What Does It Mean to Be a Good Teacher?

Sarah Perkins Guebert Winning WednesdayAs a child, I always thought that my teachers were magical beings that somehow had lesson plans already prepared and never did any work outside of the classroom except to grade assignments; and that, at least in my mind, never took long. They had the summers off work and could call a substitute teacher whenever they needed one. I was completely wrong in my assumptions, of course, but my true appreciation for teachers — especially good teachers — did not come until I had graduated from college and began working with them.  

What Makes a Good Teacher?

After studying education and observing my own teachers and coworkers, I’ve decided that a good teacher is an obsessed fanatic with what they do; a parent, a tyrant, and a slave.  First and foremost, the teacher has to enjoy their job. They have to be passionate about the subject they teach, in addition to being passionate about teaching itself. They watch their class with a careful eye and foster a positive learning environment. But, the moment the students cease to give their attention, the teacher must call them back to the material with a firm hand and keep them focused throughout the course of the lesson. 

Furthermore, a teacher must be completely and utterly devoted to their work. They must work tirelessly to create new lessons, to better old ones, to grade student work, and to improve themselves as a teacher. In my own experience, I’ve spent sleepless nights perfecting an activity for class or grading exams, encouraged my students to challenge themselves, and had my temper tested on several occasions when students were particularly problematic. It’s chaos, maybe even Hell, but I love it. Am I crazy?  Perhaps, but I’d prefer to say that I’ve caught the “teaching bug.”

Students' feet lined up in a line. What makes a good teacher?

Always Growing

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a great teacher, or even a good teacher. Even with seven years of experience, I’ve discovered that I have a lot to improve in every way imaginable. Despite that, I would venture to say that I have the potential to be a good teacher. Being a good teacher, however, requires a lot of hard work and willpower.  Nevertheless, I am collecting all the tools that I’ll need to become one. So, what have I learned over the course of my career other than the exact ratio of milk to coffee to get me through a long night of grading essays?  

Primarily, I have discovered that language teaching is difficult, because learning a language is an environment in which mistakes are normal and even encouraged. Learning another language is about more than just the language itself, but also a culture, mannerisms, history, and mindset that differ from our own. 

Students working on a craft project

Students have been taught that they should be ashamed of and try to avoid errors or failures while learning, and this instills in them a deep-set fear of attempting to use knowledge that they do not have an absolute mastery of.  As a result, they develop vergüenza, a fear/shame of using the language. I have noticed this in my students, as they are very hesitant to make use of linguistic structures they do not fully understand or control. For this reason, I think that it is essential to develop an open, friendly environment in the classroom that fosters a growth mindset.  

Hidden Capabilities

Many of my students walked into the classroom with the belief that they simply weren’t good at learning languages, or that they simply didn’t have the capacity to learn a language. Moreover, many of them walked in assuming that they wouldn’t enjoy English as a subject. However, many have commented over the years that they were surprised to succeed or enjoy the class. Even when they didn’t correctly utilize the linguistic structures we learned, they were still enthusiastic about activities and quickly discovered that complete mastery of those structures was neither expected nor realistic. In this way, the students were learning and did not see their mistakes as failures. It is my belief that this is one of the most important elements to a successful language classroom.    

Throughout the course of my career, I have been privileged to observe and work with some of my peers in order to better myself and my classroom. After watching and working together with them, I have been able to take away elements of their teaching styles and activities that I thought were effective, and take note of the elements that weren’t. This has also helped me to reflect on my own teaching style and to better myself. 

In doing so, I have realized something that I consider essential: Alone, I can become a successful teacher. I can be an effective teacher. What I cannot be alone is an outstanding teacher. After working with my peers and sharing and developing ideas, I have seen how strong we can be together, and how much more dynamic and complete our activities are as a result of collaboration. 

Finding Balance

Of course, not every element of a language classroom will be perfect. This is especially true in my case.  Sometimes I become too ambitious and attempt to teach concepts that the students are not ready to learn yet. Moreover,  I sometimes find it difficult to avoid focusing on the grammatical features of the language. Methodically learning grammar is the way I was taught languages in school, and it is difficult to break free from the examples shown to me as a learner. 

A good teacher must find balance

I find it quite challenging to avoid relying on what I have learned from my past teachers. I’ve made it my goal to develop a classroom that does not necessarily focus on explicit grammar, but rather challenges the students to think critically in the language. Of course, it seems as though there’s never enough time to develop outstanding activities that foster this kind of thinking. This brings back the point I mentioned earlier: collaboration is key.  When working together, I believe that teachers are capable of accomplishing the impossible.

A Long Path Ahead

All of this said, where does that put me as a teacher? Where do I see myself in the future?  I’ve certainly changed a lot of my beliefs and perspectives throughout the seven years that I have been professionally teaching. During my first year on the job, I was nervous to be in charge of a class of students. I didn’t want to do them a disservice, or be the sole person responsible for their language education. Now, however, I am aware of my weaknesses and continuously work towards improving them. 

I intend to continue working with my peers in order to better myself and to develop a classroom that helps the students to succeed and challenges them to think critically in a foreign language. I intend for them to make mistakes, and a lot of them. However, I don’t want them to see those mistakes as failures. Most importantly, I want my students to walk out of my class at the end of the semester and, even if they dislike English, say “I really enjoyed that class.”

by Sarah Perkins Guebert

What I Know Now About Teaching English in Spain

Sarah Perkins Guebert Bio PhotoAre you a teacher or language assistant? Thinking of teaching English in Spain? It goes without saying that there are differences in culture and education between any two countries. There are certainly quite a few between Spain and the US, where I grew up. 

You may have heard some stereotypes about Spanish education, and, no, here in Spain we do not take naps at school in the middle of the day. Nor do teachers instinctively know how to dance flamenco. In many ways, schools in Spain and the US are actually quite similar. However, there are a few notable differences that might surprise you. These are the five things I wish someone had explained to me before I started teaching English in Spain as an American. 

Five Things I Learned Teaching English in Spain

Ditch the Heels

You may be surprised to discover that Spanish teachers do not dress to impress. In fact, casual attire is the norm. This includes jeans, sneakers, and tees. It certainly wasn’t the scenario I’d pictured when I moved to Spain. When I arrived for the first time, I brought clothes typical of an American teacher: slacks, button-ups, smart cardigans, etc. However, I quickly realized that dressing too formally was out of place in the public school environment and ditched the skirts for jeans.

On a First-Name Basis

Not only do Spanish teachers dress down, but they also go by their first names. This was quite a shock to me after coming out of the American education system. On the first day of my teaching job, I was stunned when students ran up to my boss and addressed him by his first name as though he were their best friend or cousin. However, this is not something out of the ordinary here. Have fun with it and remember that the kids do not mean any disrespect.

Winging It

American teachers know that lessons require several hours a week of painstaking work. Not so in Spain. In general, Spanish teachers do not believe in working unpaid overtime. They do not usually prepare extensive lessons, handouts, or other materials. In fact, they prefer to follow the textbook, and some even show up (sometimes late) and throw a lesson together at the last minute. This can certainly be shocking for new teachers and language assistants; however, to put this in perspective, oftentimes teachers are shuffled around between grades from year to year and cannot rely on past lesson plans.

Chitter Chatter

Spanish children are incredibly active and talkative. In fact, it’s very difficult to get them to be quiet at all. This can be challenging for a teacher, but it also means that these students excel at speaking activities and games and always enjoy a lively debate with their classmates. They are happy to discuss almost any topic at length and are always eager to participate. Make sure to put a time limit on your activities, because Spanish students can easily take over an entire class.

Black Pen or Blue?

One of children’s biggest challenges is trusting in their own decisions. They sometimes struggle to make even the smallest of choices without adult guidance. Everything is dictated to them at school from a young age, making these little decisions and creativity as a whole very difficult for them to grasp. Giving Spanish students too much freedom can even result in panic. Be prepared for confusion, a bombardment of questions, or even tears from the younger if you give them too many options to choose from.

If you plan on becoming a teacher or language assistant in Spain, I would advise simply spending time in the country and immersing yourself in the culture before walking into a class. Enjoy the parks, the bars, and the street. Understanding Spanish culture will help you understand the school environment and your students. Once you’re in class, relax, exchange your fancy clothes for comfy ones, go by your first name, and most importantly, take it one day at a time.

Using Only the Target Language in a Foreign Language Classroom

 

caroline hazelton teaching ESOLHow did a Southern, non-Hispanic begin her bilingual journey in an English-only rural town? 

Solo español,” replied my Spanish 2 teacher who spoke to us in almost no English right from the beginning.

How have I taught nearly every grade level of Spanish/ESL ever since for seven years?

Only in the language that I am teaching… with some exceptions. I’m here to challenge you both with experience and science for using the target language (the language you are teaching) as much as possible in your classroom. And believe me, you can use it a lot more than you think you can.

Why only the target language?

Learning to listen and speak a language occurs the same way babies learn to talk. They listen to in the language constantly, with images and context to teach them meaning. Then, after hours upon hours of exposure, the babies are ready to speak. As their brain develops, they are able to form more complex phrases, sentences, and ideas as they age. Our second languages are learned in the same way. Our brains absorb grammar through repetition. they absorb meaning through context created by situations and visuals. Finally, they absorb pronunciation through constant exposure and confidence via experience. Because we “acquire” language (that is, to soak it up through the ability to speak and listen, then in our ability to write and read in it), we cannot teach language in the same way that we teach other subjects. We must mimic a caregiver teaching a child to speak.

Enter the language classroom. In the case where the teacher and students both speak the students’ first language, many teachers do not speak in the target language. They do this to get through the lesson faster, to avoid frustrated students, or to build rapport with students. Other times, they simply do not know how to teach in the target language. As a result, you see students who have textbook knowledge of the target language but who are unable to communicate in it.

Remember Phonics?

abc PhonicsWithout appropriate communication in the target language, students haven’t developed an ear for how the language sounds; they haven’t learned enough vocabulary in natural context nor have they developed the confidence to speak the target language. Additionally, students don’t have the opportunity to form an identity in the new language they are trying to learn if they aren’t being exposed to it or being forced to use it — they rely only on their original, or L1, language/identity. Finally, if they don’t see how they are able to communicate in the target language they lose motivation. They feel as if they aren’t learning it. However, a student who is forced to speak the language feels that they are actually learning.

I speak from experience. It started in my high school Spanish 2 classroom where my teacher uttered not a word in English for two hours a day, five days a week. The instructor spoke in an incredibly simple way. He would not answer anyone in English, and only in Spanish. He spoke with gestures, dramatic emotions, and cognates. 

Speaking From Experience

By the end of the semester, I (Caroline) had not only studied Spanish, but could actually speak basic Spanish. I learned more in that semester of high school Spanish alone than I did in any other community college course I took. In those courses, the instructor used a mix of Spanish and English. They missed opportunities to give their students the true ability to communicate in our second language. After moving from my small town to attend a state university to study Spanish and second language acquisition (SLA), I saw more examples both as a Spanish and SLA student of why teachers should use ONLY the target language.

I speak as a teacher. When I speak in the target language at first, I see students of all ages initially very frustrated. I ALWAYS have students who are hesitant to learn the language and resist. However, I insist upon only using the language I am teaching. I have seen their progress. I have seen students score higher on proficiency tests than their level indicated that they would. Ultimately, I have seen my resistors eventually change their ways. 

Success in the Classroom

Every semester, I have ESL (English as a Second Language) students who request to join my class because I insist on using only English. As a university instructor, students have changed or added majors and minors in the language I taught. My students have returned to me bragging about how they asked their counselors to speak to them in their target language. Some of my ESL students took jobs in English. I have taught China’s brightest professionals that they STILL have more to learn because they could only communicate in English and realized that they couldn’t as they wished. Finally, I have had a student upon student thank me at the end of every semester. 

So, How Do You Teach? 

Be your normal teacher self… in the target language. Notably, you are not going to speak like you would speak to native speakers. Aim for a much slower, simpler pace with tons of visual clues to help convey your message.

You first have to speak in the simplest way possible. For example, “We’re all set, so could you please hand in your papers?” becomes “pass the papers.” In the beginning classes, use gestures, gestures, gestures. In intermediate classes, say, “Please pass the papers — we are finished! Thanks!” I suggest sticking to a handful of common requests or words that are most repeated in the target language or in a classroom setting. 

Change Your Expectations

You’ll also have to change your expectations according to the natural stages of language development and to what level of communication each level can reasonably do in the language they are learning. You should try to have low/beginning students listen as much as possible. They should respond non-verbally until they have the confidence and the feel for the sounds of the language to speak. Even then, it will be very similar to a child learning how to speak — first with one-word phrases, then two, etc. From knowledge I’ve gathered from my graduate studies, the development of language is the same for everyone in terms of language stages and whether it’s a first or second language.

Once your students get past the low/beginning stage and into intermediate or high/beginning, they can start to communicate basic needs. The goal now is to increase their confidence in the language. Have students speak in small groups and with yourself as the teacher as much as possible. You should require that all communications with you and their classmates be in the target language with some exceptions so students can make the most of every opportunity. 

Because all teaching is about creating meaning, you need to try to provide as much context for language as possible… visuals, gestures, and culturally authentic material. Creating meaning is important because you want to be teaching at a level slightly higher than the students’ current level. This way they are challenged and can advance forward in an attainable way. 

first language puzzle

So, When Is the First Language Okay?

You never want students to lose their identity. Therefore, I have found that when students (particularly in ESL courses) are speaking about their native countries, idioms, or cultures, the use of their mother tongue is powerful. Plus, some words don’t quite translate the same.

You also have to recognize that speaking a second language requires more brainpower from students. If you want them to do some higher-order thinking that they don’t have the language skills for just yet, you might allow them to use their first language to think through the task, then use the second language once they have the activity mastered. 

Criticisms of Only Teaching in the Target Language

One criticism that gets mentioned of teaching only in the target language is that you don’t want students to miss out on important information — and I agree. For beginning students, you don’t want them to miss out on key information, so I think it’s okay to FIRST say the information in the target language. If, after multiple attempts to clarify their understanding they still don’t understand the concept, it is okay to use their first language. However, just explaining the concept in the first language immediately takes away the opportunity for growth.

I have also seen the usefulness of translation, despite what current language teaching methods (the communicative method) say. When I’m teaching grammar, second-language students often literally translate the grammatical rules of their first language into their second. It can be helpful to compare the differences. I also run into the issue when teaching vocabulary that while it’s better to reply with a synonym or image to stay in the target language, sometimes there is no image or similar word that students know, so a translation can be handy. 

Knowing these situations, my rule with my low/intermediate students is “Only English… except during grammar activities, cultural celebrations, group projects, or if you ask special permission.” 

A Conclusion About Using Only the Target Language in a Foreign Language Classroom

By purposely speaking only in the target language to students, we make language an acquired ability instead of a memorized subject. With careful exceptions, we can also respond to our students in a sensitive way. 

by Caroline Hazelton