The Better Teacher Issue

What makes a better teacher? Is it the role we play in our students’ learning, or the principles that underlie our teaching, or certain personal qualities we possess (or don’t)? In this issue, our international team of bloggers – Ruthie Iida, Aziz Soubai,and Theodora Papapanagiotou – in their own different ways look for the answers to the question of what can make any of us a better teacher.

Theodora Papapanagiotou
Theodora Papapanagiotou

Teacher, Learner, Supporter

Ruthie Iida
Ruthie Iida

Learning and Language Boundaries

Aziz Soubai
Aziz Soubai

Four qualities to be a better language teacher

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Teacher, Learner, Supporter

Theodora Papapanagiotou
Theodora Papapanagiotou
by Theodora Papapanagiotou

…Or what are the roles of teachers and what can we do to get better?

I am the one who is going to show you how to learn things. I am the one who is going to guide you while you are attempting to learn. I am the one who is going to provide a cosy environment for you to shine. I am the one who is going to set the limits and make you realise that life comes with responsibilities. I am the one who is going to lend a sympathetic ear when you are in trouble and get you back on track safe and sound. Wonder who I am? I’m your teacher!

Nowadays, more and more educators are coming to realize that there is more to being a teacher than just teach. Actually, they become aware of the ugly truth… that a teacher is the epitome of multitasking! Most teachers do not just enter the classroom carrying a book, preaching its holy content and cursing all those who do not abide.

Curious to find out what it takes to be a teacher nowadays? Grab your pen and start making a list!

A teacher is a person who has to keep up to date with what’s happening in the world, possess a vast knowledge about countries, politics, history, technology, and be ready to apply the acquired knowledge and adjust their work depending on the students they have in the classroom each time. An interest in lifelong learning and flexibility are the definitive characteristics of a modern teacher. Role: Source of Language and Knowledge

A teacher is a person who has to create their own materials or adapt the materials which they have to use according to the needs of their students. Scaffolding the learning process requires a lot of thorough planning and painful adaptation of materials, which automatically sets this process as the least favourite for many of us. Role: Facilitator of Learning

A teacher is a person who is going to set the standards against which the generation of tomorrow is going to be assessed. They are going to evaluate learners’ efforts, praise them or warn them, and get them to work harder to reach their full potential. Role: Assessor and Enabler

A teacher is a person who has to be the one to detect any early sign of learning difficulties or problems that may impede their learners’ progress. They are the ones to guide learners and parents and mitigate the problem. Role: Evaluator and Tension Relief Helper

A teacher is a person who has to run a variety of activities for their classes. They are responsible for taking initiative and running projects. Without the skills of organization and negotiation, they would not be able to make it through. Role: Manager and Leader

A teacher is a person who, under unfavourable circumstances, such as teaching in refugee camps, war zones or in areas that have been stricken by complete poverty, rises above and strives for the greater good and the welfare of society. Role: Source of Inspiration

A teacher is a person who has to learn how to handle different situations, deal with students’ problems, be there at any given time, understand, empathise, and take action. Role: Rapport Builder

The list could go on and on, but I need to draw the line and conclude. I know that sometimes money may not be enough, time may not be enough, resources may not be enough, and that your intrinsic motivation may not be enough. But you can only become better if you care about what you do. Teaching is a profession that centres around humans, hence the ability to empathise, communicate, inspire and lead can make a tremendous difference. Just remember that tomorrow is a new day. Do not endeavour to make a difference…BE that difference!

P.S. Sometimes we all get burnt out and find ourselves facing a block. I would like to thank my dear colleague and very good friend Theodore Lalos for his support and for taking the time to edit and even rewrite some parts of this article, enhancing it with his own ideas. It is not the first time he’s been helping me out and I know it is not going to be the last one. I hope I can be there for him when he needs it. That’s what being part of a community means to me!

Learning and Language Boundaries

Ruthie Iida
Ruthie Iida
By Ruthie Iida

Like many other native English speakers who began teaching in Japan in the 1990’s, I was barely trained (a six-week TESOL course in the U.S.) and unprepared to face classes of 40 elementary school students. At that time, there were no guidelines or set teaching materials. I had a mentor named Yamaguchi-san, but after an initial meeting and the obligatory Welcome-to-Japan drinking party, he abruptly fell off my radar screen and was not heard from again.

With no syllabus to follow and a dizzying number of classes to be taught, I kept myself from panicking by doing what I did best: storytelling. Unlike some of my fellow ALT’s (assistant language teachers), I was fluent in Japanese and knew how to both charm and discipline my students in their native language. Attempt to teach forty small Japanese children in English? Far too risky! I couldn’t tell jokes or clever stories, and if they failed to fall for my charm and misbehaved, I couldn’t scold them properly, either. So I taught what would best be termed as “cultural lessons”, using  Japanese and giving key vocabulary and phrases in English. Apparently, this was fine with the Board of Education and homeroom teachers as well, but it certainly couldn’t have been called English conversation.

After my stint in the elementary schools, I opened a private language school for children. I began using more English, yet teaching in a Japanese framework had become so comfortable and familiar that I was reluctant to try teaching by immersion. By using my students’ native language, I was able to explain in detail, to teach grammar, to tell funny stories, to give cultural information, and to discipline little ones who tested my patience. All this seemed reasonable to me, and since I had few teacher friends at the time, no one was around to give me a gentle prod and suggest otherwise.

I taught in a mixture of English and Japanese for over ten years until I closed my school temporarily to attend graduate school in Tokyo. At university, immersing myself in the formal study of SLA (second language acquisition), I began to scrutinize my own teaching style according to the empirical studies I read. What were “principles” exactly, and did I have them? What kind of practical changes could I make when I re-opened my school to ensure that students were actually acquiring language and not just enjoying the songs and games? I was especially curious to see what SLA research had to say about ESL and EFL teachers’ use of  their students’ mother tongue, but there seemed to be no clear answers. My Rod Ellis survey of the history of SLA research included several studies of teachers who used their students’ L1 to teach English. Ellis summarized the findings by suggesting that when it was easier to use the students’ mother tongue many teachers did so, switching back and forth between languages at their own convenience… gulp … just as I had been doing??

Finishing up my TESOL degree, I was determined to give my students more and richer input in English and to challenge them to work out meaning for themselves rather than handing them the explanation in Japanese. Yet when I re-opened my school seven months ago, I chose not to teach by total immersion, but instead to set clear boundaries for language use. Here’s basically how it works.

Lessons begin with a circle time on a large, soft carpet; that’s the “All English area”, where I work on communicating rather than “teaching” per se. Students expect to listen to and respond in English and, though the first few weeks were pretty hairy, it’s not such a big deal now. Why had I not believed my students could do this in the first place? For me, the most miraculous part about the carpet time is that even the youngest children are relaxed and well-behaved without physical place markers such as chairs or cushions to sit on. They come closer naturally when they’re interested in a book or an object, and move back a bit when they need their own space. Since the carpet time is about communication in English, I have stopped using the phrase “Repeat after me!” Actually, it’s a huge relief, as those words never came naturally to me in the first place. Communication is about give-and-take rather than repetition, which in the case of small children takes care of itself through songs and chants. And so I spend the first 30 to 45 minutes of each lesson (depending on the age of the students) turning myself inside out in order to be intelligible and interesting to my students, and to draw out appropriate, enthusiastic responses. My friend Scott calls this “Emotional Positioning”, and when the lesson content is genuinely interesting and meaningful to my students, I know it by their response.

From the carpet, we move to the table for a short snack break. As the students eat rice crackers and drink tea, they exchange stories from their various elementary schools… in Japanese. This is not only allowed but encouraged as group bonding time and also as fodder for my carpet time lessons. I get a feel for what the kids are interested in and what excites them. It’s also a brain break after the intense concentration of the immersion session.

And lastly, we move to the “Phonics Area”, where I use both English and Japanese to tell silly stories about alphabet shapes, guide students through pronunciation challenges, and help them to decode (or code) words and sentences. They’re allowed to use Japanese to ask and answer questions, but mostly they’re absorbed in the sounds of English and engaged in matching them to written words or transcribing them into writing.

Am I a better teacher now, with a TESOL degree under my belt? Well, I’m certainly more passionate about the process of meaningful communication (rather than focusing on class control and teaching in an additive fashion ).  I’ve also drawn clear boundaries according to language learning principles: time spent immersed in meaning-focused L2 input; time spent recharging the brain and relaxing in the students’ L1; and time spent using both languages to work on literacy skills. Most importantly, I’m now hyper-aware of how my students seem to learn best and what things they want to know. After all, that’s the starting point, rather than a syllabus of structures and vocabulary that they should know. And it’s worth all the time and trouble when young learners begin to use language spontaneously. In fact, that’s when teachers like me stop worrying about our own charm and let ourselves be charmed by our students. They’re in the process of forming an interlanguage, and while we may not be the directors, we’re the witnesses. How about that as an awesome reward after a long day’s work? I’ll take it, thanks!

Four qualities to be a better language teacher

Aziz Soubai
Aziz Soubai
By Aziz Soubai

Not just anybody should be in a teaching position. You don’t need to choose a teaching career, because if you have what it takes, the teaching career will choose you. It is not easy to teach and it is very tough to succeed in what you do if you are not interested in it in the first place. The first most important quality in a successful language teacher is loving your job. Otherwise, you’ll experience a total fiasco; no matter how intelligent or knowledgeable you are – you will fail miserably. I’m not going to talk about a certain magic recipe of how to be a successful educator because there is no such thing. Human beings are unique, learners are unique and there is no single way of successfully teaching English. So, what I’m going to do in this post is share with you some of the ideas and insights I gained in my classroom practice over the past few years.

There are so many traits of a great language teacher but I will choose four of those qualities that I think are most significant to be a better language teacher. These ideas have worked for me and that does not mean they will work for every teacher; it depends on many elements and factors, such as a teacher’s readiness to apply the tips, their motivation, and most importantly their teaching context.

The first quality is, as I mentioned before, loving what you do. It means getting up every morning with a burning fire inside you, a huge passion for your job. It means also that when you teach, you feel alive. I believe that, unfortunately, this quality of a teacher cannot be acquired or gained over time. It is either there or it doesn’t exist!

Of course, passion and love for the job is not enough to be a successful educator and teacher. We need something else. Our language classrooms can sometimes be full of uninterested, unmotivated students and this creates additional classroom issues and a huge burden for EFL teachers. Therefore, the second quality to possess is patience. A language teacher should suppress his/her anger and know how to control emotions. Being patient doesn’t mean allowing and tolerating bad behavior. It means teachers have to find alternative ways and strategies to deal with daily issues faced in class. One of those strategies is applying the humanistic affective approach, which in my context works most of the time. In other words, you need to create certain bonds between you and your students. Make them your friends and try to see the human side in them, not just knowledge that they have or don’t have. A ten-minute open discussion with your learners from time to time will undoubtedly make them respect and trust you more.

Once we have ensured the passion and patience are there, students will be receptive, ready and even highly motivated to learn. The next quality  to have is being a good organizer and planner. Good lesson planning is a crucial process in teaching English effectively. Plan very detailed lessons because doing that will make you avoid unexpected learning and teaching issues. There are, of course, so many techniques for creating a lesson plan. I would recommend the following:

  1. Start with reviewing the previous lesson and link it to the next one.
  2. Use some kind of warm up. My students like tongue twisters, which are great for practicing pronunciation, grammar, and other language points.
  3. Write and discuss the lesson objectives with the class. They need to know where you are taking them and why.
  4. Model and instruct. Use examples for your learners and show them how they are supposed to accomplish their tasks.
  5. Use guided practice. Intervene, offer guidance, and help when you see something goes wrong or when you feel that your learners are off-task.
  6. Finish your lesson with a sort of assessment. It might be a short ungraded quiz, writing a lesson summary, or peer feedback and assessment.

The fourth and final quality is trying to be innovative and creative in your teaching style. Attending as many conferences as possible will help you to reach that goal. Share your experiences with the public, seek advice and guidance from mentors and experienced teachers.

Because teaching is a pretty challenging job, we as language teachers must be prepared not only in terms of materials and input but also on other important levels like the ones mentioned in this post. We need to understand our learners’ needs and social background; we are dealing with human beings after all. Doing all this won’t necessarily guarantee great teaching and learning experience. However, it would at least set us on the right track toward success in our professional life.

Extensive Reading Issue

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Do you teach reading, or especially Extensive Reading classes? What are some ways we as teachers could use to help ignite the passion and joy of reading? In this issue, our bloggers Stewart Gray, Chris Mares, and Kate Cory-Wright suggest some ideas and share their tips for a better reading experience for students.

Chris Mares
Chris Mares

Making stories your own

Kate Cory-Wright
Kate Cory-Wright

Teenagers HATE reading!

Stewart Gray
Stewart Gray

Creative and critical follow-up activities for Extensive Reading classes

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