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What Makes a Great Language Teacher?

Elizabeth Wheeler

For most TEFL trained language teachers there is a common habit of organizing each lesson into a neatly tied up 90-minute package. The lesson is introduced, the activities are organized into time specific slots, and then the class puts what they have learned to use even though student speaking time is limited. After a while, experienced language teachers quickly learn that this 90-minute deal is short-lived and somewhat unrealistic. So what happens? How do traditionally trained teachers become great classroom teachers? The easy answer isn’t so easy. Most teachers, and students for that matter, would tell you experience is the key.

Smiling teacher at the school class.

How are great teachers made?

The foundation to excellent teaching often stems from a passion for learning. As English author and journalist Geoffrey Willans said, “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.” Ask any language teacher, and you’ll hear the same remarks: we never truly understand the idiomatic expressions and grammatical idiosyncrasies of one language until we’ve struggled through learning another. Great language teachers take the time to make those connections for students, to recognize cognates or similar expressions, to point out comparisons in grammatical structures between native and foreign languages, and to discuss the process of learning a language. Knowing how students think and comprehend comes from being a student yourself, and great language teachers draw on this in lessons.

Excellent teachers are still, and always will be, excellent learners

Being a great language teacher also means accepting when you’re not. This is not to say that you accept that you’re a horrible teacher and never improve, but rather you are capable of recognizing your own flaws and weaknesses, admitting them to students when needed, and working on them. One of the worst mistakes a teacher can make is to “fake it” through a situation. Students are amazing, they will help you through a nervous lesson, offer questions when your lesson runs short, and give you praise when you think the lesson couldn’t have gone worse, but they will always, always, call you out on lies. Remember, you cannot remove the human element from your classrooms, and humans in the 21st century will “Google” the answer they want. Great teachers offer a simple, “I’m not sure, but I’ll find out for you,” and then they DO. They find the answer, they offer a mini-lesson on it, and they are better for it. Teachers are not omniscient, and they shouldn’t be. Excellent teachers are still, and always will be, excellent learners.

Effective language teachers are passionate every day

Qualities every teacher should possess

Energy. Enthusiasm. Passion. Individualism. Creativity. Expression. These seem like the qualities of an artist or an actor, but they are integral to a successful classroom. Language teachers are always looking for an angle, a way to get information to “click” for students. Motivation is one of the keys to making this connection. Students of all ages and skill levels like to have fun, and honestly, when are you most able to express yourself freely in an artistic and creative way? (OK, or at the local watering hole, but most schools won’t condone holding class there). Effective language teachers are passionate every day. Even on that fourth lesson on adverb clauses, or when answering that inevitable “is it an infinitive or a gerund” question, great language teachers enjoy the process of finding the right answer. After all, a boring lesson for the teacher is just as boring for the student, so get creative with your lessons. Presenting the topic in an engaging way and putting the textbook aside (sometimes) is a great way to get your class interested in the lesson. Do not be afraid to use internet resources, videos, eliciting and role play. If a teaching method seems unconventional, give it a try. Your students may prefer this method over drills and textbook activities.

A great teacher plans his or her lesson around academic and real life language situations

An excellent teacher knows how to round out a curriculum, recognize teachable moments, provide a clear balance between language learning and language use, and allow students to become comfortable using the language rather than just studying it. A great teacher plans his or her lesson around academic and real life language situations. Students can study grammar and vocabulary and ace tests, but they must also learn to be active users of the language and go out into the world fully prepared to communicate. Great language teachers will not sleep until they have discovered and provided that in a classroom.

What about you? What do you think makes a great language teacher? Share your opinions with us and let us know down below!

About the author

Elizabeth Wheeler is a high school English Language teacher in Arizona. She spent 3 years teaching ESL in Chicago and a year teaching overseas in China. She loves to work with language learners, but also finds time to explore different cultures, countries, foods, and adventures