What does it mean to teach well? What does it feel like to be a good teacher? In this short article, we wish to pose these questions as a way of exploring the concept of intellectual wellbeing, which we define as the positive sense of self derived from an authentic engagement with the ethical, theoretical, and practical challenges of one’s professional domain. Drawing on concepts from philosophy and social theory, and particularly on the work of Simone de Beauvoir, we argue that there is much to be gained in rescuing the concept of intellectual wellbeing from its cruder psychological framing as a checklist of self-help activities or mental aptitudes to nurture. Applied to the teaching profession, we suggest that prioritising intellectual wellbeing is nothing short of a challenge for schools to reconnect with the essence of what an ethical approach to education should be, and to move away from outdated practices and policies that promote a simplistic idea of personal ‘growth’ measured through assessment, audit, and foregone educational outcomes. Against the late-covid, early-recession backdrop of December 2022, schools are faced with teacher burnout, attrition, retention and recruitment crises, and above all by the mental ill health of teachers and students. Current approaches to physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing, while obviously important, are not attending fully to the intellectual sphere. We argue that refocusing on intellectual wellbeing may just bring the teaching profession back from the brink and bring warmth and light, or Henri Bergson’s notion of élan vital, back into the classroom. We begin by setting the scene for research into teacher professional identity before describing the concept of intellectual wellbeing in detail. We then offer an example of how intellectual wellbeing may be nurtured through simple, practical steps at the school level.
Teacher Professional Identity: a tension between theory and practice
In the well established field of scholarship on the professional learning of teachers, there is a rich and flourishing vein of literature that explores the relationship between theory and practice in how teachers frame a sense of professional identity. In the UK context, the debate about how teachers theorise their practice is closely linked to the work of Laurence Stenhouse, first president of the British Educational Research Association, and to the work of Donald McIntyre on practical theorising. Most recently, Trevor Mutton and colleagues at the Department of Education, University of Oxford, have published a 2022 edited volume that reinvigorates debate about the relationship between theory and practice in the professional lives of teachers. Continuing in this long tradition, the latest research in this field remains focused on how teachers can engage in the deeper philosophical, sociological, and psychological questions of education while doing so in a way that attends to the practical realities and demands of the job. In a sector where evermore teachers are training in situ, and where the training period is rarely more than the vanishingly short period of 12 months, there remains and enduring tension between being trained in the techne of teaching — in the practical and technical skills that allow teachers to administer an existing curriculum or behaviour management system — and phronesis, or the practical wisdom that is derived both from experience in the classroom and from thoughtful, intellectual engagement in the underpinning theoretical and ethical propositions of education. From Stenhouse to Mutton and colleagues, there is a consistent scholarly argument that teachers who hold both theory and practice together are capable of far deeper engagement with the essence of their professional lives, and may endure in the profession much longer as a result. Acting as public intellectuals in this way — as visible, audible voices willing to celebrate innovation and critique ill-informed policy or practice — teachers may find a deeper, more profound connection with a sense of professional identity that is both practically and ethically grounded. It is perhaps the framing of teachers as intellectuals that gives them greater social status in contexts such as Finland where, incidentally, education is seen as world-leading in terms of outcomes for children and young people.
Given the focus in the scholarly literature on the tension between theory and practice in the teaching profession, and given the strong claims for the benefits merging these two essential qualities of what it means to be an authentic teacher, it is surprising that this literature gives scant attention to the potential impact on wellbeing of an approach to teaching that is both practical or technical, and intellectual, ethical and theoretical. Wellbeing is, of course, an extremely well-travelled landscape in the world of professional development and learning. Research into wellbeing is extensive and extraordinarily broad in terms of scope, including everything from the more obvious domains of physical, emotional, relational, and psychological wellbeing through to more specific fields such as, for example, human-animal relations or seeking wellbeing through interactions with AI. As much as there is an extensive literature defining the ‘what’ of wellbeing, there is an equally if not larger trove of information available about how to do wellbeing well. One need only search the pages of Medium to find a host of helpful how-to lists of activities that will help to create sustainable habits for greater wellbeing. These are often task- and time-oriented, in terms of helping individuals to find more peace through building a world around them that is ordered and organised around achievable goals. Reflection is another core aspect of the kinds of wellbeing practices promoted in the public discussion about how we might create better, calmer, more centred versions of ourselves. Reflection on failure as well as success, for example, helps to focus on the immediate activities of one’s life rather than creating anxiety around future goals or a fear of missing out on opportunities already passed. This suggests that many guides for how to effectively achieve wellbeing are often focused on individuals, and often focus on one’s actions in the present (it is worth noting here that humanistic psychology, particularly the work of Kaufman and colleagues reflects a more nuanced position on the relationship between individuals through what they might describe as an existential-humanistic approach to psychotherapy).
It is interesting, disturbing even, that among more popular framings of wellbeing the specific field of intellectual wellbeing has received far less attention as a means of finding, if not balance, then greater fulfilment in one’s life. This is not to say that intellectual wellbeing or wellness is not on the wellbeing radar — on the contrary, there are many public scholars who are beginning to expand this field by exploring how ‘feeding your mind’ is an important part of feeling better about yourself and the world around you. Whether labelled as intellectual ‘wellbeing’, ‘wellness’ or otherwise, the concept of remaining intellectually active is also a mainstay of psychological research into physical and mental good health in older age. As such, the current public discussion around intellectual wellbeing or wellness seems to frame intellectual activity as the pursuit of enjoyable activities and hobbies that are intellectually engaging, and which as a result produce feelings of happiness and wellbeing.
In the world of education, Carol Dweck’s concept of growth mindset is perhaps most frequently deployed to engage in questions of what it means to be intellectually well. As opposed to a ‘fixed’ mindset (or as Sartre might put it, facticity in an existential framework) , the lay interpretation of a ‘growth’ mindset is one that encourages individuals to feel confident and optimistic about about their capacity to grow and develop, especially in the face of challenge or adversity. The temporal framing of this mindset is always oriented to some future point of achievement that is not yet quite here, but that will come one day. Initial or continued failure is framed as a positive experience in this sense because it is not seen as the end of the process (as may envisioned, one imagines, with a ‘fixed’ mindset) but rather as a bump in a much longer road towards future success and fulfilment. While Dweck does not employ the concept of intellectual wellbeing, it is clear how being intellectually well is essential to the ‘growth’ disposition that she and may others are championing.
While there are elements of this concept that appear intrinsically positive for thinking about intellectual wellbeing (for example, the idea of perseverance against adversity), it is also possible to see how growth mindset and similar concepts (for example, character education promoting ‘grit’ or ‘resilience’ or ‘good struggle’) may be misused in educational contexts in a way that detriments the intellectual wellbeing of school communities. Specifically, the individual focus of growth mindset and related concepts makes it very possible for individual students or teachers to lay blame solely on their own shoulders when they feel unable to achieve a given skill or master the teaching of a particular class. An individual, and predominantly psychological framing of intellectual wellbeing in this sense can merge with broader discursive qualities of late neoliberal capitalism, within which the goals and achievements that build towards the ‘good life’ are also individually acquired, often in sharp competition with one’s counterparts or colleagues over the scarce resources of success. Trapped in the cage of the individual human mind, a psychological framing of the concept of intellectual wellbeing fails to attend to the world outside, including its discursive and structural influences, to say nothing of its cultural and historical variation. Engaging individuals as collectives in this wider world of thought may help to move the discussion about intellectual wellbeing beyond metaphors of individual growth and resilience, and into a new and exciting realm where the nurturing of authentic selves can only be achieved in concert with others, and with the ideas of others. In diametric opposition to self-help, intellectual wellbeing may in fact be a matter of helping selves, joined together by an ethical pursuit of making a better world beyond the limits one’s own narrow personal telos, or trajectory through the life course.
This brings us on to the components of the concept of intellectual wellbeing. In order to approximate a state of intellectual wellbeing, we propose that it is first necessary to engage in an authentic consideration of self. By this, we do not mean that individuals (in this case teachers) should stare into the dark pool of consciousness in search of essential version of themselves which, once discovered, should serve as the image in which they will work. Doing so is at best spurious, and at worst narcissistic and symbolically violent in the arrogant assumption that within us all rests dormant an ideal version of the human condition, waiting to be animated. Rather, echoing the recent work of Skye Cleary and following Simone de Beauvoir, authenticity may be considered more productively as an intention towards deep reflexivity and self-making, through which one recognises the characteristics of one’s condition and context, one recognises what one can and cannot change about one’s condition, one recognises what one should change or act on to alter this condition, and then one goes about putting these ethical, philosophical, and sociological considerations into practice. Only through action, as Beauvoir might suggest, is it possible to transform an inert portension towards authenticity (one’s inclination towards or vocalisation of the qualities that one believes to reflect authenticity) into authenticity itself. It is not enough to think about a better world: one must, to paraphrase a cliche, become changed action in order to make a better world. In the context of teaching, this would mean that one’s professional essence is not a set of ethical qualities — what it means to be a ‘good’ teacher — but rather an ongoing flow of ethical dispositions articulated through action. To complicate the picture slightly further, we might also suggest that authenticity is derived not only from recognising what one can change about oneself and one’s context, but also recognising what structural forces are in place to inhibit change or constrain action. Clearly, the adaptation of the self is far less simple for those in minoritised or marginal positions from whose vantage point it is clear that the structure of society itself is predicated and reproduced not through facilitating change but through the brutal imposition of stasis. Recognising how sharp and unflinching are the rusted cogs in this machine offers a means not only to be authentic in one’s reflections on the self, but to be active and authentic in one’s reflections on the self-in-the-world. Doing so might be framed as a shift from thinking about individual resilience to productive, collective resistance. Such a shift is particularly important for those in positions of privilege, from whose vantage point the rusted cogs of the wider system are purposefully obscured, or are less regularly in the line of sight, or are simply easier to put out of focus. As Angela Davis put it, one must refuse to accept what one cannot change, and change the things that one cannot accept. We might add here that one might always need to see change as a process in concert with others, where the privileged can only experience an authentic sense of self if they are also willing to admit complicity in making others smaller, and then do something about it — what the French social theorist Michel Foucault might call parrhesia — the act of speaking openly to confront the reality of power. The Indian philosopher Kaustuv Roy articulates this as a change in the angle of vision: if we are able to tear ourselves away from our current view of the world, to refuse to be trapped like a deer in the headlights, then a new reality can be perceived. But we must look into the darkness in order to achieve this new angle of vision — and that is where intellectual wellbeing dwells.
What does all of this have to do with teachers? The feminist thinker bell hooks might argue that this framing of intellectual wellbeing is essential to what is feels like to be a good teacher, because ‘good’ teaching should be about transgression. Counter to the proposition that intellectual wellbeing is derived from feelings of sanctuary, or calm, or order, we suggest that true or authentic intellectual wellbeing must provide shock and uncertainty instead of consensus and the warm feeling of being on time or on task. The philosopher of education Gert Biesta has described this essential quality of intellectual wellbeing as an experience of transcendental violence — a rupture in one’s view of the world that allows one to glimpse beyond the horizon of one’s established knowledge, even if one must bloody one’s knees to scramble to a new vantage point. Authentic intellectual wellbeing is achieved through the challenge of remaining awake and alert to new ideas, even or especially when they do not leave you with a greater sense of calm, order, or tranquillity. Thinking through uncomfortable ideas, grappling with difficult truths, and uncovering new intellectual landscapes is hard work; but, we contest, it is hard work that has a deep and lasting impact on overall wellbeing.
In the final part of this article, we would like to offer some suggestions of how intellectual wellbeing can be nourished in school settings and specifically in professional learning provision for teachers. We conceptualise of these spaces as clearings, because they are intended to evoke thinking through ecological metaphor and to link this particular shift in practice with the wider ecologies of learning in which teachers work. Again invoking the work of Kaustuv Roy, clearings can be seen as a connection between the self and one’s position in an ecology that is historical and discursive, or made up of ideas from the past swirling together in the shifting meteorological patterns of human society in the present. Finding clearings from which one can view these messy, broiling systems of ideas can be helpful in order to make sense of one’s own context, beliefs, ideas, and practices. It can also offer the space for using educational theory to interpret one’s condition, and to reflect on what one can or should do to emancipate oneself and/or others from the rain and the cold outside. In short, we have intended to devise clearings within which teachers can experience professional learning which facilitates intellectual wellbeing through a deep consideration of professional authenticity.
For teachers working in school contexts that increasingly demand adherence to very specific means or techniques of instruction, or prescriptive approaches to what is learned and how, intellectual wellbeing can be difficult indeed to seek out. Through our work with teachers in international schools, since 2020 we have endeavoured to create spaces where intellectual wellbeing can flourish. Our challenge has been to find ways of engaging with teachers who are overworked and battling to keep up with the new and emerging demands of their jobs. The reactive mode of teaching to increasing stress makes finding time for professional learning extremely difficult. In devising professional learning activities for teachers during this time, we were acutely aware of these pressures, and expected low turn-out and unengaged participation. However, what happened was different. While sessions focusing on technical skills or problem-oriented workshops (how to develop more effective strategies for assessment, or dealing with behaviour, for example) remained less well attended and were evaluated as less impactful for teachers, we saw an upturn in the interest of teachers in sessions that were aimed to be more philosophical, critical and intellectually challenging. We offered regular seminar sessions with leading figures from the world of educational research, including Bev and Etienne Wenger-Trayner, Gert Biesta, Stephen Ball, and others including the anthropologist Tim Ingold and the developmental psychologist John Coleman. Connecting teachers directly with these scholars was a means of breaking the artificial wall between the professional learning landscape of teachers (so often associated primarily with ‘fixing’ practice through changes of technique) with the world of educational theory and research. We also offered a series of professional learning programmes where teachers were given the time and space to read research and theoretical academic scholarship, and to engage in thoughtful discussions about this literature as it relates to their own professional practice and sense of self. Professional learning sessions where we confronted more abstract, ‘big’ questions were far better attended and received than sessions that, on paper, were more directly relevant to the problems emerging each day in the classroom. What, we wondered, could explain this seemingly incongruous engagement with the least practically applicable sessions, in a moment when teacher’s time was at a particular premium?
The feedback from teachers was revealing: what they were getting from the sessions was an increased sense of intellectual wellbeing — a sense of brain ‘space’ or brain ‘food’ that reconnected them with the original reasons for their engagement with the teaching profession. Another way to frame this would be a reconnection with telos, or one’s sense and pursuit of an authentic version of one’s narrative arc through life. We may add to this the notion of aidos, or a sense of failing to live up to one’s ideal path through existence. Aidos — a fear of missing out on what one should really be doing to live authentically — may be the wake-up call to readjust one’s relationship to telos. Choosing to engage with deep thinking about professional life in the context of ‘clearings’ may be one way to start this process. While open discussions of theoretical or philosophical questions may in the short term seem like an inefficient use of time, particularly when daily stresses are mounting, we found that teachers instead found more intellectually challenging sessions to be a necessary pause and reset that was also an affirmation of professional identity. If teachers are not intellectuals, then they are merely technicians in the classroom. Reconnecting with a sense of intellectual identity was for these teachers an empowering and enlivening experience. This realisation prompted a reconsideration of what intellectual wellbeing can be in contexts of professional learning.
Developing an authentic sense of professional identity requires an active rather than a passive approach to discovering who we are as professionals. Rather than discovering professional identity as innate or essential, it is more valuable to think of how we actively shape the boundaries of our professional lives. Thinking in these terms offers us the opportunity to think clearly and carefully about what we can and can’t choose about our professional selves, and what we can and can’t change about our wider context. In becoming attentive to these conditions, it is possible to intentionally choose how our professional selves are shaped, and to make active decisions about our professional lives. In doing this, it is possible to develop a more authentic sense of professional identity, and this intellectual process yields a deep sense of wellbeing and empowerment. Linked to authenticity is the understanding that intellectual wellbeing comes not from being a ‘consumer’ of professional learning activities, but rather from participating in the production of professional learning and with an awareness of one’s responsibility to participate actively in this process. Encouraging a productive approach to professional learning means championing the existing experience and expertise of teachers, but it also involves the challenge of developing new skills and knowledge that allow teachers to engage in collaboration and co-production. The sense of ownership over professional learning that comes with this process is another important part of intellectual wellbeing.
While wellbeing is often thought about as something that relates to individuals, intellectual wellbeing is created through dialogue between individuals. Linked in this way to relational wellbeing, intellectual wellbeing is about fostering relationships and community that encourage engagement and critical thinking about teaching, learning, knowledge, theory, and practice. Becoming an active participant in a professional learning community also encourages a greater sense of visibility in this community. Intellectual wellbeing can come from being recognised and seen by others as an important voice in a professional learning community. In this sense, teachers can be encouraged to become ‘public intellectuals’, or individuals who are respected and regarded for their intellectual expertise in the public domain of a school organisation. Intellectual wellbeing is closely aligned with a sense of stability in terms of professional expectations, trajectories, and outcomes. Intellectual wellbeing can be derived therefore from creating safe, sustainable spaces where teachers can refocus on the central challenges of the profession in terms of subject or disciplinary knowledge, questions of pedagogy, and broader ethical concerns about the purpose and future of education. Stability can be difficult to establish in times defined by volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (or VUCA) conditions. Where stability is elusive, it is equally vital to develop strategies for dealing with uncertainty. Moving beyond resilience, the practice of intellectual wellbeing through professional learning fosters productive resistance, because it provides teachers with the knowledge and confidence to respond critically, actively, and constructively to change.
Acting with authenticity means being attentive to who you want to be as a professional, and what actions will reflect this more ideal version of professional self. This is not a process of perfecting one’s actions or completing the process of authentic self-making. Attempting to reach the end of the process is in fact a distraction from the fact that the process itself is the means to nurture and habituate “professional elegance”. By this, we mean a disposition towards actions that are not premeditated or strategic in kind but rather reflect one’s professional essence or the ethics of one’s professional practice.
This leads us to consider how it is possible to establish a new way of thinking more profoundly about professional learning in a time of uncertainty and change. Authenticity is achieved by first reflecting on one’s relationship to the ecology of one’s professional life. Where do you dwell in your professional landscape? How do you travel through it? What is your purpose in it? Ethically, how do you feel about what you add, or take away, from your professional environment? Secondly, one might consider the nature of one’s professional context, and what one wishes to change about one’s context in order for it to better resemble a more ideal world for professional action. Finally, authenticity can only be experienced in acting on one’s reflections about professional identity. In the carrying out of actions that reflect personal and professional ideals, we may see the representation of professional elegance, or a combination of ideals, beliefs, dispositions and habits that form a way of being that becomes instinctive, unthinking, and more than the sum of its parts. Contrary to the current tendency towards focusing only on reflexivity in professional practice, this dispositional articulation of what it means to be an authentic professional necessarily requires that we do not think before we act. Our actions should themselves already show our deep engagement with what it means to be a professional in any given field, and this should be reflected in the elegance or refinement of our practice. It is important to note here that we are not using elegance and refinement as terms that give value to a particular aesthetic of practice — or, put differently, that professional elegance can only be seen in what at any given time is considered to be tasteful or even fashionable in practice. This speaks to a more superficial understanding of elegance that places form over function. Rather, professional elegance speaks to an aesthetic of beauty-in-motion — of the refinement of a craftsman or an artist at work, comfortable and confident in the messiness of the process. In this sense we can see elegance as articulated in the project of crafting one’s professional essence as an artform, or as poetry, rather than as a more simple matter an end product defined by skills acquisition or by painting by the numbers of today’s educational, technical, or professional fashions. The truly authentic professional self is an artform never quite completed. Recognising this about professional learning can nurture a deep sense of intellectual wellbeing because it reminds us that it is the human process of professional learning that should drive our practice.
If it is in the process of authentic professional self-making that the art of professional learning is revealed, then we may also think about how this process is made visible to others, rather than existing as a backstage or a footnote to the more refined public performance of professional identity we may be accustomed to. This is where it is important to consider again the role of teachers as public intellectuals — that is, as inspiring, critical, intellectuals in their respective fields who have something important to say to the public of their classroom, their school, or their community. Engaging with others in intellectual dialogue can be a force for hope and positive change because it highlights that teaching is never either a solitary act or an action solely directed towards its outcomes. In dialogue and discussion, in disagreement and in dissonance, in deep engagement with the philosophical drivers of our actions, it may be possible to move closer to an authentic professional sense of self, articulated through professional practice, and always in visible, public dialogue with others.