Katherine Bilsborough has worked in ELT for 30 years. These days she lives in the mountains of northern Spain where she divides her time between writing and gardening. She very kindly agreed to write this guest blog post for me to share with you all. Enjoy it!
Winning the battle against low self-esteem
Last year I wrote a couple of journal articles and gave a BELTA webinar on the topic of self-esteem. I looked at the psychology underpinning low self-esteem and in particular, its causes and consequences. I then suggested some practical ideas for increasing self-esteem, focusing on the ELT teacher. My reasoning was that if we can find strategies to increase low self-esteem in ourselves, we’ll be equipped to help our colleagues and our students too; first by recognising the signs and then by responding in a number of ways.
My interest in self-esteem emerged from my own professional insecurities and, in particular, from conversations I had with colleagues. They found it hard to believe that behind my apparent confidence and self-assurance lay a wobbling, self-conscious doubter who felt like a fraud and was constantly questioning her ability as a teacher and her right to be standing at the front of a classroom. I might have doubted my skills as a teacher but I was, apparently, an excellent actor. I’ve come a fair way since those days but I still have spells of insecurity and vulnerability. The difference is that now I’m armed with strategies to deal with them and it helps to know that I’m not alone. Even the most experienced, ‘big name’ professionals go through wobbly patches.
For this post, I’ve researched the subject further and come up with a more comprehensive list of practical ideas to help improve self-esteem. Items on the list are sometimes specific to ELT teachers but simple tweaks can make them relevant for students too.
Recognising low self-esteem
It is perfectly normal for everyone to feel down about themselves at times and even the most self-assured people suffer from a lack of confidence from time to time. But when the feelings persist it can be an indication that you need to sit up and do something about it. Some of the most common signs of low self-esteem are:
- Being overly critical of yourself.
- Ignoring your strengths and accomplishments.
- Focusing on your weaknesses.
- Comparing yourself with other people.
- Being unable to accept compliments when they are given.
- Having a negative outlook on life.
- Worrying about not doing well or not being liked.
- Exaggerating the things you perceive as negative.
It isn’t always easy to identify the causes of self-esteem. Things like constantly being overlooked for promotion or being bullied are clear-cut. But sometimes motives are less obvious. The good news is that self-esteem levels aren’t fixed and there are plenty of things you can try to address the problem.
Twenty tried and tested recommendations
1 Practise positive self-talk in order to build your confidence.
2 Keep a ‘positive calendar’ in which you write down three things each day that went well in class because of your efforts or actions.
3 Know your subject matter as well as you can by studying it further. CPD is an excellent way of increasing self-esteem.
4 Invest time and effort into the things you can change and try to ignore the things you can’t change.
5 Increase your understanding of the theories that underpin teaching and learning. This will make you a more confident teacher.
6 Do regular exercise. Being fit and active relieves stress and helps you feel good about yourself.
7 Do at least one thing that you enjoy every day. This doesn’t have to be something big. It can be something as simple as meeting a friend for a coffee or listening to your favourite music.
8 Make sure you are surrounded by people who are supportive, in the real world and in cyberspace.
9 Distance yourself from people who are critical. If this is difficult, try telling them how you feel and politely ask them to think before they criticise you in future.
10 Stop comparing yourself to others. We all have a unique blend of strengths and weaknesses. Everybody is good at something.
11 Don’t be too hard on yourself when you get something wrong. Learn from your mistakes and move on.
12 Get to know your students. The better you know them, the more effective your teaching (and their learning) will be.
13 Celebrate every achievement, however small.
14 Know your work context well. Make sure you know where resources are kept and how the latest technology works. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
15 Talk to a colleague (or colleagues) about problems or worries you might have with your classes. Most of the time a problem shared really is a problem halved and two heads really are better than one.
16 Take pride in your ideas and your opinions and don’t be afraid to voice them. But don’t be afraid to change your ideas too. Willingness to change is a strength, not a weakness.
17 Don’t aim for perfection, it’s unachieveable so disappointment is inevitable.
18 Have realistic expectations in the classroom. For example, if you teach in a monolingual context, don’t expect all of your students to speak English all of the time. It isn’t going to happen.
19 Try to keep a positive attitude towards teaching. Joining social media groups of ELT teachers or creating a PLN will help with this.
Above all …
20 don’t be afraid to ask for professional help. Sometimes self-esteem can become severe and lead to depression. If this happens, you should speak to a doctor or a psychologist. Don’t forget that everybody is human and a cry for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s common sense.