The Mental Health of Language Teachers during and post Covid-19
By Phil Longwell
Between 26 September and 18 October, I carried out a piece of research on the Mental Health of Language Teachers, with a focus on their experience during the outbreak of Covid-19 and lockdowns in many parts of the world. It also looked at ‘post Covid-19’ working environments and what the future had in store for language teaching. It was completed by 170 different respondents, using a Google Form Survey. All information provided was anonymous. Although, in research terms, this is a fairly small sample, what it produced was some excellent qualitative data.
On 23 October 2020, I presented a 45-minute talk to a global audience of around 200 participants, as part of the Eaquals Online 2020 conference. I was personally invited by executive director, Lou McLaughlin, who happened to be in the audience when I delivered my first ever presentation at any ELT conference in April 2018. My session was part of a strand on ‘Pastoral Care in Times of Crisis’. My new research formed a large part of this talk. The full slides can be found via the presentations tab at the top, while the recording of this is available to Eaquals members only.
The results of my qualitative study are finally published here. The publication, originally scheduled for early November 2020, has been delayed due to my own adverse mental health around this time and subsequent physical health issues. I had my own Covid test carried out on 29 December – which was NEGATIVE – after suffering over the Christmas period. In addition, I also wanted to include some further reading and background to this particular research, along with a proper conclusion, which I was unable to do during the presentation because of time and the relative ‘freshness’ of the research. Please find some references at the end, which were used in both the presentation and this article.
The survey itself was completed by 170 participants or respondents, based in 49 different countries around the world. Responses came from people based in Spain (39); Ireland (20) including many in Dublin, UK (18); Brazil (8); France (7); Italy (6), Argentina (5); Germany (4) and South Africa (4). The first multiple-choice question asked what role participants had in language teaching. This was the only statistical information collected. Names, ages, gender, emails and length of teaching experience were deliberately not collected. Anonymity was guaranteed and no details or employers or institutions were asked for, either. It has not been triangulated or cross-referenced, because the sample is too low to draw any conclusions, for example on particular institutions or countries. Answers from the same participants can be linked. However, all the responses have been ‘decoupled’ from other answers given by the same people. All selected direct quotations have been chosen to represent the range of views expressed by the respondents. Some respondents are, therefore, represented more than others, but there is no intention to skew the data. It is supposed to be a balanced selection of qualitative answers. There were 10 further open-ended questions and these are reported on below.
Thanks to Eily Murphy, Garry Roffe and Catherine McFarlane for submitting one suggested question each, which were adapted and used in the survey. Thanks also to Sarah Mercer for sharing her research with me in advance and support in respect of my Eaquals presentation.
Screenshot from the Presentation Recording
Question 1 about role(s) in language teaching
Before looking at the survey questions in detail, I wish to draw some attention to some statistics. UNESCO stated that 91% of the world’s students have been affected by school closures due to the pandemic (Gifford, 2020). There is a big difference between planned and thought about distance teaching and learning versus what happened in many institutions around the world during that remote emergency period back in March/April time. Now we are into a new academic year, with more thought-out and planned delivery of fully online courses.
In the UK, a survey by Nuffield Health, published in June of this year, reported an overwhelming 80% of Brits feel that working from home has negatively impacted their mental health, while a third of those surveyed said that not being in the same space as colleagues has left them feeling unable to take a break or step away from their workstations, leading to higher levels of anxiety and loneliness. (ibid)
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that 7.4 million have reported feelings of loneliness negatively impacting their wellbeing since lockdown began. A further report on Coronavirus and anxiety in Great Britain released by the ONS suggested that whilst overall levels of anxiety have begun to lessen, pressures of homeschooling have led to a further increase in stress and loneliness.
But this is a global pandemic, so obviously is not just about the UK. So, how has the pandemic affected the mental health of language teachers around the world and what are the implications for the future as we either continue to work online or return to the physical but socially distanced classroom? This is what was looked at and reported on in the presentation. What follows are the survey questions and some of the responses, which were dealt with one by one in the talk on 23 October.
Do you have an existing mental health condition? If so, was that impacted or affected by lockdown and/or the subsequent changes to your working environment? Have you been diagnosed with or developed a new mental health condition this year as a result of lockdown and/or the subsequent changes to your working environment?
The first of two optional questions asked about whether respondents had an existing, diagnosed condition at the time of the first, major lockdown and in the following question, whether this had developed into a new condition or resulted in a new diagnosis. I acknowledge that not every city in every country experienced a similar lockdown or the type that occurred in European ones. So, despite it being a generalisation that everyone was externally affected in the same way, everyone was impacted by the global pandemic in some way. Even if it did not affect the teacher directly, it might have affected their learners. But the pandemic did affect all our ways of life to a lesser or greater extent. Here is a selection of isolated, unedited (apart from spelling corrections) and non attributable quotations to question 3:
“Bipolar disorder – not noticeably affected”
“I’ve had episodes of anxiety attacks in the past. I felt quite anxious during the lockdown but didn’t have any episodes, maybe because I was practicing yoga every day.”
“I wouldn’t say I have a pre-existing mental health condition, but my mental health was definitely affected by not being able to exercise, and living in a small flat, with only a small balcony which doesn’t get the sun for longer than an hour.”
“Yes, I have generalized anxiety disorder. I would say that lockdown and the resulting changes to my working environment have had two main effects on my mental health. 1) Things haven’t been looking good for the company I work for, which has led to increased anxiety about how long I will have a job for. 2)I find online teaching and the associated preparation to be much more tiring, and the increased fatigue has impacted negatively on my anxiety and my executive function.”
“I suffer from mild anxiety (although I’ve never been diagnosed) and I would say that, while it did improve at the beginning of the lockdown, the increased workload made it go through the roof again.”
“Not diagnosed but I’ve had a few periods of depressive states, and other members of my family have been diagnosed, so I’d self-define as “yes”. I was already burntout and unhappy with work when lockdown began and things only got worse.“
“Yes, I’d suffered from depression early in my life, and had chronic social phobia and anxiety problems, for which I’ve been taking Citalopram 20 mg. I then got Covid in March, was off work for three weeks, and immediately had to switch to online teaching on my return. While I was ill, I felt really exhausted, and wasn’t looking forward to returning to work (in fact I reduced my hours a little). The subsequent 4 months (including a July intensive) of online teaching was really draining (together with the psychological strains of the lockdown), and I don’t think I fully recovered over the 1 month summer break. We’re now teaching hybrid classes (mixed presential and online attendance to the same class), which is even more juggling around than online, and at 58 years old, I feel mentally under a huge strain, and will probably have to give up teaching before the year is out. I don’t know whether I’ll qualify for a disability pension.”
These two questions gave scope for respondents to answer about internal issues that might have been exacerbated by ‘lockdown’. The vast majority of my respondents do or did not have an existing diagnosed condition. A fair amount mentioned increased anxiety, stress levels or panic disorder. Some wrote about how this had became worse, while others stated they had felt more anxious, even though never properly diagnosed. Mental health conditions are often under reported rather than over reported. When considering a professional outlook and responding to a survey about one’s profession, there tends to be a skew towards not reporting increased symptoms. Having said that, some wrote about their depression and anxiety having worsened and medication levels had gone up. Here is a brief selection of quotations to question 4:
“Our working environment has been unbearable.”
“No, but was working under serious stress during lockdown (made worse by being put on a partial ERTE [Spanish furlough scheme) by my company.“
“I am currently getting various tests done, and will speak to a neurologist, to see if there is something to be diagnosed.”
“No, but the unexpected and questionable changes to working conditions do not help.”
“Vague question. Suffering from burnout and stress from home/work.”
“No, but it is definitely a stressful time, due to financial worry and the fact that another lockdown or quarantine could be imposed at any time.”
“No, I think I’m quite quiet socially etc anyway so the lockdown didn’t have as huge an effect on my social life as it did on others. I think this helped, helps me.”
“No I haven’t – this country [Indonesia] is not at the forefront of any form of physiological discipline and most certainly nearer the back of the line on anything to do with psychology/psychiatry. Few if any would even consider reaching out for any psychological evaluation here, and even fewer would trust the diagnosis. The thing I and many others have experienced is the stress associated with financial instability due to loss of earnings in turn due to the pandemic- something I expect will continue to affect many for a very long time. I got lucky as I had a decent sized financial buffer in my bank.“
In general, do you feel comfortable talking to your employer (if you have one) about your mental health and wellbeing? Why / why not? Optional
This further optional question is similar to one I have posed in workshops on this topic. It is often put in under ‘disclosure’ – at interview or after being hired. Many employees still consciously hide any mental health conditions from an employer for fear of different treatment to other staff. But, given that it is very common to either have a diagnosed condition or have symptoms of one without any formal diagnosis, an atmosphere of ‘disclosure’ is one that should and could be fostered in the workplace. Having said that, there are many situations and contexts around the world, especially cultural embedded taboos, where opening up is not easy. Being asked whether you feel ‘comfortable’ doing so, lead to the four comments in the above image, as well as this selection of responses for question 5:
“Yes. The University is generally quite respectful and caring about this, from my experience.”
“No. because I feel that it may be seen as unprofessional/ I may be viewed as less responsible/ capable, even if I rationally know that my supervisors are lovely people.”
“No. Mental health is not an easy topic to broach in South Korea as it’s is fairly stigmatized.”
“I don’t have an employer, however I am fearless when I need to stand up for basic rights, this does not win me friends, nor influence people “
“I have always been an advocate in sticking up for others, less so for myself. I am pretty much an open book and if I feel sad /happy/angry people know.”
“Not my employer directly, but the direct Coordinator. I feel comfortable talking about my wellbeing. They are open and understanding in general.“
“I haven’t spoken to my employer but I think my immediate peers and manager would be receptive if I needed to.”
“My staff don’t confide in me easily about this kind of problem. In France, even temporary weakness can be misinterpreted.“
“These things are always a bit tricky, but in general I think the management of my academy are reasonably sympathetic about these things. However, I don’t think they’d be pleased if I went off sick for many months. The academy are struggling to continue financially.”
“No not at all. Feel that policy is to paper over cracks. People with mental problems are weirdos or time wasters. Have mentioned it a MG level and they appeared to be interested but nothing was done.“
“Yes. Mental health at work is important to teach a good class, whether that’s teaching your first class or going through personal circumstances.”
“Probably not. Work has become more precarious, not worth the risk.”
“Yes, I had some concerns before the lockdown about working in the academy. My boss has been fantastic throughout the lockdown and the ‘new Normal’.”
“Definitely not. As it’s a private academy with CVs arriving by email by the bucket load each day, it actually feels like we’re more replaceable than ever, the staff room has a show-no-weakness sort of attitude.”
“In a general way yes, but in the past when my increased responsibilities in a managerial role (still in a teaching setting) were the cause of much stress, I didn’t feel comfortable.”
“Not especially. It’s a big company, and I’m just one employee – what should my mental health matter to them, as long as I’m still turning up and doing the work? I don´t feel like they would be able to help much either, other than direct me to speak to my doctor.”
“Based on former employer, definitely don’t fell comfortable doing this as I have witnessed how these conversations about staff are later discussed openly and negatively with other staff members. When a staff member has been “branded” as going through through something, they are offered less work, not invited to meetings, etc.”
What does your employer (if you have one) do to support your mental wellbeing? Not optional
This question revealed that there is still a general lack of proper support at work for language teachers. Many wrote that they receive ‘nothing’ or ‘very little’. In response to this question, many wrote about working conditions and precarity here. It is my view that you cannot divorce what happens in our heads and the external working environment. Whilst it is important that teachers try to respond positively to adverse situations, in many situations this is just not practical. Language teachers have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and other factors which were exacerbated by it. As well as the comments in the slide above, some further responses to question 6 were as follows:
“Nothing so far, in fact I’d say that the atmosphere at work contributes to my stress.”
“We have PD sessions about mental and physical wellbeing of teachers.”
“They sometimes offer wellbeing PD sessions (Yoga, for example).”
“They ask about my well-being from time to time and offer time off if they have noticed I’m feeling exhausted or not myself.”
“Moral support, and free psychological help was provided when lockdown was at its peak.”
“Flexible working, weekly team chats, colleagues available on the phone and by other means.”
“During lockdown they made it worse by gaslighting me.”
“She encourages us to meet often, to discuss changes, and our feelings. She acknowledges that it is difficult and stressful. However, she has a business to keep afloat.”
“My current manager makes an effort to address minor issues where changes that are within their control can help reduce stress for staff or alleviate other mental health struggles. That said, working closely with this same manager was the most stress-inducing workplace relationship I have ever experienced in 16 years in this business.”
“They try to offer webinars on the theme but we’re so busy with the overload of extra work and training. In the past month they have started to make an effort to respect request and communication during working hours. That’s a start. But all the cuts in salary and less groups / classes to teach reflects in our salaries and adds up to the insecurities.”
“University introduced a ‘rest day’ once per week during lockdown, basically a Friday off. Great if you were able to take it, but if you were working to a tight deadline and couldn’t get hold of anyone, it made life extremely hard! But they did implement this with a genuine desire to help, and I’m sure it did for most.”
“During Covid not much. We moved online in a matter of days, and put a lot of work in and then our employer cut our Easter holidays by 6 days for economic reasons but it was a break we needed. Now we are hybrid (half in the classroom and half online, and it is exhausting but we are expected to teach 4 back to back classes with masks on, and change classroom 2-3 times. It’s exhausting, but our employer keeps demanding more.“
“Not very much I would say. For instance, we were not provided with training, which would have been much appreciated during the COVID19 pandemic when we had to start teaching online classes. We were supposed to use Teams but they did not train us to do so. As a result, I was extremely stressed trying to train myself watching online videos and lacked confidence while delivering the lessons, which certainly had a negative effect on me. The good thing is today I was informed that in the next two weeks we will be officially trained to use blended learning and the Teams platform. I was very pleased to hear that as I will have the chance to learn more and have some of my questions answered. But also it makes me feel better in terms of exactly that- I can finally be officially given what I consider so important these days: some training in online teaching!!! Ok, it’s not going to be the University of Sheffield super-extra supportive environment but it is better than nothing and I appreciate it.”
Do you have family in another country to where you are working? If so, how does this affect your mental wellbeing? Optional
A question was asked about family, given the nature of many language teachers not living in their countries of origin and/or being physically separated. It struck a chord with many. Whilst a handful of respondents said that it was not an issue, despite being apart, the majority wrote about the difficulty of their particular situation. Here is a selection of responses to question 7, including some lengthy replies:
“Yes. I think it does. It definitely doesn’t help with anxiety.”
“Yes. Sometimes being further away from them is no bad thing, but during confinement it meant I had very little support network available, and I also felt guilty about not being there to support my siblings in looking after my parents.”
“Yes. Quite nerve-wracking and stressful to see how COVID is being handled, a horrific presidency, and other civil unrest issues and environmental disasters. It’s worse in my home country and it’s really affected my stress levels.”
“Yes, I do. Most of my family live in Poland. Of course I miss them and was/am a bit worried about them during the pandemic.”
“Yes, my son lives 7000 km away. That makes me sad because I don’t know when I’ll see him again.”
“Yes, family in Scotland. This causes me stress as my brother is bi-polar and although stable at the moment, can go high or low at anytime. Also, my mother-in-law is 95. We haven’t been back to Scotland since November 2019 and now would need to isolate for two weeks before seeing anyone. Goodness knows when we’ll manage to get back.”
“Yes, I worry about them as the country they are in is not managing the pandemic particularly well. The good old UK is & has consistently handled the pandemic with gross negligence , my family there are elderly and vulnerable – I worry daily that one of them will succumb to this virus.”
“Yes, I have family in four other countries (2 different continents). Distance always affects relationships, with COVID-19 worrying about their wellbeing increased.”
“Yes, it’s been difficult. The prospect of not seeing them for and indefinite amount of time is something I struggle with.”
“Yes! In England and New Zealand. My mother went into hospital in NZ just as we locked down in Italy. My sister in London got COVID. It was VERY stressful. Many many phone calls. Thank goodness for Zoom and WhatsApp.“
“Yes, and very far away. It doesn’t help, for sure, because they’re not here physically, so I can’t hug them or cry on their shoulder. Nevertheless talking to them on video really helps.”
“Yeah, my family lives in another country. I believe the root of my anxiety was the feeling of forced separation from my family and the feeling that the distances of the world, which I once perceived as small or non-existent (especially in Europe), were actually huge. I felt isolated, lonely and scared.”
“Yes but as until now they have not been seriously affected by the pandemic (e.g. no huge loss of income, no illness), it hasn’t had a major effect on my wellbeing.”
“I have an elderly mother loving in a care home in the UK whom I can’t visit. It’s upsetting but doesn’t affect my stress levels.”
“My 81-year-old mum lives in London, and although she’s still very active, she’s at the start of dementia, and I’d like to spend more time with her. She does have some support from other family members, but it’s not that easy for them due to their locations and work commitments.”
“Yes. My family are in the UK and my partner lives across the border in France. not being able to see them for months was devastating, and still being unable to visit the UK due to Covid quarantine restrictions, and especially not knowing when I will next be able to see them, is having an impact on my happiness – I’m not sleeping well, I’m a little depressed, at best. In terms of teaching, my enthusiasm is suffering.”
“Beyond husband and adult kids, none of my family live in Germany. I miss being nearby in current times, especially in case my parents need support. Both my sisters are suffering mentally throughout the pandemic; I can’t help them either. It’s an additional underlying stress.”
“Yes. Elderly family in 2 countries, both sheltering and needing help. My mother and siblings doing most of the hard work with my father pre-Covid. But I could come back to give them a break for a weekend here and there, or in emergencies. My father-in-law was in hospital for much of Covid period and he has since passed away. He had quite a large family support network and various medical support teams around him. His health concerns meant that leaving this country for an extended period of time (including quarantine) was not possible. With Covid travel restrictions, the fragile but functioning family balance was thrown off kilter. Pre-Covid, the frustration that is a normal part of living abroad could be fixed with a quick trip and a catch-up. But Covid brought other life choices and issues to a head. Making the choice of where you are going to ‘do’ your lockdown with and who can manage without you is obviously hurtful in families. And there a lot of guilt that comes along with that choice. My ELT life was based on the idea that a short flight home was always possible, flitting between worlds and family set-ups, my classes were spent talking with my students about their international lives and career plans. Covid made me face up to questions about where I want to be in a worst-case scenario. And knowing that seems so definitive and antithetical to my pre-Covid worldview.”
Are you being asked to teach in a physical classroom and what measures have been put in place? If so, how do you feel about this? Optional
At the time of the research, some teachers had already returned to the physical classroom. Many knew this was coming. Also, at the time of publication, the UK government is considering a delay in a return for primary and high school pupils. Governments in other countries will have their own policy on state education, however, this research was about the language teaching classroom. Here are some of the responses to this question:
“I was, very early on before any confirmed cases in this country – I insisted the 6 adult students who attended, keep distant, wear a mask and clean their hands. BEFORE it was common practice, I was ahead of the game as I have a background in healthcare. Now I would point blank refuse – non negotiable, but I am lucky that I have the means to do that.”
“Yes. We are back in physical classrooms now. There are numerous measures including: Learners are in separate bubbles i.e. Year 10 in one bubble and Year 11 in another bubble which means they can’t mix. For example, they have lessons in different parts of the college and use different parts of corridors to move around. Within those bubbles learners are divided into smaller bubbles (groups, classes etc.) When one small bubble finishes a lesson, teachers have to wipe desks, laptops, equipment etc. after each lesson (i.e. before another small bubble enters the room). Teachers have to make each learner use hand gel before each lesson. We have extra duties – e.g. we have stand in Reception and make each person who enters the building use had sanitizer. Everyone has to wear masks in communal areas i.e. on corridors, toilets, canteen etc. Only one person in the toilet at a time. Learners have plastic wallets with their equipment inside (books, pens, planner etc.) which they take with them to different classroom. Learners are not allowed to take anything home (except for their homework folder). How do I feel about this? Obviously this means more work for teachers and more things to think about. Although I appreciate that safety comes first, it is still really annoying and frustrating.”
“I only teach in class if there is enough space to guarantee social distancing and permit group work. That includes distanced seating, often in seperate rooms, which precludes classic teacher fronting. I prepare flipped lessons and self-organized tasks and encourage peer feedback even more than I normally would. For subjects where learners reflect on their practical skills (e.g. intercultural communication, negotiation, sales, service roles etc.) I prefer to use videoconferencing and all manner of breakout rooms and polls/whiteboards to activate the group. For straight-up productive activities (simulations, presentations) I split groups and teach them sequentially, face to face in small groups.”
“All classroom teaching was transferred online. This helped keep us safe but added to the workload and meant that the work-home balance had to be reviewed (often with difficulty) . There seemed to be no ‘down’ moments, it was either all work or all home duties whereas normally there are ‘staffroom’ moments, relaxing on bus, grabbing something to eat in a different place, ie. transition moments.”
“Hybrid classes are to be offered as of October 1 at my University but my students and I have exercised our option to continue the entire semester online. We shall see how things unfold.”
“Yes, the teachers have been teaching in the classroom since the end of the lockdown and they are equipped with masks and visors. The premises are regularly cleaned and disinfected. There is hydro-alcoholic gel in every classroom. Generally speaking, the sanitary protocol imposed by the French government is scrupulously respected.”
“I am currently teaching hybrid classes: teaching in a physical classroom with face to face students at the same time as students on Zoom. Catering for both groups at the same time is challenging, draining and exhausting, not to mention that we are obviously all wearing a mask, and so at all times.”
“I teach an a physical classroom. I wear mask, use hand sanitizer and students use it too. We keep the windows open and measure students’ temperature. From time to time I remember the situation and feel a bit worried.”
“Yes. We have a maximum of 10 students per class, 2m between the desks, everyone is required to wear masks, there are antibacterial stations all over the school including in the staff rooms, added an extra staff room, and staggering starting times for the classes. I feel that my school has done a great job of taking every possible measure to keep the staff and students safe. I feel fairly comfortable in my work environment. It’s my hour commute where I don’t feel the safest due to others not following covid guidelines.”
“We are provided with masks, visors and sanitiser. We have fewer students in class and social distancing in all classrooms and in shared areas. Students are required to wear masks indoors at all times. Students who are unwell are asked to remain at home and to join the lesson via Zoom. All of this is for health and safety reasons but has an impact on what was before a very warm and welcoming environment.”
“We’re still very insecure and the government has taken back the return day to physical classrooms 2x already. The number of students in Brazilian classrooms is high.”
“Yes, I have gone back to face-to- face teaching, combined with hybrid and online teaching. I’m glad we have gone back to the classrooms, there is no such thing as the human touch in our job, but I feel that the masks, the distances, the ban on photocopies and the continuous sanitizing of materials and our hands is taking a toll on the teachers.”
“Yes, and I feel very uncomfortable. We are given masks, hand gel and cleaning spray. However, we were not consulted or informed of the format of lessons we would be giving until 2 days before term started. Going back to face to face lessons has involved changing the way we work yet again, and we have not been given the necessary technology or support to make these classes manageable.”
If you are teaching or working online how do you feel about continuing to do this? In addition, how do you maintain your mental wellbeing with online working? Not optional
For many, teaching completely online was welcome and there is a strong desire to continue, at least until vaccines have been rolled out. However, others miss(ed) the physical environment and longed for a safe return. ‘Hybrid’ teaching and learning situations were mentioned a lot here and almost all wrote about how difficult and challenging this is to do in practice. As well as the comments highlighted above, here are some more which go into detail about respondents’ views.
“I do not mind working online. I try to maintain my mental wellbeing by taking long walks and exercising.”
“I would prefer to continue online for many reasons, the main reason being the health of fellow faculty members and my students.”
“I’m training on CELTA courses online and am very happy to continue to do this. I’m freelance and am on my 3rd consecutive course (with breaks in-between) with this particular school in Switzerland. I have one more course with them after my current one. The continuity of working for one centre for 4 courses has been less stressful than working for different centres, with different people etc. I get up from my desk as much as I can and have a walk round the block or out on the patio; try not to drink too much coffee just because ‘it’s right there’; I’ve started not using a hand-held device for an hour before bedtime and I try to eat well. I also make a conscious effort to make my input sessions fun and create a feeling of community online for the trainees.”
“I like teaching online, I think it’s better than teaching with masks. My mental wellbeing is fine when I’m working from home as I feel less stressed/anxious.”
“During lockdown I had to teach online for 3 months. Now I am back in a physical classroom but we can go online any time as 3 departmes at my college have been already closed due to Covid. I am OK with working online. It’s a bit difficult to remain sane while working online as I literally spent a whole day in front of my laptop. (I am doing a Master’s degree at the same time and writing my dissertation in the meantime so all this requires sitting in front of a laptop). Sometimes I just go for a walk or do something non-computer related to have a break from all this. I also watch Neflix etc. to get away from the reality for a while.”
“It is difficult. It was much more difficult when it first started. ( back in March) I try to balance the working hours and my personal relaxing time. Take breaks. Continue my hobbies ( the ones that I could do in these circumstances) Go out more often to get some fresh air ( even if it is balcony)- between the online sessions.”
“We have switched to a model where we maintain parallel courses in the classroom and neck at a distance. This allows the teachers not to remain isolated and to maintain good mental health.”
“I worked online from March to August. I didn’t mind it. It was important that I kept a routine such as dressing as if I were going to actual work, having meals at the same time I would have normally, and attending the daily zoom teacher meetings.”
“We all had to learn quickly to adapt to online teaching overnight. We did this as a team and developed new skills but it was extremely challenging and required far more preparation than classroom teaching – particularly in terms of keeping students motivated and focused. Adrenalin kept us all going (in part) initially but now everyone is tired and enthusiasm has waned. It is hard to remain positive.”
“Much of my work was online prior to lockdown anyway because I work with a globally-dispersed team, so in many ways not much has changed. I feel lucky that my existing set-up was beneficial to enforced online working. However, an increased volume of online meetings was not always welcome – particularly when they could have been avoided.”
“I have few online classes. Hybrid classes are extremely hard, as half of the students are online and half are in class. We are exploring brand new territory and there is little training for it, I’m struggling with it.”
“I have some hybrid classes when students are confined – these are ok as one-offs. Permanent hybrid classes are not ideal in terms of teaching and learning.”
“I’m also teaching online, hybrid system. At the moment, I’m trying to invest as little time as possible in planning so I can save most of my energy to teach my lessons, which obviously includes much more than covering content (classroom management, Covid protocols, dealing with IT issues and so on). I always try to switch off at weekends and don’t do anything work-related on the weekends”
“I have mixed feelings. I prefer to teach online than try to teach in person because it feels safer and easier. I miss the classroom experience but I don’t think it would be the same with masks, social distancing, no group work or photocopies. Plus we were told originally we’d have to teach f2f and on zoom simultaneously. That sent my stress levels right up. I think zoom has both increased my stress levels but also reassured me that I’m still able to do my job remotely. I enjoy teaching online, but I find I work more. It’s harder to switch off and set boundaries. I try to keep up with my yoga, meditation and exercise.”
Have you put any additional or specific coping strategies in place since your working situation changed? If so, what are these? Not optional
As MacIntyre et al (2020) conclude in their research, teachers often cope as best they can using a variety of techniques. Those that can be considered more active and approach-orientated are associated with more positive outcomes. (p11)
“Yes. Meditation and more outdoor physical exercise.”
“I am making sure that my boundaries are firmly established and I am saying no more often.”
“The top three strategies I find help me are : 1. Finding working space within the house that is secluded from every day household activities. 2. Creating a routine – doing non-work things before starting work that equate to ‘walk to work’. Having special break with special fresh orange juice to make break enjoyable etc. Switching off devices at meal times and in the evening. 3. Talking to friends / colleagues about changing situation i.e. being active in the support network helps two-ways.”
“Maybe trying to pay more attention to what my brain/body say to me. When I need to take a break, I do. Don’t skip it. Try to have a better diet. Do sports more often. Survival instincts I suppose.”
“I try not to worry about situation too far into future as this just increases anxiety and things are changing rapidly enough as it is.”
“I have reduced my working hours – the work environment is more stressful and a lot less comfortable nowadays so I have prioritised quality of life over money.”
“I moved my home working environment down to my garage, which meant I had a separate workspace (I usually work at the kitchen table). I appreciate that not everyone has the opportunity to physically move to a space within their own home that is separate from a shared living space, but mentally for me it meant that I could feel like I was able to ‘leave work’ at the end of the day, which was important and meant that the working day didn’t filter into my home life.”
“Yes. More exercise and meditation. I’ve also come to terms with the fact that we all need to lower the expectations at this point and be patient with one another, not only our learners. We’re all, as a society, facing this scenario for the first time in our lives and we’re finding our feet every single day.”
“I try to take each day as a unit without worrying about the future. As mentioned above, I maintain an exercise routine, including yoga and breathing exercises. I make an effort to stay connected with people.”
“I have bought expensive fibre broadband. For my wellbeing, I exercise very regularly and keep in touch with friends and family a lot.”
“Not really. Just being less demanding on ourselves and the students. Not being as rigorous checking homework, covering less in a class. Luckily, I have a good social life (though I’m single with no relationships), and I do some sport once a week, and try to eat well, and don’t drink too much alcohol.”
“I set myself very clear working boundaries. I only work 9-5.30 (the hours set out in my contract). Never on weekends. Never check emails. This is hard because my colleagues don’t set the same boundaries. I try to differentiate between my work space and living space which is also hard because I live in a very small flat and work in our kitchen/living room. I have a box for my work stuff which along with my laptop I put away every day when I finish. I have a shower and get dressed for work. Obviously I did that before, but I think it’s more symbolic now as a way to mentally separate myself at home from myself at work. It would be so easy to stay in bed and work in my pyjamas. Also, I try to go for a walk at the end of the day to distance myself from work.”
“I have not changed my coping strategy. My coping strategy is organisation. Planning is harder now everything has to be prepared to be digital, and therefore it is very time consuming. I often spend a good chunk of my weekend planning at home, so that during the week I can make the most of any gaps of time to reduce stress and workload. Due to covid, class demand is very variable, and I have felt that I have had to accept an unusual timetable to fulfil my contracted hours and avoid ERTE (the Spanish furlough scheme). For example, tomorrow I will work 9-10, 1.45-3.15, 4-4:30, 4.45-9.20. But then on Tuesday, I will only work 4.45-7.45. I’m happy to be slightly more flexible, but sometimes I feel like I am having to say yes for the good of the company, instead of my own wellbeing.”
“Keeping a positive approach while observing protocols given.”
“During the heavy lockdown, I was much more determined to do some physical exercise each day (as we couldn’t go out except to the supermarket). But since that has eased, I feel it’s become less of a priority. I started doing yoga in the mornings, in addition to a daily workout, and have since maintained these after lockdown finished and after moving from Spain to England.”
“I found journalling (sic) helpful. In the spring I went down to pay time hours (and part time pay), which was the right decision. I worked full-time in the summer with another employer. I temporarily moved in with my boyfriend, but that was too soon in our relationship and caused us both stress. I read a lot of novels.”
“Not specific strategies, more an awareness of being patient with myself and not taking on too much in one day. I pace myself and take breaks.”
How would another lockdown affect you (e.g. financially, socially, physically) and what impact might that have on your mental health? Not optional
Noting that this survey was carried out in late September to early October 2020, when the prospect of another nationwide ‘lockdown’ was real for many respondents in many countries at that time. In the UK, a second 4-week ‘lockdown’ took effect from 5 November – 2 December, after which the government imposed a strict 4 tier system, due to a new strain of the virus, although some kind of tier system has been in place in the UK since October. Another full ‘lockdown’ in the UK, the third one, came into effect on 4 January 2021, the date of publication of this article. It will last for at least six weeks! Other countries have their own system, with a national lockdown imposed again towards the end of the year or have one currently in place as we start the new year. As before, as well as the comments highlighted above, here are some further responses to this question. But do note that respondents completed this in September/October, so by that point may have only experienced one full lockdown in their respective countries.
“Financially would affect me big time, just about to break into savings as it is, Socially, already not great would just be worse i.e. non existent social life, Physically not too bad I just do enough exercise to counteract social effects.”
“Financially nothing would change for me. Socially, well, I do not have much of a social life anyway (due to my Master’s’ course) so I think I’d be OK. However, I do sometimes miss meeting my friends etc. Or visiting my family for that matter. Physically, I think I would have to try and do some exercise as staying at home in a sitting position is not really healthy. Mentally, I think I’d be OK, however, during the last lockdown I think I started to develop some kind of social anxiety. I mean, sometimes it just felt weird when I had to leave the house and actually go somewhere, among other people (when shopping or having a stroll).”
“I think another lockdown would affect my physical and mental health as if it’s as strict as the last one, we wouldn’t even be allowed out for a daily walk.”
“It might be difficult. Still, it would be safer than using packed public transport for commuting, or working with 150 students on a weekly basis.”
“Losing income has been hard, another lockdown might end my career. After weight gain, I’ve lost weight with fasting and increased workouts. The physical stress contributes to cardiovascular problems and hypertension.”
“I have remained at home and in self imposed ‘lockdown’ only exiting the house for essential tasks, wearing PPE & social distancing since March 2020. I lost my job as did many others due to the financial crisis many parents suffered and were subsequently unable to pay school fees. ‘Another’ lockdown is an irrelevance as in our area schools have been told to remain closed until January 2021. Financially I am coping at this stage and I know I can count on my family for support IF I need it, they are reasonably wealthy. I consider myself very fortunate.”
“I would be hard to sustain for our country. The impact already is huge in all those aspects because the lockdown was very long in Argentina. The impact would be more anxiety and stress.”
“As a freelance writer, the amount of work coming in (and so my finances) have been hugely affected by the situation overall, although not directly by lockdown measures per se. I was initially busy (March-May) with projects already started, then work dropped off a cliff as publishers put lots of projects on hold and some put a freeze on freelance work. Things seem to be picking up now with some work tentatively pencilled in for the autumn, but the situation is still very uncertain which is worrying in the medium and longer term. I’ve also found it tough being stuck at home with little or no work to occupy me since June – esp. being stuck in the house with my partner who’s also unemployed has been a big source of stress. We’re used to living quite independent sorts of lives and being cramped up together with little income and both concerned about future work prospects has been no fun.”
“Financially it’s already been disastrous so another lockdown would be difficult to cope with long term as savings and cushion are now gone. Socially, I think I’m in a better place as the first lockdown helped re-assess support network, who is really caring and who you get on with. Physically we all lose out as humans but with smaller groups online works from a human point of view and with home dancing or yoga sessions I think I’ll be able to cope but I know lucky to have the physical space I need not to feel suffocated by other household members and lucky to have 10 years background in online pedagogy. I’ll be fine with it as I am looking at the big picture of the virus. My own personal issues I have to deal with no matter what, lockdown or not. The greater worldwide issues need a greater cooperation and we should all be willing to make personal changes to rise to this universal pandemic challenge. We are the educators that can enable others to realize this type of worldwide cooperation is necessary.”
“I’ll be fine with it as I am looking at the big picture of the virus. My own personal issues I have to deal with no matter what, lockdown or not. The greater worldwide issues need a greater cooperation and we should all be willing to make personal changes to rise to this universal pandemic challenge. We are the educators that can enable others to realize this type of worldwide cooperation is necessary.”
“I don’t think another lockdown would affect me any more negatively than it already has. Dublin is currently in a second phase of ‘restricted movements’ and so we cannot leave our county, only for work / education. The financial hit is difficult, 20% cut but required to work 5 days per week which is a huge knock to morale as the feeling is that we are now working one day for no payment.”
“I have a small child and if there is another lockdown I am going to request an unpaid leave. Lockdown was a hell for my family and it is impossible to be expected to work online with a 2 year old child besides me. It just does not work.”
“I feel like I would be more prepared for a second lockdown, should it happen. Having already experienced it shows me that it can be endured and what I might expect from it. Facing it in the winter months would likely prove more of a challenge, but as we are far from “back to normal” now, the adjustment would be more doable.”
“Financially it would be a lot cheaper, I am on reduced hours and am being made to travel in and out of work for more money than I am currently making. I would prefer to stay working remotely but the school have made sure this isn’t an option. It costs me now to go to work and that just doesn’t seem fair.”
“To be honest, another lockdown wouldn’t affect me negatively in any way. I felt that I had a good routine with my daily life and work. Also, I don’t live alone so socialising wasn’t an issue.”
“It would be terrifying to be isolated from the world again.”
“Another lockdown would be unbearable for me. I´m not worried financially – I think there would still be enough work at least for the next academic year, thanks to the procedures my employer has put in place, and the social security in Spain. I´m an outdoorsy person, and Spain implements the strictest lockdowns – losing again the leisure activities I enjoy would not only affect me physically (I´m still recovering from some physical problems incurred from the last lockdown) but more importantly, mentally. That, and once again not being able to be with my partner, being inside and living and working in the same place all day… I´m extremely worried about the impact that will have this time. Sometimes I think I´ll be better prepared, knowing what to expect, but mostly I think it might be the last straw, and I´ll completely breakdown.”
“I believe another lockdown would definitely make me decide between continuing teaching and changing career paths. Long before the pandemic, I had started to see and feel the profound lack of balance between how much effort and hard work educators put in and how much we get back. I refer not only to (low) salaries, but also to more and more limited support from governments, management at institutions and many parents. This has been accentuated by the COVID crisis and although I still love my profession, this whole situation feels extremely unfair so I might end up looking for another type of job.”
“I’m an introvert so in ways I’ve enjoyed lockdown. Financially, it’s worrying because my salary has already been reduced; my husband was made redundant and is really struggling to find work. Socially, I miss seeing certain people and the uncertainty of when we can meet again is hard. Physically, lockdown has been really difficult because I went from walking to a non-desk job to having a desk job. I used to always stand and move around the classroom as I was teaching. It is really hard to find ways to be more active. If they close gyms, yoga centres and swimming pools again, I think my health will suffer. Being able to swim again really boosted my mental health.”
“Financially? not so much as TEFL teachers are on low income anyway, so no major drop in wages to deal with. PuP payments would not be a major shock to the system. I miss team sports and am usually very social in general. Due to family health conditions I no longer play team sport and don’t socialise as much at all. Visiting people is the only social and emotional outlet now, so another lockdown would be tough in that way.”
“Unless those in charge realise that teaching hours do not just include face-to-face contact and actually pay us for all the time we spend, whatever we (teachers) do to cope will be very short-term. If you get paid to teach for four hours online and then you have to mark students’ work for another four without being paid, then you are bound to cut corners or fall apart. It is time that this very sudden digital shift acknowledged work-behind-the-screen.”
“I would not mind it at all. I feel like I have some regrets for what I did NOT achieve during Lockdown (like decluttering, working out, writing my MA dissertation…) because I felt like I was in shock. Now I can look back and really appreciate it…I would like a lockdown re-do, actually I am lucky that both schools where I work kept us on, kept us working, and although we had to rely on government money, we got by. We are lucky. Huge vegetable garden, and chickens. I would say we maybe even saved money by staying home, because two cars leave this house every morning, and also two teens need money to buy snacks in town. Being home meant not so many outgoings – WE ARE THE LUCKY ONES. I totally get that.”
“I already feel ‘starved’ socially, and have been in lockdown since early March, seeing next to no one. Even since starting f2f classes 3 weeks ago, I see very few colleagues as they are trying to limit staff members on site. So I am a little worried how long this will go on… and whether I can ‘remain strong’ for the duration. also I end up comfort eating, a habit that I had nearly completely given up pre-lockdown.”
“Another lockdown would put a strain on my well-being as I would get anxious and frustrated by restrictions. Additionally, it would create high levels of stress due to potential financial losses for my family.”
“It would be a massive inconvenience, but nothing more.”
The final question invited respondents to make comments that had not been addressed by the previous questions, which included comments on the survey itself. Many simply chose to thank me for my efforts in carrying out this important research. One person would have asked if the people being surveyed believed or know if they already had the virus and how long ago, and if that has impacted on their mental health and their willingness to be further exposed. Another stated that:
“everyone is struggling in their own way and so this year  has made most people rally together and be more sensitive towards others personal circumstances. Most people have someone who they are concerned about, have underlying health conditions, vulnerable, who they are trying to shield. We have a small number of teachers who were not comfortable coming back to the school and so continue to teach online. Covid fatigue has set in now and frustration towards those who continue to spread the virus by not adhering to the guidelines. Financial security is another strain as we work in a very vulnerable industry and some are now deciding to jump ship, and who can blame them?”
Other research carried out this year includes taking a specific look at hybrid learning. Sophia Mavridi, in particular, has been at the forefront of this. Along with Thom Kiddle (NILE), Chris Farrell (CES) and John Glew-O’Leary (International House Manchester), she jointly produced this open access downloadable report. Sophia herself also carried an extensive piece of research into the transition to online delivery, which was completed by well over 1,000 respondents from around the world. The final report is still to be proofread and published very soon. Look out for this on her social media and website.
Precarity and the Criticism of Positive Psychology
As the research was still warm when I presented on 23 October, I did not draw many conclusions at the time. I briefly referred to one criticism of positive psychology both in the presentation and do so again here. However, I do so with the view that the focus on positive psychology and the individual response to contexts is crucial. In my presentation conclusion, I stated how important this is. Nonetheless, the wider employment context and systemic issues cannot be ignored when it comes to writing about the impact of the pandemic on teacher mental health. As I stated earlier, we should not divorce what happens in our heads and the external working environment. Paul Walsh, whom I worked with 10 years ago in Riyadh and who I often engage with on Twitter ever since he first interviewed me for the Time to Change campaign in 2017 posted this on the day of my presentation for Eaquals:
Tweet from Paul Walsh and reply dated 23 October 2020.
Precarity is a key concept in ELT. It was mentioned frequently in the responses to this research, even if the term itself was not used. Respondents wrote of job insecurity, low pay and uncertainty in these times. The actual concept is defined (Walsh, 2019) as:
“a condition resulting from an employment regime in which deregulated labour markets give rise to various types of insecure work; in which social protections are minimized; and in which the ability to plan a coherent future is compromised (Kalleberg 2009; Standing 2011). The International Labour Organization (ILO 2011: 5) defines precarious work as ‘a means for employers to shift risks and responsibilities onto workers’ and a precarious job as one characterized by ‘uncertainty as to the duration of employment, multiple possible employers or a disguised or ambiguous employment relationship’ as well as ‘low pay, and substantial legal and practical obstacles to joining a trade union and bargaining collectively’ (ibid.).
The precarity of today is linked to neoliberalism, which ‘proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms’ (Harvey 2005: 2). Ding and Bruce (2017: 14–24) examine the influence of neoliberal reforms on EAP practitioners, noting the shift in UK higher education from a liberal-humanist model of the university to one in which commercial interests dominate, and processes of marketization (operationalized by league tables and metrics) enable prospective students to exercise ‘marketized choices’ (ibid.: 20–21) as consumers of an educational product. Working conditions in such institutions are often insecure. Courtois and O’Keefe (2015), writing on Irish higher education, note that many academics find themselves in a ‘hamster wheel of precarious work’ (ibid.: 56), marginalized by colleagues who ‘cannot relate to or are not aware of situations of part-time, hourly-paid or contract workers’ (ibid. 59).“
The Walsh article clearly advocates for a proper understanding of the nature of language teaching work and the risks involved. This ‘risk’ and the uncertainty surrounding employment was certainly exacerbated by the pandemic and the massive changes to our working lives. We have seen job losses in our industry due to the pandemic, although some institutions folded because of mis-management, not helped by the ongoing financial precarity of language teaching, especially those of independently run language schools. But I do not wish to dwell on the political ramifications, financial consequences of the pandemic on institutions or name individual schools in this article. I did not ask individuals in the research to name institutions, and no-one did, but they did talk about how they had personally responded to the situation in their country.
One recent criticism of the whole Positive Psychology approach, based on the work of Martin Seligman, is Philip Kerr’s article, ‘Teacher wellbeing: always look on the right side’ published on 23 August 2020. Whilst I did not respond directly to the article at the time, I shared it on Twitter. I found his angle appropriate and interesting, but falling short of a proper understanding of what positive psychology is all about. As Kerr states in his article:
“Positive psychology and Seligman’s ideas about wellbeing are not uncontested (see, for example, Bache & Reardon, 2016; Bache & Scott, 2018). The nub of the critiques is that positive psychology chooses to focus on happiness or wellbeing, rather than, say, justice, solidarity or loyalty. It articulates an underlying individualism and narrow sense of the social (Cabanas & Illouz, 2019: 68) and it is, therefore, not entirely surprising that much of the funding that made the rapid growth of positive psychology possible came from the ultra-conservative and religious institution, the John Templeton Foundation (Cabanas & Illouz, 2019: 20).
Furthermore, positive psychology has not only been criticised for its focus on the individual. Others have focused on its foundational assumptions, including decontextualized and ethnocentric claims; theoretical oversimplifications, tautologies and contradictions; methodological shortcomings; severe replicability problems; exaggerated generalizations; and even its therapeutic efficacy and scientific status (Cabanas & Illous, 2019: 29). Probably the most important of these critics was Richard Lazarus, whose work is certainly familiar to Mercer, Gregersen and their collaborators, since Lazarus’s criticisms are listed in MacIntyre and Mercer (2014) and elsewhere. These include:
- the over-use of crosssectional research designs
- a tendency to treat emotion too simplistically as either positive or negative
- inadequate attention to both differences among individuals within a group as well as the overlap between groups when discussing statistically significant group differences
- poor quality measurement of emotions.”
It is fair enough to be critical of ideas which briefly mention systemic issues, then choose not to address the concerns as highlighted by Kerr. However, all too often the criticisms forget that these positive approaches and the individual’s response to adverse conditions is the focus, not wider issues. Systemic issues are important and I would argue that the individual and the wider context of where they work cannot be separated. Just as mental health is not something that happens solely within an individual without external factors. I addressed this all towards the end of my presentation, the summary of which is that all the research globally in any domain make clear that is is how an individual responds to external factors which leads to the sense of wellbeing and so we need to address BOTH things – help people build resilience to cope AND address systemic factors. For many teachers globally, they may feel unable to affect systemic chance and so such discourse is deeply disempowering. it is the psychology of the individual in interplay with contextual variables that matters. This viewpoint, which I agree with, comes directly from an email exchange with Sarah before we both presented at the online conference, 23 October. In fact, I presented directly after her and our presentations complimented each other. But I do acknowledge working conditions and precarity within our profession, which is why I have included those criticisms here in this report.
In conclusion, the global pandemic has affected everyone and everything. The future of working environments depends a lot on local responses to how governments and local authorities deal with any resurgence. Many jobs in our profession have already been lost or undergone radical changes. Nonetheless, teachers and language teachers in particular can be very resilient. No-one had complete ‘2020 vision’ before this year began; no-one could have expected the changes to all our lives. But in that sense, we can be united in a common endeavour, a shared experience, albeit played out in different ways. The research carried out and reported on here gives a reasonably wide range of views on how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted on the mental health and wellbeing of language teachers in 2020. Because viewpoints varied widely and were drawn from responses from 49 different countries, each with their own particular government responses to the pandemic, no overall conclusions can be drawn beyond presenting what people had to say. I do believe that working conditions, precarity and insecurity play a major part in adverse mental health issues for language teachers. I always have believed this. However, I do think that Positive psychology, when understood properly, can have a benefit to the individual. I have certainly applied it myself and have gained from drawing upon my own resilience.
I welcome comments directly to this research and my write-up. I promise to publish and respond to each valid one received.
- Phil Longwell (4 January 2021)
All images: Pixabay (citation on each slide)
British Council (2020). Teaching English. Facebook Live: Student and Teacher Well-being. 15 September 2020. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/events/687254795231355/?active_tab=about
Gifford, B. (2020). Working from home taking a toll on our mental health and relationships. Available at: https://happiful.com/working-from-home-taking-toll-on-mental-health-relationships/
Kerr, P, J. (2020) ‘Teacher wellbeing: always look on the bright side’. Available at: https://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com/2020/08/23/teacher-wellbeing-always-look-on-the-bright-side/
Longwell, P. (2018). The Mental Health of Language Teachers During and Post COVID-19. The Future of Working Environments. Survey request including questions using Google forms available online at: https://bit.ly/3kAVpSA
Longwell, P. (2018). Beneath the surface: Why people working in ELT need to start talking about teacher mental health in el Gazette, June edition.
Longwell, P. (2018). The Mental Health of English Language Teachers: Research Findings. Available at: https://teacherphili.com/2018/04/04/the-mental-health-of-english-language-teachers-research-findings/
Longwell, P. (2020). Covid-19, Mental Health and Wellbeing. Available at: https://teacherphili.com/2020/03/21/covid-19-mental-health-and-wellbeing/
MacIntyre, P D., Gregerson, T. and Mercer, S. (2020) Language teachers’ coping strategies during the Covid-19 conversation to online teaching: Correlations with stress, wellbeing and negative emotions. System (94). Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0346251X20307120?dgcid=co-author. Accessed 17 September 2020.
Mercer, S. (2020). Teacher wellbeing – An individual and collective responsibility. Webinar delivered for IATEFL / British Council for World Teachers Day on 3 October 2020.
Walsh, P. (2019). Precarity. ELT Journal, Volume 73, Issue 4, October 2019, Pages 459–462, https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccz029 Available at: https://academic.oup.com/eltj/article/73/4/459/5582686
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