10 lessons learned from an English Language Teacher

by David Deubelbeiss

fab-tree-hab-growthTeaching a language isn’t as easy as it sounds – to do it well. Just showing up to a class and speaking (we call this modeling language) is only half the job. And that other half is an art form that one acquires over the years.

My own growth as a teacher has been on many levels: my beliefs as a teacher, my own classroom management skills, my knowledge of resources, my ability to design materials, my knowledge of the subject, my understanding of the process of learning particularly, language learning and much more….

I remember being a “pup” just out of teacher’s college. I was thrown into classes with multiple levels, multiple age groups and just a piece of chalk. I had to learn as I went along. It was a sharp learning curve. I wish I had known then, what I know now. Fortunately, I had a reflectiveness, some creativity and a love of teaching that allowed me to swim and survive.

What do I know now that I didn’t know then? How have I grown as a language teacher? Here’s 10 nuggets of the things that I’ve learned along the way.

1. Teach students not the subject. Find the key to motivate/help each student when possible. Personalize all content and get the students to have a personal connection to the language point/material. Further, if a lesson isn’t going well, chuck it. The most important thing is student happiness and not the knowledge they acquire. Promote happiness, you’ll make a lifelong learner not a temporary one.

2. Give students responsibility. My mother puts it, “there is a big difference between holding a hand and chaining a soul”. Figure out that difference. Get students learning autonomously, discovering their own mistakes and taking responsibility for their own learning and the classroom.

3. Disappearing. The best teacher is an unnoticed teacher. Truly. Teachers organize the learning environment and then step away. Teaching isn’t a spectacle with the teacher in the spotlight.

4. Reception before production. When I first started teaching, I thought the aim (for all) was to get students yakking. I didn’t realize the power of comprehensible input and extensive reading/listening – for preparing students to communicate and be ready for fluency.

5. It’s not “My Way” but “Our Way”. Listen to your students. They should have a say and voice in the curriculum. Same with colleagues and staff. Listen to them, learn from them. The classroom door may shut but you are not alone.

6. Slow down. Pause often and allow students to process the language you uttered. Be deliberate. I used to teach at a hundred miles an hour and never finish anything. Now I teach at 10 mph, we finish everything and we learn much more.

7. We teach for those who need help. I always used to teach to the top 5% and damn the rest. They’d have to be satisfied with the morsels that fell off our table. Usually those top 5% were in the front row. Now, I use the whole classroom and am there for the bottom students – the other ones will learn in any case. Not the ones that really need help.

8. Learning words is not learning language. Words are only one piece of the puzzle. There are many more pieces. I used to think I was a good teacher if my students remembered words. Now I think I’m successful if my students can use those words in real situations, to communicate real needs. Word play, word searches are sometimes useful but more often then not, just for a breather in the classroom.

9. Find your place. There aren’t really any bad teachers out there. Just teachers that haven’t yet found “their place”. I think anyone can teach. But what’s crucial is that the teacher put themselves in an environment that makes “good teaching” happen – one that suits their own personality and teaching style and belief set. I realize many teachers don’t have the choice but we should try if we can – to really figure out what is the best teaching “place” for our own talents. I just went through this – leaving probably the best teaching job in the country. Money, top school, brilliant students, low hours, status. However, I knew it wasn’t for me, for the benefit of my own teaching talents. Be true to thy own teaching self.

10. There is a difference between “busy work” and “busy working’. Years ago, I just wanted the students to be busy. I thought that was an indication they were learning. I didn’t understand something fundamental about learning – it must be a process of emotional engagement. Students can do things in class and not learn a drop – mostly because they don’t have an emotional commitment to that activity. Create and foster this through the provision of motivating content and context, giving students material / assignments where they can succeed and making the classroom a place they want to be.

Source: http://ddeubel.edublogs.org/2011/04/02/what-i-know-now-but-didnt-then/

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