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. (


Comment from Ibrar Hussain
August 10, 2010 at 7:52 pm

For becoming good teacher one has to work day and night. Those people who think it easy, they don’t know what teaching is. It is walking on the edge of a razer.

Comment from Andy Walujo
September 1, 2010 at 10:17 pm

I was taught in my teacher college that a teacher is an agent of change. I guess that means one criterion of a good teacher, in this case a good ESL/EFL teacher, is someone who can bring positive change into the English language mastery of a student, someone who can help a student improve his or her English. Thanks for reading my comment 🙂 Kindest regards from Indonesia.

Comment from Tamara
September 2, 2010 at 2:48 am

I like that, “an agent of change”. That is something nice to remember on those days when I am tired and not feeling very “teacher-like”.

Comment from MWISENEZA mary Thacien
March 3, 2011 at 7:23 am

Good teachers are those who love their students and know what,how, and why to teach

Comment from Tamara Jones
March 3, 2011 at 7:28 am

Well put!

Comment from J JIYANE
August 27, 2012 at 6:34 am

a ggod teacher is someone who can set a light to his/her students and teach without considering the background of a learner.

Comment from Tamara Jones
August 28, 2012 at 5:30 am

I am not sure what you mean by “teach without considering the background of a learner.” In my case, I teach students from many different countries, and I have found it very helpful to take the learners L1 and background (for instance, educational history and educational norms in the leaner’s country) into consideration. In this way, I can offer targeted grammar and pronunciation help, as well as work to help the students adapt to the educational culture of my context.

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