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April 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Humanizing the Teacher

Prof. Dr Carol Griffiths has been a teacher, manager and teacher trainer of ELT for many years. She has taught in many places around the world, including New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, China, North Korea, Turkey, UK, and is currently teaching at Girne American University in North Cyprus. She has presented at numerous conferences and published widely.



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When Mario began hltmag 25 years ago right at the end of the 20th century, Humanism had been extending its appeal for some time. Academics like David Nunan (1981) had been advocating a learner-centred approach and teachers were no longer viewed as founts of all knowledge and enforcers of discipline, but facilitators who led willing students like horses to water in order that they might drink deep of the inspirational fountains. In this best of all worlds, students would be free and wondrously creative, and teachers would benignly oversee their charges with insight and boundless patience and good will. In this educational utopia, creativity would abound, there would be no more boredom or negative behaviour, because students would WANT to learn. 

But has this happened? 

And what about the teacher? 

Unfortunately, in the enthusiasm to emphasise the rights of the students, the fact that the teacher is also a human being with human rights and needs has often tended to get overlooked. But teachers have their own families and other demands on their time and energy, and the frequently 24/7 demands imposed on modern teachers can be overwhelming and exhausting. Teachers are not machines!

Of course, it is impossible to argue against the underlying philosophy of learner-centeredness. Of course students are important, and it is a teacher’s basic human duty to try to ensure that they are given the best possible treatment and afforded the best possible opportunities in order that they might become the best that they can possibly be. 

Underlying the Brave New World of liberated learners is criticism of Teacherosaurus Rex (Grundy, 1999), some of which, of course, was certainly justified. Surely nobody would want to defend the Wackford Squeers (Nicholas Nickleby – Dickens) approach these days. Nevertheless, in a world where the news frequently carries stories of teacher attrition, understaffed schools, and overworked teachers struggling to fill the gaps, as well as student anti-social behaviour and bullying each other (e.g., Peck, 2024) , can we really say that what has replaced it is the utopian answer?

I have been a teacher for more than half a century. When I trained in the long distant past, an often-quoted piece of advice on classroom management was “Don’t smile till Easter”. Whether anybody actually managed to follow this maxim I have no idea, given that Easter was typically about 6 weeks into the southern hemisphere’s new academic year, but it was contradicted by a contrary piece of advice from my HOD: “Your problems are over once they like you”. From my current experienced perspective, I would have to agree with my HOD: ultimately, successful teaching is all about the relationship. The main problem is to survive long enough to get to that point, and, unfortunately, many novice teachers are burned out long before!

In an article in ELTJ (Griffiths, 2012) I describe the case of a student of mine whom I called Sara whose lesson I was due to observe. She was enthusiastic and confident, having tried out her lesson in class at the university where it had gone well. When we got to the class, the students were noisy, and they showed no interest in settling so that Sara could begin until the regular teacher scolded them in L1 and got them settled. Sara’s carefully prepared lesson involved a game where the students had to answer a question and then pass a ball to the next student who had to answer the next question. This went well enough until one of the boys threw the ball too forcefully at his intended successor, leading to a fight. The ensuing chaos was only subdued by the regular teacher resuming control and ordering everyone back to their seats working with their books in silence. So much for learner-centred! As for poor Sara, she decided teaching was not for her, so at the end of the year, instead of looking for a job in a school, she opted for one in a bank, so she never even got to be a teacher, as happens with quite a high percentage of teacher trainees (e.g., Day & Gu, 2010;  Ingersoll et al., 2016)

In a chapter entitled “Burnout and good language teachers: The elephant in the room”, Griffiths & Sönmez (2020) describe the cases of seven teachers, of whom four were novices and the other three were more experienced. Of these (all with pseudonyms), Betty describes crying herself to sleep every night until her contract was not renewed, which felt like a release from prison. Debbie prayed she would have an accident on the way to school so she would not have to face her badly-behaved students. Anita, Sena and Melis recount instances of verbal and physical abuse in the classroom, while Zeynep speaks of uncooperative parents refusing to provide their children with basic equipment such as books and pens or to ensure homework was done (although they were critical of her), and Dilara is determined to quit as soon as she possibly can. In fact, none of these seven continued teaching, surely representing a serious loss to the profession, which will result in increased stress levels since “teachers who have stayed in their jobs are forced to compensate for [those who are] missing (Peck, 2024, p.3). 

Of course, the real pity of this unfortunate situation is that the major losers are the students themselves. Evidence has been accumulating that teachers are the major influence on student welfare and achievement (e.g., Hattie, 1999, 2003). Briner & Dewberry (2007) found a significant relationship between staff wellbeing and student academic results, and Furrer et al. (2014) also found a relationship between student results and relationships with the teacher. As Peck (2024, p.2) puts it: “Burnout in teachers is not only impacting their lives, but also their students who are missing adequate attention and guidance. Students under teachers with high anxiety tend to perform worse academically…and can develop negative feelings and behaviors”. In other words, this suggests that those who lose most because of teacher burnout and attrition are actually the students. 

So, what is being done about this elephant in the room, which everybody knows is there (how could they not), but which is generally treated with ignore, presumably in the hope that if we ignore it long enough it will go away. But this is not a new problem. Coates and Thoreson (1976) were warning about the consequences of teacher anxiety nearly half a century ago, and these concerns remain (and have, perhaps, intensified) until the present (e.g., Griffiths, 2023; Mercer, 2018; Peck, 2024). 

And what of the future? I firmly believe it is a priority that the rights of the teacher be given equal weight to the rights of the students. And I think that this is as likely to benefit the students as much as the teachers. The reality is that no student learns in an undisciplined class (such as poor Sara’s described above) – everybody suffers. It is time this simple fact which can easily be observed, was given the common-sense treatment it deserves for everybody’s benefit. Furthermore, teachers need support, from school administrators, from parents, and from the students. 

Speaking as one who has survived more than half a century “at the chalkface” (and I really did have chalk and a blackboard when I started!), and who has come close to burnout a couple of times (as described in Griffiths & Sönmez, 2020) I would like to emphasise the fact that teachers are not machines. They may not always be perfect, any more than any human being is ever always “perfect” (however that might be defined anyway), but they deserve to have their rights recognised, and to be respected and treated with consideration, allowed some space for their own lives, families, friends and relaxation. 

Teachers are a precious resource, and it is time they received the recognition and respect that they deserve. If this is not done, the current dismal education scenario (as described in considerable detail by Peck (2024) is only going to get worse, and that is in nobody’s best interest, and ultimately leads to dehumanisation for everybody: teachers, students, parents, administrators, the community. 



Briner, R., & Dewberry, C. (2007). Staff wellbeing is key to school success. A research study into the links between staff wellbeing and school performance. Worklife Support.

Coates, T., & Thoreson, C. (1976). Teacher anxiety: A review with recommendations. Review of Educational Research, 46(2), 159–184

Day, C., & Gu, Q. (2010). The New lives of teachers. Routledge.

Furrer, C., Skinner, E., & Pitzer, J. (2014). The influence of teacher and peer relationships on students’ classroom engagement and everyday motivational resilience. National Society for the Study of Education, 113(1), 101–123.

Griffiths, C. (2012). Focus on the teacher. ELT Journal, 66(4), 468–476

Griffiths, C. (2023). What about the teacher? Language Teaching, 57(2), 210-222

Griffiths, C. & Sönmez, G. (2020). Burnout and good language teachers: the elephant in the room. In C. Griffiths, & Z. Tajeddin (Eds), Lessons from Good Language Teachers (pp.80-94). Cambridge University Press

Grundy, P. (1999). From model to muddle. ELT Journal, 53(1), 54–55.

Hattie, J. (1999). Influences on student learning. Inaugural lecture. University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

Hattie, J. (2003). Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? Paper presented at the Building Teacher Quality: What does the research tell us ACER Research Conference, Melbourne, Australia. au/research_conference_2003/4/

Ingersoll, R., Merrill, L., & May, H. (2016). Do accountability policies push teachers out? Educational Leadership, 73(8), 44–49

Mercer, S. (2018). Psychology for language learning: Spare a thought for the teacher. Language Teaching, 51(4), 504–525.

Nunan, D. (1988). The learner-centred curriculum. Cambridge University Press

Peck, D. (2024). Teacher burnout statistics: Why teachers quit in 2024. Online

  • Congratulations to HLT Magazine
    Till Gins, Lead Officer, Pilgrims

  • Happy 25th Birthday to Pilgrims Humanising Language Teaching from the Pilgrims Teacher Trainer Journal
    Phil Dexter, UK

  • Down the Memory Lane
    Hanna (Hania) Kryszewska, Poland

  • Humanism in Language Teaching: Roots and Practices
    Rod Bolitho, UK

  • Humanizing the Teacher
    Carol Griffiths, New Zealand