What have you been pedagogically pondering about recently? What actions could you take to improve your own teacher well being?

 I am one of the co-founders of BrELT, a community dedicated to professional development for English language teachers in Brazil. A key feature of BrELT is a Facebook group with over sixteen thousand followers. Often posts to the group are from secondary English teachers venting their disappointment with a student, a group, their school and even themselves and their classroom practice.

I believe teachers should put their own well being first before they can begin to try to improve the quality of teaching and learning. If not, these feelings of frustration can rapidly become a vicious cycle where puzzles become problems and problems in turn become serious issues.  As Sarah Mercer said in a recent Facebook interview:

If the teacher is in the right place mentally and if they feel good about themselves, they are going to teach better. They will be more creative, motivated and engaged, which starts a positive cycle… And if the teacher is in the right place mentally, there’s a very good chance the learners will be too.

What can you do to improve well being in your classroom?

One way of reflecting on your well being and the conditions in which you teach is through Exploratory Practice (EP). A key concept of EP is ‘puzzling about classroom issues by asking ‘why’ questions, rather than rushing into solutions (Allwright & Hanks, 2009). By focusing on these puzzles, an exploratory practitioner integrates classroom activities that have already proven to be reliable into their regular teaching.

To address a pedagogical puzzle, practitioners adapt their repertoire of activities into Potentially Exploitable Pedagogic Activities (PEPAs) (Miller & Cunha, 2016). In this way, teachers experience what is known as ‘action for understanding’. Secondary teachers can greatly benefit from this approach since it works on the concept of collegiality which means striving to heal the rifts between teachers and learners, helping to bring people together in a shared enterprise (of working for understanding), rather than further separating them into different and potentially competing worlds.

Secondary Teachers’ Puzzles

I asked colleagues at BrELT to share questions about secondary teaching that they had been considering recently. Through an exploratory practitioner’s perspective, before attempting to answer these questions, teachers need to identify what their regular and teaching ‘life’ is like.

Drawing on EP principles, I have selected four puzzles and suggested a sample PEPA for each. These ideas, however, are not intended to give straightforward answers. They will instead hopefully enable you to reflect on your secondary ELT practice and experience each situation from your own perspective.

Puzzle 1: Why don’t my students tell me when they don’t understand?

It is important to foster a sense of comfort and safety among students by constantly reminding them that no sincere question is ‘stupid’. The issue here is that secondary students often believe they will be teased for simply sharing doubts.

Chosen familiar activity

Creating a comic strip

Potentially Exploitable Pedagogic Activity

Ask your students to design and write a comic strip where they tell the story of a student who missed a great learning opportunity because they were too shy to ask a question. Or ask them to create a comic in which a student loses marks on a test because they did not ask the teacher an important question.

Puzzle 2: Why do my students copy assignments from one another?

Unfortunately, some students deliberately try to cheat to gain an unfair advantage. Like any group in society, including teachers, there will always be those who look for shortcuts.

Chosen familiar activity

Role-play / Interview

Potentially Exploitable Pedagogic Activity

Tell students that photographs of J. K. Rowling copying assignments at school when she was 12 years old have leaked on social media sites.  Divide the class into J.K. Rowlings and reporters. Reporters have to interview J. K Rowling to find out how she is feeling and what she intends to do with her career. Give them time to write a script, rehearse with their partners  and finally act out the role-play for the class.

Puzzle 3: Why don’t my students like group work?

Secondary level students can sometimes come across as overconfident and  working in groups can end up in conflict. Students often complain about classmates not doing their part or failing at leadership roles.

Chosen familiar activity

Movie making

Potentially Exploitable Pedagogic Activity

Students create a social media video clip that promotes teamwork, conflict management, communication (listening and discussing) and community building.

 Puzzle 4: Why are some students not interested in my lessons?

Some students do not believe that effort will improve their performance or they may not feel challenged enough by their work. There may be a number of reasons why secondary level students disengage. A way to avoid boredom in class is to vary activities so that they have something to look forward to.

Chosen familiar activity

Writing a narrative

Potentially Exploitable Pedagogic Activity

Students write a tale of a witch who teaches her daughter to be a bad student at school but her daughter is a rebel and does all the activities suggested by the teacher. What will happen when her mother finds out?

What can we learn from EP?

EP can change the way we deal with problems by adopting a mindset of open-ended puzzling that provides opportunities for better solutions. EP may also motivate secondary practitioners to reflect more deeply on their own teaching.   Once teachers share their puzzles with their students, they address the problem from within the classroom itself. That will in turn contribute to a better understanding of what is happening in class, the teacher’s role in these situations and how this role can fundamentally influence our overall well being and that of our secondary learners.

To sum up

The collaboration between secondary learners and teachers trying to make sense of their worlds might bring about a greater understanding of learning, teaching and researching. By embracing EP and alternative definitions of what it means to be a classroom practitioner, secondary teachers realise that learners are unique individuals who learn best in a mutually supportive environment. This provides space for meaningful upgrades to good secondary ELT practice to take place.

I would love to hear from colleagues who have experimented with exploratory practice in secondary ELT as well as those of you reflecting on teacher well being. Feel free to post your comments here!


ALLWRIGHT, D. Six promising directions for Applied Linguistics. In: S. Gieve and I. K. Miller, eds. Understanding the Language Classroom. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 11-17, 2006.

ALLWRIGHT, D; HANKS, J. The Developing Learner: An Introduction to Exploratory Practice. Basinstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

HANKS, J. Exploratory Practice in Language Teaching: Puzzling About Principles and Practices. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

MILLER, I. K.; CUNHA, M. I. A. Exploratory Practice in Continuing Professional Development: Critical and Ethical Issues. In: K. Dikilitas and I. H. Erten, eds., Facilitating In-Service Teacher Training for Professional Development, IGI Global, p. 61-85, 2016.

Interview with Sarah Mercer, British Council France Facebook Page, October 2017,https://www.facebook.com/BritishCouncilFrance/videos/10155722716034709/


  • Bruno Andrade

    Bruno is the founding member of BrELT and a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Brazil. He is also a primary and secondary English teacher at a private school in Rio. He holds an MA in Applied Linguistics from UFRJ and has experience in teacher training, course creation, materials editing, events organising and educational consultancy. You can contact Bruno at [email protected]