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Dec 2018 - Year 20 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Why I Am and Am Not Just a Teacher: A Reflection on Teacher Identity and Classroom Emotion in Language Learning

Richard Pinner has been a language teacher since 2004 and is currently an associate professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. He holds a PhD in ELT & Applied Linguistics and has published several articles on language teaching, most recently in Language Teaching Research, English Today and Applied Linguistics Review. His first monograph was Reconceptualising Authenticity for English as a Global Language (Multilingual Matters) and his second book is due to be released by Routledge in 2019, looking at the connections between teacher and student motivation. He blogs at

When I was undertaking my Master’s Degree in ELT and Applied Linguistics, I was lucky to have Dr. Johannes Eckerth as my psycholinguistics teacher. I greatly admired this energetic German man who wore slightly rock and roll boots with a rather tatty tweed jacket. He was so enthusiastic about the subjects he taught us; it was infections. I worked very hard in his class, feeding off his energy in some ways and finding my interest deepening and being almost propelled through the course by the force of his character. Later, I took a module on language assessment, partly through interest in the topic but also because he was one of the teachers. But, I remember worrying about him too. At times he seemed to burn a little too brightly and I remember thinking that sometimes he looked a bit tired. This was in 2009, and those who attended the British Association of Applied Linguistics conference in 2010 may remember that it was held at King’s College, London, in memoriam of Johannes, who died in hospital after being suddenly taken ill. Upon learning of his death, I remember feeling a great loss. I told my wife straight away and she consoled me in the way one might console someone who has lost a close friend or relative. I am not exaggerating when I say that I did actually feel that I had lost someone very close to me, and yet I hardly knew Johannes. He taught me for a total of probably less than 20 hours. During that time, we only occasionally spoke one-to-one. I was not alone in feeling a great loss, however. Another King’s student who I do not know wrote on her blog that she was “still trying to get over the shock and I think it has affected all of my friends too. Dr Eckerth was a well-loved lecturer in Kings”  (Shannon, 2009). He was also remembered in the journal Language Teaching Research by his colleagues:

His sudden death, after a very short illness, came as a terrible shock to us all, and his loss is an enormous one, both professionally and personally. His warmth and good humour are greatly missed.  (Fortune & Andon, 2012, p. 280)

I also attended Johannes’ funeral, and afterwards I wrote a lengthy entry in my journal. In the entry I mentioned how I was moved to tears and felt a great black hole of despair; especially at the thought that death could come to anyone at any time. I wrote in the journal that I was furious at seeing one of the other teachers smiling at the funeral, and that I did not want to stay for the post-funeral reception because I was just a student and his actual relatives and friends were there, looking shocked and bereaved. I felt like I did not belong there, because I was just one of Johannes’ students and not someone who really knew him. However, reflecting back on this incident now almost ten years later, I realise that I did know Johannes, perhaps in a way that his friends and family did not. I knew him as a teacher, and surely his teaching identity was just as much a part of him as his other identities.

In this paper, I will discuss the issues which arise as language teachers move along the continuum of personal and professional development, and discuss the way this intersects with students’ identities as they also move along their own individual paths. I will discuss the issues which really surface between any teacher/student relationship, and briefly examine why this may be all the more salient for language learning and teaching. I will argue that teachers may want to have a heightened awareness and sensitivity to issues of identity in the classroom, and why, as teachers, we are and are not just teachers.

In the introduction, I shared the story of the death of Johannes Eckerth in order to demonstrate just how much a teacher is able to have an effect on us in a short space of time, even just limited to contact hours in the classroom. Why was I so profoundly moved by the death of my teacher? Why did I feel I knew him so intimately even though, in actual fact, I was not very close with him at all? In reality, I was just another one of his students. Erving Goffman states that ‘there is hardly a performance, in whatever area of life, which does not rely on the personal touch to exaggerate the uniqueness of the transactions between performer and audience’ (1959, p. 50). In other words, as students we feel that we must appear special to the teacher in some way, that they must remember us and that they must have meant all the encouragement they gave us from their hearts. In a reflective narrative, Shi (2002) writes about her ‘obsession’ with names; her feeling of disappointment when a favourite teacher called her by the wrong name, which led to her own sustained attempts to make sure she always knew all her students by name. At a recent party for staff members, a colleague told me that she writes her students’ birthdays down at the start of term, puts them in her phone and gets a reminder whenever one of her students has a birthday. She sends that student a quick birthday greeting, even if the student has moved on and is no longer in school or taking her class. She said that this has an amazing impact on the students, and it makes them so happy and surprised to receive her emails. She also confessed that this was basically just an automatic task for her now, she has been doing it so long she sends birthday wishes every day, but she insisted that for the students it is extremely personal and authentic. I understood this well myself, having had quite a few students who stayed in my mind; inspiring young people who I have kept in touch with after they left the class (mostly through Facebook or email, usually when the students need a reference of some professional advice). Due to online forums and Social Networking Sites, it is actually very common to remain in contact with people who we might not normally encounter in our daily lives.

What makes teachers so special? It is very likely linked to the fact that teachers are usually intrinsically motivated to teach, which is why they become teachers (Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2011). Becoming a teacher is almost like answering a calling, and teachers who are passionate about their subject and are intrinsically motivated to cultivate learning are often easy to spot, primarily because they attempt to personalise their teaching, which in itself is motivating for the students (Ushioda, 2011). Really good teachers, the ones who stick in our minds, are the ones who made us feel a connection with them, and by association with their subject. It is their personal passion that propels our interest in learning more about that subject. This is an essential aspect in making the learning process truly authentic (Glatthorn, 1975). 

As a language teacher myself, I have had many experiences where the boundaries of the teacher/student relationship were shifted as part of identity construction, most of which happened with at least one person using their second language, having limited access to linguistic resources. These have often been uncomfortable experiences, often becoming critical incidents in my own developing teacher identity. For example, in 2005 when I was a very inexperienced teacher, working at a private language school in Japan, the manager of the school came to forewarn me that M (a private student I was about to meet for her weekly lesson) had just been diagnosed with cancer. I was very sorry to hear this, but instantly I felt uncomfortable about being told such personal information, and of course I decided not to mention it. However, when M came into the classroom, she raised the issue herself, asking me if I knew already. She then burst into tears. I expressed my sympathy with her and gave her advice to eat lots of tomatoes, because I had heard they were anti-carcinogenic. I then had to write the word ‘anti-carcinogenic’ on the board. M was a lower-intermediate student who took a one-hour private lesson every week. I somehow became a kind of English speaking counsellor for her during her sickness, and as a young twenty-year-old living in Japan for the first time with no medical training (oncological or psychological), I was woefully unprepared and underqualified for this role. However, this is the role that M shaped me into by returning to the issue of her sickness each lesson. This was probably quite natural, as for her, learning English was a leisure-time activity and much more associated with her ‘real’ self than perhaps some of her other social activities. However, for me, teaching was my job and I was very uncomfortable in the role which I found myself in. As a university teacher, this type of role negotiation is much less common, but I have had students come to me to discuss issues such as bullying, mental health concerns, social anxiety and even matters of their own sexuality. Of course, I have never elicited these conversations, but for some reason I was the person these students came to when they needed to. Most of the time, these discussions did have relevance to the institutional setting in which they took place as well. As Ushioda (2009) reminds us, students are not just students, they are persons-in-context.

Of course, there have to be limits between how personal students and teachers can become. Zimmerman (1998) differentiates between the identities speakers invoke during discourse. When we speak to students at school or on campus, our situational identity is very strong; this is the identity which is explicitly imposed by the context of the discourse. In contrast, there are also transportable identities, which speakers may invoke during talk in order to highlight other aspects of their identity which serve some function in the discourse. For example, a doctor (situated identity) may tell a patient that she is also a keen golfer, perhaps to build rapport or put the patient at ease. Similarly, teachers may often invoke aspects of their transportable identities in order to personalise the content of language classes (Richards, 2006; Ushioda, 2011). This is especially important with language teachers, because there may be cross-cultural communication issues added into the mix, along with differing levels of communicative competence. Because of the power imbalance of the teacher/student relationship, it is essential to retain a professional distance between students, and to retain the ability to be objective towards the students’ achievement, for their own sake and as a duty of the teacher role.

However, Richards notes that it would be ‘perverse’ to insist that the personal self should be left at the classroom door (2006, p. 74). As English teachers we are not just teachers, we are in a position to make a profound impact on people’s lives. We are teaching and learning in a world of unprecedented social change and global communication, where a myriad of social, economic and environmental problems are all interlinked. In other words, if there is an important issue facing our society, we should use our position as teachers to raise awareness of those issues. As teachers of English, the worlds’ first hyper-centralised global language (de Swaan, 2001), we are especially well-placed to spread important messages to different social groups in various countries. We should use this opportunity to teach not only language items and study skills, but also to raise awareness about important issues and to cultivate social emotional intelligence (Goleman, 2006). We should also remember that our students are not just learners, they are people engaged in learning or learners in-context  (Ushioda, 2009). This means that learners are people who are learning, but still people with different attitudes, beliefs, passions and anxieties. Therefore, their contributions should also be personal and intrinsic. We cannot expect our students to get passionate about isolated grammar points or even subject specific vocabulary, but if we want our learners to really speak the language then we have to encourage them to use (and help them to find) their own voices. And, most of all we should remember that we are people who also happen to be teachers. We therefore have to balance our professional identities with our personal ones, in order to be truly effective teachers. Objectivity and subjectivity both have a place in the classroom, but the humanistic side of our work is what makes learning an essentially social process. Language teachers are especially well-poised to make a real difference in the lives of our students, and that is why we are but we are also not just teachers.



de Swaan, A. (2001). Words of the World: The Global Language System. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Dörnyei, Z., & Ushioda, E. (2011). Teaching and researching: Motivation (Second ed.). Harlow: Longman Pearson.

Fortune, A., & Andon, N. (2012). In memoriam: Johannes Eckerth (1965–2009). Language Teaching Research, 16(2), 280. doi:10.1177/1362168811431371

Glatthorn, A. A. (1975). Teacher as person: The search for the authentic. English Journal, 37-39.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Anchor (Random House).

Goleman, D. (2006). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.

Richards, K. (2006). ‘Being the teacher’: Identity and classroom conversation. Applied Linguistics, 27(1), 51-77.

Shannon, A. (2009). Almost at the end.  Retrieved from

Shi, L. (2002). A tale of names. In K. E. Johnson & P. R. Golombek (Eds.), Teachers' narrative inquiry as professional development (pp. 136 - 149). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ushioda, E. (2009). A person-in-context relational view of emergent motivation, self and identity. In E. Ushioda & Z. Dörnyei (Eds.), Motivation, language identity and the L2 self (pp. 215-228). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Ushioda, E. (2011). Motivating learners to speak as themselves. In G. Murray, X. Gao, & T. E. Lamb (Eds.), Identity, motivation and autonomy in language learning (pp. 11 - 25). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Zimmerman, D. H. (1998). Identity, context and interaction. In C. Antaki & S. Widdicombe (Eds.), Identities in Talk (pp. 87–106). London: Sage.


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