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Teacher Low Points: A Qualitative Study into Experiences of Demotivation in ELT



This study into the demotivation of English language teachers stems from a personal experience of demotivation and a subsequent desire to learn more about similar experiences that fellow teachers may have had. As demotivation can affect teachers regardless of setting, background or experience, this study is not specific to any one English language teaching context. Instead, the aim is to explore experiences of demotivation among a diverse group of English language teachers, investigate factors which caused their demotivation and the impact this had, and outline steps they recommend for overcoming demotivation. This article also includes a strong emphasis on research methods employed in the hope that they will be of interest to other teacher-researchers.
ELT Research Issue 34 (February 2019) 29 IATEFL Research SIG (
pedagogies into English language initial teacher
education curricula. Email:
Teacher low points: A
qualitative study into
experiences of demotivation
in ELT
Peter Brereton
This study into the demotivation of English language
teachers stems from a personal experience of
demotivation and a subsequent desire to learn more
about similar experiences that fellow teachers may have
had. As demotivation can affect teachers regardless of
setting, background or experience, this study is not
specific to any one English language teaching context.
Instead, the aim is to explore experiences of
demotivation among a diverse group of English
language teachers, investigate factors which caused
their demotivation and the impact this had, and outline
steps they recommend for overcoming demotivation.
This article also includes a strong emphasis on research
methods employed in the hope that they will be of
interest to other teacher-researchers.
Research design
Due to the emotive nature of the topic, a qualitative
research approach which could facilitate the exploration
of respondents’ views (Dörnyei, 2007) was chosen. This
took the form of a questionnaire with open-ended
questions, which can “lead to a greater level of
discovery” (Gillham, 2000, p. 5) and which “resemble
what people actually say in response to such questions
in interviews” (Lynch, 1992, p. 75), while ensuring
respondents remained anonymous.
Questionnaire development: Drafting & piloting
As the aim of this study was to discover more about
teachers’ experiences of demotivation, the first item on
the questionnaire addressed this directly, asking
respondents to describe a specific time they had felt
demotivated. Subsequent multiple-choice items aimed to
discover how long this experience had lasted (item 2)
and how long into their teaching career this experience
occurred (item 3). In addition, open-ended questions
were posed regarding the perceived causes, as well as
what action respondents had taken, or what action they
would recommend, to overcome demotivation.
This draft questionnaire was piloted with four colleagues.
While the average response time of 21 minutes
suggested survey fatigue would be unlikely – Dörnyei
(2007) recommends a maximum of 30 minutes -
feedback from the pilot led to three changes:
1) items two and three were redrafted from multiple
choice to an open-ended format to allow for
greater flexibility (for example, for respondents
who had taught for longer than ten years),
2) items three and five were rephrased to include
the possibility of an ongoing experience
3) the introduction was clarified to invite
respondents to write in note form if they so
Data collection
As with much research in English Language Teaching,
this questionnaire relied mainly on a population of
convenience (Brown, 2014) as it was shared within a
number of teacher groups on social media as well as
emailed to a number of teaching contacts. While the
online nature of the questionnaire removed some
geographical limitations on the potential population, it did
limit it to those active in professional groups on social
media and my acquaintances. In an attempt to counter
these limitations and encourage snowball sampling
(Dörnyei, 2007), those viewing the questionnaire were
encouraged to share it with teaching acquaintances. In
total, 30 responses were received from countries as
diverse as Australia, Japan, and Spain, and from a wide
range of teachers including those teaching Young
Learners, Business English, General English, and
English for Academic Purposes.
Data analysis
In analysing the data, Brown’s seven steps for qualitative
data analysis were followed (2014, p.102). All data was
collated in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet in order to
more easily identify emergent patterns and themes. At
this stage, six responses were disregarded as they
provided insufficient information to be deemed insightful
for the study. The remaining responses were mapped
out into a smaller matrix based on key term “emotion
codes”, advocated by Miles, Hubermann and Saldaña
for qualitative studies into
“experiences,…perspectives…and life conditions” (2014,
p.75). These codes were then organised and
reorganised until clearer patterns were formed. These
were discussed with a colleague to gain fresh insights
before the data was analysed for any testimonies which
“directly contradicted” these trends, in “negative case
analysis” (Brown, 2014, p.108).
Main themes
The main findings of this study are divided into three
main areas: the causes of respondents’ demotivation,
the impact it had, and suggested steps to overcome
demotivation. An overview of these three aspects is
provided in Figures 1, 2, and 3.
ELT Research Issue 34 (February 2019) 30 IATEFL Research SIG (
Figure 1: Overview of causes of demotivation
Experiences of demotivation
Despite the wide range of respondents’ contexts, the
main source of demotivation was overwhelmingly
perceived to be management, with 16 (n=24) citing this
as the overriding factor. The most commonly cited issue
(by nine respondents) was a perceived lack of tangible
support from management. Six teachers felt that
managers seemed “unapproachable” or “distant” while
R19 and R24 said their managers were actively
“dismissive” of teachers’ attempts to communicate.
Respondents appeared particularly aggrieved by the
sense they were not consulted when it came to
classroom matters, such as learners being placed into
classes unsuitable to their level (R9, R15) or being
allocated “unfair grades based on management
“interference” (R17).
A number of respondents felt that management
overlooked teaching quality in favour of other aspects:
three of these lamented that modern teaching institutions
are “increasingly corporate” (R5), “less personally
invested in employees” (R2) and more “interested in
making money” (R17), while a further three felt that
administrative tasks were overprioritised, “eat[ing] into
time” that could be used for teaching duties (R7). R16
felt more strongly, suggesting that being “pulled up on
admin-related duties of my position [as opposed to
teaching-related duties] devalues [them] as a teacher.”
Salary issues were only cited in reference to
mismanagement: R5 (whose pension plan was not paid
on time) and R26 (whose institution used students’
ratings as a factor in performance-related pay scheme,
while also incentivising negative feedback with offers of
a free lesson).
Figure 2: Overview of impact of demotivation
Figure 3: Overview of solutions for demotivation
The lack of developmental opportunities was another
major cause of demotivation (for nine respondents). Six
of these cited a desire to communicate and collaborate
more regularly with their teaching colleagues, all saying
ELT Research Issue 34 (February 2019) 31 IATEFL Research SIG (
that the lack of a professional development program
exacerbated their feelings of demotivation. The
remaining three saw little scope for career progression
after missing out on promotions. All of these issues
suggest that teachers, much like learners, need a clear
sense of progression in their development. However,
given the common lack of adequate advancement
opportunities for teachers, there is often a sense of
“futurelessness” for those who wish to remain in the
classroom (Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2011, p.173). Indeed, it
is interesting to note that almost 75% of respondents
had over a decade of teaching experience, suggesting
that this issue is exacerbated among those who feel the
classroom alone no longer provides sufficient challenge.
Impact of demotivation
The impact that demotivation had on respondents can
be divided into two distinct areas: professional and
personal. For the eleven who described the effect on
their professional lives, six of these claimed to have
“disengaged with the job” (R6), “downed tools” (R9), and
to be “doing the bare minimum” (R19) as they no longer
wished “to put in any extra effort” (R2). This was
consistently due to feeling that management (and, on
one occasion, colleagues) were less committed than the
respondent themselves; all described a sense of
“resentment” (R11), “bitterness” (6) and “disrespect”
(R27) at the perception they had been “cheated” (R7)
into making extra effort which went unrecognised or
In contrast, five respondents said that, in response to
demotivating factors, they focused instead on the
classroom/classroom life: classroom time and the
possibility of making things better” (R29), in “the safe
space of the classroom” (R5). This approach did,
however, lead to four other respondents “pour[ing] [their]
heart[s] and soul[s] into [their] teaching” (R4), and
staying at work late to plan lessons (R12 and R28).
As a result of these “significant sacrifices” (R1), it is
perhaps unsurprising that the impact of demotivation on
personal lives was directly referenced by 18
respondents. For most (13, n=24), this manifested itself
as increased irritability, with seven mentioning that it
directly impacted their relationship with their families,
such as R10, who said they “…found [themselves] doing
a lot of complaining and criticising about work, which
affected [their partner] as well.” Other respondents (7,
n=24) suggested spending less time with loved ones due
to a poor work-life balance “…had an extremely
detrimental effect on my life overall and my family's lives
too” (R11). References to stress and depression were
common (nine and six respondents respectively) and
associated symptoms such as “losing sleep” (four
respondents), “poor diet” (three respondents), and
increased alcohol consumption (two respondents).
Overcoming demotivation
Steps that respondents took to remotivate themselves
depended greatly on their particular experience. For
example, those who experiencing a lack of professional
challenge considered further education (6, n=24) or
other development opportunities (4, n=24), or attempted
to find a new role (5, n=24), while those suffering from a
poor work-life balance suggested “keep[ing] things in
perspective” (R11), “getting away from the office
regularly”, and not “feel[ing] pressured to work more than
you are paid for” (R26). One recurring theme which did
transcend individual cases was communication, through
attempts to improve communication with management
(9, n=24) and develop a supportive “community of peers”
(R22) (7, n=24).
However, much of the advice suggested to those who
might be feeling demotivated was contradictory. While
four respondents advocated taking control and
“confronting the issue” (R17), R13 cautioned others to
“think twice before emailing a gripe to management”.
Five respondents proposed the best course of action is
“not to waste your energy, and just leave” (R4), while a
further four suggested that teachers should “hang in
there” (R6), and focus on “doing [their] own thing” (R3)
and “being the best for [their] students” (R15), given that
“teacher satisfaction should be found at the coalface [i.e.
in the classroom].” (R12).
While this small-scale study can draw no decisive
conclusions on teacher demotivation, it nonetheless
permits an interesting insight into experiences of
demotivation and their impact on teachers’ professional
and personal lives. It was striking that, regardless of
context, management was almost exclusively the
perceived source of demotivation; there was a distinct
impression that many respondents felt they managed to
do their jobs well despite not thanks to - their school
management. That this led in many cases to impact
negatively on respondents’ mental and physical health
and their relationships with loved ones was of particular
This is not only of importance for the wellbeing of
teachers themselves; teacher motivation plays a major
role in the success of their students (Dörnyei & Ushioda,
2011) and, by extension, in the success of their
institution. As such, it would be wise for academic
managers to examine their institutional practices,
focusing on two primary areas. First, clear
communication channels should be guaranteed both
amongst teachers and between teachers and
management, enabling teachers to discuss issues with
management, and allowing management to better
understand teachers’ perspectives and gauge the
general atmosphere in the workplace. Second, teachers
need to be provided with sufficient development
opportunities. Although career progression is impossible
to guarantee, higher rates of motivation are achieved
ELT Research Issue 34 (February 2019) 32 IATEFL Research SIG (
when teachers are empowered with an element of
control over their own developmental pathway (Walter &
Briggs, 2012). The opportunity to carry out classroom
research or explore further formal education
opportunities may be of particular interest to experienced
teachers looking to sustain their motivation.
Finally, while the results of this study may be
unsurprising, it is interesting to note that it proved to be a
useful reflective tool for at least one respondent (R29),
who stated that “responding to this questionnaire has
helped me reflect on my own motivation…it has given
me a chance to consider why I have had episodes of
demotivation and, perhaps more importantly, it has
made me realise I’m not the only one.”
As respondents were not required to specify their
gender, the pronoun ‘they’ has been used throughout
this paper as a singular pronoun of indeterminate
Brown, J.D. (2014). Mixed methods research for TESOL.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Dörnyei, Z. (2007). Research methods in applied
linguistics. Oxford: Oxford Applied Linguistics.
Dörnyei, Z., & Ushioda, E. (2011). Teaching and
researching motivation (2nd ed.). Harlow:
Gillham, B. (2000). Developing a questionnaire. London:
Lynch, B. (1992). Evaluating a program inside and out.
In J.C Alderson & A. Beretta (eds.), Evaluating
second language education (pp. 274 304).
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Mackey, A., & Gass, S. M. (2005). Second language
research: Methodology and design. Mahwah, NJ:
Lawrence Erlbaum.
Miles, M.B., Huberman, A.M. & Saldaña, J. (2014).
Qualitative data analysis: A methods sourcebook.
London: Sage.
Walter, C., & Briggs, J. (2012). What professional
development makes the most difference to
teachers? Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Retrieved from:
Peter Brereton is a Program Manager at Rikkyo
University’s Center for English Discussion Class in
Tokyo, as well as a Delta Module 2 Local Tutor and
External Assessor. He has an MA in TESOL and a
Delta. Follow him on Twitter @BrereTokyo or email him
Narrative knowledging:
Understanding the lives of
teachers and learners
Gary Barkhuizen
Many years ago when I was a doctoral student there
were no research methodology textbooks in ELT
available, so I had to explore readings on methodology
in fields like general education, sociology and
anthropology. I’m pleased I did. I gained a very broad
understanding of multiple research methods, and also
the theory that underpins their use.
About half way through collecting the data for my
dissertation, and reflecting on my reading, I realised I
was probably doing some form of ethnography, what I
eventually called constitutive ethnography – because I
was focusing on the classroom interactions that
constituted the practices of my participant teacher, who
was a first-year ESL teacher in a New York City high
school. I was interested in what was going on in her
classroom during the first six weeks of her teaching
career. During this period I observed her classes a
number of times, and I also interviewed her after each
class to talk about the lesson – what I had observed and
what she experienced. My observations were very much
non-participant, in that I sat at the back of the room,
writing field-notes and audio-recording all the interaction
that she was a part of.
My aim was to look for patterns in the classroom
interaction – patterns that could be associated with her
life and practices as a first-year teacher. The study was
a success; it revealed a number of classroom
interactional patterns that exemplified the difficulties and
successes of being a first-year ESL teacher, and it got
me my doctorate! (Barkhuizen, 1988). However, if I
were doing the study now I would probably change the
methodology quite substantially.
For a start, I was observing the teacher as though she
were a mechanical practitioner: talking to learners,
moving around the classroom, conforming to school
routines, and maintaining stability in her teaching life.
And I observed the teacher from a distance, not
participating in classroom action or engaging with her in
any way. Even though I interviewed her about her
background and about the lessons I observed, what I
missed was her detailed personal perspectives on these
Narrative inquiry of personal experience
My research has since always focused on the personal
experiences of people, whether they be language
teachers (e.g., Barkhuizen, 2016), high school language
learners (e.g., Barkhuizen, 1998), soldiers or prisoners in
multilingual institutions (e.g., Barkhuizen & de Klerk,
... Butler (2007) employed a self-report measure of goal orientations and suggested that sharing problems with colleagues could help teachers to cope with problems independently. This would build a supportive community of peers that was deemed as a way of overcoming demotivation by teachers in Australia, Japan, and Spain in the study of Brereton (2019). ...
... Three teachers in training helped T3, supporting students and reducing the number of tasks and responsibilities the lead teacher had. It seems logical that teachers suggest teaching support as a solution since teachers are often affected by their workload (Addison & Brundrett, 2008;Thorburn, 2017), the number of students in the classroom (Ellis et al., 2011), inadequate administrative support (Kim & Kim, 2015) and lack of support in the school (Brereton, 2019;Dinham & Scott, 1998). This solution could address several challenges and according to these participants, improve their performance and enrich their profession. ...
... In agreement with these proposals, seeking professional help (Hiver & Dörnyei, 2015), observing other teachers and arranging teacher study groups and support groups to resolve problems cooperatively were recommendations proposed by various researchers to solve problems and promote teacher motivation (Dörnyei, 2001;Dörnyei & Kubanyiova, 2014). Furthermore, opportunities for development, adequate professional relationships and ties, professional input, and a favorable environment have been found to improve the teaching profession (Brereton, 2019;Butler, 2007;Packard & Dereschiwsky, 1990;Shoaib, 2004), and could support the fact that this solution, cooperation and communication, enhances teacher motivation. ...
Full-text available
This article explores in-service EFL teacher (de)motivation in secondary state schools in Spain. Possible solutions to teachers' negative professional experiences and demotivation were proposed by 23 Spanish EFL teachers. These suggestions are examined applying Ecosystems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1993). Using this framework, the present qualitative study offers an ecological understanding of the improvements needed in the EFL teaching profession, in which the importance of the context is reinforced since they were found to affect teachers and their motivation. Data were collected through in-depth online and face-to-face semi-structured interviews and recurrent classroom observations. Innovation and training, teaching support, a reduced teacher-student ratio and empathizing with students were some solutions proposed to solve teachers' motivational problems. This ecological standpoint shows that teachers are negatively affected by factors beyond their control and therefore, the intervention of policymakers to upgrade teachers' working conditions was found to be key to protecting teachers' extrinsic motivation and to preventing the deterioration of their intrinsic motivation.
Teacher motivation plays a crucial role in the learning and teaching of languages. Despite its importance, research on language teacher motivation is limited. On a different note, research on teacher education (TE) has exposed the ineffective preparation of teachers for the reality of the classroom. This chapter will discuss implications for language teacher training programs by establishing a link between teacher motivation and TE. This qualitative investigation was conducted in secondary state schools in Spain, and 23 English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers participated. In-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted to explore teacher demotivation to teach EFL, which in turn was associated to teachers' lack of training in inclusive and reflective practices. The findings revealed the demotivating influence of these two areas and explored how these could be tackled in TE while accounting for teachers' needs. By enhancing teacher training, the language classroom could become an inclusive and reflective space for young learners and teachers.
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This report analyses the results of 35 evidence-based studies of teacher professional development, mostly conducted over the past decade. These studies show that effective teaching makes a difference to learning. Crucially, they also provide evidence about what kind of teacher development makes a difference to teachers’ skills and learners’ learning. The professional development that makes the most difference to teachers 1. is concrete and classroom-based 2. brings in expertise from outside the school 3. involves teachers in the choice of areas to develop and activities to undertake 4. enables teachers to work collaboratively with peers 5. provides opportunities for mentoring and coaching 6. is sustained over time 7. is supported by effective school leadership
Cultivating motivation is crucial to a language learner's success - and therefore crucial for the language teacher and researcher to understand. This fully revised edition of a groundbreaking work reflects the dramatic changes the field of motivation research has undergone in recent years, including the impact of language globalisation and various dynamic and relational research methodologies, and offers ways in which this research can be put to practical use in the classroom and in research.
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