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“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious. Albert Einstein”

What Makes an Exceptional Language Teacher?

Many language learners don’t understand that having a great language teacher is as important as going to a language class.  What happens if the teacher is boring, or if what is taught does not interest you?  Or worse still, what happens if because of the way the language is taught you leave believing you are a poor language learner. If you stay on despite the problems, you may end up thinking, “I need to persevere if I am to learn the new language” even if you are getting nowhere.  I am here to tell you that you need to be very careful, as the way you are taught can not only determine whether you will learn the new language but can also heavily influence you in your language learning for the rest of your life.

So let us have a look at what you need to look for when you are looking for a great language teacher.  Exceptional is what we all want but most of us do not know what that is till we find it.  I need to be quite clear here, so you will immediately notice when you don’t have it!  It is much harder to recognise that you don’t have one, than when you do have one unless you have already an experienced one. Mediocre meals are not recognised as that until you know what an exceptional one is. When you have one of those it will stand out! The higher the standard of food you get, the more fussy you can become with ones that don’t hit the mark. That’s exactly the same in realising that the teaching you are getting is not what you expect.

The first thing to look for is a teacher who engages you. When you are engaged, you want to pay attention to what is going on because your attention and interest are magnetised to what is going on.  Having to drag yourself to an exercise is not what will inspire you to put your best into it.  Engaging comes in many forms. One is being challenged at a level that you believe is manageable. I want you to dwell on this for a moment. The challenge needs to evolve and change as you develop.  It is the exceptional teacher who can keep track of that and manage that for not only an individual, but also for the individuals in a class.

Boring happens when it’s too far either side of that mark. Another way that can engage are exercises, materials or topics that are appealing in their own right. This is what happens when you are asked to engage your awareness, your perceptions, your attention and your feelings. You just feel more alive and better able to learn by participating.

The next thing to look for is an environment that you think you could feel comfortable in. Language classes may well not be comfortable because learning new things can be challenging and may cause you some discomfort at times however the exceptional teacher makes you feel that you belong there so that any discomfort you feel seems to be less of an issue. Such a teacher may use humour to help you get over these feelings. 

Another important characteristic you are looking for is a teacher who works towards you recognising and implementing your latent powers as a language learner.  We all have them, just that some are well hidden!  The exercises s/he gives challenge you to work things out (at your level), cause you to think about what the answers could be and the exercises always seem to evolve and develop in line with your development.  S/he does not spoon feed you or give you “mindless” exercises, but encourages you to use your mind all the time “forcing” you to be more attentive by the exercises s/he gives, as s/he knows that this is an essential ingredient in effective language learning.

As the classes unfold, you come to feel more confident in yourself, not because of his/her words to you, but because of your deeds.  You come to see that you can work things out and improve – your language and language learning is improving all the time. Your progress is measured by your control of the language which seems to be increasing at an increasing rate because you are gaining entry into the scaffolding which holds the language together. Your grasp of this is firmly based in what you can do without anyone or anything holding your hand.

The class is in the target language ALL the time and translation as a means to learning is not used. You can then learn other ways to approach language learning that you might never have before even thought of.  Translation has a place, but relying on it in class shortchanges the learners.

The outstanding language class of course is inevitably the creation of the teacher. These teachers need to be looked for in the same way you look for an expert in anything.

These are just a few signposts I have put up, but do look for them as when you find a great language teacher who has some (hopefully all!) of these characteristics, you will become a very satisfied and happy language learner. Few language teachers will have all of these characteristics, so in a nutshell, be alert to see if the experience in the class is helping you to to grow or is it making you shrink. If it’s the latter, the best thing you can do for yourself is to go and look for another class as this experience will do you more harm than good.

For the ones of you whose needs are not so pressing, keep looking and “demanding” the best. The results will be well worth it. Of course though do not forget that you can improve your own language learning without the help of a teacher. If you are interested in getting insights into this, do have a look at Language Learning Unlocked,  a book that explores this topic much more thoroughly.


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