In our teaching careers, we all have a path in mind we aim to follow, and ambitions we aspire to achieve. Many teachers often profess an interest in eventually moving away from full-time classroom duties into roles such as teacher trainer, materials developer or academic manager/director of studies. These roles are usually highly sought-after and are seen by many as the pinnacle of a language teacher’s career; there is rarely much more career progression possible within a language school or on a language programme than being the boss. Very little is said, however, about where we may go from these supposed end goals.
Throughout my career, I have used constant self-defined challenges as a source of motivation for continuous development. On reflection now, many of these were distinct steps which defined my career path: from full-time teacher to line manager, to course coordinator, and eventually, in 2017, to academic manager of a large-scale discussion programme at a university in Tokyo. This role included duties I both enjoyed and felt I was good at, including evaluating and writing course materials; designing assessment methods; recruiting, training, and supporting the development of teachers; and busying myself with the various administrative aspects of running the programme. During that time, I learned a great deal, both about management and about myself (see Brereton, 2018). I had little doubt that I was well-suited to the demands of the role and I certainly did not envisage a return to teaching in the immediate future.
As I write this article two years later, however, I have just completed my first term since returning to full-time teaching. I now work as an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) instructor on a liberal arts programme at another private university, this time in the west of Tokyo. An online search for advice on moving from academic management into teaching brings up myriad articles and blog posts offering useful tips for those making the move in the opposite direction – from teacher to manager – yet I could find nothing written about those facing a similar situation to my own. I therefore seek to use this article – informed by a written reflective journal I kept for my own professional development purposes – as a means of exploring and examining my experiences, beliefs and evolving professional identity along this path less travelled: the transition from manager to teacher.
As much as I relished my manager role, I realised that, sooner or later, a return to full-time teaching would be inevitable. The prevalence of non-renewable contracts among university language teachers in Japan is well-documented (see Fuisting, 2016; Rivers, 2013), and my own fixed-term five-year manager contract was no exception. As management roles similar to mine appeared to be a rarity on other EAP programmes in the local context, an eventual return to teaching appeared to be my most likely next step.
In addition, despite the variety of tasks and responsibilities involved in my role as manager, I began to fear I was actually making myself less employable in the long run by only teaching one course, delivering the same lesson four times a week. I had presumed, perhaps naively, perhaps arrogantly, that experience of management – such as training teachers, developing assessment methods and materials, and writing course textbooks – would make me more sought-after by future university employers than those with just teaching experience. In fact, the opposite seemed to be true: unsurprisingly, universities tend to seek teachers with university teaching experience. As my fellow managers approached the end of their five-year tenure and started looking for their next job, I noted with concern that they were not immediately hired elsewhere and I realised how limited our recent teaching experience appeared on paper. As such, I reluctantly made the decision to test the waters myself by actively seeking out a return to teaching sooner rather than later.
Despite making this decision, I was concerned about how I might respond to a full-time return to the classroom. During my time as a manager, teaching was the one part of my job where my heart wasn’t truly in it. My former managers had often told me that classes were a timely break from the hectic nature of management, but I saw teaching as an unwelcome distraction and actively looked forward to the end of lessons when I could return to the more enjoyable side of my role. On reflection this was less to do with teaching itself and more to do with the highly prescribed nature of the programme I worked on, which allowed very little in the way of teacher autonomy or flexibility. This certainly had an impact on how I viewed teaching, as I wrote in my journal that ‘I felt “de-skilled” as a teacher. As everything is laid out [for teachers], little planning is necessary and there is little to no scope or time available for tailoring the course to the students or responding in-class to emerging needs.’ I felt this was detrimental, both to how I viewed teaching and also to my teaching ability. I noted that ‘the lack of challenge in delivering these lessons mean[t] I lost a lot of what I enjoy and find rewarding about teaching’. In addition, I felt that ‘I [had] become rusty and even regressed as a teacher, particularly in areas I value such as creativity and responsiveness.’
While I knew that the change in context would provide me with more autonomy and a new challenge, I still approached the return to full-time teaching with some trepidation. This concern was compounded by the idea of ‘taking a step back’ to a role I felt I had outgrown a number of years ago. Csikszentmihalyi (1990: 52–53) suggests that ‘enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s ability to act … [, and] when all of a person’s relevant skills are needed to cope with the challenges of a situation, that person is completely absorbed by the activity.’ Recognising that ‘a return to teaching will not provide me with the opportunity to use all aspects of my professional skillset’, I was concerned that ‘if I am not suitably challenged in the work that I do, there is a risk that I may find it less enjoyable and less rewarding, and potentially become demotivated or complacent’.
‘I know that as well as adapting to becoming a teacher again, I need to adapt to no longer being the boss.’ Despite writing this, the readjustment to life outside management was only a minor concern for me. I continued, ‘I do believe that my progression along my career path thus far has been facilitated by my ability to notice areas for improvement, my desire to bring about change, and my willingness to actively work with others to do so. However, most of this has been whilst in the role of teacher … [and], in my experience, teachers are actually the more powerful agents of change. Indeed, while I enjoy[ed] the greater responsibility that management entail[ed], I find teacher-led initiatives ultimately more rewarding … [as they] tend to capture my imagination more and are always more likely to succeed than top-down programmes implemented by management.’
“This role included duties I both enjoyed and felt I was good at, including evaluating and writing course materials; designing assessment methods; recruiting, training, and supporting the development of teachers; and busying myself with the various administrative aspects of running the programme.”
Returning to the classroom
Writing now, at the end of the first term, I am extremely surprised that I almost entirely misjudged the transition; almost all of my concerns above turned out to be almost completely unfounded. In the classroom, while my rustiness has dissipated and my passion has returned, my recent lack of teacher autonomy did initially have the anticipated detrimental effect on my reflection-in-action and in-class decision-making. Redeveloping these skills was a gradual process and initially I prepared handouts and Google Slides to guide each lesson I taught. This was a fairly unconscious approach and, on reflection, it strikes me as surprising and not representative of who I am (or who I thought I was) as a teacher.
In my journal, I later reflected that, ‘while this controlled approach ensured I was better able to manage the staging of the lesson, I have also felt too in control of the lesson, with me driving and the students as passengers. As a contextually novice teacher, perhaps this was to ensure students see that I have prepared thoroughly for the lesson, to help me to make a good first impression, to guarantee I cover what is required, and to provide me with a safety net of sorts.’ As I got to know the students and found my feet on the course, I grew in confidence, quickly dispensing with the slides altogether and questioning my use of handouts, only preparing them when I felt they were absolutely necessary. It is noticeable now, looking back over the term, how I have re-emerged as the teacher I believed I was, more attuned and responsive to students’ needs, unafraid to improvise, placing the onus more on the students and always looking for opportunities to exploit their language and ideas as resources.
To ensure students were satisfied with my performance, I gathered anonymous feedback halfway through the term. As I wrote at the time, ‘I felt nervous as I asked for their feedback and as I began to read their responses. [However,] it was such a relief to receive such positive feedback from the students.’ A few weeks later, I returned to this topic, reflecting that I had noted a change in my job satisfaction and in my teaching, knowing that ‘… the students are onside has really given me a confidence boost, allowing me to relax more in their company … I get even more pleasure from the lessons now, and I often catch myself teaching with a real smile on my face.’
In an attempt to put my experience of teacher development to good use, I have worked with colleagues to set up a reflective practice teacher development group, which has so far been fairly successful in providing my new colleagues with a space to reflect on their teaching beliefs and practices, facilitating collaboration and the sharing and exchange of ideas and expertise (Farrell, 2018), and in helping me to better get to know some of my colleagues.
My new colleagues all warned me of the frantic pace and very heavy workload I should expect in the first term. I found the opposite to be true, however, and I rarely felt under time pressure during working hours to carry out my duties to the best of my ability. Reflecting on this in my journal, I wrote that, ‘because of the [management] job, I’m accustomed to a much less predictable day. I would often begin a day with a clear idea of what needed to be achieved only to be waylaid by “brief emails”, “quick questions”, and “five-minute chats”, which also added new, unexpected tasks to my to-do list.’ Furthermore, I found that ‘emails would often come at all hours and the sense that teachers, directors, or administrative staff were awaiting my response often made me feel obliged to deal with requests in the evening and on days off’. In contrast, as a teacher I was able to plan and manage more effectively and more accurately, receiving only the occasional evening or weekend email from students. During the working day, I not only knew which tasks needed my attention, but I could also confidently map out when I would carry them out, safe in the knowledge that a three-hour gap between classes meant I actually had three hours at my disposal to focus on my actual duties.
“Writing now, at the end of the first term, I am extremely surprised that I almost entirely misjudged the transition; almost all of my concerns above turned out to be almost completely unfounded.”
On a career path, the transition from manager to teacher may be seen by many as a step backwards. I would usually be inclined to agree, but this certainly does not feel the case for me in this situation. In this article I have aimed to focus on the change in my role, yet I am aware that it is impossible to separate this from the change in context. I do believe that if I had not been leaving such a highly prescribed context or moving to a context so well-suited to my own teaching preferences and beliefs, I would likely be struggling against the issues which I initially anticipated when I decided to return to teaching. Indeed, this article was originally envisaged as a way of documenting the struggles and challenges of taking that ‘step backwards’ yet, to my surprise as much as anyone’s, it has turned out to be more of a success story.
Reflecting recently with a fellow manager-turned-teacher, we agreed that the move into management was what we both wanted and needed at that particular point in our careers. While I would have been content to spend longer in management, on reflection I also feel that the move into this particular teaching role was what I needed after the routine and repetition involved in managing and teaching on the discussion programme. This was not apparent when I made the decision to leave, but I have been extremely fortunate in finding a teaching job which is a great source of reward, enjoyment and professional challenge for me.
Since the beginning of my career, when I timidly approached my director of studies to ask if I could teach a preparation course for the First Certificate, I have always sought out new ways of challenging myself. This is when I am at my best and at my happiest, I always want and need to be challenged and to feel like I am constantly learning and developing. Whether this is as a manager or as a teacher seems unimportant: I know that if I can find the challenge, I can find the enjoyment in whatever role I take on.
Brereton P (2018) One year in: Reflections of a new academic manager. New Directions in Teaching and Learning English Discussion 6 231–235. http://doi.org/10.14992/00016229
Csikszentmihalyi M (1990) Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Farrell TSC (2018) Reflective Language Teaching: Practical Applications for TESOL Teachers (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Fuisting B (2016) Professional identity among limited-term contract university EFL teachers in Japan. Transformation in Language Education. Tokyo: JALT.
Rivers DJ (2013) Labor contract law amendments: Recruitment indicative of change? The Language Teacher 37 (1) 68–71.
Peter Brereton is an English for Liberal Arts instructor at International Christian University in Tokyo, where he teaches Academic Reading and Writing and other content-based EAP courses. Prior to working at ICU, Peter worked in Germany, France, Latvia, Ireland, the UK, Australia and Spain before moving to Tokyo in 2012. Peter’s professional interests include reflective practice, creativity in the classroom, and teacher responsiveness and improvisation. email@example.com