Reflecting on 2018: Experiences, Emotions, and Events

Peter BreretonReflecting on 2018: Experiences, Emotions, and Events

by Peter Brereton


The first few weeks of 2018 found me spending every waking hour hunched over my laptop in a cramped study in the Hiroshima countryside with only a small oil heater for company. Putting the finishing touches on my MA dissertation, I vowed that my aim for the rest of the year would be to continue the momentum I had built up during that time. Now, as the year draws to a close, it feels appropriate to pause for reflection; return to experiences, attend to emotions, and mull over events (Boud, Keogh & Walker, 1985), with the aim of clarifying in our own minds what we’ve learned and how we’ve developed. This post is my attempt to do so.

The swing of the pendulum

When it comes to my vow to myself, I feel I have been as good as my word: this year has seen me present at five conferences and have three articles published, with three more (including my first book chapter) in press and a further three at various stages of development. Reflecting on this, however, it is interesting to note that the main achievements I can immediately point to are academic in nature, rather than directly related to my roles as an academic manager, teacher trainer, or teacher. This seems characteristic of my entire year, and while it has improved my understanding of research and my writing ability, developed my awareness of literature in some key areas (e.g. teacher training, teacher demotivation, and reflective practice), and almost certainly boosted my employability in the Japanese higher education context, I feel it has had limited impact on my actual working practices.

Indeed, this year, perhaps for the first time, my teaching has very much taken a back seat. As an academic manager, my time in the classroom is limited and I usually view teaching as a welcome (occasionally unwelcome) escape from my management duties. However, looking back, I am surprised and slightly disappointed with myself that I have carried out no classroom research or formal reflection on my classroom practices this year, focusing instead on aspects of my academic development. There is no doubt in my mind that I am not a manager who teaches but rather a teacher who manages and, on reflection, I feel the pendulum has swung too far away from my classroom practices. I intend to return to my roots next year and am already making plans to reach a better equilibrium between the classroom and the office.

Alone, together

As part of this reflection, I have been thinking a lot about my experiences at conferences this year. Some were great experiences (ExcitELT, I’m looking at you), most were good, but there were one or two that I haven’t enjoyed. While I almost always leave with a few ideas to take away and reflect upon, I am no longer as inspired by conferences as I once was and have begun to approach these wonderfully social occasions with a sense of apprehension.

This has led me to question my own aims when attending conferences. In a recent Twitter discussion, it was suggested that organisers often hold as their main objective the ability for participants to walk away with “activities you can use tomorrow in class.” While I do occasionally get one or two ideas that I can adapt and adopt into my teaching, this is not something I explicitly seek out; indeed, most sessions I visit seem to be more research- or theory-based than practical. I do, however, enjoy attending presentations, and even when I make the occasional error in session selection, this often allows me some quality time to be alone with my thoughts, unimpeded by the distraction of emails, messages, and notifications.

Most people I’ve asked about the appeal of conferences say they value the chance to network, but I don’t feel like I’ve had this opportunity much at conferences. Upon arrival, it often seems like everyone already know each other, with many attendees huddled together in small groups, presenting a very physical boundary to others. I understand people’s enthusiasm to catch up with friends who they may not often see, and I certainly do not mean to criticise anyone, but to a relative newcomer such as myself this can make some conferences appear quite cliquey.

Meeting like-minded people, discussing teaching, and sharing experiences are all things I genuinely enjoy but I guess I just feel like a bit of an outsider sometimes. This is perhaps partly of my own making; I do acknowledge that I do not often initiate conversations with others at conferences. On the rare occasions when I have done so, I have had some extremely meaningful conversations which stand out as highlights of my year, long after the memories of the various presentations have faded. Interestingly, some of the best connections I made this year at conferences were actually with current colleagues. Perhaps being able to skip the small talk and having the time and opportunity to talk to people on a deeper level allowed me to develop these relationships, which have become very important to me on both professional and personal levels. I have no doubt conference-going can be extremely rewarding, yet to get the most out of the experience I feel I need to clarify in my own mind my purpose for attending and decide how I will approach any events I go along to in 2019.

Not looking at what we have to do, but what we have done

This year I have certainly become better at taking on challenges which appear, carrying out research, applying to present, and writing up papers at every opportunity. The enjoyment and professional satisfaction I derive from doing these things is a relatively new source of motivation for me, but I feel this has caused my priorities in terms of work-life balance to become misplaced. Returning from the long summer break, I was unable to tell my rejuvenated and re-energised colleagues of any news aside from the fact that I’d written two papers and prepared a presentation for an upcoming conference. At a reflective practice meeting soon after, my workload was praised by some, who expressed what sounded like guilt or regret that they didn’t “do more.” Pressure from modern society often means that we equate busy to good and free time to bad, but I feel that I have pushed the boundaries of how much I should take on and so I intend to scale back on things next year. I have dedicated insufficient time to reflection, focusing too heavily on what I have to do, rather than what I have done. This year has left me with little time to pause for breath, let alone to reflect. I have realised more than ever that, in order to be an effective reflective practitioner, I need boredom, freedom, and time spent alone.

Looking forward

As the publications roll in next year, I’m sure I will feel that my endeavours in academia this year have paid off. It’s not all about publications though, and I certainly haven’t spent enough time consciously reflecting on my teaching and managing practices. I feel I need to re-learn to sit still sometimes and allow myself to get bored again. Next year I intend to take a step back, reevaluate my priorities, and get involved only in projects I am really passionate about. I may have had a certain fear of missing out this year, but I have also learned that sometimes it’s okay to say no. Having sufficient time for reflection is important and dedicating time to writing this post has been very therapeutic.

The end of a year is always a perfect time to look back on the highlights and the lowlights, the achievements and challenges of the past twelve months, and to look forward to the upcoming year. Thanks to this post, I feel I’ve been able to do this. I encourage my colleagues around the world to do likewise.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

And next year’s words await another voice.” 

T.S. Eliot


Boud, D., Keogh, R. & Walker, D. (1985). Promoting reflection in learning: A model. In D. Boud, R. Keogh & D. Walker (Eds.). Reflection: Turning experience into learning (pp.18-40) London, UK: Routledge Falmer.

Finding My Place

Peter BreretonFinding My Place

by Peter Brereton.


The learning curve faced by teachers when moving into a new context can be a steep one with a number of challenges to overcome, including understanding the course they’ll be working in, getting to know the learners they’ll be working with, learning the administrative ropes, and building relationships with colleagues. Provided the right conditions, the latter is not often a major obstacle for teachers, who often have a strong desire to communicate with each other and whose similar working schedules – both in terms of courses taught and the time they are at work – encourage collaboration and facilitate the forging of both professional and personal bonds.

For new academic managers, however, this is perhaps not always the case. A little over a year ago I became one of four Program Managers (PMs) of a large-scale English Discussion Program catering for almost 5,000 first-year students at a private university in central Tokyo. The main responsibilities of this role – to manage and develop the curriculum – included writing and editing the course textbook, defining and implementing assessment criteria, and managing the training and development of the 40 teachers on the program. During my first year in this role, I kept a reflective journal on my progress and found one of the strongest themes that emerged from my reflections was with regard to my relationships with the people around me.

I was hired as a manager at the same time as eleven teachers on the program and, particularly in the first few months, I often found myself comparing and contrasting my own experiences with my perceptions of how they were settling in. After we completed a week’s orientation together, we went our separate ways: I spent most of my time in the PM office, while the teachers located to the four teacher team rooms to work alongside their colleagues. From what I could see, all appeared to settle in quickly, developing professional relationships with a number of their fellow teachers, and many getting along so well that they began to arrange to spend time together outside of work, too. In contrast, I reflected in my first month that, “I’m not sure where I fit in yet”; my place seemed to be neither with the other PMs who, unlike me, were knowledgeable about the program and were able to support teachers when needed, nor with the new teachers, who had their teaching duties in common. No one else was in the same situation as me and, while I felt I settled in well to the new context and was able to carry out the basic duties of the role relatively quickly, I didn’t feel that I fit in well at first and lacked a particular sense of belonging, reflecting in my first month that my place seemed to be “somewhere between the two groups [of new teachers and managers]”.

If I felt this way, I certainly wasn’t the only one. I noted in my journal that “even some teachers seem unsure as to how to deal with, or even talk to, me – am I their boss, or am I a newbie?” Although everyone was extremely welcoming and very supportive, there were still times when people appeared unsure as to whether they could ask me questions unrelated to work or, at times, even if they could ask for professional support. A year ago I wrote in my journal that “the new teachers integrated with existing teachers [and each other] much more quickly than I did.” Reading back now, I realize that the word “integrate” is perhaps the wrong choice; it is obvious that the teacher-teacher relationship is different from that of teacher-manager.

From the first day I made it a priority to form a working relationship with all of my new colleagues as quickly as possible as I felt this was vital both to my success and my satisfaction in the role. However, I was also conscious that in my attempts to get to know my colleagues, I should try to strike a balance between actually learning more about the people I was working with and appearing to try too hard or come across as too pally; teachers may expect managers to be many things (supportive, approachable, knowledge) but ultimately I feel teachers desire a friendly manager rather than a friend for a manager.

Broadly speaking, I believe I initially put too much emphasis on teachers’ length of time on the program and allowed myself to be slightly intimidated by the idea of interacting with longer-serving teachers, who obviously had much more contextual knowledge than I did. While this was slightly nerve-wracking in the build-up to delivering training sessions, for example, it was also a motivating challenge which I enjoyed. As soon as I got to know the teachers, I realised my fears had been unfounded; they could not have been more supportive. However, this has helped me realise just how intimidating experienced teachers can be and, as I looked back on times when I have been the experienced teacher with a new manager coming into the context, I have since wondered, “could I have done more to help allay [their] concerns more?” In a similar yet slightly less anticipated vein, I was also more cautious when dealing with the people who I discovered had applied for my role. It was certainly nothing personal but, especially during my first semester, when I was perhaps less able to show why I’d been hired for the position, I found myself questioning what their perceptions of me would be. As I imagined, the learning curve may well have been less steep for someone being promoted from within and they may have even felt that they could have hit the ground running more quickly than I did.

Now, as I come to the end of my third semester in the manager role, I feel things have worked out well and I have found my place. I know I’ve made large strides up the learning curve and, although I am still very aware I am the least experienced of the four PMs and my contextual knowledge is still a few years behind those most experienced on the program, I am comfortable with that fact and confident in my ability to discuss matters with others on the program without worrying about how I may be perceived. With two new managers due to begin in our program next spring, I am already wondering in what ways I will be able to support these individuals during their own settling in period. The support of colleagues is, of course, vital in adapting quickly to a new role but this process seems to be a journey that can only be traveled alone. Reflection, as always, will help them (and anyone else in a similar situation), and I will certainly be encouraging that. It will be interesting to learn if their experiences mirror mine in any way and to see how they find their feet and their place within the program.