In School in Germany: The Characteristics of Being a Great Teacher of English (as a Foreign Language)

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A few months back, I was approached by a colleague of mine, who runs a pair of online columns devoted to English writing, wanting to know from me some of the things that are important for teaching English as a foreign language.  After some thoughtful consideration and looking back at what I’ve experienced in the 15+ years I’ve been teaching here in Germany, dealing with everything in the sun, I decided to compile a list of ideas that are especially useful for those entering the field or are struggling in their first year on the job. The characteristics I mention here do not necessarily mean that if you don’t have them, you will never be a great teacher. It just simply means that if something goes wrong, you may want to think about them and ask yourself if it is useful to try them, at least. After all, each teacher has his/her way of teaching English language and culture.

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  1. Image is Everything- This was the slogan that tennis great André Agassi used for his Nikon camera commercials in the late 1980s and 90s. As a teacher, you have to market yourself to the students in a way that they will respect you from the first day on. This goes beyond your outer appearance. It even outguns the knowledge of your native language. It has to do with being on the level with your students and finding ways to get them to follow you. Sometimes you and your students find the right chemistry right away and you have a productive and successful class. Other times there is a wall that you cannot overcome, even if you try. Then it is like the love affair between man and woman, or in my case, the beamer and the laptop as stated in an earlier article.
  2. Your Students are your Audience; your Friends. Treat them with Care- I was once told that teaching is a business and the students are your customers. If you have students who “hate” you and your teaching and decide to annoy you at their convenience, then that is where the German formal “Sie” and the business-like relationship comes in. However, not all of them are like that. Many of them stay with you as long as you are working at their institution and even become your friends for life. To give you a hint: In my last semester teaching in Bayreuth in 2009, I had a class where all but three of the 20 people had been in my previous classes. All of them are still in contact. If you have this experience, then it is because you did something right, by listening to what they want, customizing your classes to make them interesting and you are integrated into their “culture” and they into yours. Almost all of them are eager to learn from you, and not just for the sake of languages.
  3. You need Structure; You need Discipline- A Frank Fitts from American Beauty quote that definitely applies to teaching, especially English. As Germans, especially in the eastern half, are obsessed with a structured form of teaching, you should structure the teaching to cater to their needs. It’s like a presentation: you have the introduction, the key points, the summary and time for questions and clarity. Then you make sure that they are kept in line with what they learned. Entertainment only serves as a frosting to the cake. This was a lesson I learned from a colleague at a private institution recently.
  4. Less is More- Too much of everything in an English classroom, even worksheets, are never a good thing. If you find yourself having a complaint where there were too much print materials to work with, you may want to reduce it and alternate your teaching methods. Sometimes some help from another source will help a great deal.
  5. Back-up your stuff in the classroom: Stewart Tunnicliff, who runs a couple Leipzig-based websites and a translation/proofreading business once said this when he presented the WordPress presentation at the Intercultural Blogger Conference in March. I have to say it also applies to teaching as well. Despite the careful planning that Germans are famous for, a back-up plan must always be in store, should your original plan fail in the classroom due to the students’ lack of interest, some technical glitches, missing elements because you were in a hurry, etc. While some teachers believe that Plan B is non-existent, they haven’t seen some situations, including those I experienced, where it was warranted. So have a Back-up plan ready, and ……
  6. Plan for technical doomsday- Your computer will crash, its relationship with the beamer will fail, the files will not open, the speakers will not operate, anything will happen. It has happened with the best teachers and they have dealt with them. Almost all of those who experienced a technical “Panne” have learned to do this one important item next time they work a technical equipment: check to make sure everything is in order before entering the stage with eager students awaiting to watch something “educational.” 😉
  7. Creativity and spontaneity are bread and butter- If there is a characteristic a teacher must have, there are two of them: being creative and spontaneous. A creative person comes up with activities on paper, through brainstorming and best of all, in the classroom in a spontaneous manner. A spontaneous person foregoes a planned session because of cock-ups along the way, presents a new strategy out of the blue, and gives it to the group for them to do. 99 times out of 100, that works every time. Teachers must have the brains to do both if they wish to continue with their career in the long term.
  8. Be a great storyteller- Storytelling not only provides students with a sense of entertainment, but also lessons for them to learn from, both in a moral and philosophical manner as well as when learning a foreign language. The stories told don’t have to be very personal ones, but they should be ones that are related to reality, and students can relate to. Even the tiniest story, including a person and a chain-smoker, who disregards the no smoking sign, getting into a debate on smoking, brings value to the students as some of them are smokers wanting to quit but don’t know how. Think about it. 🙂
  9. Slow and easy always wins friends- Especially for Americans teaching foreign languages, teachers love to speak at their tempo, which is for the non-native speakers of English, too fast. Sometimes a problem with dialect can hinder the success in the classroom. Slow down. Speak high English (with a Chicago dialect), have someone listen to you if you feel it is necessary. No student will mob you if you speak extra slowly and clearly, or did one student do that?
  10. Make sure your exits are covered- If a student complains about a bad grade, explain to him/her why and what can be done to improve it. If students become a smart-ass, surprise them with a quiz to test their knowledge. If a person wikiing his assignment says his grandma helped him with English, invite her to class unannounced. If lectures are needed, give it to them. Students will respect you if you keep pace with their learning but will love you if you are ahead of the game. A lesson I learned after dealing with the unbelieveable. 🙂
  11. Finally, be decent. Teaching students goes beyond the subject or the basic skills needed for the job. The main goal of a teacher is to show students how to be decent. Decency is a commodity that is well underrated but one we need so that we can love our neighbors and friends and respect their rights and wishes. It also means that teachers learn by example, by being professional and kind to others. A video with a lecture of how decency and justice goes together, shows us how important our job is, which is to teach our future generation how to be decent.

There are many more, but these eleven are the most important elements of a teacher, in my opinion. Each teacher has his/her style of teaching which works in some cases and fails in others. Even more so, teachers have different personalities that can work out or cause conflicts. In either case, what is important is making sure the students get a proper education so that they can go out, see the world and experience it themselves. How it is done is solely up to the teacher, yet if something fails, they should take a different approach. In either case, in the end, if students walk out of the halls of school or university with a great sense of satisfaction, then it is a sure-fire sign that they will leave footprints in your hearts forever,

let alone pairs of sneakers on the line outside your home. 🙂

 

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