How to Recognise 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 keep on learning that way 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. Adjusting how you learn, maybe even stopping that way of learning may be the best thing for you to do.

So let us have a look at what you need to look for when you are looking for a language class. Inevitably you are taking on a language teacher. So what do you need to look for when you are searching for a great one.  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 are looking for.

great teachers

You feel engaged

The first thing to look for is a teacher who provides situations and exercises that engage 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. When you feel this it is hard to drag you away from that. 

Having to drag yourself to an exercise or a class is not what will inspire you to put your best into it.  This kind of learning will not work so well. You will find it difficult to keep paying attention. Day dreaming and wandering attention is a sign you are not being engaged. 

Engagement comes in many forms. One is being challenged at a level that you believe is manageable. This is where you feel you want to solve the problem.  If it only happens one time then you can regard it as accidental. It takes real understanding of many things AND skills to have this happen time and time again in one class. The challenges of course need to evolve and change as you develop over the class and over a course.  It is the exceptional teacher who can keep track of all that and manage it for not only an individual, but also for the rest of the class.

At the more advanced levels it is necessary to have topics and discussions that are appealing in their own right. Giving opportunities for the participants to explore expressing their ideas in a new language. If this is done with sensitivity and care, then the learners’ ideas and person can grow,  as well as their skills in the new language. This is what can happen when you are asked to engage your awareness, your perceptions, your attention and your feelings. You just feel more alive and better able to just be there by being involved in discussions that stretch you in many ways.

Boring happens when the challenge is too easy. Frustration and eventually boredom is what happens when the challenge is too great. That is when you give up. Sometimes it takes a while for the mind to catch up with the fact that you have internally given up. It is best to leave a class or the situation way before it gets to this point. Persistence in times like this is not the best way forward.

The teacher who can keep coming back to the middle way and avoids this is someone who can be of real service to you.

You feel at home

The next thing to look for is an environment in which you think you could feel comfortable. 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 unease you feel seems to be less of an issue. Such a teacher may use different devices to get you to feel at home:

  • not continually pushing you to do things that you feel uncomfortable with
  • using humour to help you deal with the pressures
  • knowing when to let the class “breathe” and when to apply a bit of pressure
  • providing stories of inspiration. 

You see your learning powers grow

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 stay attentive, using your perceptions and your mind by creating an environment where these qualities are enables you to participate. The exceptional teacher knows that this is an essential ingredient to 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. A good rule of thumb is to be alert and  see if the experience in the class is helping you to grow or is it making you shrink. If it’s the latter, the best thing you can do for yourself is to leave the class as this experience will do you more harm than good. Then go out and look for learning experiences that make you feel better about about yourself.

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. Many language learners have taken language learning into their own hands.


If you are interested in getting insights into what you can do to ensure that these experiences help build your skills and sense of self worth, then here are a few suggestions for you to explore:

  • Have a look at Language Learning Unlocked, a book that explores this are much more thoroughly.
  • Book yourself a free consult with me to identify what you could do in your situation to make the best use of your time.