Heartening a disheartened teacher

Sometimes a teacher gets disheartened, jaded or discouraged when they struggle to improve their teaching without result. They might think “I’m just a bad teacher”, “I’ve already tried that”, “Nothing works for my students”, “It’s not my fault”, or “I just don’t have time and energy to improve.” They are stuck and can’t see a way forward.

How might you hearten the disheartened teacher? I present three inter-related strategies:

Continuum of progress as a teacher

Help them to see teaching as a continuum from worse to better teaching. Everyone is somewhere on this continuum and no one is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; No matter how good they are they could do better, and no matter how bad they are, they could be worse (eg if they were drunk in class after zero preparation).

If they are disheartened because they thought “I’m not a good teacher, and that’s all there is to it”, they become locked into being a bad teacher with no possibility of change. But if they instead see teaching as a continuum, this opens up a growth mindset (Dweck 2015) or an enhancement approach to teaching (Golding and Adam 2016), where one’s ability at teaching is not fixed, and it is always possible to improve.

If they are disheartened because they think “I’ve already tried everything and nothing works” then they will dismiss any suggestions about how to enhance their teaching because they already do that. But if they instead see teaching as a continuum, they can shift their perspective from whether they do or do not, to instead whether they do enough, or whether they could do it better. They move from “I already speak clearly and slowly in lectures, and plan my teaching, so there is nothing I can do to improve,” and instead they wonder “How can I make my lectures clearer for my students? How can I plan my classes better than I currently do it?”

If a teacher sees teaching as a continuum it is easier to identify areas of teaching that are going well, and other areas which could be refined, enhanced or improved. This allows then to be confident about some aspects of their teaching (the literature sometimes calls this self-efficacy eg Bandura 1982), which gives them a firm place to stand while trying to improve their teaching. They can see that they are doing OK, which allows them the confidence to work on the more risky areas where they could improve.

In many institutions there is also a threshold on the continuum which teachers have to cross in order to be considered good-enough (eg the threshold might that 70% or more of their students agree or strongly agree that they are an effective teacher). But ‘good-enough’ is merely an arbitrary point on the continuum, which an institution says is the required standard. If you are below the threshold you are not a bad teacher, and you can always enhance your teaching and get over the threshold.

Progress by developing different teaching knowledge

An additional way to hearten a disheartened teacher is to show them that any teacher can improve by developing one or more kind of knowledge about teaching (Shulman 1987). All teachers know some things about teaching, but lack other knowledge. From this perspective a teacher can be heartened that they know some important things about teaching, and they can see a path for progressing their teaching by developing other knowledge.

For example, you can hearten a disheartened teacher by showing them that they already have the content knowledge for their subject – they know their subject. They also know general teaching methods such as how to explain things so someone can understand, how to organise a powerpoint slide-show, how to ask questions to probe student understanding, etc. However, they may only partially know other things. They might not have enough pedagogical content knowledge about how to teach their subject to their particular students. Although they know how to teach their subject to postgraduate students, and to first year students in one country, they don’t know what will work to teach this same content to second year students in a different country with different students.

Teachers can be heartened if they understand that diverse knowledge is needed for teaching, because it is obvious that lacking some knowledge doesn’t make someone a bad teacher, and because it indicates that access to improvement is by developing more knowledge. For example, the disheartened teacher can get new knowledge about their students, and use this to tailor their teaching so it will work for these particular students. In this way they develop more pedagogical content knowledge about what is the best way to explain this tricky concept to these students, and what tasks and activities these students will find engaging and intriguing rather than boring and irrelevant.

Teach the students you have

A similar way to hearten a disheartened teacher is to help them realise that different groups of students need to be taught in different ways, and so there is no such thing as being a good teacher in all situations, but only good teaching for these students. They can provide good teaching for some students, but not for others. So, they can improve by translating their methods which are successful in one context, for one group of students, to a different context and a different group of students.

If teachers are disheartened because they think that their students are to blame for poor teaching results (“students are not doing enough work” or “students don’t have the basic knowledge they need”), then they will not be able to see anything they can do to improve. However, if they instead see that teaching involves teaching the actual students in front of you, with all their particularities, then they will easily see ways they can improve.

Having poor results for one group of students doesn’t make you a bad teacher, it just means you lack some important teacher knowledge. To improve, you need to know:

  • Their expectations about learning and about their teachers
  • Their preferences and dislikes in relation to learning
  • Their background knowledge
  • Their interests

This knowledge is essential so a teacher can pitch their teaching for their actual students, rather than pitching it for the ideal student, the assumed student, or how the students should be. Once you know your particular students it is much easier to develop effective strategies for getting them to where you want them to be rather than wasting time with strategies that would only work with different students.


Shulman, L (1987) Knowledge and teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), pp. 1–22.

Bandura, A (1982) Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2), pp. 122–147.

Golding, C and Adam, L (2016) Evaluate to improve: Useful approaches to student evaluation, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, (41)1, pp. 1-14.

Dweck, C (2014) How Can You Develop a Growth Mindset about Teaching? Educational Horizons, 93(2), p. 15


About Clinton Golding

Clinton Golding is Associate Professor at the University of Otago Higher Education Development Centre. His previous positions include Philosopher in Residence at Rangitoto College in Auckland, and Thinking Coordinator at Queen Margaret College in Wellington and St. Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, where he worked to develop the thinking of staff and students. He was also a senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne where he received 5 local and national teaching awards.
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