PERMA for Teachers: Preventing Burnout with Positive Psychology


It seems that the topics of mental health and teacher well-being have come up a lot in the ELT sector recently. Phil Longwell’s talk at IATEFL and related research project seem to have generated a lot of enthusiasm and Sarah Mercer has focused several recent talks on how positive psychology can help promote teacher well-being.

Although teacher well-being is taken very seriously at my workplace, feelings of stress and exhaustion naturally creep in. I became interested in how I could help myself and the teachers I work with feel a bit more relaxed and more enthusiastic about our jobs.

As part of this process, I took a Coursera course on positive psychology. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about the theory of positive psychology as well as trying out some techniques to improve their own lives.

In the following series of posts, I intend to share the information I’ve found on burnout in ELT as well take a deeper look at the PERMA model of positive psychology that Sarah Mercer has touched on in her talks on teacher well-being. I’ll also suggest some techniques, most of which I’ve found in the literature, that anyone can try out in order to promote their own well-being.

Very importantly, I am NOT a psychologist! If you feel you are suffering severe burnout or are struggling with mental health issues, you should seek a medical professional who can help you.

What is burnout?


“a syndrome of emotional exhaustion and cynicism that occurs frequently among individuals who do ‘people work’ of some kind” Maslach and Jackson (1981)


“A symptom of emotional depletion and a loss of motivation and commitment” Freudenberger (1974:162).


According to Maslach and Jackson (1981), there are three components of the burnout syndrome:

  1. Emotional and physical exhaustion
  2. Denationalisation
  3. Depletion of a sense of personal accomplishment

Do you feel you may be suffering from burnout? Take this test to find out if you’re at risk.

What are the symptoms?

According to Abdolzadeh (2014) burnout often manifests with these symptoms:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Pattern of neglecting one’s one needs
  • Working long hours
  • Feeling pressures coming from within oneself
  • Giving too much to the people who need your service

I found it very interesting that these were the symptoms and not the causes of burnout. In fact, these symptoms can create a vicious cycle, exacerbating existing issues and making it harder to recover your energy.

For example, because of exhaustion, people who suffer burnout often work inefficiently, causing them to work longer hours. As they spend more of their time working, they have less time to rest and reset, meaning they will feel even more exhausted. Of course, this is combined with the pressure from within to “work harder,” which can cause feelings of guilt for taking time off or spending time on your own needs. All of this causes more exhaustion, deepening the cycle and its symptoms.  I imagine all of us can identify with these symptoms on some level, but it doesn’t mean that we’re all burnt out. Burnout becomes a real problem if this cycle continues for long enough to run you into the ground.

Who is most at risk?

Ozdemir (2007) looked at the demographic characteristics of teachers who suffer burnout:

at risk of burnout

Who is least at risk?

Ozdemir (2007) also looked at the teachers who were less at risk of suffering burnout. Burnout is LESS likely to occur for teachers who:

  • are achievement oriented
  • avoid extremes of competitiveness
  • have internal locus of control
  • have a strong purpose in their professional and personal lives
  • have a sense of humour
  • have hardiness
  • have a high self-esteem
  • have high self-confidence
  • have high professional self-efficacy
  • have a positive self-concept

All of these factors are internal to the teacher. They are related to the teacher’s psychological attributes and skills. They seem to outline a sense of “mental resilience” that would allow the teacher to bounce back from stressful situations. Interestingly, they also seem to mirror many of the psychological factors that promote good language learning in our students.

What causes burnout?

Well, what causes burnout then? Does it just happen to certain “at risk” teachers or do stressful situations bring it on? What kinds of situations drain us?

Of course different groups, students, workplaces and roles have an impact on our well-being. Called situational factors (Ozdemir, 2007) or environmental factors (Kyriacou 2001), these stressors are external to the teacher and are often imposed by someone else. Have a look at these two lists:

situational factors
I found it fascinating that student behaviour and student motivation were at the top of both lists.  Managing students is something that teachers will always have to do, no matter what ages or levels they teach or school they work for. Of course some of the other factors are more related to workplace conditions, but I was surprised that dealing with students came in at number one.

Now, although “student misbehaviour, indeed was considered the main stressful event affecting teachers’ well-being” (Buonomo, Fatigante and Fioillia, 2017:191), “teachers’ negative emotional experience occurring when students misbehave was strongly related to teachers’ burnout” (ibid.) and in fact the “the stronger the negative emotions, the more intense the burnout symptoms reported by the teachers” (ibid.).

Student misbehaviour doesn’t directly cause burnout. Burnout comes from both the stressful situation and how the teacher reacts to it emotionally. This means that burnout is an outcome determined by BOTH environmental factors and internal psychological factors.

“The effect of job stressors is mediated by coping mechanisms. If coping mechanisms are inappropriate, stress occurs” (Betoret, 2009:46)

Here’s an analogy with physical health. In order to come down with a cold, the virus must be in the air (environmental factor) and your immune system must too weak to fight it off (internal factor). So how do we try to keep from coming down with a cold? First, we try to eliminate or reduce our exposure to the virus by washing our hands and secondly, we try to boost the efficacy of our immune system by eating healthfully, getting enough rest and drinking enough water.

Certain environmental factors cannot be reduced or eliminated in teaching. We will always have students who misbehave or aren’t motivated. In most schools, being observed is a requirement, a heavy workload can’t always be avoided and change will occur no matter what. It makes sense therefore to work on boosting our “psychological immune system” in order to promote our own “mental resilience” to these unavoidable stressors.

How can we protect ourselves against burnout?

Depending on cause of burnout, a change of workplace, job responsibilities or a long break from teaching are in order. That is to say, we may have to try to change the situational factors that are causing our burnout. However, for most of us, cultivating the adequate coping mechanisms that mediate our stressors may be the best way to prevent getting burned out in the first place.

What is positive psychology?

person doing thumbs up
Photo by Donald Tong on

According to the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, “Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”

It is the psychological equivalent to preventative medicine for physical health. Since Freud, the field of psychology has mainly been concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of psychosis and neurosis. Positive psychology however is aimed at helping all of us live our best lives by preventing certain common mental illnesses like anxiety and depression and encouraging us to get the most out of our lives.

Positive Psychology seems particularly suited to combating burnout, as it is focused on developing many of those traits we see in teachers who are less likely to suffer from burnout.

What is the PERMA + V model?

PERMA is the model created by Martin Seligman that describes the five building blocks to well-being. Read more about the model here.

It stands for:

P: Positive Emotions

E: Engagement

R: Positive Relationships

M: Meaning

A: Achievement

Sometimes a “+V” for vitality is added to the end to emphasise the influence of physical well-being on your mental state.

In the following posts, I’ll break down each of these building blocks, try to relate them to teaching and suggest some simple exercises you can do to nurture your well being in that area. Well being includes all areas of your life, not just work. However, most of the suggestions I make will be related to teaching, as the aim is to protect yourself against professional burnout.

Read more about the first building block, positive emotions here.


Abdolzadeh, F. (2014). Handling causes of teacher burnout in ELT classrooms. International Journal of Language Learning and Applied Linguistics World, 7 (3), 636-64.

Betoret, F. D. (2009). Self‐efficacy, school resources, job stressors and burnout among Spanish primary and secondary school teachers: a structural equation approach. Educational Psychology29(1), 45-68.

Buonomo, I., Fatigante, M., & Fiorilli, C. (2017). Teachers’ Burnout Profile: Risk and Protective Factors. The Open Psychology Journal10(1).

Kyriacou, C. (2001). Teacher stress: Directions for future research. Educational review53(1), 27-35.

Ozdemir, Y. (2007). The role of classroom management efficacy in predicting teacher burnout. International Journal of Social Sciences2(4), 257-263.

Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. E. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of organizational behavior2(2), 99-113.


PERMA for Teachers: Meaning

Meaning is derived from connecting with something larger than yourself. It is the motivation to get out of bed in the morning and to hang in there when times get tough. For some people, finding their purpose is very easy and their apparent meaning drives them in their lives and careers. For others, meaning can be a little more difficult to define. It is however, at the centre of a life well-lived. Think of how many philosophies and religions deal with this very topic.

For our purposes, let’s just say that meaning is derived from aligning your strengths and values with how you live your life. Your personal strengths and values can help you create your own unique, personal meaning to life, which may look very different from that of those around you.

Let’s start with finding your strengths, which can also be very helpful with job crafting and engagement (see this post). Try this questionnaire to find what your strengths are. Are you applying these to your life and work?

What about your values? This is much trickier to do. Here’s a worksheet that may help. Here’s another suggestion from this article that I really like:

If asked about their values, people tend to give stock answers that differ very little from one another. In order to get more personal answers, it may be helpful to think about what you can’t stand in other people and then derive your values from the opposite. For example, I hate it when people think in pure black and white, simplistic terms. So I value critical thinking and open-mindedness. These two values, or perhaps we could even call them skills, are not very emphasised in the formal education sector where my students attend school. Therefore, I attempt to incorporate them in my daily teaching.

Don’t get me wrong-I’m under no illusions that I am changing the world. Nevertheless, I feel better about my own work teaching privileged middle class students English when I believe I have an influence on their values-however small that influence may be.

What meaning does teaching or life have for you? Do you have a strong purpose in your work?

Read more about PERMA for ELT Teachers:


Positive Emotions






PERMA for Teachers: Achievement

“Teachers are reinvigorated by student success. No other factor, not even pay, provides as powerful a reinforcement as student progress”

-Bousquet, S. (2012)

Yeah, I know I agree with this. Although I often dread marking exams, once I get going, I really enjoy seeing how much my students have learned. I must admit that very good B1 short stories have reduced me to tears of joy. The harder the struggle, the more rewarding it is when a student succeeds, and this sense of achievement really stokes the fires of motivation.

It’s all well and good when we’re having a good day or at the end of the term before a long holiday. What about when we’re in the “thick of it” at midterm? Because of the negativity bias we talked about when we discussed positive emotions, we often notice what our students can’t do, rather than what they can do. We notice what we haven’t been able to do for whatever reason, rather than what we have been able to do.

  1. I suggest refocusing our attention and attempting to “notice” what we have achieved. One way of doing this is by self-reviewing your own performance. What have you done well in the past lesson/week/term/course? What could’ve gone better? Where do you want to focus your energy for what’s coming next?
  2. After a particularly challenging lesson or day, think about how far you’ve come as a teacher. Think back to your first lessons or your first year(s) teaching. How have you improved? What can you do now that you couldn’t do then? Sometimes a little bit of perspective is needed.

I’ve written another post on the link between self-efficacy and burnout. I suggest reading it for some concrete ideas about how to recognise your own achievements.

Read more about PERMA for ELT Teachers:


Positive Emotions







Bousquet, S. (2012). Teacher Burnout: Causes, Cures and Prevention. Online Submission.

PERMA for Teachers: Relationships

Because we are social animals, our relationships with others give us a great sense of meaning and emotional well-being. As teachers, a large part of our jobs involves working with people and paying special attention to the relationships we form with others.

How can we make the most of our relationships?

The old classic How to win friends and influence people is a good place to start if you’re looking to build relationships. Much of the advice is common sense to teachers. For example, the tip to use people’s names in conversation is something that we know to be essential in creating rapport with our students. However, sometimes we may feel we just don’t “click” with particular students and colleagues. Sometimes that’s perfectly fine as long as there is a feeling of mutual respect. Here are a few suggestions to build and deepen relationships with students and colleagues:

  1. Show trust and share

Share something personal about yourself in class. This doesn’t have to be a deep dark secret, but it should be a little more informative than just where you’re from. It can be an anecdote, your likes and dislikes, a family photo, places you’ve travelled. Playing two truths and a lie, using your own information as a model can encourage students to engage more with the activity and creates a sense of trust and understanding.

  1. Ask for help

What about superiors or colleagues? A great way to help build relationships with the people you work with is to show vulnerability and ask for help. Everybody likes to give advice and help. Ask to observe a colleague’s lesson, or ask how they’d introduce a particular topic. You may want to start by scheduling a time to do this first, especially if the person you’d like to talk to seems very busy. By showing vulnerability and reverence, you may not only get support with your problem, but you may also find a mentor who can coach you.

  1. Show gratitude and appreciation

A student worked especially hard in class today? Mention it to them and thank them. A colleague passed on a great activity, send them a quick email about how it went, telling the how much you appreciate their help. Be sure to thank those who may not be getting a lot of thanks- managers, secretaries, cleaners, etc. You may make someone’s day, and even improve your own mood.

Read more about PERMA for ELT Teachers:


Positive Emotions






PERMA for Teachers: Engagement

Feeling engaged in your work is obviously important to your mental well-being. One of the best things about teaching is that every day is different. At least it is not a monotonous job!

Despite the ever-changing circumstances, teachers with a certain amount of experience can start to lose motivation and feel a little bored with their jobs. Just like some students get bored if they find the level too easy for them, teachers who have mastered a particular level or course, may not feel challenged enough to find their jobs exciting anymore. On the other hand, again like a student who is in a level which is too difficult, teachers may find that certain courses or groups are just too difficult, and disengage by just trying to get through the year.

What is flow?

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes the flow state as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Essentially, you’re effortlessly and completely engaged in the activity you’re doing.

Here’s a short video describing the state in case it’s a new concept for you or a link to his book that I highly recommend.

In order to feel engaged at work (or in other areas of our lives for that matter), we might aim to spend more time in our individual flow states. We achieve a state of flow when our skill level matches the difficulty level of the task at hand. If the task is too easy, or we are “too good,” boredom ensues. By contrast, if the task is too difficult or our skills aren’t developed enough, we feel overwhelmed, anxious and frustrated. Finding this zone, and staying in it, can be a challenge in itself, but well worth it if we are to feel satisfied with our jobs.

  1. Use your strengths

We know from professional development sessions that we can always learn something new and we can always get better. We spend a lot of time and energy on “self-improvement,” and work towards eliminating our weaknesses. However, how often do we use our strengths? Do we use them enough?

Find your strengths

  1. “Craft” your job

Job Crafting promises to “make the job you have into the job you want.” Very briefly, it involves making small changes to your existing job in order to make the most of your strengths and preferences, while at the same time optimising your efficiency and well-being in the workplace. At first glance, it may seem impossible to make any changes to your job description, but if you dig deeper, you may find you have control over more than you think.

One way to do this is to dissect your “sweet spot.” When was the last time at work you really felt you were in a flow state? What were you doing? Who were you with? What did you do to prepare for this situation? Can you think of any other similar experiences?

Now, can you replicate that situation? How can you make sure you are doing as much of that one thing as possible?

To give you an example, I feel I’m in my sweet spot when I’m working one to one with a student who is struggling to grasp a particular concept. I enjoy coaching them through it, prompting them and asking them questions until I finally see that they understand the concept. Giving up classroom teaching to take up private classes is not a realistic option for me, however I can change the way I teach in order to incorporate more small group or one to one time with students. For instance, I incorporate a lot of pair and small group activities in class. This allows me to monitor my students very closely while the other students are working away. I have used “task crafting” to ensure that I get to do more of what I like and am good at, without actually changing my position.

Here are some other suggestions for job crafting you may not have thought about:

  • Task crafting
    • Request to teach certain levels
    • Develop and share materials via staff room or with colleagues
    • Train colleagues via in centre meetings, training cycle, ELI conference, outside conferences
    • Experiment with different teaching methodologies
    • Incorporate more activities YOU like in your lessons
  • Environmental crafting
    • Change where you plan
    • Request a change of centre
  • Cognitive Crafting
    • Meaningful work
  • Developmental Crafting
    • DELTA
    • YL Certificate
  • Relational Crafting
    • Build your relationships with your colleagues
    • Improve quality of interactions with students
    • Build a network of teachers, even from different schools and teaching contexts

Here is an article related to job crafting specifically in education.

How do you stay engaged? When are you in the flow? What could you tweak about  your job to make it better for you?

Read more about PERMA for ELT Teachers:


Positive Emotions






PERMA for Teachers: Positive Emotions


Think about the feedback from an observation you’ve had. I’ll bet that you can remember the “constructive criticism” better that you can remember the positive feedback.  That’s because humans are more likely to notice the things that are going wrong in our environment more than the things that are going well. This is called “negativity bias” and it seems to have an evolutionary purpose. It may be more important to notice the predator in your environment (something negative) than the abundance of food and water (something positive). The negative information needs to be acted on in this case, whereas the positive information isn’t as urgent.

observation feedback

The problem with the negativity bias is that once we notice something negative, we start to notice all the other negative information around us. It pulls us into a downward spiral. This is why we sometimes feel we are on a losing streak. Once we notice one bad thing, all the others become so much more salient.

When we are in this negative state, not only do we experience negative emotions, our behaviour changes too. We may start to sulk or feel sorry for ourselves and it becomes harder to come up with solutions to our problems because we are focused only on the immediate problem at hand (the predator in the environment for example). This may of course make our problems worse.

In contrast, by drawing our attention to what is going well, we can start to feel positive emotions which can expand our repertoire of thoughts and actions, making coming up with solutions to our problems even easier. Overtime this can help us cultivate our mental, social and physical resources, allowing us to feel more positive emotions. This is called the Broaden and Build Theory, developed by Barbara Fredrickson.

How to cultivate positive emotions?

Re-train your brain to overcome negativity bias by noticing positives in your life.

  1. 3 blessings

At the end of each day, write down three “blessings” or things that make you feel good. They can be as small as a hot coffee or a heartfelt “Goodbye teacher!” from one of your students. Why have they made you feel good? Try it every day for two weeks. Do you notice the positive things more?

  1. Seek out positive experiences

What situations cause you to experience positive emotions like joy, satisfaction and contentment? A hobby perhaps, talking to a particular friend, exercise? Make time to do these things, no matter what.

  1. Fake it till you make it

Much like the idea of the “power pose,” if you aren’t feeling positive, pretend that you are. Put on your fakest, silliest smile, and you may actually convince your brain to release “happy” neurotransmitters.

  1. Past, Present, Future

What’s gone well in the past few days/weeks/months? What’s going well now? What am I looking forward to in the future? Savour the lead up.

How to reduce negative emotions?

  1. Dispute negative thinking
    1. Look for evidence in the contrary
    2. Remember patterns
    3. Feelings aren’t related to outcomes
  2. Break the grip of rumination
    1. Recognise behaviour
    2. Find a healthy distraction

Have you tried any of these techniques? Have they worked for you?

Read more about PERMA for ELT Teachers:


Positive Emotions







Protect yourself against burnout: Yes, you CAN manage that class!

Teachers, like others who work in service industries, are particularly susceptible to experiencing professional burnout. We’ve all felt these symptoms at one time or another:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Pattern of neglecting one’s one needs
  • Working long hours
  • Feeling pressures coming from within oneself
  • Giving too much to the people who need your service

(Abdolzadeh, 2014)

Burnout is the product of situational factors (time pressure, workload, dealing with colleagues) and psychological factors (self-esteem, internal locus of control, sense of purpose) (Ozdemir, 2007). However, “the effect of job stressors is mediated by coping mechanisms. If coping mechanisms are inappropriate, stress occurs” (Betoret, 2009:46) That is to say, situations themselves do not cause stress; stress occurs when we aren’t equipped to deal with the particular situation.

Although demands from managers, observations and workplace tensions can cause undue stress and lead to burnout, student-related factors like discipline and motivation have been cited as the number one stressor for teachers (Abdolzadeh, 2014; Küçükoğlu, 2014; Ozdemir, 2007).

The thing is, classroom management problems can be the start of a vicious cycle:

classroom management

Interestingly, feeling you are able to manage the students in your class can lower your risk of burning out (Brouwers and Tomic, 2000; Ozedmir, 2007). It’s your perceived self-efficacy in classroom management that buffers you against experiencing debilitating stress. If you feel you can handle discipline problems, you can work towards managing them, thereby reducing their influence on the lesson, the class group and on yourself.

Here are some ways to boost your can-do attitude for classroom management:

Mastery Experiences: Progress is Power

Nothing builds confidence like success. Reaching goals, however small, can increase our sense of competence, which can lead to further progress. Try setting a small, but realistic goal for one of your next lessons. Here are some goals I’ve set for my next lessons.

  • Encourage Pilar to participate more in class
  • Give instructions more clearly (write them out on plan!)
  • Try out a colleague’s idea to manage transitions between activities

By writing down these small intentions on my lesson plans, I’ve noticed that I automatically divert more attention to my goals, and more often than not, I reach them!

Vicarious Experiences: Watch Others

Watching a peer succeed can make you believe in yourself. It can be done, after all!

Peer observations are wonderful experiences for professional development. We get to see how a colleague runs his/her classroom, watch how our previous students interact with one another, get new ideas for activities, and develop a sense that it can be done!

As you watch your colleague perform a task successfully, pay close attention and take notes. Meet with the person afterward for some feedback and ask “Why did you do x?” or “Can you explain the steps to x?”

Reflection: Look Back

Related to mastery experiences, at times our accomplishments go unnoticed, even to ourselves. If we’re feeling a little overwhelmed, we probably focus more on what isn’t going well. This is a natural product of human psychology called negativity bias. Evolutionarily speaking, it makes more sense to notice what isn’t working in the environment, say a tiger, than what is, like an abundance of food. The problem with this in modern times is that we can become overly focused on what isn’t working, even if it is not an immediate danger to our survival. By refocusing our attention on what is working, we can restore some balance to our perceptions of reality and broaden our repertoire of dealing with situations. Reflecting on what is going well can help us counteract this negativity bias.

Reflect on your past accomplishments-things like student results in the past, cards or gifts from students, positive observation feedback. You can also start by asking yourself questions like these:

  • How are you a better teacher than when you started?
  • If you could go back and teach a particular group/student again, how would you do it differently now?

You could also make reflection part of your routine by “reviewing” your own performance. Because I ask my students to reflect on their learning experience after every unit (read more about it here), I take the time do the same. I like to create a list of bullet points under these headings after I mark my students’ progress tests:

  1. What went well
  2. What could’ve gone better
  3. Priorities for the next unit

Imaginary Experiences: Visualize

Visualizing yourself as a “Super Teacher” may help you feel more confident in your own teaching and safely explore alternative solutions to a classroom management problems.

Visualize yourself as a “Super Teacher” handling a “nightmare” situation. What strategies do you use? How do the students react?

Or imagine a perfect lesson. What are you doing? What are the students doing? How does everyone feel? How do you react when something unexpected happens?

Take Away

  • Set tiny classroom management goals
  • Observe or talk to an expert colleague
  • Reflect on what’s working-fight negativity bias
  • Visualize success

Finally, effective classroom management starts with clear expectations. Here’s an idea for developing clear expectations with your teen classes.


Abdolzadeh, F. (2014) handling causes of teacher burnout in ELT classrooms. International Journal of Language Learning and Applied Linguistics World,7(3), 636-641.

Betoret, F. D. (2009). Self‐efficacy, school resources, job stressors and burnout among Spanish primary and secondary school teachers: a structural equation approach. Educational Psychology29(1), 45-68.

Brouwers, A., & Tomic, W. (2000). A longitudinal study of teacher burnout and perceived self-efficacy in classroom management. Teaching and Teacher education16(2), 239-253.

Küçükoğlu, H. (2014). Ways to cope with teacher burnout factors in ELT classrooms. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences116, 2741-2746.

Ozdemir, Y. (2007). The role of classroom management efficacy in predicting teacher burnout. International Journal of Social Sciences2(4), 257-263.


“I think I can, I think I can”: Cultivating Students’ Self-Efficacy

Yes, we can!

As a child, every time I complained that I couldn’t do something, my father would respond with this quote accredited to Henry Ford:

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right”

It used to annoy me greatly, but now as I’ve come to read quite a bit of research on self-efficacy, this quote has become a comforting source of strength.

Albert Bandera defines perceived self-efficacy as “people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives” (1994). In other words, self-efficacy is believing you are capable of doing something successfully. Self-efficacy is a key concept in education as it relates to so many other important concepts like effort, tenacity and achievement (Bandura, 1986; Mills, Pajares, and Herron, 2007) as well as strategy use, attributions, anxiety and goals (Mercer, 2012). Very importantly, learners who hold higher self-efficacy beliefs seem to sustain greater levels of motivation which in turn influences achievement (Hseih, 2012). (See previous post about how different concepts interact).

All of this means that Henry Ford’s quote has been supported by empirical evidence! If you believe you are capable of achieving something, even if it is difficult, you will preserve in spite of mistakes and failures, you will take advantage of the opportunities you come across, you may even design your behaviour and environment to help you reach your goal, and most likely, you will eventually succeed (or die trying). Conversely, if you don’t believe you can do something, you will likely give up after a few failed attempts. (See this post for a real example of how this works.)

So if self-efficacy is key to developing resilience, motivation and achievement, how can we help our students cultivate it? Let’s first look at where it comes from and then I’ll make some suggestions for classroom activities to promote positive self-efficacy beliefs.

Self-Efficacy has five different sources (Bandera, 1994; Williams, 1995)

  1. Mastery Experiences– actually achieving successes in the face of obstacles. These mastery experiences can be large or small, but it is important they aren’t just “easy” successes, as it is important to gain experience coping with and managing the inevitable setbacks.
  2. Vicarious Experiences-seeing someone like you (a peer perhaps) work hard and successfully accomplish the goal.
  3. Social Persuasion– this includes positive encouragement from others; i.e. “You can do it!” or “I believe in you!”. However, Bandura warns against empty or false encouragement, as this can in fact lower the other person’s self-efficacy if they do indeed fail. He suggests that good self-efficacy builders craft situations where the learner is suitably challenged and unlikely to experience an overwhelming failure.
  4. Emotional and Physiological States– your current mood or if learning something physical, your muscle aches and pains, can affect your belief in your capacity to do something. If you’re in a good mood, you are more likely to think you are capable of accomplishing your goal and vice versa. Importantly, it is not ACTUALLY the emotions you experience or your aches that influence your self-efficacy, but how you interpret and evaluate them. You may experience frustration and think “I’m frustrated because I’m an idiot which means I’ll never get this!” and consequently give up, or think “I’m frustrated because I keep making the same mistake again and again. How can I avoid this mistake? Maybe I just need to take a break and come back to it.”
  5. Imagined Experiences– if you imagine, or visualize, yourself succeeding, you can also improve your self-efficacy beliefs, just not as strongly as if you actually experience success.

Cultivating Self-Efficacy in the classroom

Mastery Experiences

Successes, whether big or small, can have a huge impact on a learner’s trajectory (if you haven’t already, read about my student María’s small win with big gains here). Tests, quizzes and exams can be stressful and overemphasized in education, but they can also be powerful motivators if they allow students to reflect on their accomplishments. For example, I sometimes give vocabulary quizzes where I dictate ten vocabulary words in the learner’s L1 and then they translate them to English. They then report to me, a partner or write privately in their notebooks how many words they knew. The following lesson, one of the students becomes the teacher and dictates ten words for the class and so on. Not the most communicative activity, but great for boosting confidence.

I’ve also given students timed-tests for irregular verbs. (Here’s a version in Word: irreg verbs timed test). I give them three minutes to fill in as many verbs as they know and tally up their points. The next lesson, I give them EXACTLY the same test and they see how many more they can do. It’s a wonderful feeling to walk into a class before it starts and see the students quiz each other in preparation for the timed-test! There are no points for this activity, no marks, no grades-they just want to succeed for their own sake!

Sometimes, however, these tiny victories don’t get noticed. Taking time to reflect can help make them more salient. Having students keep record sheets of marks can be a great way to do this. Training students to self-evaluate using can do statements can also be powerful. However, these techniques can be a little too structured and don’t allow for a lot of reflection about why the student succeeded or failed or how she can improve the next time. Here are some more open-ended ways to do that.

After every progress test or exam we do, I ask students to answer some feedback questions. They can write the answers in English or Spanish and their answers can be as long or short as they want. I ask them questions like these:

Metacognitive Questions

I often get responses like this:

Enrique responses

An even more in depth way to do this is by asking the students to write you a letter. After my students know their midcourse exam marks in January, they write me a letter explaining their efforts so far, what they think they’ve done well and what they’d like to concentrate on for the following term. Here is an example of a letter I recieved last year:




The aim of these letters is to help my students develop their own metacognition and sense of self-efficacy as well as to give me some feedback about the course. The added bonus is that many of the letters are positive, which boosts my own self-efficacy and sense of accomplishment!

Vicarious Experiences

We believe we can achieve something if someone like us has achieved it, and many, many people have learned other languages! Unfortunately, due to the dominance of native-speaker teachers in my own context, many students may become discouraged because they will never speak the language as well as their teacher-role model. Well, we can quite simply change the role model!

In my centre, we have created an event where small groups of students prepare and give a short talk to class in a lower level about what the course entails. For example, a pair of students who have just done their B2 exam give a talk to a class of students who are in a PRE-B2 course.  These “expert” students explain the course demands and structure and talk about what they’ve done to succeed in the level.  The expert students pass down their tricks and strategies while the novice students meet peers who have actually accomplished the same goals.

Experts Prompts
Prompts for the Expert Learners to prepare their presentations for the Novice Learners

While the previous activity is quite intensive and can require a lot of time and organization, you can also do something similar by having higher-level students record short passages to be used as listening comprehension activities for lower level students. Having a higher-level peer come in as a guest speaker is another easy way to do this. Additionally, a YouTube video of a celebrity from your students’ country speaking English inspire their own beliefs in themselves (Thanks to a suggestion from Chris Roland, I’ve used interviews with Rafa Nadal for this purpose). Similarly, save copies of good-writing tasks that you can use as examples instead of relying on the ones from the course book.

I also get students to share their strategies with one another and ask one another for advice. For example while practising functional language for giving and making suggestions, my students did a mingling activity based on this slide:

Peer suggestions

After getting suggestions from their peers, they wrote down one new strategy they wanted to try at home and reported back the following week.

Social Persuasion

Teacher encouragement can obviously be very powerful as can setting students up for success. Verbal encouragement should focus on elements within the student’s control or at the very least, link accomplishments to effort. The typical teacher phrase: “The test isn’t hard if you study” can be a great start. I like to give my students a little pep-talk after a revision class praising them for all the hard work that they’ve done and the progress I’ve seen them make. I like to give them concrete examples if possible but end the talk with something like “all I ask that you do your best and give it your all!” I also write extensive responses to the letters they write me where I highlight my impressions of the effort they’ve put it and how much they’ve accomplished because of it.

My response to a student’s letter she wrote at the beginning of the school year.

But what about actually setting students up for success, especially in mixed-ability groups with an imposed syllabus? Well, first of all, scaffolding and giving clear instructions is a start. Doing pre-assessment activities to see what they already know is also a great technique. I also think it is very important to give them clear expectations and examples of what success looks like. For example, when asking my students to do a writing activity, I give them a list of grammar and vocabulary I’d like them to include. This way they know what is expected of them and they can start to internalise the strategy of trying out new language in their writing. I also have them write a second-draft so that they can improve and measure their improvement (see this post for some examples).

Emotional and Physiological States

The times when our students are exhausted, stressed or just apathetic can cause some of our biggest challenges as teachers. Experiencing moments like these are inevitable from time to time, but in terms of self-efficacy they are only problematic if the student interprets them as evidence that she is incapable of doing something. Teaching emotional self-regulation merits its own post, so I’ll just talk about some ways to reframe one very common emotion, frustration, in order to maintain self-efficacy.


All of us experience frustration from time to time when we are struggling to achieve something, so students need to be told this is completely normal. If a student is overcome with frustration (think beginner adult doing a listening activity) it may be a good idea to have the student take a quick break before coming back to the activity. Give the student support options if possible (eg. Follow along with the transcript in the book or allow her to stop the track when she wants to) and remind the student that language learning takes time. I know it seems a bit cliché, but as we’ve seen above, an encouraging word can be very helpful. I have motivational quotes hung up around my classroom: things like “Mistakes are proof you’re trying” and the classic Michael Jordan quote: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” I point them out if necessary, or to lighten the mood with some jokes about how cliché it all is. On that point, having a laugh can really break through this feeling and using humour can ease the tension. Nevertheless, I do feel that it is important to encourage the learner to eventually return to the activity and that shes does achieve some success with it, even if it requires a lot of teacher or peer support.

Imagined Experiences

Finally, I’d like to share what I think is my favourite language learning strategy. When learning languages, I like to invent imaginary situations where I need to use the language and have a conversation with myself. For example, I’m currently just beginning to learn German so this morning while making coffee I invented that I was meeting my German friend’s boyfriend for the first time and that I had to introduce myself. I “role-played” the whole little dialogue out loud in the kitchen and thought about the questions he would ask me, how he would ask for clarification, how I would ask him to repeat, how I would respond, what questions I would ask him, etc. Yes, I had an entire 5-minute conversation with an imaginary German in my kitchen!  But you know what, I was able to clarify what language I didn’t know (for example I didn’t know how to say “nice to meet you”), predict the kinds of questions I might hear, I practiced my fluency, paid attention to my pronunciation and intonation, and I went back to self-correct when I knew I made a mistake. In doing all of this, I got one step closer to automatizing the language that I know and I feel more confident that I would have the coping skills necessary if I were in a similar situation. Having imaginary successes can help you feel more competent as well as make you more competent by helping you predict difficulties or notice gaps in your current knowledge.

This seems very awkward and embarrassing for many students, but it works! It’s just like preparing for a job interview or a big presentation. I tell my students to just imagine telling me about something that interests them. What questions would I ask you? What would I want to know? Or with teenagers, I tell them to imagine they’re meeting a famous celebrity who wants to know about their life. Imagining successes can help lead to actual success.

Take Away

  • Craft situations where students can experience success
  • Have students reflect in order to make small successes salient
  • Use peer role models
  • Praise students’ actions and effort not ability or talent
  • Encourage students’ effort
  • Set students up for success by giving an example of what success “looks like”
  • Help students re-frame negative emotions like frustration
  • Encourage students to imagine successful situations using the language

If you want to  read more, this site has a lot of excellent information about cultivating self-efficacy.

If you’ve managed to read this far (what a long post-I appreciate the effort!) please leave me a comment! I’ve outlined a possibe future post about ways for teachers to cultivate their own self-efficacy in order to protect against burnout. Would you be interested in reading about that?



Bandura, A. (1986). The explanatory and predictive scope of self-efficacy theory, Journal of social and clinical psychology [online] 4:359-373. Available at: [Accessed 13 February, 2016].

Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998).

Hsieh, P. (2012). Attribution: Looking Back and Ahead at the ‘Why? Theory. In S. Ryan, M. Williams, and S. Mercer (Eds.), Psychology for language learning, pp. 90-102. Houndsmills: Palgrave MacMillan.

Mercer, S (2012). Self-concept: Situating the Self. In S. Ryan, M. Williams, and S. Mercer (Eds.), Psychology for language learning, pp. 10-15. Houndsmills:Palgrave Macmillan.

Mills, N., Pajares, F., and Herron, C. (2007). Self-efficacy of college intermediate french students: Relation to achievement and motivation, Language learning [online] 57:417-442. Available at: [Accessed 13

Williams, S. L. (1995). Self-efficacy, anxiety, and phobic disorders. In J. E. Maddux, (Ed.), Self-efficacy, adaptation, and adjustment: Theory, research and application (pp. 69-107). New York: Plenum.

Start as you mean to go on: Setting effective “rules” with teenage classes


When I first started teaching (over 10 years ago) I had the goal of making my lessons the most entertaining and “fun” as possible. I made sure to include games, songs, and videos  in every lesson. The thing is, as students came to expect “fun”, they became desensitized to it which meant I had to constantly outdo myself and come up with more elaborate, more exciting games. One of the most demoralizing teaching moments often comes halfway through a painstakingly planned lesson, packed with “entertaining” activities, when a student asks “Teacher, are we going to play a game today?”

At the 2018 Innovate ELT conference, Sarah Priestley questioned the importance of fun in ELT in her plenary titled DO STUDENTS REALLY WANT FUN IN THE ELT CLASSROOM? It seems that other teachers are also starting to examine the status “fun” has in our industry, and are realising that actual learning should not only be the main objective of our lessons, but that learning itself is enjoyable.

I thought about the insights I gleaned from studying expert language learners (read about the virtuous cycle of language learner development and the variables that make good language learners). These students loved much more than their “fun” English classes, they loved learning English. They loved it so much that they modified their environments and behaviours in a way that enabled them to reach C2 levels of English without spending years in an English speaking country.

My vision for teaching

So, with this in mind, I reflected on the goals or vision I had for teaching my students. If before my mission was to create fun lessons, now I aim to encourage my students to become expert language learners: if they love learning English so much that they watch tv, listen to music, talk to tourists on holiday, read in English, etc. they will succeed whether or not I manage to clearly explain the difference between present perfect and past simple. If they are good language learners, they will truly succeed in spite of their teachers and their English classes.

First Day Activities

I’m a big believer in “start as you mean to go on” and therefore I find that the very first day of a course is extremely important. I usually use a similar plan for first day lessons which includes some “getting to know you” activities and icebreakers followed by a “rule setting” activity for classroom management purposes. Now with my new vision in mind, I slightly modified this plan. I still start with ice-breakers but then we do a short true/false quiz on what makes a good language learner. If I want my students to be good language learners, they need to know what that looks like.

We do the quiz in pairs using mini-whiteboards (we don’t keep score or anything). The quiz has questions like:

GLL quiz slide screen shot

And gives simplified responses like:

Answer GLL screen shot

While many of the responses are rather obvious, the activity often opens some dialogue and the students boast about using certain behaviours. It is a wonderful way to set the intention for the course.

Setting Class “Rules”

After this quiz, we then proceed to establish our “rules”. For many years I’ve done rule setting by practising modal verbs. Students brainstorm endings to statements like these:

In English class we have to/should/can/mustn’t, etc.

Then we vote as a class on the most important statements in each category and this becomes our list of rules that we stick on a poster.

I still use this format, but I’ve changed the focus. Now, instead of in English class we have to…the sentence stem has become Good Language Leaners have to, should, shouldn’t and mustn’t. In a way, it is a summary of the quiz, but it is also how I transparently communicate the vision I have for the class to my students.

After setting up my courses in this way for the past four or so years, I’ve found some clear advantages. First of all, by directly expressing that I assume that all of my students can become or are good language learners, they start the course feeling capable of success.

Secondly, statements like “In English class we must” connote that the learners must do as they’re told, because as young teenagers, this is what is expected of them. These kind of statements rob students of any sense of “why” the rule exists. There is little ownership of the norms, even if they do “come up” with them. However, statements like “Good Language Learners must”  help clarify why certain behaviours are desirable. For example, “Good Language Learners have to speak in English in class” is clearly related to the fact that Good Language Learners use every opportunity they have to practise the language. This rule has not been dictated by me, the authority-figure adult, but by students who truly understand why a rule like this is in place.

Furthermore, by setting rules in this way, the onus of responsibility is on the students themselves. If they want to succeed, they should follow the rules, not for the sake of the rules or to impress their teacher, but for themselves. These kind of rules seem to empower the students and make it much easier for me to enforce! Of course, as the group leader (and the authority-wielding adult) it is my responsibility to guide them back on track, and challenge behaviours that aren’t in line with our vision, but it is much easier to do this if the students clearly see that I have their best interest at heart and I’m not just trying to “control” them.

Advantages of setting rules with a focus on what makes a Good Language Learner

In conclusion, here are the benefits I’ve experienced since using this procedure on the first day:

  • Students understand my vision for the course and often buy into it
  • Students assume they are capable of achieving this vision
  • Students truly understand why certain rules are in place
  • Students “own” the rules
  • The onus of responsibility is ultimately on the students themselves to comply with the rules

This relatively small change to how I start a course on the first day has made a huge difference in terms of how the rest of the course continues and what my students accomplish. Ironically, most of my students are now perfectly able to stay engaged throughout the lesson, even without games. I now plan classes soley based on the “learning potential” of each activity and though I still get the “Are we going to play a game today?” question once in a while, it doesn’t frustrate me like before.

I’d love to hear from you! How do you set rules at the beginning of the course? Do you have a vision or goal for your classes? What do you think about “fun” in ELT?

Ecosystem of Language Learning Variables

Have you ever had a student who, despite working extremely hard, struggles with even the simplest aspects of language learning? A student who, regardless of the time he spends and the support he gets from teachers, parents and classmates, just doesn’t get it? I’m sure you’ve also had students on the other end of the spectrum who don’t lift a finger and yet easily use the language with fluency, accuracy and complexity? Why these differences? Is there something the stronger student is doing that the weaker student can learn and apply? How can we, as teachers, support the weaker student who is already doing more than we’ve asked him to do?

“The Holy Grail” of Individual Differences

These questions were first raised in the 1970s with Jane Rubin’s landmark study “What the Good Language Learner can teach us”. The paper looks into strategies employed by successful language learners with the assumption that teachers can train weaker students to adopt these behaviours and thereby achieve success. Furthermore, her paper opened up a field of study into the Good Language Learner, prompting hundreds of studies whose aim was to find out what makes good language learners different. Researchers looked into aptitude, motivation, strategies, age, beliefs and even personality. All of these studies were an attempt to find what Dewaele (2012) calls “The Holy Grail” of the good language learner.

Overall, we can summarise the results of many of these studies by saying that a small but significant effect was found on language learning outcomes. That means, each of these factors (and others I haven’t mentioned), do influence language learning, but only slightly. The “Holy Grail” was never found.

More recently however, researchers have started to realise that all of these factors influence one another and they change over time and depend on the context the learner is in. These factors (called individual differences) seem to operate as a Complex Dynamic System, meaning that each of them interacts with the others over time, making it impossible to clearly predict outcomes in a linear fashion.

Individual Differences as a Complex Dynamic System

Thinking about a learner in terms of an ecosystem of interacting variables (de Bot, 2008) helps me to understand why each of my students differs in their abilities and achievements. What are these variables? I like to organise them into five categories: biological, cognitive, psychological, behavioural and experiential. A visual representation would be that of a web, where all these variables intersect, looking something like this:

Web Ecosystem
Ecosystem of Learner Variables (There are more variables and connections than I’ve drawn!)


All of these variables interact with one another, creating a unique ecosystem that changes over time and depends on the context, influencing the learning outcomes of each individual learner.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine I have a student called Carmen. Her mother is a doctor and her father is an engineer who have both graduated university (socio-economic factors). Carmen, her parents, teachers and society at large all assume she too will attend university and therefore will need at least a B1 in English in order to graduate (contextual factors). Her parents send her to a language academy and put her in a bilingual school (learning environments) and they do a bit of travelling requiring English for communication (uses for the language). Carmen enjoys using her English when she travels and also knows that English will be important for her future, so she is quite motivated to master the language (motivation). This motivation propels her to work hard and she practises English every chance she gets (cognitive strategies, agency) which may allow her to overcome her limited language learning aptitude (cognitive factors).

Carmen Ecosystem
Carmen’s Ecosystem showing how different variables interact with one another

This is a very simplified and idealised example of how these factors can interact. However, it is often far more complicated than this. Carmen may perform differently on certain tasks, on certain skills, when working with certain classmates, with a specific teacher, at different points in the course, depending on her mood, even at different points in a lesson. There are so many variables, interactions and changes that we can’t predict if Carmen will be successful or not.


So what’s the takeaway for teachers? I’d say the main suggestion is something that most teachers try to do anyway…view and treat their students holistically and humanly. Teachers can meaningfully impact their learners’ systems by encouraging them to be the best language learners they can possibly be! Hold students to high expectations, train them to use effective strategies, create a low anxiety environment, plan engaging lessons with a variety of interactions and activities, encourage positive group dynamics, explain growth mindset and help cultivate each student’s sense of self-efficacy. Though you may not be able to predict or control the outcomes of the system, best practices can snowball into a force that mitigates elements that cannot be changed (like socio-economic factors or biological factors). What you do and how you connect with students can make all the difference.


De Bot, K. (2008). Introduction: Second language development as a dynamic process, The Modern Language Journal [online] 92:166-178. Available at:  [Accessed 13 July, 2015].

Dewaele, J.M. (2012). Learner internal psychological factors. In Herschensohn, Julia & Young-Scholten, Martha (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. pp. 159-79. New York: Cambridge University Press.