Fatigue & Recovery

Learners & teachers share the fight against fatigue in language classrooms

Why do some people give up when other people persist?

For a language teacher, this is an important question. The answer to it can help shape how we teach. Teachers need to grow resilient students who struggle through challenges.

For teachers, too, on a personal level, we can burn out. Knowing how to battle teaching fatigue is critical for teachers to remain motivated in our profession.

For a language school, this is also an important question. Students who quit after one or two years severely limit a school’s growth compared to students who continue with lessons six, eight, ten years or more.

From a management perspective, as well, employees who quit because of fatigue hurt the school’s ability to grow a professional, experienced staff. Teacher turnover at language schools tends to be exceptionally high. We want people to leave jobs for the right reasons–when they find new opportunities to grow–not because of work fatigue. If a school can keep teachers an average of even one or two years longer than they otherwise would, the gains in quality and productivity and savings in hiring costs are tremendous.

For language learners, too, why some learners give up is an important question. Most people have started a new task with a great deal of energy, but then burned out and quit after a short time. How can we better regulate our efforts to persist and grow over a long period?

A new study published in Nature Communications from researchers at the Universities of Birmingham and Oxford may help teachers and learners better understand how fatigue affects motivation.

The researchers matched up people’s willingness to persist in a physical task that earned rewards with brain activity on fMRI scans to show how motivation and fatigue fluctuate moment by moment. The researchers observed two states of fatigue occurring in separate parts of the brain. Short-term, recoverable fatigue builds after we exert effort, but it can be reduced with rest. Long-term, unrecoverable fatigue builds gradually with work, and it does not go away with short rests.

How does this help language learners and teachers?

There may be some differences in the fatigue felt from a physical task and the mental tasks of language learning or teaching. However, the stresses of language learning and teaching parallel the tiredness of muscles in many respects. There is a lot for language learners and teachers to glean from and reflect upon in this research:

  • Pacing and setting appropriate challenges is critical. Doing the same activity again and again for very long can leave the body and brain tired. Trying to do too much all at once can produce frustration. We need to pace our students and ourselves with appropriate challenges that spark motivation without building debilitating fatigue.
  • We need variety. Between challenges, we need frequent short rests. This rest might be something as simple as a relatively easy, unrelated distractor task to let the brain reset. We sometimes also need vacations to help prevent long-term fatigue from building up.
  • How we use rewards can make a difference. One aspect of fatigue that the researchers did not explore was loss of interest in the reward. How often were test subjects giving up, not because they physically couldn’t do the task anymore, but because the reward had become boring and insignificant? Receiving the same reward over and over can lead to a loss in motivation. I often see this in games with students–when each success earns exactly one point, students give up on the game quickly. When success earns a chance at a random number of points, students stay much more interested.
  • Meaningful tasks are better motivators than artificial rewards. The researchers did not measure the intrinsic value that participants felt toward the task. Squeezing a dynamometer is, on its own, not especially engaging. If there were no reward, would anyone have found value in gripping the meter tightly? Gripping a dynamometer carries no consequence…compared, say, to gripping a rope with a person’s life hanging in the balance.

People will sometimes invent meaning for themselves. If put into a group, some might motivate themselves by transforming the gripping task into a competition. Once the strongest grip was determined? This motivation would be at an end. Individually, a person desiring more grip strength might persist with the task as exercise, especially if the dynamometer could measure improvement over time. However, for most people, gripping a meter for a few seconds and releasing does not carry the feeling of having accomplished anything important.

Menial tasks that do not grow or build anything, that lack value outside of artificial rewards, are ideal breeding grounds for fatigue. Language taught in meaningful contexts, with fitting risks and rewards for failures and successes, will always sustain motivation better than drills or even than games that rip language out of context.

Students and teachers share a need for meaningful challenges. We share a need for agency. We likewise need supportive environments that create opportunities for us and ensure us time to rest.

Nobody stays motivated for very long with small, repetitive challenges, especially if the task lacks intrinsic value. We can trick our brains with artificial rewards only for so long. To stay motivated, we occasionally need difficult, novel challenges, and we need tasks with meaningful consequences.

A profound sense of accomplishment can grow out of a difficult, worthwhile challenge. Desire for accomplishment can generate persistence far beyond any reward. Desire won’t stave off fatigue, but it can help us cope and overcome fatigue until we reach a well-earned rest.

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Professional and Personal Development at MY: A Shelf Study

One early morning in March 2020, I was on my way to our Sakata School to interview Chris about his five years at MY which, unfortunately, were coming to a close. It was bitterly cold outside, snowing so hard that I had to drive 20 km/h just so I could see 20 meters ahead. It was a Monday, an official day off, I was just getting over a small cold that I had for a good while, so with all the factors combined I think it’s needless to say, I did not want to be at the school. I would much rather lie down and degenerate under my fluffy blanket with a smartphone in my hands looking at owl pictures and memes.

I opened the door of the school with a fair few filthy words directed at the weather and saw Chris looking pensively at a massive cardboard box with a picture of a bookshelf on it. After greeting Chris, I inquired about the box in my customary expletive manner, and he simply shrugged and said: “I figured we needed some more space to store the new Extensive Reading books that we’ll purchase later this year”. The notion surprised me. Why, I wondered, was someone that was leaving their workplace for a new exciting adventure bother themselves with prospects for the future of their previous place of employment? Regardless, while I was setting up, Chris unpacked the box and the conversation began.

Chris has a rich experience of living and working in Japan. He used to be an ALT working for a dispatch company for five years before joining MY. “There was little opportunity for professional growth outside the classroom”, said Chris while glancing at the incomprehensibly Swedish manual, figuring out how to put the bloody thing together, “I did two years of off-site kindergarten lessons and received no training on how to do it at all”. After getting tired of not having any fun or opportunities to grow, Chris moved to MY in 2015. A former employee of MY, Pat Conaway, who later moved on to teach at a university, remembers Chris’ first days at MY. “Chris used a lot of songs with his Finding Out classes”, Pat said. “Up until then almost everyone ignored the music CD with Finding Out, but after he demoed using songs with Finding Out activities other teachers started using the songs too”.

Even as a new teacher, Chris was able to change his far more senior co-workers’ attitudes towards songs in the book, starting as he meant to go forward at MY. “When Chris first started, he was still a very fresh teacher despite having worked as an ALT for a couple years before joining MY”, says Melissa Ng, the former head of the Professional Development team and the current manager of the Kansai schools. “However, he made a solid effort to get advice from veteran teachers and attend professional development events, such as PanSIG and ETJ”.

Chris’ drive for professional development organically led him to joining the Professional Development team at MY in 2016. “I wanted to grow as a person”, said Chris. “The job was challenging and yet I enjoyed the nice, friendly atmosphere and the autonomy it gave me”, said he while putting two pieces of the shelf together. Melissa also recalled that with time, Chris started to take on other leadership responsibilities at MY by actively creating better connections with the local communities, teaching lessons at community centers which eventually led to the opening of our Tsuruoka school. Ryan Hagglund, the CEO of MY, mentions that he appreciated not only Chris’ leadership skills, but also his honesty. “One thing I always appreciated about Chris was that he wasn’t afraid to tell me his thoughts on things”, said he. “I remember one time when after a conversation we had, he felt a little discouraged by something I had said. He contacted me later in the day to talk and let me know how he had felt after our conversation. This honesty and willingness to tell me how he viewed things was invaluable”.

Chris’ ability to be honest about everything was in fact, one of the first things I noticed about him. I joined the PD team the year Chris took over the role after Melissa went to Kansai to manage our schools there. During one of the weekly meetings, he criticized a staff member’s work attitude, which I thought was fair at the time. However, a week later Chris apologized for saying those words “because it’s unfair to criticize someone when they are not there to defend themselves”, and I realized that he was absolutely right, that his words were wrong, but because he admitted to being wrong first I did not feel upset at him. Myself being still somewhat a child in the world of adults, felt shocked by his accountability and willingness to accept the blame even if no one was pointing their fingers at him.

Looking at the mostly assembled shelf, Chris moved onto sharing his future plans with me. “From April, I am planning to study computer science for two years and work as a part-time English teacher”, said he while putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece. He was excited to move on to his new adventure but he shared how grateful he was for the experiences he got while at MY. “I acquired leadership skills and an appreciation for time management and planning”, indeed, skills that are essential for the leader of the PD team.

Looking back, Chris was quite content with his work at MY, but “long drives to Nairiku royally sucked”, chuckled he. In the world of ass-kissers, Chris was a refreshing tool of brutal honesty mixed with a dazzle of the good old British sense of humour. “I also appreciate Chris’s sense of humor”, added Ryan. “His wife was apparently surprised by it, however. One time he and I were talking on the phone while he was driving with his wife. After the conversation, his wife apparently chastised him saying, ‘You talk to your boss like that? You might get fired!’” Chris is a serious educator, but I’m also glad for his sense of humor”, concluded Ryan.

Chris took a step back to admire his completed bookshelf and after a contented smile, I watched him stroll away to do yet another chore. I suddenly came to a realization that Chris’ behaviour made perfect sense. That is what he did. He cared about things, even if it was not “his job” per se. I have heard the “it’s not my responsibility” line so much that if I got paid a dollar for it I’d be the richest person in Japan. Apathetic, passive people plague everyone around them with their conscious decision not to act. Negativity spreads around way faster than positivity, and people that give in to apathy destroy companies, societies, countries, and the world in the end.

Chris though is different. His empathy, genuine care for people and ability to see situations from everyone else’s point of view and ability to admit his wrongdoings, made him extremely easy to get along with. For MY, Chris leaving was, dare I say it, a huge loss, but whichever path he chose afterwards, whichever employer he works for now, has gained a tremendous amount of professional attitude and enthusiasm. As the current leader of the Professional Development team, I understand that filling Chris’ shoes is a monumentally difficult task, but having had him as my example of how to lead with compassion and love, I hope that one day I will deserve the kind words that people still remember Chris with.

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On Adaptability

Two years of teaching… Finally, the almost constant feeling of panic and uncertainty about my lessons has been replaced by something that from afar, resembles confidence. Finally, I know the curriculum (well, more or less), I’ve taught all the books at least once, I’ve kept most of my classes from last year and I’m familiar with every school and advisor. After two years of having worked at MY I’ve gained enough expertise to try and sail by myself, fix the mistakes I’ve made over the course of two years so I won’t repeat them again, and I will be able to reinforce my strong teaching skills. I’m ready! I’m ready! Let’s nail it!

And then someone ate a bat!

Moving to remote lessons was devastating to my confidence. Yet again, I’ve come back to the square one, back to March of 2018 – having no clue about what I’m doing. It is terrifying, really, to have an enormous amount of expectations put on you and you feel that you just can not carry it all. The first day of remote lessons went disastrously bad. A myriad of technical issues, crappy sound quality, lessons being too teacher-centered, inability to do proper error correction, regular silence as a response to my question… To me, an obsessive-compulsive perfectionist, this was too much. After coming back home I just wanted to let it go and forget about it, but I couldn’t. Suddenly being stripped of my strengths and ripped out of my comfort zone made me feel powerless and forced me back to the lesson-conscious Alina.

However, as weeks went by I started to feel better. Lessons went way smoother, and my students’ smiles returned to their faces. Wondering what happened I started to reflect on the first week of teaching lessons remotely, and I found a simple answer.

Adaptability.

One of my favourite books from this year so far “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel has this amazing quote in it: “All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”

Why is adaptability so important in the current uncertainty? Adaptability matters because being able to restructure to new circumstances and do necessary self-correction is one of the things that separate people and organizations of the past from the people and organizations of the future in our hyper-globalized world. An English school can easily fold its wings and shut down for several months because they can’t swiftly adapt to the unfolding events since it’s easier to wait for the “whole thing to blow over”. Another English school though can quickly reassess the situation and figure out the best a possible solution to the existing problem not only for the business side of things, but also for the clients.

In fact, this almost a buzz-word now, adaptability, is what I think separates MY’s teachers from those who don’t make it here. On this note, the list that Professional Development and Hiring Teams made together that talks about the kinds of teachers we are always on the lookout for, adaptability came first. Of course, one can come with a phenomenal amount of teaching experience, a great CV and yet fail miserably in a student-centered classroom. Another person though, even with zero teaching experience and straight out of college can still make a difference and blow us all away. The key to this, I think, is being able to see the environment around you and adapt to it.

I don’t know how many more people are doing this weird thing that I do, but often, when I look back at some traumatic and difficult experiences of my life, I remember them with warmth and gratitude. Being severely bullied in high school was a horrendous experience, but now thinking about it does not hurt anymore. In fact, it makes me feel grateful since it has shaped me and made me myself, and, to be frank, maybe precisely as a result of this I made it all the way here. Even the Japanese driving school that I attended last year brought me so much stress and anxiety because learning how to drive with my limited Japanese skills and awful sense of direction was one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever faced. Nevertheless, now I remember that time with so much affection I sometimes wish I could go back and experience it all over again. I think, in the end, I adapted to most challenges in my life and ultimately feel beholden to those trials as a source of continued self-improvement.

I hope in a few months I will feel grateful about the remote lessons too.

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Professional Development Weekend – Hosted by MY English School – Featuring Michael Griffin

MY English School is hosting a two-day professional development weekend with featured guest Michael Griffin on October 18-19. Both days of the event are free and open to the public.

Anyone wishing to stay overnight at the hotel and onsen is welcome to join us for the opportunity to interact with the presenter and other attendees in a more relaxed setting. The deadline for a hotel & dinner banquet reservation is October 11. Please contact Chris Saunders regarding reservations and details.

Event Speaker: Michael Griffin

Session Topics:

  • Practicing Reflection
  • (Re)considering “bad teaching practices”
  • Behavioral Economics

When :

Friday, October 18th, 2pm – 5pm

  • Behavioral Economics

Saturday, October 19th, 10am – 5pm

  • (Re)considering “bad teaching practices
  • Practicing Reflection.

Where: Zao Onsen, Forest Inn Sangoro
〒990-0017 Yamagata, Kamihozawa, 不動上国有林28
https://goo.gl/maps/e2oQxusYiM7HdcrRA

Driving Directions:

https://goo.gl/maps/bn65uD156ZpvJnkdA

Contact or questions: Chris Saunders
saunders@myeigo.com

Event Theme: Professional Development

Admission: Free for everyone

Overnight Cost: 10,000 yen, including: Nomihoudai Dinner, Breakfast, Hotel room.

Abstracts:

Practicing Reflection: Reflective Practice is something of a buzzword in ELT. “What does it mean, and how do we do it?” are two very reasonable questions. Reflective Practice seems to mean different things to different people, though most agree it’s important and useful. In this interactive session, we will broadly define the term and think about what it means to us before diving into activities that will offer hands-on practice reflecting. Through this practice participants will find ways to include reflection as a pillar of their own teaching. This session will offer guidance, tips, questions to consider, feedback, and strategies for becoming a (more) reflective practitioner. There will also be a great deal of practice.  Through practicing reflection in a guided way and learning strategies and techniques for further reflection, participants will become more comfortable and skillful reflecting on their own in their regular work.

(Re)considering “bad teaching practices: There is no shortage of received wisdom about what the “bad” teaching practices are in EFL. Training courses, conferences, workshops, and colleagues are common sources to learn what’s “bad” and should thus be avoided. Chances to step back and consider why this is so are not as common. Many teachers internalize the “rules” about these “bad” practices but don’t examine specific cases and contexts were these practices might not be so bad. In this interactive workshop, participants will be asked to consider the potential positives of widely-known and negatively-viewed teaching practices. Ideas and assumptions about what constitutes “bad” teaching will be challenged, and participants can expect to walk away with a clearer idea of their own beliefs on common and commonly mentioned practices.

Behavioral Economics: Are there things Kahneman, Thaler, Harford, and Levitt can teach us about English language teaching that Thornbury, Nation, Graves, and Ur cannot? What can insights can behavioral economics provide to English teachers?  In this interactive workshop, the world of Behavioral Economics will be connected to the world of English Language Teaching. Prominent and accessible theories from the field of Behavioral Economics, like the endowment effect, sunk-cost fallacy, endowment theory, and loss aversion, will be applied to English teaching. Questions about how such theories can be applied will be raised and considered. Participants can expect to walk away with insights from Behavioral Economics and new ways of framing and attempting to work through challenges they encounter in the world of English language teaching.

About the speaker:

Michael Griffin has been involved with English teaching for 20 years. He has worked as a teacher, teacher trainer, trainer-trainer, curriculum developer, substitute teacher, assistant director, and mentor. Intercultural awareness, world Englishes, curriculum development, alternative ways of teacher development, and reflective practice are some of his main interests. Currently, Michael works online with the New School’s MATESOL program and for World Learning on American English E-Teacher courses sponsored by the US Department of State.  He blogs at http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com.

Hotel Website:

http://www.sangoro.co.jp/index.html/

Photos of the hotel and venue:

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