How Future Selves Motivate Today’s Teachers

17th October 2016

 How Future Selves Motivate Today’s Teachers

by Nahla Al Malki, Associate Consultant; MA, DELTA, CELTA, BS Hons.


Anyone who’s delivered some sort of practical training will have experienced that moment of doubt where they question the usefulness of their session. ‘I wonder if they’re actually listening, Will this have any impact on their practice?’ Are among several questions asked. I know I certainly have these thoughts very often.


So, why do some of our teachers/trainees take change and reform on board, why do they innovate, reflect and engage and do it all with ‘flying colors’? And how come others don’t?


What is the factor that ignites this will to change? I’m not sure there is a definitive answer for this, but Motivation is often one that research seems to point to. In their paper on Teaching and Motivation, Dornyei & Ushioda define it as “…what moves a person to make certain choices and to expend effort and engage in action”(Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2011, cited in Lee & Yuan 2014,p.90).  


One theory that might explain this disparity between the ‘excited’, ‘go-getter’ teachers and the ‘passive’ ‘just sitting there’ teachers is The Possible Selves Theory (Markus, Nurius, 1987)(Dörnyei, 2009) and its extension for teacher education (Kubanyiova, 2015).


What is the theory?


The broad theory suggests that each one of us, regardless of his/her field of work, has a combination of three selves; ideal, feared and ought-to-self. So, the ideal self is the person one aspires to be, a bit like the dream version of you, whereas the feared self is your ‘biggest nightmare’ version, the one you try to avoid becoming at all costs. Finally, the ought-to-self is the one people around you (colleagues, managers, friends and family) expect you and put pressure on you to be.


You might be wondering what the difference is between ideal and ought-to-selves? That’s the question that came to my mind when I first came across all these different and sometimes confusing ‘selves’. Well, ideal-selves are comprised of identity goals and desires, and are somewhat intrinsic. Whereas, ought-to-selves hold the teachers’ responsibilities and obligations set by others’ expectations, which can be labeled as extrinsic. Subsequently, the feared-self is a result of ideal and ought-to selves not being ‘lived up’ to.


How does this apply to teachers?


The idea is; teachers need to perceive the gap between their current selves and their ideal selves. The realization of this discrepancy acts as the drive to move them. To make this simpler, think about how you would make a new year’s resolutions. You make a list of things you want to achieve by the end of the year, things that could make a new ‘version’ of you. A slimmer self? A better time-manager self? These are all the ideal selves that you hope to be by the end of the year. Sometime in June, you look at the scale and you realize you’re way off track (haven’t lost a pound!). You then think, no problem I still have 6 months, I’m going to do it! You have/get the motivation to turn things around and achieve your goal. Thus, to help analyze why some teachers with highly similar backgrounds and contexts respond differently to reform and training, we might arrive at some scenarios.  Firstly, the seasoned and experienced teachers who have already reached their ideal selves at some stage in their career and haven’t ‘updated’ these selves. We all come across these teachers in our training rooms, for example, a senior teacher, who has always dreamt of being in that position and ever since getting there, has stopped seeing the need to change or update his/her ways. These teachers eventually reach a plateau that inhibits action towards change (i.e. motivation). Next is the exaggerative teachers who have set the bar too high and over-amplified their ideal selves, leading to a burn out that eventually tips them to give up on fulfilling those desired selves. Finally, uninspired teachers who lack images of possible selves, perhaps due to the absence of role models that they can look up to. Those teachers could also be the ones that ‘landed’ in the education field without really desiring to be there.


So, how can we ‘unlock’ their motivation?


What does this mean for your teacher training room? The school that you run? Or the teachers you are ‘mentoring’?


Here are a few tried and tested practical solutions that you can use once you’ve identified these ‘un-motivated’ teachers;


Visualization & Imagery


Start off your year/term/training course with a world of imagination. Have your trainees reflect on who they want to be as teachers, how will their classrooms look like and what their relationships with their learners, peers and managers will be like. Do this periodically, so your trainees can keep updating their images of their future selves. Urge them to habitually reflect on their careers as teachers, their positions and their sought dreams/goals.

This will help them integrate new ideas that come along and keeps them focused on big picture goals that motivate them.



Role models


Draw you trainees’ attention to people within their leagues who have ‘made it’. Make this reasonable and relatable, don’t bring in examples of the ‘Richard Branson’ of education (though that might not be a terrible idea for other already keen and engaged teachers). Demonstrate with successful educators within their schools (but be careful of creating hostile/negative competitive environments). Encourage them by referring them to people from their countries/regions who have done outstanding work, led successful initiatives with contexts and backgrounds similar to theirs. If possible, arrange for actual visits and meetings with these ‘role-models’. I’ve often heard awe-inspiring comments from non-western trainees who have called me their motivational role-model because I’m a ‘non-native’ English speaker just like them. I for one personally believe in the power of role models since one of my early ESL trainers is the reason I’ve worked to become a teacher educator myself.


Roadmaps & Plans


Support your trainees in creating roadmaps and plans towards their ideal-selves. These are essential to help them realize the attainability of their goals. In her research, Kubaniyova (2007) talks about how creating plans and maps allows trainees ‘access to alternative images’, basically, future-selves they didn’t think were possible for them. Sit down with your trainees/teachers and work on creating step-by-step models that fit their teaching contexts. By navigating through their plans and career-stages, you empower them to work towards achieving their future-selves with strategic actions.


Nahla Al Malki, Associate Consultant; MA, DELTA, CELTA, BS Hons.




Dornyei, Z., 2009. The L2 Motivational Self System. In: S. Baker, (2009) (Ed.) Motivation, language identity and the L2 self. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.


Kubanyiova, M., 2007. Teacher development in action : an empirically-based model of promoting conceptual change in in-service language teachers in Slovakia. University of Nottingham, UK.


Kubanyiova, M., 2007. The Role of Teachers' Future Self Guides in Creating L2 Development Opportunities in Teacher-Led Classroom Discourse: Reclaiming the Relevance of Language Teacher Cognition. The Modern Language Journal 99.3 (2015): 565-584. Web.


Lee, I. & Yuan, R., 2014. Motivation change of pre-service English teachers: A

Hong Kong study. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 27(1), pp.89–106.


Markus, H. & Nurius, P., 1986. Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9),



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