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Apr 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Sailing to Success: The Motivational Seascape of English Language Teachers’ Associations

Beatrix Price works as a teacher and a teacher trainer at the Language Pedagogy Department at the School of English and American Studies, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. She is a former president of IATEFL-Hungary. As a teacher trainer, she gives talks, workshops and courses in Hungary and other countries. Her interests include holistic education, language teaching methodology, child and teacher development, development of learning organisations and salutogenesis. Currently she is pursuing her PhD on EFL teachers’ continuing professional development supported by English language teachers’ associations. Email:







English Language Teachers’ Associations (ELTAs) then and now

The two largest English as a foreign language (EFL) teachers’ organisations were established one after another, the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in 1966 in the USA and the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) in 1967 in the UK, with the original aim as providing continuing professional development (CPD) for their members, as well as promoting better teaching. As Bill Lee proclaimed in ‘The first Association Newsletter’ in October, 1967, “The principal aim of the association is to promote better teaching of English as a foreign or second language by concentrating on the language learning process as a many-sided educational problem” (Rixon & Smith, 2017, p.15). Nowadays the emphasis has shifted more towards providing a community where best practices, new theories and methods and above all mutual support can be found, and where teachers can feel part of a larger learning community, as can be seen in IATEFL’s statement on mission, goals and practices: “Linking, developing and supporting ELT professionals worldwide”. Both TESOL and IATEFL with their associates and affiliates comprise many ELT professionals who strive towards better CPD for their own and their colleagues’ benefits.



Still, ELTAs today face a number of new challenges. The availability of resources on the internet has meant that much of their traditional role as knowledge repositories is now irrelevant, and in place of this, new roles must be found if they are to continue to thrive and be relevant. What challenges does the profession face then? What do ELTAs want to achieve? Where are they heading to? Some harsh critics even propose that through the comfort of social media, online communities will replace ELTAs, as both resources and CPD activities become available from the comfort of our own home. Why bother then? Is it worth the effort of dedicated volunteers to organise conferences, assign teacher development trainings or edit magazines? They’re all available at a fingertip. In a special issue on ELTAs Paran (2016) investigates key topics and future routes: “Understanding the challenges facing different LTAs and other membership associations in the twenty-first century through researching them and researching their members must be part of the continuous professional development of LTAs themselves, with the concurrent professional benefits that this will bring to their members.” (p.135.)



In the ‘History of IATEFL’ it was clearly expressed how the changing times had created new challenges for each president and their boards of trustees in each era and how their objectives have changed according to the changing times. “Like many other internationally known institutions it started small, and with a vision shared by just a few dedicated founders” (Rixon & Smith, 2017). However, every problem is also a possibility to find a solution. ELTAs need to embrace the digital age, becoming a virtual as well as a physical community, and providing information and events in a much faster, even ad hoc way. Publications should be freely available online to members and their smaller professional communities, the Special Interest Groups(SIGs) can be digital forums. Conferences and workshops are replaced by web conferences and webinars, and hundreds of colleagues join these CPD events, just like face-to-face trainings. All CPD events, especially conferences, are platforms for change, stepping stones in our life. They provide a chance to share, feel content with our achievements, they hold a mirror and provide vision for our future potential.

At the same time, change does not always appear in a positive guise. It can emerge as a threat, a menacing danger, all things we want to avoid, circumvent, refrain from or prevent.

What are these? In each ELTA’s case it might be different. It can surface on an individual level, on a board or committee level or on an organisational level at large.



ELTAs must become nimbler and more adaptive, meeting the speed of change in the world with a faster response and greater openness to new ideas and directions. However, this means that keeping their identity can also become a challenge. This can be helped with a well-crafted mission statement, setting out the goals, tasks, plans, initiatives and roles of the ELTA. The mission statement of IATEFL-Hungary coins some of the most important elements for present and future, for instance local and global presence, co-operation, quality, professionalism, sustainability and support in professional development. It sates: “We promote collaboration among English language teaching professionals by organising national and international projects with local and global impact. By doing so, we aim to support a high quality of ELT in Hungary for all.”

To keep the mission in line with the ELTA’s original vision, the mission statement should be revisited from time to time, to check whether Lamb’s (2012) definition of teachers’ associations is still relevant: “networks of professionals, run by and for professionals, focused mainly on support for members, with knowledge exchange and development as well as representation of members’ views as their defining functions” (p.296).



What does sustainability mean in the case of an ELTA? It means ensuring a continuity of purpose, while ensuring a healthy turnover in the committee and volunteers, thus avoiding both burn-out of too-enthusiastic volunteers and also fossilisation of committees who, unable to either let go of the reins or find new members, become increasingly rigid and irrelevant to the fast-changing world. But this is in itself a huge challenge, after all it is poorly-understood why people volunteer and devote enormous amounts of time and effort to volunteer communities such as ELTAs. Legacy and a smooth change-over, involving the younger generation, mentoring and so on, would reassure the healthy continuity of ELTAs, if they were taken with conscious leadership, objective decision making and alignment in management.

Seeing overall aims or long-term objectives in the future as tangible images would help overcome difficulties and achieve dreams and target goals. This can be done with the help of ‘possible selves’.


Possible Selves

Research into motivation, why people do what they do, what drives them, and how can it be sustained is plentiful, also with the additional twist through the lens of possible selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986). The three future self images are strongly connected to the actual self, in either positive or negative representations. 1) The ‘ideal self’ is connected to hopes and wishes that the individual would like to reach; 2) duties, requirements, obligations and responsibilities, which other people project onto the individual, are called the ‘ought-to self’; and 3) the ‘feared self’ represents everything that the individual is afraid of becoming , any possible negative consequences of one’s actions. Some of this approach is also applicable to organisations, and particularly volunteer organisations, such as ELTAs.

I have recently completed a medium-scale research into this very subject, an international focus group interview study with leaders of 27 leaders of 13 ELTAs from four continents (Price, 2018). The investigation aimed to reveal the motivation of leaders of ELTAs to sustain their learning organisations through the ‘possible selves’ concept (Markus & Nurius, 1986). In this article I would like to share an insight into my findings using a nautical metaphor.


Navigating the ELTA motivational seascape

Imagine that each ELTA is a ship, officered by the committee with a crew of ELT professionals and EFL teachers. The officers have a goal in mind, and must sail the ship towards the goal, with the help of the crew. But the voyage is a very long one, and new officers must be chosen from the crew regularly. How can the officers ensure that the new officers will continue to sail towards the goal, while keeping good care of the crew and ship, and not setting off on a new course for a different goal? The task of the officers falls into three broad categories: they wish to reach the ideal goal, and must actively navigate towards it. They ought to keep the ship in good condition, well stocked and with a contented crew. Finally, they must avoid disaster, from avoiding reefs, rocks, icebergs, mutiny or a ship-wreck.

These three goals align very closely with the original possible self theory by Markus and Nurius (1986) in mainstream psychology, Dörnyei’s (2005) L2 Motivational Self System and Kubanyiova’s (2009) investigation into language teachers’ conceptual change through the possible L2 teacher self construct. In our motivational ELTA seascape the ideal future self is the goal, what the ship is sailing towards, an ideal conclusion to the voyage. The ought-to future self is the duties and requirements, the things that ought to be done to keep the ship sailing and the crew contented. The feared future self represents all that could go wrong, a change in goal, meaning that the ideal goal is no longer sought, a mutiny meaning that all the crew abandon the ship, or a shipwreck destroying the ship itself, all the things that the officers fear.

To translate this into the life of ELTAs, the greatest fear of all is ceasing to exist but there is also a fear of becoming irrelevant, a fear of becoming too rigid and hide-bound, or simply a fear of becoming too different, of becoming something other than what the current committee see as ideal. This could mean that the organisation gets too commercialised, or ruled by supporters, who have their own secret motivational intentions, or profit companies run CPD events parallel with the ELTAs’ events, attracting EFL teachers by offering tangible benefits, such as promotional materials, raffle prizes or trips abroad. Political change can influence the direction of the ELTA, going from the slightest breeze into a sudden gale, causing waves, from ripples or gigantic waves. These can be helping winds and waves or destructive foes. Leaders have to steer their ships with great expertise to meet their goals and on their journey even the feared future self can be a positive motivational factor: the determination to avoid a feared fate can drive the committee to new heights of determination and activity, although crucially not over a long period.

In order to ascertain how the officers can ensure the continuation of their motives for the ship, we must first understand their own motivation. The perceived gap between the present self and the future selves is what creates motivation, however for motivation to be sustained, several criteria must be met (Dörnyei & Kubanyiova, 2014; Hadfield & Dörnyei, 2013). First of all, the goal, the composite of the future selves listed above, must be feasible and achievable. The ideal must be imaginable and reachable, the conditions that should be met during the journey must be possible, and the feared dangers not too large or unavoidable.

To take these in more detail in turn, if the gap between the current state of affairs and the ideal state is too large, so that we cannot readily imagine ever crossing it, then we have no motivation to start the trip. Conversely, if the gap is too small, we will have little motivation for even the very few necessary changes. So the ideal future self – the goal which we set for our ELTA – must be achievable but not easy.

A proverb wisely states that one cannot cross a chasm in two small leaps, and similarly the goal must be possible to reach through a series of leaps or changes which are feasible, which do not place a too large demand on our ELTA, and crucially we must keep it running well and smoothly throughout the whole process, continuing to produce newsletters, hold conferences and maintain a healthy membership. If these obligations come from outside and we have to fulfil them, they correspond to the future “ought-to” self, the requirements that we ought to fulfil in order to remain an ELTA. It is worth noting that the “ought-to” selves can be both positive and negative. They either motivate our behaviour (we have to come up to the expectations of someone else in a good way) or hinder us from action, functioning like a cramp, resulting a blockage or total lethargy. If the ought-to self guide works as a positive motivational factor and becomes internalised, then it acts as a future ideal self-guide, including both things we want and would strive for, such as a regular newsletter, events, webinars, successful conferences with notable plenary speakers, a large and active membership and solid financial health. In the other case those which we do not want but are forced to comply with, such as government rules and regulations, criticism or membership requirements for unrealistic goals, prevent us from creative energy and feel as a burden.


To return to our nautical theme

The officers’ motivation is explained above, and they must find a way to both keep their own motivational flame burning and, even more importantly, inspire the same motivation in others, so that they may in the future entrust the command of the ship to them. As they are, after all, teachers, their primary means are teaching. It is no co-incidence that ELTAs see CPD as their main goal, and typically this is a three-pronged approach:

There are many other ships sailing the same ocean, although not all with exactly the same goal, and most ships hold large meetings (conferences) once a year, and people from other ships sail across the seas to attend these events. These meetings serve both to educate and entertain the crew, and to disseminate good ideas and best practices throughout all the ships, raising the standards of all, a virtuous circle. Newly-joined crew members see inspiring officers both from their own and other ships and are motivated to become more like them to maybe one day be a plenary speaker themselves and to meet their expectations.

Group alignment is also an important but seldom used terminology in education, whether steering a committee or a ship one needs partnership, co-operation and synergy among the crew. ’Align’ literally means "to arrange (things) in a line," from Old French alignier "set, lay in line" (Modern French aligner), from Latin lineare "reduce to a straight line," from linea. When talking of group energy, it is clear that synchronization is achieved when different energies within the group are harmonized. Vision is a crucial element in the alignment process in a business context (Senge 1990), whereas in education shared aims and objectives play an important role in harmonizing groups (Szesztay & Pohl, 2010). Aligned and non-aligned groups can be differentiated simply by the direction of different forces the arrows point to. When there is a shared vision or the aims and objectives are the same among the participants, it’s easy to work together in a harmonious way, it’s easier to sail.

As a contrast to this, non-aligned energies are scattered around in the group, and different factors determine various directions for the arrows, resulting in non-agreement or disagreement and conflicts or collisions. Just as when conflicting winds and currents make it difficult to steer the ships.

Finally, as the officers continually learn new things along the way, for instance to navigate using the stars, or foretell the weather, to understand the currents and the winds, or the white caps of the waves, they develop both professionally and personally. And as they learn more, they share their knowledge more, even do some coaching, all aimed at developing the potential of the crew, and often subconsciously forming them into suitable officer material.

Along the way officers use change as a motivational force to see themselves as responsible for their shipmates, seeing the future potential in each one of them to become officers or captains of the ship, in control of navigation and the safe passage of the ship towards their destination.



Dörnyei, Z. (2009). The L2 motivational self-system. In Z. Dörnyei, & E. Ushioda (Eds.), Motivation, language identity and the L2 self (pp.9-41). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Dörnyei, Z., & Kubanyiova, M. (2014). Motivating learners, motivating teachers: Building vision in the language classroom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hadfield, J., & Dörnyei. Z. (2013). Motivating learning. London, UK: Pearson Education Limited.

IATEFL. (n.d). Mission statement. [Online] Retrieved January 25, 2019 from

IATEFL-Hungary. (n.d). Mission statement. [Online]  Retrieved January 25, 2019 from

Kubanyiova, M. (2012). Teacher development in action. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lamb, T. (2012). Language associations and collaborative support: language teacher associations as empowering spaces for professional networks. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 6(3), 287-308.

Markus, H. R., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41, 954-969.

Paran, A. (2016). Language teacher associations: key themes and future directions. ELT Journal, 70(2), 137-149.

Rixon, S. & Smith, R. (2017). A History of IATEFL: The First 50 Years of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language. IATEFL, UK.

Senge, P.M. (2006). The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization (Revised ed.). New York, USA: Currency/Doubleday.

TESOL. (n.d). Vision & Mission. [Online] Retrieved January 25, 2019 from


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