26 nov 2018 Passion and compassion in the workplace
I was talking to some friends on Whatsapp and one of them mentioned this teacher he knew and the fact that they had been contemplating a career change. The teacher had a CPE and a CELTA and I said it would be a shame if they gave up on teaching. After all, such qualifications are not easy to get, both demand a considerable amount of time, effort and money. Then my friend said: ‘but they don’t have our passion’. I must say his remark puzzled me. What is passion? Why were we considered passionate and this teacher was not? If you see me out and about, travelling to give talks, workshops and training sessions, this might be a surprise, but I have not always been this passionate about my profession. Perhaps this is why I am able to relate to this teacher on many levels.
I have had a serious problem in my throat, which was aggravated by using my voice when teaching. I remember being told to look for another job, because teaching could potentially kill me. At that time, I had about 12 groups and many private students. I taught several young learners and teens groups in a wealthy area of Rio de Janeiro. Students, especially young teens, were very difficult to work with. They were often disrespectful towards each other and the staff, including me. I was probably suffering from burnout back then.
I had had difficult students before, how was this time different? I did not feel supported by my direct boss, quite the opposite. My boss had once called me and yelled at me on the phone because apparently I had made a mistake regarding a student’s attendance records. I did not feel mistakes were allowed and struggling with some groups would probably be seen as a flaw. I feared my boss.
Eldor and Shoshani (2016) claim that compassion plays a crucial role in the workplace, enabling teachers to cope with stressful conditions and maintain work outcome levels. Nowadays I understand that sometimes there is not much that can be done, but having feelings validated helps. An atmosphere of empathy would have made the difference and my boss at the time was not exactly known for being empathetic.
Much time has passed and nowadays I feel able to detach myself from that situation and analyse it from different angles. My boss was a woman in a cut-throat market, responsible for more than one school and I am sure she was under a lot of pressure to show results. When it comes to business, we know results often equal money. Nobre and Pontes (2016) highlight the importance of empathy and understanding, characteristics a trainer needs to consciously develop. While there was an academic department at the school that I worked and in theory they would be the ones responsible for assisting me pedagogically, reality was not that simple.
Depending on the hierarchy of the place you work for, roles might not be well defined or, more commonly, leaders have to wear many hats and be ready to deal with a plethora of practical and moral conundrums. My boss had once been a teacher and I imagine she used to be a good one, which made her stand out and have the opportunity to be a school manager. Not that I find this system successful, but it is usually how it happens. For her to be a good teacher, she had to at least pretend to care about her students. All that leads me to the conclusion that, at some point in time, she was a more empathetic person. When did she lose that ability?
Pinpointing when my former boss became a person whose main concerns were numbers is impossible. It is also impossible, not to say unfair, to affirm that she was not an empathetic person solely based on my experience. The very same person who had made many teachers cry was also very protective of teachers who got pregnant, making sure they had a smooth comeback after maternity leave. She also understood that the more students, the more groups and, at the end of the day, teachers normally want more groups. Though I think she failed as a leader with me, she also had good intentions.
My experience has taught me that we cannot, perhaps should not, count on other people’s passion or compassion to help define us or the way we feel. As much as it may not seem the case, people are not likely to always work with the same peers at the same place. In fact, in today’s competitive and rather unfair job market, job-hopping has become more common than we think. Your coworkers and superiors of the present possibly will not work with you in the future.
While I do not agree with the old-fashioned idea that putting up with a lot of negatives and toxic workplaces is the norm to be recognized as a professional, I do believe a decision such as changing careers is key and should be made considering much more than the current situation. I am glad that I listened to my doctor who told me I could not continue working too much, however, I am happy I did not listen to him regarding teaching English. I was able to shift my focus working with what I love and maintain my physical and mental health. The ELT industry offers many other possibilities, be willing to try new scenarios before making certain decisions.
Eldor, L. & Shoshani A. (2016). Caring relationship in school staff: exploring the link between compassion and teacher work engagement. Teaching and Teaching Education 59 126-136.
Nobre, V. & Pontes C. (2016). Getting into teacher education: a handbook. Cengage Learning.