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