A web site for the developing language teacher

The Good Teacher
by Steve Schackne
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During a pre-semester strategy discussion in a university this summer, the conversation involved, to a large extent, on how to make the students do what the teachers want them to do. How do we reduce absenteeism? How do we make them show up on time? How do we make them do the homework? This naturally segued into “what do we do if they don't do what we want them to do?” Take two marks off for every unexcused absence, one mark off for tardiness, three marks for every missed homework assignment, flunk them if they miss an exam. At the end of this two hour meeting, one got the impression that the session was as much about controlling and punishing the students as it was about helping them to learn.

Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and teacher, says,

“We don't like our kids. This [United States] is a country, this is a nation of people who don't like our kids. Therefore, the teachers are babysitters.”

While McCourt was talking about America and I currently live in Asia, the university pre-semester meeting I sat in on was redolent of a subtle but universal adversarial relationship that often exists between students and teachers. Part of this is a vestige of history where the power relationship between students and teachers was rigidly defined, and coercion was commonly accepted. More recently, the social and legal empowerment of students, combined with the deteriorating financial and social status of school teaching, has left both students and teachers unclear as to how their relationship should really be defined. Coercion is certainly no longer an option--students and their families have lawyers represent them now-- and with the low regard of professional teacher training institutions, even well-intentioned teachers are sometimes forced to fall back on using the “carrot and the stick,” which makes them, in McCourt's words, “babysitters.”


In previous articles, I have outlined a common sense approach to dealing with classroom methodology, whether it be teaching vocabulary, leveling your students, or deciding on how to evaluate and assess. If this can be used in discrete classroom situations, why can't it be expanded to include a general approach that would help define a good teacher?

Principles used in business can also be adapted for education. A good manager helps her staff to become better at what they do, helps them to become more efficient, helps them to achieve more; in short, helps them to succeed. So it should be with a teacher. A good teacher makes it easy for students to succeed, without sacrificing the challenge that brings a sense of accomplishment. And how does the teacher do this?

Learning Preferences

First, understand that students have different learning preferences. Some enjoy the intimacy of tutorial work, while others feel more secure learning as part of a class. Still others enjoy, small group work or pair work. Some students thrive on task-oriented or problem solving activities that involve a lot of spontaneity and information gap work, while others enjoy and actually learn by wrestling with traditional textbook exercises. Some students come alive in the social atmosphere that an educational institution offers, while other students progress more rapidly in the friendly and personal confines of their home. In short, some students need structure, others do not; some need chaos, others need solitude. It's the teacher's responsibility to understand the learning styles of his students, and to “play to” these preferences. While teachers can't be all things to all students, the “golden nugget” approach, briefly popular in the 70s and 80s advocated a syllabus with a variety of methods, and activities in the expectation that students would gravitate towards approaches they felt most comfortable with; idealistic, of course, but trying to force students to learn with a lockstep approach that they are not tempermentally suited to will result in a less than successful, often unhappy, experience for both student and teacher.


Set reasonable goals and make those goals clear to the students. This may sound intuitive, but it can be a bit tricky to put into practice. Most classes, no matter what their label—beginning, intermediate, or advanced—contain students of mixed abilities, so defining “reasonable goals” can be a bit difficult. What is reasonable for one student may be demanding for another, and boringly simple for a third. Given prolonged periods of language stasis, however, encapsuled in terms such as interlanguage and fossilization, many students who feel they have mastered a language element have not; rather, they can produce the language sporadically, but have not completely assimilated it.

I have found that when you take an intermediate class of EFL learners and divide them, based on skills and abilities, into quartiles, it is evident that students in the top two quartiles share some lack of mastery with students in the bottom two quartiles. To further explain, I divided a recent class of 20 students, based on a cloze test and a preliminary writing sample, into the top 5, second 5, third 5, fourth 5. Given an institutional test, such as TOEFL or IELTS, these students would be expected to correlate pretty closely to my classification; that is, the top 10 would be tested at a more advanced level than the bottom 10. Nevertheless, 19 out of 20 of these students hadn't mastered the present perfect tense, mastery defined as producing it correctly 80% of the time. Hence, present perfect tense, a language element commonly used and easily defined in English, would become one of my focuses for this class. Generally speaking, in a class divided into quartiles, I would aim my syllabus at the second quartile (4 being strongest, 1 being weakest). Many teachers disagree with me saying that my expectations are too low, but I am looking at mastery or assimilation as the goal. Most students can haphazardly produce complex language, but can not produce it consistently because they don't fully understand the rules of usage (when it is appropriate and when it is not). A single, discrete oral or written evaluation can often mislead inexperienced teachers.

Making goals clear to students involves specifically outlining what you want them to be able to do at the end of the semester. This means the teacher must guard against vague language, such as “improve your use of verbs...” or “increase your reading comprehension.” Goals must be stated in behavioral terms such as “be able to use gerunds and infinitives at an 80% (mastery) accuracy rate” or “write topic sentences which are grammatical and limited in one or more ways, and which clearly signal the topic of the paragraph.”

One criticism often voiced is that, given the often long periods of time it takes for students to master some language elements, many behavioral outcomes can not be achieved in the relatively short period of a semester. That's to be expected. Grades can be computed on how close the student came to meeting the goal. Specifically stating learner outcomes clarifies the direction and destination for the student, it's not meant to be an “all or nothing” proposition.

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