Archive for June, 2010

Monday, June 28, 2010

What does it Mean to be a “Good Teacher?”

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

I was recently reading an old edition of The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, and I came across an article about offering merit pay to “good teachers.” Although this has been a topic of conversation in teachers’ lounges across the US for a few years now, this particular article made me think. Is Barack Obama right when he says “It’s time to start rewarding good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.”?

Am I a “Good Teacher?”

Even though I don’t teach in the public school system or even in North America, and this question is totally moot for me, I still had an immediate, visceral reaction to the headline. My first reaction was, “Well, I think I am a good teacher, so yes, pay me more!” But, as I read the article, I started to wonder what they mean by “good teacher.” In my context, ESL, does this mean teachers’ whose students learn more quickly? Years of research has shown that there are so many other factors that influence language acquisition that it seems unfair to reward or punish teachers on that basis.

Does being a good teacher mean that students like the instructor and return week after week to class? Student retention might have more to do with the motivation and future goals of the students than the joy they get from attending the class.

Does it mean being an expert in grammar and/or language acquisition? Maybe that helps, but some of the least effective teachers I have ever observed were no slouches in the nuts and bolts of English language teaching. So, how do I know if I really am a good teacher?

According to The Globe and Mail

Research has been done in this area and, apparently, there are two resume-builders that aren’t necessarily indicative of skill as a teacher.

  • We don’t have to have a Master’s Degree to be good teachers.
  • We don’t have to have been teachers for a long time to be good teachers.

I agree with both, to an extent. I know many, many teachers who excel in the ESL classroom but who don’t have an MEd. However, as someone who reviewed resumes for a full-time teaching position, I believe that a Master’s degree shows a commitment to the field. I also think that experience in the classroom has made me a better teacher. I just don’t think it is a given, especially if the teacher is burnt out.

The Globe and Mail also reported some characteristics that Teach for America found good teachers tended to exhibit.

  • We need to have perseverance; apparently overcoming a personal or academic hardship in our own lives bodes well for us as teachers.
  • We need to take a cue from Madonna and periodically reinvent ourselves. Okay, we don’t have to learn how to Vogue or do Pilates obsessively, but regular reflection on activities and lessons plans is a good idea.
  • We need to set high standards for our students and explain what they need to do to meet them.
  • We need to get the family involved.

Obviously, Teach for America was referring to parental involvement in the public education system, but it seems to me that if a student (even an adult) is going to be really successful in their language learning, the rest of their family needs to be on board. Now, I have never called a student’s family, but making the student aware of the demands language learning may take on their time outside the class and the impact this might have on their family is a step in the right direction.

What do you do to be a “Good Teacher?”

I think I am a good teacher when I can explain something clearly to my students, when I am prepared for class and when I know the subject matter. I spend a lot of time reading articles and attending conferences to learn new teaching techniques and more about language acquisition. I know I will never be “done” learning how to be a “good teacher.” (Would you want to go to a doctor who had “finished” learning how to be a doctor and no longer read medical journals or followed current research?) I was recently asked by a student’s husband if I thought teaching was easy. My answer is that anyone who thinks it is, probably isn’t a very good teacher.

What do you think?

Anderssen, E. (2010) Should Canada offer merit pay to teachers? The Globe and Mail, February 6, 2010. (

Monday, June 14, 2010

Can I Please Borrow your Car?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Asking for a favor is a necessary part of life, no matter what country we live in or what our native language is. From small favors, like borrowing someone’s pencil in class, to big favors, like asking a neighbor to keep an eye on our home when we are on vacation, we are constantly requesting assistance from the people in our lives. However, HOW we ask for favors differs vastly from culture to culture.

This can cause problems for students who are trying to ask for a favor in a native English-speaking culture while following the rules of their native language culture. Although the student most likely intends to be polite when asking for a big favor, if he/she is not following the steps we have come to expect in English favor asking, the request might sound too demanding or even rude. The problem is that most text books don’t teach students how to formulate a request for a big favor. While it is perfectly acceptable for someone to say, “Can I please borrow your pencil?” it is much too straight forward to ask, “Can I please borrow your car?” without any preamble, even when the “please” is thrown in and a modal is used.

The 8 Steps of a Request

According to linguists such as Trosborg (1994) and Goldschmidt (1998), native English speakers follow several steps when asking for a favor that requires someone to go outside their daily routine in a noticeable way.

  1. Introducing: “Hey! How’s it going?”
  2. Warning: “I was wondering if I could ask you a favor?”
  3. Disarming: “I know you are really busy right now, but …”
  4. Giving a Reason: “My husband is out of town and I am having oral surgery and there is no one to pick me up from the dentist afterwards.”
  5. Asking the Favor: “If you are free on Tuesday afternoon, would you mind giving me a ride home?”
  6. Minimizing:  “It should just take about 30 minutes.”
  7. Promising: “I’ll reimburse you for gas.”
  8. Checking – only done with positive responses to the request:  “Are you sure you don’t mind?”

We don’t always use all of the steps, but we pick and choose according to our personal preferences and the relationship we have with the listener. Of course, this is all subconscious. We don’t think, “Okay, now I am going to minimize.” These steps are just an inherent part of how native English speakers have been socialized to ask for a big favor.

Something else worthy of note is the fact that we break basic grammar rules when we ask favors by using the past tense (“I was wondering”) when we very clearly mean the present. As demonstrated by Wigglesworth and Yates (2001), we also use a lot of mitigating words (“just”) to soften the request.

Favor-Asking in the Classroom

It behooves students to learn these steps because pragmatic errors are much more dangerous than grammar errors. If a student makes a grammar mistake, the listener might just think, “Oh, that person is not a native speaker.” But, if a student makes a pragmatic error, the listener probably won’t hear a mistake, he/she may just think the speaker is rude.

Unfortunately, most text books don’t teach these steps and grammar quirks. In my class, I first ask students to think about how they ask for favors in their native language. Then, we watch a video I made of a friend asking me to watch her dogs while she goes out of town. Then, we talk about the steps she uses in the video and why she says what she does. Finally, the students write dialogues in which they ask each other for big favors.

Asking for a big favor is a delicate conversational act. If we don’t explicitly teach students how to maneuver through this linguistic terrain, we may be setting them up for a slew of negative responses.

Goldschmidt, M. (1998) “ Do me a favor: A descriptive analysis of favor asking sequences in American English,” Journal of Pragmatics, 29/2, 129-153.
Trosborg, A. (1994) Interlanguage Pragmatics: Requests, Complaints and Apologies, New York: de Gruyter Mouton.
Wigglesworth, G. and Yates, L. (2001) “Focusing on Mitigation in English,” paper presented at TESOL, St. Louis.