How to Train your Teacher

This is something I’ve been thinking about lately (and yes, I know I haven’t been looking very specifically at the English language these last few days: I promise I’ll do something about grammar or etymology tomorrow). Tomorrow you see, I’ll be conducting the orientation for the teachers who’ll be in our school’s Junior Summer School, teaching teenagers. And so at this time, as well as at others throughout the year, my mind turns to training, and what approach to take. And there are many ways it can go, and a lot of factors to consider, such as:

What’s a teacher?

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, this isn’t such a simple question. Most of us, based on our experience in school, would say a teacher needs to know about their subject, and be able to explain it. But as I’ve touched upon recently, encyclopaedic knowledge isn’t necessarily so important, and helping students figure things out is often a more important skill than being able to stand at the top of the class and explain things. In fact, there’s a lot of research to show that lectures, where there’s no student interaction or engagement, are not an effective form of teaching at all. The reality is that a teacher can have a number of roles in the classroom: lecturer, facilitator, listener, coach, or mediator, to name a few. The role a teacher needs to adopt depends largely on:

Who are the students?

Mainly European, currently in secondary school, with varying degrees of hours spent learning English per week. The important thing here is that: they’re learning English at home. The lecturing style needs to go out the window then: there’s no point in explaining something to them when another teacher probably did the same thing a few weeks earlier. What can we do for these students then, if they’ve got maybe four or five years of English lessons under their belt? We have to consider…

What is English?

I could give you a long answer to this, and perhaps some day I will, but for the moment, I want to think in practical terms. Actually, forget about English for a moment and think about your experience learning a second language (though of course if you learned English as second language, and I know a lot of you did, forget what I said about forgetting about English). I don’t like to generalise, but there’s a good chance that your teacher taught you in your native tongue, you didn’t do a lot of speaking practice, and the language you were learning always seemed vaguely abstract and not really a living practical thing. These are often the drawbacks to learning a second language in your native country: you don’t get to see how it’s really used, and it becomes just another academic subject. So we need to demonstrate how English is a real living language. We can do that using authentic materials, like magazines or video clips. We can also get the students using the language like we do: having real conversations (it’s such a simple thing to get students to write genuine questions and then ask them!), and using English to complete tasks. At this point, I need to remind myself that I won’t be doing this alone, and consider…

What do the teachers know?

A lot! Even if they’re completely new, they’ll have done at least 120 hours of training, including 6 hours of teaching practice. So there’s no need to go through the basics. They’ll know how to present language, and get students using it, and they’ll know their way around a textbook. So let’s consider what we talked about above. Authentic materials are nice, but time-consuming to get hold of. And we will be required to use a textbook. And I’m not complaining about that, because they are useful, in general. The problem is that a textbook has to be designed for the average class, and no-one ever actually has the average class. So it would be useful to look at how to know what your specific students, and how to make the most of a textbook: getting as much language out of it as possible, and looking at how to adapt exercises, use them for different purposes, and combining them with supplementary materials. And of course, minimising the use of materials to a reasonable extent, because students themselves can be a great source of English in a lesson, and conversation is a more realistic source of language to analyse than a textbook. And I don’t want the teachers to get too tired, and the students to get too lazy, so I want to look at how to get students to discover and analyse language themselves. And finally…

What do I know?

A lot too! I’m experienced enough now to confidently say that I’m a good teacher. Not the best ever, but I know enough about how to deliver an effective lesson. How do I communicate that to teachers then? Say, This is what I do, so you do this too? No, everyone has their own style, and what works for me won’t work for everyone. One of the factors that I think makes me a competent teacher is reflection. I consider my lessons, think about how best to go about them, based on what my students need. And more importantly, I reflect on my teaching while I’m in the classroom, and afterwards. What worked? How did the students react? Did this activity help them figure out the real meaning of the target language? Did they get a good chance to use the language? Can they see the practical purpose of the target language? At heart, it’s a very basic concept, but this extra little bit of thought makes a world of difference. And hopefully it helps the teachers engage with the idea of simplicity. The more I’ve taught, the simpler my lessons have become. Often, with a little experience, teachers’ lessons become more complex, as they cram their lessons with lots of activity types with different functions. But as a teacher continues to gain experience, they’ll often see that this can distract from learning. I try to strip my lessons down, and think about three things: what’s the target language, how do I get the students to understand it, and how do I get them to use it? Everything I do is based on those three questions, and anything that distracts from that doesn’t make it into the lesson. And if the textbook I’m basing the lesson on doesn’t make it clear how the students will be able to use the language outside the classroom, then I’ll guide them towards realising that.

In summary then, what do I want the teachers to get out of their training? Reflection, and critical analysis, basically. Reflecting on what’s best for their particular class, and analysing the language sources and exercises available to them in order to decide how best to use them for their class. There’s so much more to go into too, but we’ll only have one afternoon, and there will be later training sessions to go into more detail. Tomorrow, it’s all about these key principles.

Because you see, teaching a language is a complex thing. It all depends on your teaching context (teaching monolingual adults, for example, is a completely different kettle of fish). It’s not just about memorisation, learning stock phrases, and filling in gaps. Teaching (and learning) a language well needs to be focused on the student, on using the language, and on the practical purpose of the language. A good language teacher uses everything at his/her disposal to help their students understand and use language. This might mean using Exercises 1 – 3 on page 87 of the textbook, or it might mean adapting a writing exercise into a speaking exercise because the students haven’t had enough speaking practice.

It’s a pity that most of us English speakers, at least, have never really had lessons like this. Not to criticise individual teachers: it’s hard to really engage English speakers in learning another language because we don’t really need to speak another language, generally. And if you grow up learning a second language without really engaging with it, analysing it, and using it, it’s very hard to then become a really effective language teacher in primary or secondary school, and the cycle continues.

Fortunately for those of you who aren’t native English speakers, most accredited English-teaching courses do a good job of helping trainees to see how to teach in a more effective fashion.  Hopefully for my niece and nephews and their language learning to come in the upcoming years, Anglophone countries take a look at how English is taught in language schools, and introduce a little more student focus, language analysis, and language production into the way we learn second languages. Maybe then we won’t feel so embarrassed when we go on holiday and can’t order a beer.

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