Do you still remember your language classes in school?
I do and I can’t say it’s done a lot of good to my interest in learning language. You probably know what I mean. If you’re like most people, you also haven’t learned most of your language skills in school but after it. You probably even have such bad memories of your schooldays that you actively avoid learning again because you remember nothing but dry books and dull teachers.
That begs the important questions:
What’s a teacher’s job?
What does a teacher need and need not do?
How can you tell they are doing the right things?
In this post, I want to provide you with a mental framework for what you can and shouldn’t expect from a teacher. That’ll help you to rekindle your interest for learning and provide you with a checklist for what you can require from a competent teacher. While you can use these five signs to identify a good teacher in a welcome class, this checklist provides an entire framework that I look for and work by myself.
Since this post turned out to be quite long and I have a challenge to complete, I cheated a bit and split it up into two parts. Today’s part covers what a teacher should do and in tomorrow’s part I’ll be looking at what he needn’t do.
He should provide feedback
Maybe the most important requirement for beginner learners, those that are low on confidence and those that have bad memories of language learning is working with someone that can comfort them and get their confidence up. However, you’re not looking for a person that you’re doing amazing when you’re butchering the grammar in the worst possible way. You are looking for someone that can provide constructive, positive and meaningful feedback.
In practice this means:
- Correcting written work: many students, unfortunately, neglect written work and underestimate how useful and effective it is to improve your command of the target language. Written communication has diminished greatly in our native languages so we think we can do away with it. But practicing writing helps to “think in the language” (many people are obsessed with this) and gives you time to structure your thoughts before putting them down. The teacher’s job is to correct and provide feedback on the accuracy and fluency of your writing, so you understand what you did wrong, why, and how to improve on it.
- Correcting spoken language: it warrants its own post but suffice to say that a big difference between someone that’s qualified and a layman is the ability to correct the right mistakes at the right times. A competent teacher finds a balance between corrections and not interrupting the flow of a conversation.
- Feedback on speaking: besides corrections, you also want your teacher to point out where and how you can improve if he looks at the big picture. Some people speak too slow, others are terrible with grammar, someone might have bad pronunciation and so on. Mistakes come in many shapes and forms and getting a general idea of what to work on is important.
He provides guidance
Closely related to providing feedback is providing guidance. In practice this means what to learn, how to learn and when to learn it. This blog aims to provide you with guidance by telling you how to learn. But say you are already at an intermediate level of Spanish, you also want to know what you need to learn and when you need to learn it. This depends on the type of language you need, the context you need it in and your overall goal. Someone learning Spanish to pick up girls will have different objectives from a teenager learning it to pass his final exams in school.
The teacher’s role is to guide you along this process and steer you into the direction that is most relevant and necessary along your learning journey. Often, this is simple because people want to improve their overall level and hence a “general approach” will suffice. But someone with a bad memory will need different guidance than someone with poor reading skills. This is what the teacher needs to take into account.
He communicates with you
This is sort of self-explanatory and the first and most important thing that a teacher provides. The reason I mention it third is that also a native speaker or even someone with a better level than you can help you with this, unlikely with guidance and feedback.
The teacher is your partner for speaking exercises (always assuming an online 1-1 environment), he’s your conversation partner and he listens to you and actually hears what you say. A good communicator in general can do all these things as well. That’s why I always say that a strong student can work with a poor teacher but a poor student will have a tough time even with an excellent teacher. Good communication and rapport is the bare minimum standard for working with a person. If you feel that you don’t get that, change the person you are working with.
He holds you accountable
Accountability comes down to two points: he holds you accountable to your own goals and provides constructive and meaningful negative feedback.
Every student needs to have goals and the teacher’s role is to keep you on track and remind you when you are losing the plot. There’s not much he can do besides trying to talk sense into you, so in practice holding someone accountable simply happens by the student showing up to class. This is their own mechanism of holding themselves accountable, since this is how human psychology works.
Negative feedback is just as important as positive feedback. I don’t shy away from telling my students when I am disappointed. Making mistakes is not the problem but falling short of your own potential and the standards you and your teacher set for yourself are. Make sure that your teacher makes sure to not go too easy on you but keep a good balance of praising and criticizing you.
(This is just me though, some people are snowflakes and need someone to pad them on the back all the time).
He’s a cultural guide
I think this is a point that most students enjoy a lot and that is really underrated in a teacher. When you learn a language you do not only learn the language but you also open the door to a whole new set of traditions and cultural norms. The better your understanding of the language, the more of that you learn and the deeper your understanding of the culture becomes.
An excellent teacher is not only a good communicator and knows how to explain stuff but also shares his culture with you. I personally want to learn why people in Russia take off their gloves when they shake someone’s hand for example. Or what Spanish people think about feminism. Or if Italians really still are as family-oriented as we think they are. It’s probably one of the first topics that will come up when I study a language and one that we circle back to many times. When someone is passionate about sharing their knowledge of their own history and culture, it drives me even more to learn this language and makes the lessons even more fun.
That wraps it up for today and what a teacher should be like. In tomorrow’s post, I’m looking at what you shouldn’t expect from a teacher and clarify some common misperceptions that people have about their language teachers.