But what about teaching styles?

by Ioana Lazarescu

When we were twelve, my best friend and I used to mix English and Romanian, our mother tongue when we spoke to each, to the point where Romanian would only make up about 10% of the language spoken. It didn’t cross our minds what we sounded like to the people around us in the school hallways, parks or queuing up to buy cinema tickets. It was what made us special to each other, summing up the ability to share the same culture in terms of what we read, what movies we enjoyed and what music we listened to, as most of this intake was in English. It also made us feel like we could express certain things better – not just untranslatable English phrases, but also things which were difficult to say in any language, and especially in our own.  We also felt that a particular f-word gave language ‘rhythm’; but what did we know J? Our motivation to learn English was therefore social and even emotional, and we were lucky enough to have a teacher who resonated with these needs and opened herself up to us, encouraging us to learn better and, most of all, to be better people.

There are, however, many learners of English who regard the language as a foreign element into their world. Some of them are made to attend a course by their boss, some of them sign up willing but because there is a practical need for English (which we can say is a general fact in this day and age). Some learners have ‘a good ear’ and are able to develop instincts about the language easily while others have no aptitude for it. And all across this spectrum of motivation, attitude to language and abilities, we find an array of learning styles that combine in countless ways.

My question, in this article, is how does a language school deal with this miso soup of learner varieties and what is the course coordinator’s role in this?

I have no idea whether my secondary school English teacher was assigned to our class based on any criteria or it simply happened to be her turn to take on a new class. But I do know that, in a language school, learners and teachers should be matched together upon careful consideration. In the following article, I will describe what I mean by this, referring to my own impressions of teaching English to adult learners, most of whom are in in-company courses.

The department where I teach at IH Bucharest  is made up of about 40 teachers, and the majority of our courses are in-company. For this reason, the course objectives and materials are usually business-related, but many students wish us to integrate several general English lessons into the course. Before writing this article, I asked several colleagues how they would describe their teaching style. The one idea recurring in all the replies I got was that they mostly pride themselves on their ability to adapt their teaching style to their students’ needs and learning style.

It goes without saying that flexibility and responsiveness on the teacher’s part are crucial in language teaching. But is there a chance that if we focus so much on adapting our style, our lessons and ourselves to our students, we might sometimes go against our own nature? I realise it sounds a bit extreme, and luckily (even though it has nothing to do with luck, but with the professionalism and care of my course coordinators), it has rarely happened to me personally. There is the occasional group of students who insist on doing grammar exercises from the actual grammar book, and, strangely enough, that’s when I feel like a fish out of water, because my preferred teaching style is the one based on conversation and reactive feedback. As one of the ‘conversational teachers’ I am not comfortable when there is no conversation (or preparation for conversation, in whatever form) going on in the classroom, whereas other teachers might relish the idea that students want to do grammar gap-fills.

And here is where the course coordinator comes in. Compiling details about, for example, the level of the group, the number of students, the company they are from, their age and the teacher’s strengths, personality and teaching style is a science and an art. And it is at its finest when the course coordinator can help teachers feel comfortable by assigning them classes with matching affinities, but every now and then this sets a challenge as well.

Students do need gap-fills as well, especially when they are not so confident. No matter how confident I am in my ability to lead speaking lessons and to share the control over these lessons with my students, they will still need to do an exercise on paper every now and then. So, yes, I do enjoy teaching small groups and especially one-to-one lessons, which favour conversation and debates, as well as higher level groups, but from time to time my students bring me back to the basics.

It has taken me about three years and the IHC to figure out what kind of teaching I love to practice. I would like to take this opportunity to encourage teachers everywhere to test themselves, to experiment in as many contexts as possible, to get out of their comfort zone and figure out what they are truly good at in the classroom. While it is mandatory for us to adapt to our students’ needs and learning styles and to respond to these factors as well as it being essential to be versatile and think on our feet in order to decide which is the best teaching style in every particular situation, it is equally important for us as individuals to realise what brings us the most joy and fulfilment and what feels natural in terms of teaching.

Author’s Bio: Ioana has been with IH Bucharest since 2008, when she was in her second year of University, following the European Studies program at the Faculty of Letters in Bucharest. Since then, she has had the benefit of finishing both her BA and MA studies, as well as developing her teaching skills and quite passionately so. After completing the IHCTL course in 2010 Ioana also became a mentor to her newer colleagues, and is very proud that some of her mentees are currently among the most highly appreciated teachers in her school. Presently, she is changing her focus from teaching groups towards teaching one-to-one classes, as well as finding reasons to travel.