Joanna Skrzelińska is an English teacher, psychologist, life coach and trainer. She has worked at various public and private educational institutions in Portugal, Poland, Italy and Ireland. Her main interests include Positive Psychology, compassion and international dialogue. Along with teaching, counselling and holding workshops on personal growth, she is doing her PhD in Educational Psychology at the University of Coimbra (Portugal) on the role of gratitude in life. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A few days ago, a student came up to me and said “You know what? Thank you for being so humane”… This made me think. How often do you see your teenage or adult students who, in their first class, shake like a leaf because they have experienced some trauma at school and now are reluctant to say a word because they are scared of making mistakes? Or they correct themselves every minute thinking about “how” they want to say something instead of “what” they want to say, getting more and more red in the face? “My teacher hates me”, “He shouts all the time”, “He says only an idiot might not understand such a simple thing” and so on and so forth. Of course, these are our memories, interpretations and we can try to rationalise them, but the point is that our inner child, even when we are grown-ups, remembers what our English teacher said twenty years ago. And then, these very students come to the lesson and first thing they say is “I’m never going to learn”.
Years ago, when my students were doing some speaking task in our English classes, something hit me. That what I had been doing for years, what we all do, had more to do with life coaching and building students’ personal strengths than grammar and vocabulary work. Some friends of mine laugh that I can be quite slow to realise things sometimes so perhaps for you it will not be any revelation. For me it was. Language is such a broad and wonderful construct! And the process of learning a foreign language can open the door to self-discovery and deeper connection with our own self and others.
I remember one particular student, who had scheduled her individual lessons at a language school, back in the days when I was teaching in Italy, and her first words were “I hate English but I want to study medicine and I need to pass the language test at B1 level so let’s have it over with, shall we?” OK, this is my lose interpretation from Italian but I hope you understand where I am going. In the beginning, we did not even touch the test book. I did not even try to convince her that English might not be that bad. After all, she hated it. Instead, I wanted to get to know her, her interests, why she wants to study medicine and how to make perfect lasagne. There was a lot of laughter and friendly provocation to help her get some distance and loosen up. After a month, she started watching her favourite sitcom in English and even found it enjoyable. Once, she proudly said she had read some news in English and understood quite a lot, so from then on, she would choose a piece of news and tell me about it each week. Long story short, from hating English, she slowly discovered purpose and joy in studying it and months later, not only did she pass her entrance exams, but she also took the PET exam just because she wanted to. Of course, not everyone will fall in love with English and build their intrinsic motivation, but our preconceptions and fear might make things look twice as bad as they are and stop us from stepping out of the comfort zone and growing.
Taking the wheel
A way that might help students feel more independent and motivated to learn the language from day one (which also gives me a chance to use some coaching tools I enjoy so much…) is the student’s needs analysis they do themselves. It goes like this: every student gets three post-its, where they write their a) strengths, b) worries (weaknesses or doubts) and c) dreams (goals or aims) that they bring with them into our classroom. Then, they stick the notes next to a big picture of a hot-air balloon where the basket represents the strengths, the sandbag – their burdens and the top part -their dreams and goals related to the English course. Afterwards, you can discuss it with the class and refer to it at any time of the school year as part of students’ self-evaluation. What can also help students become more independent in their process of learning is to encourage them to set their individual short- and long-term goals and come up with their own ways to achieve them.
Another tool that I normally use in life coaching is an adapted version of Wheel of Life that you can easily find online. How does it work? Imagine a big pizza divided into slices where each slice represents some sphere of your life. And then, on scale from 0 to 10, decide how fulfilled you are in each sphere. Now, with my English students what we do is look at what elements of language learning they can distinguish. Something like “speaking”, “listening”, “pronunciation”, “English at work”, “travelling”, “English movies” and any other aspect students find important. After analysing how satisfied they are with each of the element and what their “5” or “6” mean, students then move to picturing where they want to be with their English, for instance, at the end of the course. It might be important to explain that yes, “10” in each sector is ideal, but is it real? What would be enough to make them happy with their English? And what does it mean?
Students can also draw their current state and then, desired new reality about their English or life in general if you know your group well and are sure it could be fun. Here is the link to an interesting TEDtalk that I use to awaken my students’ imagination: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqJyBzMcD6M
More to 4 C’s
The 4 C’s of 21st century skills stand for critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication, so if you enjoy using TEDtalks in your class, how about you set your own official TEDtalk students club at your school and help teenagers make their own TEDtalk? On https://ed.ted.com/student_talks you can register yourself as an educator and introduce this wonderful non-profit initiative to your school. You will get support from people working for TEDtalk, access to online materials and community of people around the world who just like you are passionate about helping students aged 8-18 spread their ideas worldwide and build all four skills through an official TED Student Talk Program.
I highly recommend it. The whole process around building the final product is so precious. Hours of research and brainstorming on the topic, writing the scripts, practising public speaking, looking for a red carpet and a perfect spot for the event– not only does it unite the group but gets other teachers, the school, family members and local communities together. And then, when the big day comes, it is wonderful to see students when they get on stage after weeks or even months of preparation and do their talk. Unforgettable experience!
Positive Psychology in class
As a reader in Positive Psychology, I would not be myself if I did not try to smuggle sometimes some nice and simple activities into the classroom or share them on teacher trainings. And since quite a lot depend on us, the teachers, and our well-being, let’s take a minute to focus on how to build your own personal strengths and cultivate compassion, acceptance and loving kindness to one’s self and others. Where possible, I have added references to interesting books and websites to facilitate further reading and provide you with practices to translate to the classroom.
A whole bunch of practical knowledge, activities, measurement tools and links to extra online sources can be found in two wonderful books written in a scientific, yet, light and humoristic tone: “A Primer in Positive Psychology” by Christopher Peterson (2006) and “Positive Psychology. Theory, Research and Applications” by Ilona Boniwell and Aneta D. Tunariu (2019). You will find there such treasures as a gratitude questionnaire or self-determination scale you can do at home, the explanation what hedonism and eudaimonia are as well as the whole lot of interesting exercises and self-reflection questions to help you and your students flourish in life.
There are various kinds of activities that you can do with your students which are grounded in Positive Psychology. One of my favourites that I often do with my university students, when teaching English or when I simply notice I am becoming cranky, is a “fun versus philanthropy” activity (Peterson, 2006, p. 34). The only thing to do is to flip a coin for a week. OK, a bit more than that. Let’s say, you get heads, which means “fun”. What you need to do now is something that is pleasurable to you that day. If the coin lands on tails, get engaged in an activity that is helpful to others. Flip a coin every day, decide which activity to do first, spend around the same amount of time on each one and write down your reflections. When I do it with my students of English, before we do the task, we brainstorm the ideas what pleasurable and philanthropic activities mean (just to make sure we are on the same page what “fun” we are talking about). Then, when they finish the experiment, students are asked to write a short essay comparing and contrasting their reactions, so this way they also get a chance to practise their academic writing skills. Positive Psychology in the EFL classroom – checked.
On youtube, you can find plenty of interesting videos that might serve as food for thought for you or your students during class discussions. My favourite ones are those on learned optimism versus learned hopelessness (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hHNq45rEnU) as well as authentic happiness (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mp8xN1K-ITs) popularised by Martin Seligman, known as the father of Positive Psychology which concentrates on what is good about us, on our potentials and strengths, instead of what is wrong. Do not mistake it with happiology though, which does not have much in common with authenticity or acceptance. The point is not to hide our weaknesses or unpleasant emotions and put the happy face all the time but to live a more fulfilling and engaged life, noticing both pleasures of life and its greater meaning.
Another activity that you can do at home or together with your students is to keep a gratitude journal, where you write down three good things at the end of each day. Some people, especially with severe depression, might find this exercise hard and disturbing, for the majority though, it is often a nice and enriching self-growth tool that helps to notice beauty of life. You can also watch this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHv6vTKD6lg and decide to call, text or maybe even write and send a gratitude letter to someone close to your heart. After all, how often do we take other people for granted or postpone that call? And you? Do you notice your own efforts and can thank yourself?
I could be writing about gratitude and its impact on our motivation and well-being for hours so I will better stop here. However, if you are a teacher or you know teachers of any subject aged 25-65, who would be willing to fill in a few questionnaires online and help with my PhD project on the role of gratitude in life, please contact me via email. Writing this text, I am in the middle of collecting questionnaires in English, Polish and Portuguese so hopefully, by the moment this text has been published, I will be able to provide you with more information.
Cicero said that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all the others.” I am biased of course and could not agree more. On https://www.viacharacter.org/character-strengths you will find a list of 24 personal strengths, including gratitude, categorised into 6 main virtues. We all possess them just to different degree. You can read about each strength and find out how to cultivate it. You can also take a free survey, available in two versions for adults and teenagers, and discover your unique character profile. There is also a fantastic activity you can find in “A Primer in Psychology” (Peterson, 2006, p. 159) and do yourself or with your students. First, identify your main strengths by taking the test online. Then, choose one strength and for the following week use it in a new way every day. You can come up with your own ideas or search online, for example by visiting the website mentioned above or going to https://www.authentichappiness.org/. Peterson (2006) also provides some interesting suggestions based on a list created by Jonathan Haidt (2002) and Tayyab Rashid and Afroze Anjum (2005). Let’s say you want to focus on building sense of authenticity. What you can decide to do in the following week is: stop telling white lies or insincere compliments, think of your most important values and do something each day that is in line with them or when you explain your motives to somebody, do it in an honest and genuine way (Peterson, 2006). It might take some courage and self-determination but it is worth a try.
Now, the time for Grande Finale, which goes to… compassion. Loving kindness, mindfulness and common humanity, as Kristin Neff defines self-compassion, is something to cultivate at school, home, in front of a mirror and towards a fellow human being, who just like you wants to feel loved, safe and accepted the way they are, feeling scared sometimes and making mistakes. Paul Gilbert, the founder of compassion-focused therapy (CFT), distinguishes compassion for self, for others and from others. He also proposes three main types of emotion regulation systems that we all have: drive, threat and soothing, where the latter one, when under-developed, might lead to distress and make us prone to criticism and feelings of shame. If you are caught up in such thoughts and feelings, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRqI4lxuXAw and watch this short and simple video, which helps to realise hearing voices (in this case, let’s call them our inner critic) is a common thing and by practising self-compassion and mindfulness, we can become more satisfied with our everyday life.
One of the programmes aimed at increasing teachers’ well-being, a compassionate mind training in schools, developed by Frances Maratos, Wendy Wood, Paul Gilbert, Marcela Matos and Isabel Alburquerque, has shown promising results both in the UK and Portugal. Run in a set number of modules across a school term with one session per week or bi-weekly, it helps to increase teachers’ self-compassion and decrease their level of stress, depression and self-criticism. You can find out more by visiting: https://www.cmtschools.org/ and https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-32/december-2019/schooling-compassion. If you are interested in the Portuguese version, you can go to https://escolascompassivas.wixsite.com/cmtescolas. This wonderful project has already been extended to students and soon, hopefully, also to parents. At the moment, we are trying to expand the compassionate mind training in schools programme to Poland and Italy and so, looking for the grants and sponsors to launch the study.
In the end, whether at home or work, in the car, on the morning bus or between your sunrise salutations if you practice yoga, wherever you are, there is a loving kindness meditation (in the Pali called Metta) you can do on your own to find inner peace and connection to others, boost your well-being and reduce stress. I remember doing it in class once and after a short practice of sending good wishes to someone they loved and to themselves, my students wrote their own intentions they wanted to send to all people around the world. That beautiful silence and the air filled with awe, love and joy at the end of the lesson was something unforgettable. Of course, you might not be able to find time nor space to do such exercise with all your classes as after all, Present Perfect, linking devices and phrasal verbs are what students expect to learn in the English course. And they do. I have been lucky to have a chance to join those two passions of mine, teaching and Positive Psychology and that my director of studies, students and their parents have put up with me for so long and with such crazy ideas as breathing in the classroom. I found it though, that even a minute or two of a calming exercise, even just for your own sake done before the lesson, helps to be more present, tuned in and concentrated on the class.
If you want, you can try it yourself. Sitting comfortably, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. When you are ready, think of some loving intentions you would like to send to yourself. What would they be? Say them silently in your head. Then, if you want, you can imagine someone you love and repeat the same words intended for them. Next, you can do the same with someone neutral, then perhaps move to a person you find difficult to have a relation with and finally expand your good wishes to all people, living creatures and the whole world. The words you say in your head each time might be similar to the ones I would like to send you now:
May you be healthy.
May you live long and prosper.
May you feel safe and sound.
May you love and be loved.
May your heart be open,
full of trust and joy
peace and hope.
Thank you for being here.
Haidt, J. (2002). Psychology 101 strengths/weaknesses project: Suggested daily activities. Unpublished manuscript. University of Virginia.
Hefferon, K. P. & Boniwell, I. (2011). Positive Psychology: Theory, research and applications. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill
Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rashid, T. & Anjum, A. (2005). 340 ways to use VIA character strengths. Unpublished manuscript, University of Pennsylvania.
Please check the NLP and Coaching for the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Advanced NLP and Coaching for the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the How to Motivate Your Students course at Pilgrims website.
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