Timeless values for new teachers

By Madeleine Hill

What makes a good teacher? If you ask new teachers the question, the answers will be varied, because being a good teacher involves many different aspects.

As I edge towards the end of my teaching career, a career that has spanned 40-odd years of teaching various disciplines, ranging from drama and effective communication to TEFL teaching, I’ve often asked myself the same question: what has made me the teacher that I’ve become? Comments I’ve received from students, such as “You are the best teacher I’ve ever had”, “You are so kind and caring”, “Thank you so much for believing in me” and “I’ll never forget you” all lead me to think I must have done something right! But what has been the key?

So I frequently pause to reflect on the things that have really helped me achieve success, and in so doing, I feel it is perhaps worthwhile sharing them with other teachers starting out on their career.

This article is not about tips on how to teach grammar, speaking, listening, reading and writing skills, but more on developing some of the “softer” skills that enhance whatever you are doing in the classroom.

Beyond teaching techniques

The first of these is undoubtedly passion and enthusiasm. Passion is a much-overused word these days, yet having passion and enthusiasm for your work is infectious and can inspire those within your charge. If you don’t show enthusiasm, can you really expect your students to?

The second skill is developing creativity. This word often causes wails of uncertainty and fear. Creativity is frequently thought of as a special talent some people are blessed with. But it’s something that can be actively cultivated. As you slowly acquire a thorough knowledge of your subject, you find that you’ve developed a basic framework from which fresh ideas can spring. This allows the lesson to be taken “off the page” of the coursebook and brought to life in a meaningful and memorable way.

The third skill, and perhaps the most important of all, is developing care and interest. There are many reasons why individuals choose to come and learn English, and it is of the utmost importance to assess those needs accurately. This means developing good listening skills and taking the time to listen to each individual. While the class is working on assignments, over time it is not difficult to arrange a one-to-one chat with each of them. Some students come to an English-speaking country to learn the language, experience a new culture, but also to have a good time (though of course many learner in their home countries). Others have a more goal-oriented focus, typically to advance their careers. The needs, motivations and expectations are vastly different, and they require different approaches.

Show a genuine interest in your students as real people who all have different abilities, interests and wants, both inside and outside the classroom. Be ready to listen to their problems; they cannot absorb knowledge if they are distracted.

Take the case of a middle-aged lady who had never travelled before. On arrival in our city she found that her room was not like the one she had been promised, and she was unhappy about it. She also had no means of contacting her family, as her mobile phone did not work. Instead of teaching her in her private afternoon class, I spent the whole of her first lesson advising her to discuss her unhappiness about the room with her host, and I went with her to buy a new sim-card for her phone. The lady in question had totally wasted her morning group class as a result of these concerns. She was quite incapable of concentrating on the lesson. But now she was able to relax and was ready to start her course. She couldn’t thank me enough, and a warm relationship was quickly established.

Too often, teachers believe that in order to gain respect they have to assert their position and power over the student. Obviously rules and boundaries are necessary so as to ensure a good learning environment, but that does not mean you should lose your humanity. As one young student said to me, many years ago “Respect is earned, not automatic”.

In building relationships, encourage your students to talk about their interests and feelings, maybe first as a pair-work activity which then may open up into a class discussion; you could have a full “gripe session”! Sometimes it may be worth introducing a topic yourself, such as “Home-sickness”. Do they know what it means? Have they experienced it, and discuss examples.

In class discussions, remember what students have told you, and refer back to these things, using them as examples for grammar points, e.g. “As soon as Dieter had unpacked his things, he climbed up Lions Head” – a good example of the Past Perfect!

“Jose was tired this morning because he had been partying until 5 o’clock” – Past perfect continuous! Personalising examples in this way helps students remember the grammar point and, in addition, it helps class bonding.

Think of possibilities for a game. “All those who enjoy reading activities form a group on the left. Those who don’t, go to the right. Now, within your two groups, in pairs, discuss why you do or don’t enjoy reading. Then find a partner from the opposite group, and try to persuade each other about your own viewpoint”. (This works really well).

Using certain facial expressions to show your feelings and creating little rituals are fun ideas, to help foster familiarity and togetherness in the classroom.

Notice any victories, however small, and mention them openly in the classroom: “Liza, you were so much better at speaking today.” You will see Liza’s face light up, and she will literally grow in confidence and stature before your eyes.

Furthermore, factors such as age, fear of appearing foolish in front of others, and lack of self-confidence come into play. These need to be recognised and handled sensitively. It is well known that older people find it far more difficult to start learning or improve their knowledge of a foreign language and often feel intimidated by being in a classroom with young, vibrant learners who pick things up quickly. These self-same people may be highly qualified professionals who suddenly find ‘the floor being swept from under their feet’; they’ve suddenly lost the ability to communicate and feel like toddlers again. The experience can be traumatic, as I have witnessed on several occasions. Without understanding and assistance on the part of the teacher, this can lead to feelings of frustration and failure, which will undoubtedly block further progress.

It goes without saying that juggling the various needs of a big class is no easy task, but it does need to be addressed. Sometimes, this could even mean suggesting to a student that they’re in the wrong class, and that an alternative programme may be more beneficial. This shows that you are not only aware of their needs but also interested in their progress.

In discussing methods and strategies to do certain exercises, use the skills of the students to help the others. On many occasions, a student has shared a brilliant way of doing something, which has become the key to another’s success. Thank and congratulate that student. Ask the others to give him a round of applause, and let him take a real theatrical bow. Over-the-top drama stuff? Yes, certainly, but it works!!

Be prepared to admit your own mistakes. I myself have a real eyesight problem, and it often causes me to make errors. I have learnt over many years not to hide it, but to ask my students to help me overcome the difficulties this presents. “Silly me, I’ve lost the piece of paper I was going to use. Can someone help?”. By doing so you will give students the confidence to admit their own mistakes and not be on the defensive.

I am also what is now called a “digital immigrant” (I was an experienced teacher long before the arrival of the Internet or Smart Phones), and I sometimes struggle to get access to listening material on mp3 files, or whatever. But, if I admit to these inadequacies, I can usually rely on one of my “digital native” students to rush to my assistance. Again, good bonding stuff!

Above all, by being aware of and acting on the issues discussed above you are creating a non-threatening environment of trust and respect, where students feel safe enough to make mistakes without feeling in any way demeaned. Rather, you are encouraging them to believe in their own ability. In many cases, they will surprise themselves (and sometimes you!), and succeed beyond their own expectations.

Unfortunately, these skills are often sadly neglected. Yet I have been told by my students, time and time again, how much they have appreciated these “softer” skills. Far from being merely “nice to have”, they have been the key to the success of their learning experience. I strongly suggest that you use them in your own career, and I wish you good luck!

Author's Bio: Madeleine started her career as a drama teacher in Johannesburg, within schools and her own studio. She directed school productions and trained adults in business communication and presentation. For the last 10 years she has been working as a TEFL teacher in Cape Town and currently at IH Cape Town. Her main focus is on exam classes and business English.