So, how would we improve our social and emotional intelligences as teachers in the classroom?

I think there are a lot of practical ways. We should be sensitive to the fact that we are in a social context and remind ourselves about relationships, about being approachable, being kind, and being patient. We should reflect on the fact that when we do things in the classroom, it does have an effect on the relationships, on the feeling of confidence, on the emotions in that room. It is so easy to get caught up in the mechanics of what we do, in the requirements of the programme, or in the aims of a course that sometimes we forget to take care of the relationships that we’re building with our learners and the way that we interact with them. Most teachers know this intuitively, but it’s just reminding ourselves of that so that when we teach we are sensitive to our learners and their needs, as well as our own needs. We should reflect on the effects of comments we make, the way we interact, our body language, and so on.

Do you think there’s a difference if the class is compulsory such as at secondary school, or if the students are there of their own volition?

Of course, because students at secondary school haven’t chosen to be in a relationship with you, nor you with them, so that changes the dynamics of the relationship quite dramatically. But pupils still know why they’re there, which is to learn. They have expectations of you as a teacher, they want you to be friendly, although that’s not the same as being a friend. They expect you to be the teacher so there’s still a basis to build a relationship. It’s quite different when you are working with adults who have voluntarily joined a class. They didn’t choose to be in a relationship with you in the sense that they probably didn’t choose you as the teacher, but they’ve chosen to be in that setting so the starting point is quite different. With adults the power dynamics tend to be quite different.

How would you develop this with trainee teachers?

There’s a lot of tension in preservice training because of course trainee teachers usually want practical recipes to know what to do in order to feel a degree of security. At the same time, they also need support in understanding how they can develop their own social and emotional competences. Developing these relationships with their learners is a more proactive approach than avoiding discipline problems, for example. There are lots of things trainee teaches can do to make themselves more comfortable in building rapport with learners and to develop so-called ‘soft skills’, although I do somewhat resent that terminology.

Is it possible and, if so, how easy is it to teach soft skills?

I don’t think it is easy, but I think it is possible. Quite a few intervention programmes have been developed, and you can do a lot with students and trainee teachers to develop empathy – teaching them to be better listeners, for example. Another example is teaching them how important it is to learn names, to become active listeners, to look at emotional responses and read body language, to monitor our own body language and communication skills,  to make eye contact, and to learn how to smile. There’s actually an enormous amount of little things that can make quite a difference.

You mentioned in the plenary some of the research you have done in the past. What area are you researching at the moment?

We’ve just started a new project where we’re looking at the psychological professional well-being of CLIL teachers. In Austria we have a situation where some CLIL teachers are voluntarily CLIL teachers and some teachers are not voluntarily CLIL teachers. These teachers can have very different skills – they can be content teachers or they can have language skills. Some teachers thrive and enjoy the challenge, whereas some struggle, feel overwhelmed, and under supported. This challenges their self-efficacy and confidence. We want to work with teachers to understand what conditions teachers need in CLIL context to ensure that they all flourish.

Finally, you mentioned Carol Dweck’s book (Dweck, 2012), is there any other literature you would recommend?

The book we wrote (Williams, Mercer, & Ryan, 2016) was deliberately aimed at teachers. We wanted to try to introduce ideas from psychology in a way that was both practical and relevant: giving background but making it directly applicable. Another book that I find powerful is Rhona Weinstein’s Reaching Higher: The Power of Expectations in Schooling (Weinstein, 2004) about the power of teacher expectations in the classroom and how that can influence the interaction between teacher and students. I’ve also just read Becoming a High Expectation Teacher: Raising the Bar (Rubie-Davis, 2014), which criticizes differentiation because as I mentioned earlier there is a risk of not having high expectations for all learners. High expectations don’t mean equal expectations for everyone. It means aiming for the best for everyone, and sometimes ability groupings mean we end up with low expectations for some learners.

Thank you so much, Sarah, for providing us not only with food for thought in your plenary and in this interview, but also for these useful tips on where to go next to learn more about these subjects that are so important to teachers. We hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in Switzerland and we look forward to seeing you present a plenary at the IATEFL Conference in Glasgow in April.


Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: How you can fill your potential. London, UK: Robinson.

Rubie-Davis, C. (2014). Becoming a high-expectation teacher: Raising the bar. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Weinstein, R. (2004). Reaching higher: The power of expectations in schooling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Williams, M., Mercer, S., & Ryan, S. (2016). Exploring psychology in language learning and teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.