Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Life Cycle of a Teacher

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Do you remember those “The Life Cycle of the Frog” pictures we often had to study in science when we were kids? You know, “the egg to tadpole to tadpole-with-legs to frog” graph? Well, wouldn’t it be handy for ESL educators to study a graph that shows the life cycle of teachers? Tessa Woodward thinks so. I was fortunate enough to watch her presentation, The Professional Life Cycles of Teachers, at the IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) 2010 Conference in Harrogate, England in April, and her comments really resonated with me. Basically, she distilled several researchers’ observations about trends associated with years of teaching experience into an hour-long lecture which made me think about what I expect professionally from myself and what supervisors can reasonable expect from their teachers.

The “Novice to Committed to Activist to Authority to Disengaged” Graph

According to Woodward, who was citing Huberman (1989), there are usually 5 basic stages of a teacher’s professional life cycle. Obviously, the time line varies from person to person and upon reaching one’s third year of teaching there is not a dramatic shift from stage 1 to stage 2, just as a tadpole’s new legs don’t just pop out on the Monday of their fifth week of life. These are merely the trends Huberman observed.

  1. 1-3 years: The novice teacher is usually overwhelmed and overloaded and struggles just to survive. On the plus side, this is a stage of great discovery for teachers. In this picture of the chart, I imagine myself sitting up in bed at midnight and cutting out an endless supply of flash cards.
  2. 4 – 6 years: This teacher has entered a period of stabilization in which they make a commitment to teaching (as opposed to “teaching so I can travel abroad”). In this portion of the graph, I imagine myself considering my MEd options and pulling from a box of my favorite, “go-to” flashcards.
  3. 7 – 18 years: In this stage, teachers do what Woodward refers to as “pedagogic tinkering.” This is a period of experimentation and activism; however, teachers at this stage are also at risk of burning out. I am currently in my fourteenth year of teaching, so I don’t have to be too imaginative. I see myself branching out to learn new teaching skills and excited about motivating other teachers to be involved in professional development.
  4. 19 – 30 years: This teacher has entered a time of serenity (the promise of this ought to keep many of us going!) and authority. This teacher makes an excellent mentor; however, may tend toward a conservative rejection of innovation. I imagine myself at this stage in kind of a serene yoga pose and being more confident in the class and with other teachers.
  5. 31 – 40 years: At this stage, teachers are becoming disengaged from the profession. This can take a positive form of acceptance and an adventurous (“nothing to lose”) approach to new methodological trends. Unfortunately, on the other hand, this teacher might be disenchanted or already mentally retired. At this stage, I imagine (optimistically, maybe) I am motivated by the enthusiasm of my less-experienced colleagues and still interested in how research can inform my teaching.

Where are you?

Where are you in “The Life Cycle of a Teacher” graph? Are you the overwhelmed novice still spending hours creating materials? If so, take heart! If you commit to this profession, you will develop a rudimentary repertoire of teaching routines in just a few years. All the time you are investing now will pay off! If you are in the twilight stages of the life cycle, your less-experienced colleagues may benefit from your knowledge. Consider being a mentor and/or sharing some of your materials.

Where are your Teachers?

However, although this graph is useful for teachers, in my opinion, it is even more useful for administrators. If you look at your staff, do you see as much grey as brown or blonde? Having a balance of more-experienced and less-experienced teachers can benefit your entire program, especially if you have a mentoring system in place. Coupling experience with exposure to new trends in education can help all teachers to grow and stay positive.

Huberman, M. (1989) The professional life cycle of teachers, Teachers College Record, 91(1).
Woodward, T. (2010) The Professional Life Cycle of Teachers, paper presented at IATEFL 2010, Harrogate, UK.


Comment from Naleeni Das
August 17, 2010 at 5:03 pm

I’m trying to locate myself somewhere in this life cycle. I’ve been a housewife for over 20 yrs. After almost 10 yrs of helping out in schools as reading teacher/volunteer mum, I finally decided on upgrading myself as certified teacher. Now I’m pursuing an MA programme but still remain a substitute teacher till I hopefully graduate next yr!

I’m already 50. Wonder which part of this cycle I’m at?

Comment from Tamara
August 18, 2010 at 3:27 am

I am certainly no expert, but perhaps your commitment to the field puts you in the 4-6 year phase. There was no mention in the presentation I attended of how part time or volunteer teaching would figure into this timeline. Does anyone else know? I guess, ultimately, you are where you feel like you are.

Comment from Naleeni Das
August 18, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Thanks! Gratifying indeed to know I’m now stabilized and committed to being a teacher. I do feel it in ‘me bones’! Will carry on till I’m forced to call it a day, someday.

Comment from Naleeni Das
August 18, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Oops, I’ve now stabilized! Can’t have people thinking I live in Bedlam with a straightjacket on!

Comment from Vivian C
September 13, 2010 at 10:18 am

After 20 years of raising babies, I’m back!
At 59, where does that put me? ESL hasn’t changed much except for technology. That’s the good part.

Comment from Amna M. Bedri
June 27, 2011 at 9:21 am

Thanks for this article I was also at the Harrogate IATEFL conference and attended the presentation and I liked so much that I taught it to my trainees. Unfortunately I lost the diagram she gave out at the presentation and I am looking for it ever since. So, if you have a copy can you place it on your website

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