Being a student, becoming a teacher: The wellbeing of pre-service language teachers in Austria and the UK

October 2021

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education Volume 106

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this study, the authors investigate the wellbeing of pre-service language teachers during their educational programmes and practicum experiences with the aim of better understanding the factors that will not only keep them in their chosen career but will help them to thrive in the long term.
The authors report on a study which investigated the factors that pre-service language teachers feel affect their wellbeing and their sense of satisfaction with their professional roles, taking an ecological perspective in order to gain a holistic understanding of the participants’ wellbeing.

Aims of the study and research questions
This study is part of a larger project which examines the wellbeing of language teachers across their professional lifespans in different contexts.
The aim is to investigate the factors 14 pre-service language teachers in Austria and the UK feel affect their wellbeing.
This study aims to address the following research questions:
RQ1: What factors are perceived to affect the wellbeing of preservice EFL teachers in Austria and pre-service MFL teachers in the UK?
RQ2: How do the two contexts (Austria and the UK) compare in terms of the ecological factors perceived by the participants as affecting their wellbeing?
To answer these questions, the authors conducted in-depth semi-structured interviews with 14 pre-service language teachers in two countries.

Fourteen pre-service language teachers volunteered to take part in in-depth semi-structured interviews which took place in person or via Skype.
The participants comprised seven EFL teachers from Austria and seven MFL teachers from the UK.

Research tools
The authors designed a semi-structured interview protocol to encourage a more conversational style of the interview, while, at the same time, following guidance and direction generating comparable content (Dornyei, 2007 ; O'Leary, 2017).
Semi-structured interviews were based on a protocol which included participants' pathways to becoming a pre-service language teacher, their experiences about their studies and practica, their identity and meaning during their studies and practicum experiences, their ecologies, as well as their future perspectives on their teaching careers.
In particular, questions were designed to explore participants' wellbeing and the kinds of socio-psychological resources they draw on to help them manage their studies.
The data were collected between November 2018 and April 2019.
Before the interview, the participants were also requested to complete a brief online bio-data questionnaire to help contextualise their experiences and to learn more about participants’ demographics, such as age, gender, country of residency, subjects they were training to teach, and their first language.
The focus of this paper is on the analysis of the main qualitative interview data.

Thirteen out of 14 participants completed the online questionnaire prior to the interview.
All Austrian participants were interviewed face-to-face, and UK participants were interviewed face-to-face (n=2) or via Skype (n=5).
The interviews took approximately 1 h each.
In total, approximately 14 h of data were transcribed for analysis, which generated a corpus of 155, 652 words.

Data analysis
All transcribed interviews were put in Atlas ti to be coded and analysed.
In the further analysis, categories were generated, which covered all the codes.
These were grouped under personal factors, such as motivation, enthusiasm, and relationships, and context-related factors, such as university courses, teaching experiences, and perceived teacher status.

Findings and discussion
The current study examined the wellbeing of pre-service EFL teachers in Austria and MFL teachers in the UK.
In this paper, the authors aimed to gain an holistic understanding of the social, psychological, and contextual factors that appear to influence the wellbeing of pre-service language teachers from the two countries and to explore the contextual variance across the two settings.
Motivation and enthusiasm for becoming language teachers, as well as teachers of other subjects (in case of Austrian pre-service teachers), were reported in both contexts as positively influencing participants' wellbeing.
This appeared to stem from the participants' sense of purpose and meaning they found in the teaching profession.
Having a sense of meaning is a defining characteristic of wellbeing and is linked to the feeling of being connected to something greater than the self (Seligman, 2011).
Belonging to and contributing to something greater than oneself is also an important element of being engaged and immersed in one's profession (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2011).
This finding aligns with previous research showing that pre-service teachers tend to have a strong sense of vocation and intrinsic motivation at the beginning of their careers (Day & Gu, 2010; Manuel & Hughes, 2006).
In both contexts, participants sought to maintain their positive relationships such as with their friends, partners, family members, and university or school teachers.
Indeed, devoting their time to the important people or events proved to be a significant contributor to the participants' wellbeing.
Literature shows that supportive relationships are essential for people's wellbeing.
For example, in their seminal paper, Diener and Seligman (2002) assessed the happiness of 222 undergraduates and found that strong and supportive social relationships influenced participants' happiness and wellbeing during their studies. People's professional relationships, such as with colleagues and mentors, are also recognised as having a strong impact on psychological health (Rath & Harter, 2010).
The relationship with mentors was especially important for those in the UK.
Ambrosetti and Dekkers (2010) stated that the interpersonal relationship between mentors and mentees is intense and plays a crucial role for helping pre-service teachers thrive and learn within the contexts of teaching.
When mentors are actively supportive, provide practical ideas, and offer constructive feedback to their mentees, pre-service teachers feel “accepted, welcome, included, and recognised” (Turner et al., 2012, p. 22).
Given that UK participants in this study spent a large amount of time with their mentors, this relationship plays a critical role in determining their professional sense of wellbeing. Interestingly, this finding was absent from the Austrian data.
The most likely reason for this is simply that Austrian participants had shorter practicum experiences and often switched between schools and mentors, and, as such, lacked the time to build a strong rapport to their mentors.
All participants in this study drew on important relationships to maintain and nurture their wellbeing.
Interestingly, the Austrian participants mostly mentioned family, friends, partners, and university- or schoolteachers, while the UK participants also elaborated on the strong connections they have established with their learners and fellow students.
Given the amount of time (24 weeks) that UK pre-service language teachers usually spend in the classroom, it is perhaps not surprising that UK participants had the chance to develop closer relationships with their learners, which are known to be a potential source of positivity and/or stress for teachers (Spilt et al., 2011).
In contrast, during the teacher training programme in Austria, pre-service language teachers spend around 28 h in different classrooms, which in turn leaves them little time to make meaningful connections with the learners.
Furthermore, since UK participants stay in one single cohort throughout their course of studies and students share all their university classes, they establish close connections to their peers.
In Austria, due to the modular system, pre-service teachers can select their courses and their sequence, and therefore there is no coherent cohort of the same colleagues.
In this study, participants in both the UK and the Austrian context almost unanimously regarded workload and time pressure as major sources of stress.
In particular, the participants struggled with time management and organization, a lack of free time, and reported just “surviving” their teacher training, as they battled to balance their university- and private lives.
In the Austrian dataset, participants struggled with their timetable for their courses in the two chosen subjects, whereas in the UK context, participants were mostly trying to cope with balancing their long and intense school placements in combination with their university courses.
This finding suggests that educational programmes need to be aware of the systemic issues in their context and the demands they are facing across the spectrum of responsibilities and roles.
It may be helpful also to offer explicit support on time management and selfcare issues such as ensuring a balance of work and leisure.
Another factor that appeared to have negatively influenced the wellbeing of the majority of participants in this study across both datasets was the perceived poor societal appreciation of teachers and the teaching profession.
Generally, participants felt that teacher status was low and declining.
Interestingly, those who were studying abroad perceived the status of teachers in their current residential country in a more positive light.
Specifically in UK data, participants also expressed their worry about the status of foreign languages as school subjects due to the students’ lack of interest in these.
They reported that students failed to see the need to learn any foreign language because such a vast number of people globally speak English.
In contrast, in Austria, the status of English as an obligatory subject in primary and secondary schools (Eurostat, 2019) as well as being a core subject for the Austrian school-leaving certificate are probable reasons why the Austrian pre-service teachers in this study did not even mention or refer to subject status.
For them, the status of English is societally high and widely accepted as important.
An additional notable negative influence for teachers in the UK was the teaching inspection service, known as OFSTED.
Constant supervision and bureaucracy by OFSTED evoked negativity among every single one of the participants from the UK.
In Austria, an inspection body exists, but it is less prevalent and has a much less significant role (Altrichter, 2017) which can also explain its complete omission from the Austrian data.
In sum, teacher training programmes and the broader educational systems should be taking steps to protect and enhance the wellbeing of the pre-service and in-service teachers to reduce attrition and ensure excellent educators feel happy to remain committed to their chosen profession.
Teacher wellbeing is the foundation of good practice (Mercer, 2020) and it is now time that systemic changes are made with a deliberate staff wellbeing agenda in mind to ensure all teachers can flourish in their professional roles and specifically that pre-service teachers can become the best educators they can be, right from the start of their careers and for the long term.

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Ambrosetti, A., & Dekkers, J. (2010). The interconnectedness of the roles of mentors and mentees in pre-service teacher education mentoring relationships. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 35(6), 42-55.
Day, C., & Gu, Q. (2010). The new lives of teachers. Routledge.
Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81-84.
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European Commission (Eurostat). (2019). Foreign language learning statistics. Retrieved February 8, 2021
Manuel, J., & Hughes, J. (2006). ‘It has always been my dream’: Exploring pre-service teachers' motivations for choosing to teach. Teacher Development, 10(1), 5-24.
Mercer, S. (2020). Teacher Wellbeing: A SMART approach. Oxford University Press.
O'Leary, Z. (2017). The essential guide to doing your research project. SAGE Publications Ltd.
Rath, T., & Harter, J. (2010). Wellbeing: The five essential elements. Gallup Press.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. Free Press.
Skaalvik, E., & Skaalvik, S. (2011). Teacher job satisfaction and motivation to leave the teaching profession: Relations with school context, feeling of belonging, and emotional exhaustion. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27(6), 1029-1038.
Spilt, J. L., Koomen, H. M. Y., & Thijs, J. T. (2011). Teacher wellbeing: The importance of teacher-student relationships. Educational Psychology Review, 23, 457-477.
Turner, S., Zanker, N., & Braine, M. (2012). An investigation into teacher wellbeing during the teacher training year. Design and Technology Education: International Journal, 17(2), 21-34.

Updated: Feb. 08, 2022