Characteristics of Highly Effective Teachers
The other day I went to a small teachers’ conference in Ajman, which is one of the emirates of the United Arab Emirates. This is one of the lesser known but more charming parts of the country with real character and some fantastic teachers. (This is actually something I’ve come to realise during my visits to remote places: there is always a gem of a teacher wherever you go, no matter how small or backward that place might be. These are the teachers who make me stop and think about the privileges I enjoy. They are the ones who make me want to give and do more.) At this conference, Christine Coombe (one of the most influential TEFL-ists in the region, with motivations similar to mine) handed out a list, which made me think at the time and one which I’ve kept coming back to.
Christine, with a colleague of hers, Lisa Barlow, made a list of the 10 most important characteristics of highly effective EFL/ESL Teachers.
1 A ‘Calling’ for the profession
This is supposed to be the most important. And this is what is causing me the most headache at the moment. To accept the fact that someone might be doing this job as a job for the perks and the advantages without a real commitment is a real hindrance in achieving my aim of helping teachers become better professionals. How do you train teachers to develop a calling for the profession? Is this something I can possibly aim at?
2. Professional knowledge
I tend to feel that a lot of what is considered professional knowledge is in easy-to-assess tests, like TKT or CELTA. Does he know the different kinds of assessments, and the present perfect? Yes, great, then he’s good. Professional knowledge is a matter of pride among teachers. Local teachers make a lot of effort to speak better English and expect ‘native teachers’ to explain random weird ideas they learnt 30-40 years before. I personally attribute little importance to this aspect. Long gone are the days when a clever teacher taught a stupid child about the big-big world.
3. Personal qualities
Yeah, yeah. Here we go again: the teacher as the frustrated (failed) actor, the clown, the village idiot… Well actually no, I think there are much more important personal qualities we tend to ignore these days and we shouldn’t: honesty, emotions, intelligence, reliability, enthusiasm, curiosity. These are all characteristics we use to define effective learners, but the more these qualities are shared by their teachers, the more likely it is that they get what they want. It’s always going to be more entertaining to watch Friends, or whatever it is teenagers watch these days, than to attend an English class. So, why compete? Establishing an efficient and mutually beneficial working environment is much more helpful I believe….
This is an exciting addition to the list. The essential skill of being able to envisage possible classroom and curriculum events. Planning with an awareness of the objectives and the conditions. This is definitely an acquired skill that you can get better with every new year, school and group. This is why every employer should be wary of teachers who do a year or so and then move on regularly. They will not have this understanding of their actions within the bigger picture. It’s arguable of course how important this is, but if we see education – especially public schools – as a continuum with precise expectations, it is important to have teachers who understand them. This is especially true if we want to liberate teachers from prescribed teaching materials and expect them to develop customised tasks for their students.
5. Instructional Effectiveness
To be an effective teacher you have to teach well. Hard to argue. The interesting thing about this is that this demands again a very high level of flexibility and a wide range of expertise from the teacher, since something that may be a piece of cake with one group of students can prove to be an absolute nightmare with another. Even if I planned the same lesson for two different groups, they could and they should never be the same. So, this is again a hunch, not more. This seems to work with this group so let’s go with it, but heaven forbid I would try it with the other group.
6. Good communicator
Well, this is pretty obvious, and necessary not only with students, but with teachers, managers and parents. Communication is not always direct, which is difficult. Other teachers and management hear about you from students and parents. It’s all a vicious circle, and to communicate your message well in all directions is a bit of a juggling act.
7. Street smart
Know about who you teach. This is sometimes perceived as the great advantage of having local teachers or teachers who come from the same-similar context. While I admit that this has its advantages, I think it has just as many disadvantages. There is a false sense of mutuality between the local teachers and students against the foreign teacher in the school. All those dismissive nods from the colleagues and students are the same, really.
Sometimes blowing up a little bit of a bomb with a completely innocent face can be very helpful. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my students about respecting women and giving them rights and me doing the cooking and the washing up. I loved it. In many situations you are expected to be the foreigner. Embracing your foreignness is one way of being successful. You are not expected to be one of them. Why try? Clearly, you don’t want to be rude or hurt anyone but there are several stages between the extremes. Don’t do anything that would offend you if it was the other way round but don’t expect them to eat the goulash as you serve it, what’s more, they can even be allowed not to like goulash.
8. Willing to go the extra mile
This is closely linked to the first one. If you follow a calling, you will go the extra mile. Otherwise you won’t. There is no way of making someone do more than what they are paid to.
9. Lifelong learner
The excitement of Amazon delivering yet another book about ELT, Russell Tarr recommending another mindboggingly good link. A conference near you, a conference on the web, all the tweets from last night. If you are still excited about any of these things, we’re talking about you. If you watch a movie and 2 minutes into the film you start thinking about how you could use this in class, this is about you. Most teachers start forgetting what they learn when they start their education, and will have forgotten why they are standing in front of a class by the time they have finished. They are the life-long forgetters. Heaven save students from them.
This is not about the ‘best method’ the ‘best book’ ’the greatest author’, ‘the best publisher’, it’s about you and where you are in the wonderful process of your professional development
10 Life outside the classroom
Your life outside the classroom is the bread and butter you bring to your students and re-contextalise to feed their learning appetite.
This was just a very quick rambling, a sort of thanks to all the teacher trainers who try to make teachers realise what it takes to be good at their profession. It’s my personal thanks to all the wonderful teachers and trainers who helped me understand what is so magical about standing in front of a group of students or colleagues. (And perhaps why I get angry and frustrated when I see mediocre and useless talks and presentations by people who know less then their audience…)