Burnout syndrome of the TEFL community

It looks as if it was all over; we seem to be in the twilight of the shiny happy TEFL PLNing era. It’s a bit like looking at the famous painting of The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up. We watch the end with nostalgia; we reflect on how great it once felt to be connected. But there’s this bitterness …

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Recently some strange things happened in the online TEFL sphere. A couple of fellow TEFLers disappeared without a trace from a particular social medium and some folks I know are considering the option too. The reason behind this exodus is that people can no longer take the hostility they witness and/or experience in the online interaction. But what’s more disturbing, some people are suspiciously quiet these days. And then there are the loud and proud ones – those who were quiet up till recently but decided to speak up against all the injustices. By doing so, they opened the imaginary Pandora’s box and since then many angry voices have joined the crowd.

It seems that all the good has been said and so some feel the need to counterbalance this fake niceness and complacency. Their response is brutal honesty. Needless to say, it’s a shock!

But some changes are almost imperceptible. For example, I’ve noticed that people quit starting their comments with the obligatory ‘thanks a lot for stopping by and dropping a line‘. They go straight to the point. Mind you, I don’t think it’s downright rude or something. After all, why should we lavish niceties when our time is so precious?

I’ve also got used to the fact that some don’t even bother to say ‘Hi!’ in the comment box or address the person by a name (not necessarily here on my blog). I’m fine with that provided I know who the person is talking to. Comments do sometimes start with ‘Dear X‘ but this way of addressing has now taken on two distinct connotations: dear = beloved or dear = idiot. It depends on who is replying and to whom. The reader will usually be able to discern the difference after a few lines.

I’ve also noticed that one of my favorite bloggers recently removed the like button from his blog.  Was it an attempt to get rid of a widget so overused in the online communication. It seems to me that some people are so hurt and disappointed that they want to strip emotionality from all the online interaction – negative or positive.

Finally, I witness that like in every dispute, the onlookers tend to favor one side at the expense of the other. For example, they say that if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. I agree. Except that I’m not always sure who the oppressor is or if there is one at all. I’d appreciate more well-balanced views, I guess.

I’m writing this to say that although the online TEFL community seems to be on its last legs, I’m more alive and kicking than ever before. I want to connect, share ideas, and read about other people’s experience. But do people still care? I can’t help the feeling that blog posts offering practical advice and teaching resources have gone out of fashion. It’s rants, like this one, that are in these days. I know it’s summer and teachers are on vacation, but given the fact I follow about 80 blogs and sometimes not a single post pops up in my WP Reader for days is telling. All quiet on the western front. Are people resting or fed up?

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised by the latter scenario. It’s a well-known fact that teachers can suffer from the burn-out syndrome. But I wonder whether an online community as a whole can face the same problem. We used to be so engaged, so enthusiastic. Have we become frustrated by the lack of appreciation on all fronts? Those who were here to support us unconditionally (or PLN) have either left or become silent. Suddenly, we’re standing here, all alone. Or, given the omnipresent threat of sharp criticism, do we just feel too endangered to stick our heads out?

Anyway, I’ll wrap up on an optimistic note. Let’s hope it’s just chrysalis time – the time when one chapter of our lives has ended and the next one hasn’t come into being yet. As Tara Mohr puts it:

This is the stage of old things giving way, the stage of goopy mess, of being neither caterpillar nor butterfly. It is the time of being something in an undefined, transitional, un-presentable state.

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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21 Responses to Burnout syndrome of the TEFL community

  1. Diane Nicholls says:

    I am really enjoying your blog posts and marvelling at your productivity and engaging writing ‘voice’. I’m just keeping my head down for fear of snipers and feeling generally low. But I am reading you and thoroughly appreciating you!

    Liked by 5 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thank you very much, Diane. The process of writing is very enjoyable for me these days, regardless of the topic. I’m pleased to hear that the products of my writing are appreciated too.

      Like

  2. Marc says:

    I love this post, Hana.

    You know my situation. However, just because I have gone dark on big social media doesn’t mean I’m not online. 🙂

    Mastodon feels more like the weird internet I came of age with.

    I love that you are going from strength to strength. Keep blogging! I live reading your posts.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi, Hana,

    I feel you are hasty to speak of the fall of THE PLN. There are, of course, other communities and networks for teachers and educators to participate in, and I hope you don’t feel the rise of the Angry Voice is endemic across ELT.

    Maybe the (fake? Excessive?) niceness is being seen by certain groups as a means of maintaining an ultimately oppressive status quo: don’t challenge or question others because it’s not nice, regardless of what it is you are actually proffering to bring to the table, or take off it. Add such a perception to their other frustrations, and their anger becomes understandable.

    No doubt, it is not as simple as the oppressed fighting the oppressor. Lots of people have worked hard to earn their status, and risk being lumped in, or feel lumped in, with people who put profit before people. One example of these high-status people would be Ms. Millin (chosen as an example with recent blog post in mind). Meanwhile there are people like Mr Dellar and Mr Kikscowiac whose work or views have been targeted a few times. In Dellar’s case that work is his livelihood. In Kikscowiac’s case those views represent the struggle he has doubtless faced throughout his career, not to mention myriad other NNESTs. That they take the recent (and not so recent) criticisms levelled at them personally is no shock.

    The point being, people are seeing an opportunity for change, and a need for change. Alternative and minority opinions are suddenly as valid and viable as the established norms. So, people are demanding change, and they’re looking to see why things haven’t changed, and for people to hold to account. Conversely are people who have benefitted from the system, as it were, who have not sought to keep people down or profit unfairly from others, who stand to lose out from the potential changes happening in the industry.

    So, people will be angry, and they will be targets as much as they target others, but it won’t last. The question is, is it better to step back and let things die down, to continue however they may, or speak up, take some hits, fuel the fire and try to burn away the rot of ELT?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Robert,

    Here are a few random thoughts:

    First of all, I’d like to make it clear from the beginning that in this post, I spoke from *my* perspective. The choice of *we* in the first paragraph was deliberate. I hope that a sensitive reader will detect the trick – that the *we* actually means *I* but anyone can join me in the way I see things.

    Anyway, you say that I’m hasty to speak of the fall of THE PLN. I beg to disagree. After all, in the very last paragraph, I confess that it may not be so bad. It’s not the end – it’s a transition period (which you yourself imply in your comment). We need change and the change is happening right now. All I’m saying is that I’m feeling a bit of nostalgia when I think about the past. A few people apparently share my views – so I’m not making things up.

    You know, I’ve never been an advocate of a play-it-safe approach; I did question others a couple of times in the past, in a polite way, though. I think I’ve stuck my little, unimportant head out a couple of times. If this is maintaining the oppressive status quo, then yes. I plead guilty. We all do our best.

    I’ve been following the work of all the people you mention above for some time now. I respect them deeply – each of them for a different reason. I know one of them personally. I’m well aware of the fact that they all have been subjected to harsh criticism (unfair to my mind). I’ve read a lot about the dire situation in the ELT world and I understand why people feel frustrated. But do we need to make them feel even more frustrated?

    The online ELT community used to be a safe place where people could share ideas. I’ve never considered it a place which would promote oppression. Not in the corner of the ELT world I knew. I’ve never actually mingled with all those big names that are the target of the harshest criticism. I’ve been around ordinary teachers. But rebels sneaked in and started to behave in a way most people like me feel uncomfortable with. To conclude, I’d like to say that I would never have joined the online community had it been in the state it is now. So I understand why people have opted to stop listening to the Angry Voice and leave. …

    Best,

    Hana

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Clare says:

    Hi Hana, I feel you’ve written a very perceptive post here! As far as my own blogging goes, I have neglected it a bit recently as the stresses of ‘real work’ took over, and I think that the time of year does play a part in the appearence of new blog posts by teachers generally. But I really like blogs and comments on blogs as a way of communicating with other ELT professionals, because there is scope for quite a depth of interaction. While reading your post, I started to re-think Twitter. I do like the brevity of tweets, and usually the option of reading more if the short ‘teaser’ catches my interest. But recently I’ve come to see exactly that brevity as a major downfall: on top of the general difficulty of reading someone’s intonation in a written message, it seems there is often literally no space in a tweet for some of the niceties us teachers (I think) tend to appreciate. And given the atmosphere in some key ELT tweet threads recently, I’ve also taken to keeping quiet for fear of being on the recieving end of some of the aggression! As you said in your post, this is probably not the best way to fight for change, but I would guess I’m not alone in avoiding disagreement, on twitter particularly, for the sake of my own mental health!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi, Clare,

      Thank you very much for this comment. It explains a lot and it seems people relate to what you say. “I’ve also taken to keeping quiet for fear of being on the receiving end of some of the aggression!” – this is so sad. I mean, it’s completely understandable that people fear being targeted for saying things others don’t like, especially given the lack of civility we witness these days.

      You know, I’ve never been afraid of disagreement from other people – I’ve only been scared of humiliation. It’s so easy to make somebody feel embarrassed if you know the right words. And some people are very eloquent and good at targeting others.

      Regarding Twitter, I’ve always considered it the best social medium for professional purposes and I still do. I’ve learned a lot using Twitter – language-wise or ELT-wise and I’d still recommend it as the best option.

      And blogging, well regardless of the stresses of ‘real work’, one should always find time to blog. It’s so liberating. 🙂

      Anyway, thanks again for expressing your opinion. I really appreciate it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Clare says:

        I agree with you on still recommending Twitter for CPD; I think I’d just add a warning about reacting carefully to provocative posts, as some people seem to just be out for a fight!
        I also think you’re right on what’s scary; I’m afraid of being publicly humiliated or having my personal life drawn through the mud, which are sadly tactics some people resort to!
        In general, I’m not good with aggressive confrontation, online or offline, but I feel a bit inspired and strengthened by your ‘call to arms’, so I might try to get more confident in actually putting forward my opinion in discussions, even if others have a different perspective.
        Clare

        Liked by 1 person

  6. paulwalsh says:

    Hi Hana,

    Very interesting post. I can agree up to a point with a certain ‘lack of civility’ perhaps, but it’s hard to comment because you don’t say precisely what, or who you think is causing the ‘death of the PLN’. For myself, I don’t fully subscribe to the idea of a PLN because no one has been able to define it for me; and while I see the positive side of PLNs, it also seems to tie in with neoliberal or techno-utopian ideas on education and pedagogy.

    Anyway, that’s not really what I wanted to say. My main point is that I disagree that ‘burnout’ can be directly attributed to ‘bitterness’ and ‘hostility’ that seems to be coming from some ‘dark corner’ of ELT where angels fear to tread!

    The cause of the burnout is not located here, or to be blamed on any individuals, but in the system we inhabit. German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, in his book ‘The Burnout Society’ locates the current malaise in the fact that we live in culture of overwhelming positivity. He argues that a ‘Yes we Can’ culture and our unwillingness to admit negativity leads to stress, depression and the burnout you mention. As he puts it: ‘We have become exhausted slaves in a culture of positivity’.

    I’m not saying that we should be all be pessimists, no. But surely, looking at all sides of a situation – is honest! And take a look at your car battery. It has two poles – positive and negative – and you wouldn’t get far without both.

    https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Burnout_Society.html?id=SQoNCgAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi, Paul,

      Thanks for the comment and the link. I absolutely agree; demons must be faced, not avoided.

      As I said in the comment above, it’s not disagreement (or against-the-grain response) that I fear (and judging from the responses it’s not just me); it’s the humiliation and embarrassment that goes along with it and that some people are so good at delivering (I’m not going to elaborate on this; we all have our own experience). I’m aware of the fact that this fear is my problem and that I should work on ways of handling it but that doesn’t mean other people can do as they please.

      I’d like to say that I honestly appreciate this debate because it offers a great opportunity to learn from each other. For example, you explain why it’s important to be able to handle negativity while I say that too much negativity (in the form of harsh criticism) can result in people leaving without an attempt to understand your very important message. All I’m saying is that people tend to refuse to listen if you demean them. What’s worse, they’ll be afraid to speak up. In such a case, change is impossible, I think.

      Anyway, I’m going to check out my car battery. 🙂

      Like

  7. ddeubel says:

    Nice thoughts, necessary thoughts. I’ve felt the same and do hope that the overall burnout is just social media overload. I do remember the glory days, I ran around with a torch looking for honest men (women) and still do so. But do feel that so many just don’t have the same enthusiasm, drive, and may I say “hope”. I’ve seen my own community EFL Classroom go through this as members became demanding and just wanted to “get the goods” and there is a reluctance to share, help, mentor as time is eroded by all the info flying by us and keeping us thinking we are so busy ….

    I got no solutions, just going to keep up the good fight. And hope many others will also.

    Like any burnout though – best to step back for awhile if you feel it. Step back to jump ahead further later.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks a lot for your comment which offers some hope. I really like the last bit, which to me seems like a great piece of advice: “Like any burnout though – best to step back for awhile if you feel it. Step back to jump ahead further later”. And yes, let’s keep up the good fight. 🙂

      Like

    • eslclaudie says:

      Hi David & Hullo Hana,
      David, thanks to your “running around ” (connecting) in those early days I became a “connected educator”. (Your thoughts on teaching, the Carnivals..) Your sharings were truly my first experience of the power and potential and delight of the internet to allow people to connect and share and create. You are part of my cumulative experience as a human. (Isn’t that cool!) But you are not part of my PLN because I’ve always disliked the term “PLN”. (I sold cars for a year). In business your network is your list of connections that help you do business. The connections I make online fall into a different area. They are not truly personal or “social”, though a small number of these have developed into quite close relationships (move to DMs or personal emails) and I have had the pleasure of meeting F2F with Twitter friends. (I’ve heard the term “parasocial” used to describe online relationships.) My “connections” support me in my professional role (like a neverending professional conference or an extended staffroom break without the calories) I blog daily (Twitter). I follow “events” (like the schoolyard scuffle) and accept that if a group-starts getting very off topic, or very personal I need to back off – sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. I really appreciate the courage and conviction of those who put themselves and their opinions in the public arena knowing that there will be those thst support them -and those that don’t. I can see changes in attitude through the
      give and take – THAT”s a win-win. There’s bonding even in disagreement! I hope the characters in the small ELT “dramas” being played out realise how much they are appreciated because BOTH sides add value. I am a better teacher because of all of you. I think the glory days are still with us. Yours in TESL/TEAL/TEFL Claudie.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. careymicaela says:

    Hi Hana,

    As always, a very thoughtful and poignant post.

    For various reasons I haven’t been blogging or tweeting as much as I probably could so I hadn’t really noticed this decline into burnout or bitterness that you mentioned but you strike me as a very perceptive person so I trust your instincts.

    I’m glad that you’ve posted on it and sparked such an interesting debate. Recognizing and discussing the problem are a few steps in the right direction. Thanks for having the insight and the courage to bring it up.

    Micaela

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks, Micaela. Good for you that you haven’t noticed the tumult. It only proves how illusory and ephemeral these things are. Once you keep a distance from them, you are safe. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Tyson Seburn says:

    Interesting post and feel a little sorry that you and/or others feel there is some sort of negative change within the PLNsphere of ELT online. While I admit to being far less engaged in blogs and Twitter than I was in, say, 2011, having been around it all for this amount of time contributes to my perspective that everything has its ebbs and flows. If I had to pick a time I thought online ELT community waned, it was post-2012, but that’s because the group I initially formed bonds with was very active from 2010-2012. Then if persistent, one sees things come around again with entirely new groups of PLN that interact quite frequently, such as quite a few I notice you interact with alot now, many of whom are in these comments. I don’t think it’s very dire; I see that there has been a bit of turmoil lately in one segment of the ELTsphere, but it’s not new and will be followed by others. I think rather it’s how we choose to engage and whom we do so with that makes our experiences feel one way or another. I’ve very much enjoyed getting to know a different group of ELT peeps lately and hope to continue doing so. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for your words of comfort and your pragmatic view, Tyson. Yes, it’s definitely a matter of perspective and experience. You’ve been around far longer than I have and it clearly makes a difference because you see the bigger picture – you’ve seen some of the ebbs and flows, as you put it. This turmoil was actually my first one so it couldn’t escape my attention. You are right, PLNs are fluid – not only do they grow but they also change. Sometimes this change can be perceived as a loss. Maybe this was the case. Although I didn’t really lose anything in the material sense of the word, I did feel some kind of disillusionment. But I’m optimistic – thanks to all the lovely people I interact with…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tyson Seburn says:

        I totally understand and empathise. Trust me when I say that the disillusionment fades and replaces idealistic with realistic perspectives on the goings-on within ELT (or any other field really). Anyhoo, not really trying to be wise-old-guy cuz I’m not… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  10. ven_vve says:

    Hi Hana,
    I used to always start my comments this way – Hi/Dear X – but have recently begun trying out just diving in: a conscious decision as it seemed most people were doing so and the greeting started feeling a teeny bit.. over the top? Unnecessary? Maybe. I don’t know.
    About the demise of the EFL online community, like some of the others who commented, I think this may be a slightly less productive (in terms of blog posts) time of year. I never blogged often, so am not representative of the majority.
    As far as the negative atmosphere on Twitter is concerned, it’s there as much as you choose to get involved. I try never to get (too) involved; I realize this may be seen as cowardly by some – and I guess it is – but there are always battles of some sort (personal ones) to fight offline and I choose to save my energy for those.
    I sincerely regret that some people have left Twitter (they will know who they are, I’m sure), but I still find it too useful – would find it useful just following people and never tweeting another thing – to leave. I’m sure there are similarly useful aspects of other social networks but am not motivated enough to put in the work required to build something meaningful there – yet.
    Like Tyson, I’m sure the community will become more active/supportive when enough enthusiastic new people join in – which I think is bound to happen at some point – even if it won’t be the exact same community we joined 4 or 5 years ago.
    Sorry to be so late with my comment and I hope you’re having a lovely holiday. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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