WHAT is Self Esteem?
It’s not necessarily useful to give a detailed definition of SE, and words like self esteem, well-being, happiness are subject to much discussion concerning whether or not they can be defined and how to measure them.
However I find Sarah Mercer’s definition from Exploring Psychology in Language Learning and Teaching interesting. She describes SE as “the overall affective evaluation of oneself”.
There are two important points to raise:
- SE is domaine specific, that is to say it is, at least partially based on your capacities in certain domaines, and your view of those domaines. For example, I’m rubbish at music, but so is everyone in my family, and through coincidence or design, so are most of my friends. So this lack of talent, goes unnoticed, I’m not surrounded by opera singers, feeling bad because I can’t do it. On the other hand, I’m quite good at running and have run a few marathons, none of my family run at all so they think I’m the equivalent of Usain Bolt, and that’s great for my self esteem.
2. SE is also partially based what you believe to be others’ opinion of you, again this is a very subjective judgement.
These two points are particularly important in the language classroom because:
- the “domaine” is language learning, those who are good at languages are seen as “the best” in the classroom, where skills such as getting good results, concentrating, listening quietly, are praised and students who find these things difficult take a bash to their SE.
- Others’ views of you take the form of feedback, which students receive constantly in language learning. Those with a lower self esteem a more affected by the negative bias that will draw them to negative comments rather than seeing the praise and searching for ways to improve.
My point is that, maybe we’re getting this wrong, maybe the “GOOD LEARNERS” are actually this who LEARN, not those who knew it all before they set foot in the classroom?
WHY try to improve it?
This seems pretty obvious, why wouldn’t you want your students to feel good in your class?
- Sarah Mercer also talked about the importance of the relationship in the learning environment, and I agree that it’s very hard to learn in a place where you don’t feel comfortable.
- Maslow placed self esteem in his pyramid of human needs, clearly showing how it is essential for self-fulfillment.
- Research has shown links between academic achievement and SE, so increasing students’ SE increases their level too.
- Raising SE lowers student anxiety and enables better learning.
- Rebecca Oxford has shown that students with higher SE make better choices concerning learning strategies, which in turn improve their communication and learning skills.
It is obvious that SE has an important impact on language learning given the need for trial and error, risk-taking, and especially the need for production in public in order to succeed. This is not the case with other skills, for example knitting where you can practise for years in secret before finally producing the perfect sweater! Or in my case, when I took up running this took the form of walking the dog in trainers and shorts, secretly running a bit if no-one was looking, before daring to jog through the village.
I believe we can turn this link between SE and language learning upside down, and show how learning and speaking a foreign language can actually be used to increase one’s self esteem. This leads to a virtuous circle, where language activities raise SE, which then leads to further success in learning.
There are obviously many ways to improve SE amongst our students, things we do automatically such as welcoming students, accommodating their needs etc. Here are some more specific things you can do:
- Get to know them
Know their name – this seems obvious but sometimes it’s still not always the case, nor is it easy when you have a lot of new students arriving at once. A good way to remember them is to ask students to associate their name to an interest, or adjective that describes them, such as “Rachael the runner” or “Rachael rabbits on”!
Celebrate birthdays – even by just giving them a hand-made card signed by classmates, and singing the song of course!
Know their interests – I don’t know if you saw a recent Facebook clip of a teacher who does an elaborate handshake with each student as they enter the room? I think it would be much more effective to do something much simpler – have a brief conversation with each one, ask how their weekend went, did they win their match, etc.
2. In this class…
Make it very clear what is accepted and expected in your class, my list goes something like this…
In this class good learners make loads of mistakes
In this class don’t know it all already
In this class we look to the future, what and how you learnt before isn’t our priority
In this class we are a learning team
In this class there is no mocking, no criticism
You get the idea, you can ask students to make posters of these ideas. Choosing a class motto is another good way to evoke a little team spirit.
3. Focus on Strengths
Firstly it can be a good idea to discover what your strengths are. There are some good online questionnaires such as on via character.org, or simply take a piece of paper and mark off two columns, then take a while to note down 10 strengths and 10 weaknesses, no more and no less. SE experts suggest you are actually better off focusing on strengths rather than trying to improve your weak points.
Present your Passions – a great way to focus on strengths is to ask students to make a presentation, telling the class about something they’re mad about, a sport, hobby, etc. This is a great way to get to know what makes your students tick and to show everyone that we all have some talent, even if it’s not necessarily learning.
4. Celebrate ALL Successes
Use a class journal, a success box (provide framed phrases on post its), a success poster and get students to write down their successes and then celebrate them together as a glass, guaranteed feel-good factor and a good exercise in team building.
5. Befriend Learning
Encouraging students to take control of their learning is very empowering. It’s important to remind them that learning and progress is not linear, and bouncing back from difficulties is an important part of the learning process.
Exam Wrappers – ask students to answer some personal reflection questions at the end of evaluations, such as “how well did you prepare?” “What would you do differently next time?” etc.
Learning journals – and journaling in general are a great way to get a grip on feelings, whether positive or negative.
Finally, don’t forget the most important element in the language class, without whom there is no class …
YOU! – THE TEACHER!!
Teaching is one of the professions that leads to the most self-doubt, what did I do wrong? How could I improve the lesson? Did I help that student enough? It can be never ending. Of course the best way to lead is by example, and not only do learners learn better with a good dollop of self esteem, but teachers teach better too. All classes are challenging, and we’re always beating ourselves up that we aren’t doing enough for our students, especially those who are more challenging.
So if there’s one thing I would like you to take away from this article it is that to make the biggest difference to your class, you should try out all these suggestions yourself, and give yourself a bloody good pat on the back, you deserve it!