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“If opportunity doesn\'t knock, build a door. Milton Berle”

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.

  • Kerstin

    Hi Andrew, thanks for this article – I will be honest, I do make a lot of use of the source language when I am teaching German or French. I believe that my learners have an existing understanding of language and awareness of how sentences work, and that this is invaluable for helping them with structures. Since I often teach German to native English speakers whose confidence is one of their main issues, I find that establishing trust and working with the target language on an increasing scale works very well. When I want to help expand vocabulary or introduce something new, I take the source language away.

    So, I believe a good language teacher will know when to translate and when not to, but not rigidly insist on a kind of hardcore immersion.

    • http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/ Andrew Weiler

      Yes I know Kerstin that there are many teachers who use and prefer translation as a teaching tool. Clearly there are advantages to it, however with my fundamental priority being to assist language learners to recover the learning powers we all developed whilst learning L1, I have found that it gets in the way in the way in the classroom. Sometimes for debriefing it can be useful, but not for teaching. The reason I say that is that translation in effect reduces (and at times eliminates) the need to use and develop other strategies that can be used to get to the same end. These strategies are what learners will need to rely on once they leave the class and work on the language by themselves, especially once they are in the country where the language is being spoken.

      It certainly puts more “pressure” on the learners however I have found by using humour, by using engaging scenarios, by having playful fun, etc even the most recalcitrant learners end up having a go trying to figure out what the heck is going on. :-)

      • Kerstin

        Interesting discussion! How do you fare with this in 1 to 1 lessons? I do employ it as a strategy with advanced students or for limited stretches of time like 30 minutes out of 60 in a 1 to 1 lesson, but again because of the confidence and because sometimes it feels pretty fragile with learners I think it doesn’t always feel right – am I being to empathetic?

        • http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/ Andrew Weiler

          :-) The dynamics of 1 to 1 are clearly different, however the central issue to me remains, “What can I do to help this person become a better language learner?” compared to “What can I do so this person will understand XYZ easily/well?”.
          Translation will come up trumps for the latter but seldom for the former. There are the few that can learn languages no matter what they do, but for the majority struggle to learn languages. They need to be led to using the kind of language learning practices that will help them recover what was their birthright.
          As for your second question, all of us are stuck in our own beliefs and personalities. It can be a mission to see the world in a different way to how we normally see it. I know the way I teach now is very different to how I used to teach. I have done so much training and reading throughout my life in all kinds of areas, including personal development. It all served to better understand myself, others and what is required for change to happen ( within myself and within others).
          Languages are not really the problem, it’s everything else that we need to do with ourselves so we can actually learn it in ways that produces relaxed and easy fluency with accuracy that makes it a struggle for so many people.

          • Kerstin

            Great advice and insight. I’ve been mulling this over for a few days and trying it out and actually did achieve a really excellent group lesson, but also a rather awkward one. I get the feeling that this type of teaching works excellently when you’re not in the middle of introducing complicated new grammar…I mean…how do I explain what the heck the case endings in German are to someone…in German if they’re really new to the whole language? I don’t know. What are the experiences of teaching other languages like?

          • http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/ Andrew Weiler

            Sounds great! Trying new things will often be awkward in the beginning as we are also finding our feet and trying to find what to step on to, so we don’t fall! The more we do “it”, the more comfortable we can get. The danger lies in getting too comfortable! :-)

            All language serves to do is to reflect our perception of how we see things. So the trick is to look for the perception that lies under the language we are teaching. Once I can find that (and sometimes that is dead easy and other times it takes a bit more reflection) then the problem for me is to set up a situation where the perceptions can be differentiated and recognised by the students. This does not involve me telling them what they are. It is for them to see. I keep working at it until there is a “ah ha” moment and then the new language I provide can make sense.

            At the lower levels, this usually involves carefully constructed situations that they can see, touch and relate to. If the challenges we present are carefully calibrated then our students will spend the time sitting at the edge of their seats, trying to sort out what is happening.

          • Kerstin

            Well, this sounds more and more intriguing. Can you show me an example?

          • http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/ Andrew Weiler

            There are in fact a number of factors that need to be unpacked here. Two critical ones are:

            1. the issue of how perception can drive language learning/teaching and

            2. the issue of how this can be taught so that the learners get engaged and stay that way.

            I can sort of deal with the first here. Basically with the first, we just need to stop explaining and think about what else can be done for eg to create situations where the perception is clear enough for learners to become aware of the distinctions. For eg, with the articles. having different sets of coloured pens, some with only 1 black pen, others with many black pens can be used in ways that get the learners to figure out, for themselves, why we use “a black pen” for some sets, and “the black pen” in others.

            With the second it is really too big an issue to deal with right here. I have talked about the critical role of engagement in a number of posts. if you would like to get a better understanding of how this might look in a class check out – http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/best-language-classes/. I have yet to see other kinds of language classes which consistently do such a great job on a number of fronts, including these two.

          • Kerstin

            Okay, so you’re using perception in the sense of seeing the language in action, and making it clear to learners how exactly this describes the world, rather than in the sense of assumptions about their own learning potential. That makes a lot of sense. Great work, Andrew!

          • http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/ Andrew Weiler

            The trick in this really, is that they have to come to it, ie discover it. Once the teacher tries to “teach” it as most of us were taught, or over play the hand as it were, that sense of discovery can happen but usually only in a watered down way. It is one of those things that is probably next to impossible to describe. Nothing beats experience sometimes. :-)

  • Nicole

    Hi Sorry I’m late to this party but I agree that lessons DO need to be fun. I teach adults in a business context and believe me when I say for the most part they drag themselves to the first lesson quite reluctantly. However they tend to find that, with me, learning English is not just about great long lists of irregular verbs and the present perfect. I find out what they like and then try to find material they’ll find interesting. Even if it’s work related, it doesn’t have to be dry, boring exercises and vocab lists. If you look hard enough you can find a way to get your point across that will keep the student interested. And I ALWAYS tell them, “you know more than you think you do” and “if you don’t understand something that I say, it is not your fault (unless you’re asleep!) it’s mine for not speaking clearly!

    • http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/ Andrew Weiler

      Great approach! :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sean-L-Young/100002278152727 Sean L Young

    Telling a student and explaining how to do it is not a successful way to teach. What we need is more teachers and educators reading my books about how to properly teach a language. 30+ years in the teaching business and I go by what the students need to learn and how they learn best. Not by a cookie cutter approach the education system is using.

  • Jenifer Spencer

    Query: will the student who needs any kind of language teaching be able to understand expressions like ‘latent powers’??
    Having said that, I thoroughly commend your definition that ‘engaging is being challenged at a level you believe is manageable’. I think this is a useful definition of the principle of student engagement, rather than the all-singing, all dancing let’s-have-fun definitions that are widely peddled. Firstly, lets work out what is manageable for the target students- then scaffold them to the next level (so that they are progressing) and THEN (and only then) look at ways of making this a positive and fun experience – and that might include some quite serious activities, depending on the needs and level of students- rather than the irritating false jollity promoted by so many EFL textbooks- I think of them as the ‘Maria and Carlos go shopping then go to a party’ genre of EFL teaching!!

    • http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com Andrew Weiler

      :-) well as long as they are learning a LOTE.
      The trick is to make the learning activities not only engaging but make them positive and fun as well, AT the same time. By recognising that we are all the same and that there are universals that pertain to all humans, classes can become places to explore all that, in a semi structured way. ( the lower the level, the more “control” is needed)
      In the same way that Mr. Bean appeals to all peoples ( well nearly all) so too can language classes be places where the ordinariness juxtaposed with the wonders of our lives can become the currency, rather than the never ending series of texts, worksheets and “fun” activities- as you say Jenifer.