Self-study is definitely a great way to approach language learning. You get to pick and choose what topics interest you and fully customise your process. But, there does come a time in every language learner’s life when they feel like getting a teacher to help them might speed up the process. A good teacher can be your guide to such nuances that you would’ve missed yourself. A great teacher can inspire you to go above and beyond and fall (even more) madly in love with your target language. It doesn’t even matter if it happens in a classroom or in a private setting.
But how can you really recognise which teacher is good and which is great? Sure, in some cases, the situation is very plain but, in others, figuring out whether your teacher is actually any good needs some work.
What is “great” anyway?
But first things first, let’s just start by making clear what we mean by “great”. “Great” can actually be different things to different people and even different things to one person over a period of time. For example, when you’re just starting out learning a language, you’d probably want someone extremely patient who encourages you to try speaking in a warm and inviting environment, without pointing out any mistakes. Once you’re already on your way towards fluency, you’d probably prefer someone who corrected you grammar every now and again.
Greatness also depends on your own preferences. Some students like teachers who teach very systematically, some prefer teachers with a more fluid approach. Essentially, to figure out what “great” means to you, you should first realise what it is you’re looking for in a teacher. Do you want more of a friend to practise speaking with? Do you want someone who can teach you the details of grammar?While some teachers can be very good at all of the different aspects of teaching your target language, most are going to have their own strengths and weaknesses. So, it’s your job to first figure out what you care about in a teacher.
That being said, there are still some skills that set great teachers apart from everyone else.
Functionality of language
Great teachers make sure that the language they’re having you learn is actually suited for your life and needs. There’s no point in learning aviation vocabulary if you work in finance or focusing on improving your accent when all you need to do is write proper reports. A great teacher makes sure that after every lesson, you learn something of your target language that will help you in your everyday life.
While it’s certainly easier to focus on your specific needs if you’re taking private lessons, a great teacher will find a way to teach you-specific language even in a bigger group. For example, if you have to write a passage about your hobbies or passions, then that already involves you finding out and using vocabulary that you’re interested in. You can also be asked to read newspaper articles on topics you’re interested in or to describe your average workday. There are many strategies great teachers use to make sure their lessons are customised even in group lessons.
The +1 approach
There is a theory in second language teaching which says that the most effective learning is done by students when the material presented to them is just a tiny bit out of their grasp. It’s called the i+1 hypothesis by Stephen Krashner and the zone of proximal development by Lev Vygotsky. The idea behind both of these very similar theories is that students need to be challenged by new material that lies just beyond their already existing knowledge.
What that means for you when trying to determine the greatness of your teachers is that you should take a look at the information you’re being presented at your lessons. If you can tie everything you’re learning together and put your existing knowledge into use to decode new material, you have certainly found a great teacher. Essentially, with superb instructors, their teaching strategies point to a clear goal and they use various activities to help you reach that, while average teachers see learning as more of a patchwork to be fit into place.
Another sign of a better-than-average teacher is that they understand the value of repetition and revision. Spaced repetition is one of the best tools any language learner has in their toolbox and it’s the teacher’s job to show you how to put your tools to good use. In your lessons, that should take the form of occasionally going over material you’ve learned or, better yet, weaving information that gave you trouble the first time around into new lessons in a different form, so you get to go over it again and look at the material from a new angle.
Additionally, a great teacher won’t rush through lessons according to their own schedule but take their cues from the students. Again, this is a lot easier to do in private lessons, when there’s the luxury of focusing on only one person’s needs. In a larger group where students have different language acquisition speeds, it’s a more difficult to implement. However, even then, a teacher can take the time to provide personalised feedback based on your performance and suggest ways for you to improve. Additionally, a great teacher, when seeing that the whole group struggles with a particular issue, will present the challenging info in a different manner instead of continuing down a closed path.
Fun but useful lessons
While the previous points demonstrated what techniques the most successful teachers should make use of, there’s one very important aspect to great teachers that we haven’t mentioned yet, and that is that they manage to make learning your target language an engaging experience. Great teachers use not only textbooks but also real-world media to show you how your language is actually utilised day to day. They use songs, literature, and news to introduce you to the culture and customs of your target language.
However, even here, there is a difference between good and great. With great teachers, all of the activities and materials that you engage with are aimed at a specific learning goal. Just playing games in your lessons or listening to pop music can be fun but it might not help you learn the language. So, pay attention to what types of materials your teacher uses, see if they’re tied to what you’re currently focusing on and also go over previously acquired information (as a form of revision) and question your teacher’s objectives and goals.
Conclusion – Great teachers make use of clear goals and helpful strategies
While it’s impossible to define what makes a teacher great, there are some strategies and techniques successful teachers use to make your lessons both engaging and educational. Using real-life, authentic materials can help you understand how language is actually put to use while playing word games can keep your motivation high. Great teachers also recognise the importance of taking time to revise old information and need to incorporate it into succeeding lessons, so that you’re constantly learning in the i+1 zone while also getting to draw upon already familiar information to improve your language skills.