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

Looking Back: How to Teach English in Thailand

Eric Haeg Course Director of TEFL Campus

Interview with Eric Haeg

The first time we met Eric Haeg, TEFL Campus Phuket Course Director, the world was a very different place. It was July 2nd, 2019, and the pages of The New York Times weren’t dominated by COVID-19. Instead, they were going big on the USA beating England in the FIFA Women’s World Cup to reach the final (spoiler alert: they went on to win that too). 

Another good news story from the UK’s The Guardian.  They gleefully shared the news of the German defense minister becoming head of the European Commission and French politician/lawyer Christiane Lagarde assuming the presidency of the European Central Bank. “Women to head top EU institutions for First Time” splashed across the headlines.

Eric himself has changed since our initial meeting, at least in terms of appearance. Gone is his distinctive bushy beard. He’s now as fresh-faced as a schoolboy. Eric’s debut article was all about teaching English in Thailand, so let’s find out what else has changed since July 2019. 

The last time we spoke you were in Phuket, Thailand. Where in the world are you now?”

My family and I left Phuket for a one-month vacation to the States back on March 3rd. More than eight months later, we’re still here in Minnesota because Thailand closed its borders to international travelers in April. While we are now eligible to get back on repatriation flights chartered by the Thai government, we have to stay here due to the US$12,000 price tag. We’ll be able to return once our airline can honor our return flights, and the cost of mandatory quarantine accommodation goes down. It’s ultimately put a pause on my ability to help teach English in Thailand.

When heading to teach English in Thailand, you'll be met with the age-old departure sign

How have you adapted to relocating while waiting to go back to Thailand?”

I’d like to think I’ve adapted well. Most of the credit to my wife’s unofficial sainthood, and my children’s ability to adapt to major life changes like little champs — including having to enroll in US schools! I also feel my 16 years of living in Thailand has helped me deal with accepting things that are well outside my control. An added benefit has been my new-found appreciation for living in the West. My time away has provided a much-needed perspective, allowing me to appreciate just how good we have it here in the States. 

What are you missing most from not being able to teach English in Thailand?

I miss being able to interact with TEFL course trainees the most. I’ve always loved exchanging ideas with the cosmopolitan groups of trainees we used to train every month. Unfortunately, I haven’t had those exchanges for quite some time now. I also miss our Thai ELLs and the laughs they provided during class. 

thai students abroad
Image courtesy of the TEFL Campus

Following your own experiences, what advice would you give your others about how to teach English in Thailand?”

My best advice now is the same as it has been for years: do not come into any school and start thinking you’re going to change anything when you come to teach English in Thailand. There’s no shortage of things that desperately need to change, but trying to affect change as a foreigner is never going to work out well. When you’re met with challenges, decide if it’s something you can accept or not. If you can accept it, stay where you are and make the best of it. If you can’t, remember that no one’s making you stay.  

What effect do you think the pandemic has had on teaching English abroad in Thailand?”

Because Thailand has had virtually no COVID cases since mid-June, everyday school life is pretty much back to normal. However, there have been major changes affecting air-travel restrictions, entry requirements, and visas. Those hoping to teach English in Thailand in the near future need to conduct extensive research into these changes and ensure they can afford the added expenses associated with new regulations. As just one example, foreigners need to prove that they have insurance with COVID coverage of at least US$10,000.

TEFL in Thailand

To what extent will this lead to new remote teaching positions for foreigners?”

Based on what I’ve seen from our trainees, there are those who want to teach in a classroom, and there are those who want to teach online, with very few in the middle. Perhaps there’ll be a spike in online teaching until borders open, but once they do, there’ll be a flood of teachers into Thailand from those who’ve been waiting to get in. 

A laptop and tablet on a video call

Why teach English in Thailand or abroad? What are the pluses?”

The pluses are largely down to each individual and what they want to get out of it. For me, the plusses are prolonged, meaningful, and rewarding exposure to foreign cultures. Living abroad forces one to challenge so many of our culturally-ingrained assumptions, and I think that those challenges help us build a better understanding, or better perspective, of how other cultures see the world. A lot of people, certainly not just Americans, could use a bit of this perspective. 

And the negatives?”

I think the negatives are related to the positives. So many of the new teachers I’ve met since 2004 simply cannot adapt to, or accept the cultural differences to which they’re being exposed. They experience culture shock and can’t deal with it, or they’re stubborn and refuse to make basic compromises. I’ve also seen cases where prospective EFL teachers simply didn’t do enough research on their host country and found themselves living in a place for which they were never ready. We all have to learn from our mistakes, but some mistakes prove more costly than others. Moving abroad, only to relocate or return home, isn’t cheap. 

A plane taking off into the sunset. Take the leap to teach English in Thailand.

What has been the biggest single influence on your career and why?

When I come across tough situations at work, I often ask myself, “What would Pete do?” He was the Course Director of my TEFL certification course back in 2004. He believed in my abilities and offered me my first position as a course trainer in 2008. In all the time I interacted with him, he was unflappable, and probably the most patient supervisor I’ve ever had. I don’t always do what he would have done, but when I don’t, I usually wish I had. 

Old Phuket is one of the many perks of going abroad to teach English in Thailand

Finally, you previously revealed to us that you chose Phuket because it sounded like f*ck it. When was the last time you uttered this expletive and why?”

Ironically, it was probably when I decided to buy tickets for my family vacation back to the US. Both decisions had me staying far longer than I had anticipated. My “Phuk-et” approach to world travel has proven to be a vicious cycle — and I wouldn’t change it for the world. 

At Dreams Abroad, we treat our members like family. It’s always great to catch up with them to see what’s been happening with their lives. If you’d like to join, drop us a line.

Valuable Lessons I Learned

by Leesa Truesdell

leesa truesdell paris fashion week travel tales

It’s been a while since my last post, where I spoke about one of my very first pieces: Embracing Uncertainty. Uncertainty means “indefinite or not clearly defined.” When we describe life events fraught with uncertainty such as living abroad, time is a theme that pops up frequently. You have the beginning months where everything seems so new and you feel like a tourist, then, you begin work and establish a sense of routine. Then, seemingly suddenly, the year is about to end! For our time here in Spain, it’s almost the end, and, again, the uncertainty is rearing back up saying, “I am back. Hello, life. What’s next?” I realize that as I get older this type of lifestyle, one that embraces uncertainty, is one that makes me feel like I am growing and learning and not feeling stagnant or misplaced.

“Time has a wonderful way of showing us what really matters.” – Margaret Peters

With each day that passes, I grow as a person. With each opportunity that arises, I try to push myself outside of my comfort zone, working towards that growth. My time abroad has shown me that I don’t know myself as well as I thought. Time spent challenging myself has been the reason for my personal growth. I consider time, even though it’s technically free, to be priceless.

About Me and Who I Am

I started this journey looking for more answers about who I am; I wanted to know as much as I could about Spain because my ancestors were from Mallorca. On my first day at work, I made a presentation to my students called “About Me” in which I spoke about my life, my friends, my country, and most importantly my family. Not too long ago, I was talking to my class and I held up a photo of my grandmother, whom I affectionately called Tata. I told my students the reason why I came to Spain, and why I teach. Time moves on so quickly and life can change in a heartbeat. And, in my case it did.

Looking back, I never imagined that I would not be able to see my grandmother again. Those first days in front of my classes were the beginning of my life in Spain inspired by Tata. It’s been a journey that I will always appreciate because I know that she wanted me to be happy, as she told me in our last happy conversations together. As time moves on, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about her sweet smile or soft voice. I started to teach English because of her. Her life inspired me. Each day I walk into a class, I carry her with me in my heart. She may not be with us any longer but her story lives on through my work.

Leesa and her grandmother Lessons
Leesa and her grandmother

Valuable Lessons in Resilience Abroad

Spain has taught me some valuable lessons, and one of the most important lessons I have learned so far is that you don’t know what tomorrow might bring. I know that I would not have learned the lessons I needed to had I not come to Spain. My soul opened up and my heart has once again embraced another culture that has embraced me back. I am very grateful to have this opportunity.

I felt extremely blessed to have been able to see Tata one more time before she passed. Remember to tell those people in your life how much they mean to you regularly. If they do something to upset you, it’s ok to be upset. Just remember that at the end of the day, time is all we truly have. There are a set number of days on our calendar that we will be here. Live your life, be well, let go, and carry on.

‘Cause you never think that the last time is the last time. You think there will be more. You think you have forever, but you don’t.” – Dr. Meredith Grey