Thursday, June 28, 2012

Are You an Effective Teacher?

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

I just love attending teaching conferences. I love getting together with former colleagues, bumping into the “superstars” of our profession in the hallways, sharing ideas with enthusiastic and knowledgeable teachers, checking out the publishers’ latest offerings, and, best of all, attending informative and motivating sessions. This year, I attended the TESOL 2012 Convention in Philadelphia. One of the best sessions I attended was a plenary led by the former TESOL president, Christine Coombe, called “Teacher Effectiveness in ELT.” (Dr. Coombe is an expert in this area. In fact, she even co-edited the book, “Evaluating Teacher Effectiveness in EF/SL Contexts” in 2007 with Peter Davidson, Mashael Al-Hamly and Salah Troudi.) Now, I am always looking for ways to be a better teacher. Aren’t we all?

In her plenary, Dr. Coombe suggested that many of the things that we would expect to impact teacher effectiveness actually don’t. Things like the age of the teacher or the reasons why we became teachers don’t have any impact whatsoever on whether a teacher is effective or not. I was a bit surprised to learn all this, but it was interesting (and a bit of a relief) to find out that I can still be an effective teacher even though I originally became an English teacher because of the travel opportunities it provided.

What Makes an Effective Teacher?

Dr. Coombe went on to list what she has determined to be the top 7 characteristics of highly effective teachers.

  1. Personal Qualities: Apparently, (no surprise) friendly teachers who really seem to care about their students are more effective. This includes learning the students’ names as soon as possible, even when they are different from anything we have ever heard of and we have brains like sieves. Dr. Coombe quoted Aspy (1978) when she pointed out that, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”
  2. Positive Attitude toward the Profession: Under this category, Dr. Coombe mentioned participating in professional development or acting as a mentor to a new teacher. As she talked, I thought about how whiney and negative I can be about teaching sometimes. I think if I can be more vocally positive, I will have a more positive outlook in general, which just might result in more effective classroom practices.
  3. Strong Verbal Abilities: Simply put, good teachers need to be able to explain things clearly. Dr. Coombe also noted that we need to be skilled at conflict resolution (teaching teenagers has certainly given me practice in this regard) and effective emailers. I would think that this characteristic includes the ability to listen as well as speak. Too often we are so busy telling our students things, we forget that they have things to tell us, too.
  4. Professional and Content Knowledge: Dr. Coombe highlighted two different kinds of knowledge: content (familiarity with the material) and procedural (knowing how to teach). This means that we need to know as much as we can about things like grammar and pronunciation in addition to knowing things like how the brain learns best and how to make a reading text accessible to students. Luckily for us, we don’t need to know all of this from day one. In fact, I suspect that even if we were to teach for a hundred years, we would never learn it all. However, there is no excuse for not doing our best to learn as much as we can.
  5. Teaching Experience: The longer we teach, the more we learn. (Hopefully!) In the sixteen plus years I have taught English, I have developed boxes of materials and learned what lessons and activities work well for me and what to toss. When I first started teaching, I thought it was good practice to sit my large conversation class in a semi-circle and ask them conversation questions one-by-one. Now I know that they get more practice speaking if I put them into small groups and they can talk to each other. When I first started teaching, I thought that I had to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet  if I ever wanted to teach pronunciation. Now I know that being able to spell things phonetically won’t necessarily be as big of a help to my students who want to be more easily understood as, for instance, mastering word stress. All of this I learned through experience.
  6. Intercultural Competence: This one is kind of a given, in my opinion. If we want to be effective teachers, we need to know our students. Even more, we need to accept their differences and adapt to their needs as we help them adapt to ours. We need to know, for instance, that our younger Chinese students won’t necessarily look us in the eye if we are reprimanding them because to do so would show a lack of respect in their culture. If we don’t know things like this, we can misunderstand positive intent, which can lead to conflict.
  7. Life Long Learning: Dr. Coombe advocated professional development at all levels, joining professional organizations, and reading ELT journals and blogs, such as this one. A former boss once told me that when teachers think they are done learning how to be better teachers, they need to get out of the profession. I heartily agree. Would you ever want to see a doctor who had stopped reading medical journals and didn’t participate in any professional development? Why would our students want any less from us?

Dr. Coombe pointed out that there is no “secret recipe” for being an effective teacher. However, in my opinion, this list gives us a good place to start!

Aspy, D. (1978) Kids Don’t Learn from People they Don’t Like, Human Resource Development Press.


Comment from Sam Amimaria on Facebook
June 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm

in facti agree with all these point to become a good teacher and i think devotion and dedication is compulsory part of it

Comment from Laura
June 28, 2012 at 8:14 pm

Great article. Thanks, Tamara. #7 reminds me of a story I once heard about a much-loved old professor who was asked why he spent so much time studying, although he had been teaching the same course for many years. He replied that it was necessary to go to the well daily so that the water you served was always fresh.

Comment from Ali Ghaleb on Facebook
June 29, 2012 at 1:34 am

Abdulrahman Alzindani Asif Rawji

Comment from Karin
June 29, 2012 at 7:00 am

Your article inspires me to ask a question that’s troubling me…I’ve been seeking a good forum in which to ask.

I have an adult ELL whose ability level is quite high. We use Azar’s blue book, but this student often thinks he ‘already knows that,’ and wants to skip entire areas of the book. His natural inclination in class is to redirect our time into conversation about politics, government,and American culture, as he is now expatriated to the US and a supervisor in his company (a very large, international corporation).

He has expressed interest in improving his business English, as he sometimes feels nervous when presenting to his supervisors, but despite repeated requests, he does not produce examples of his writing for us to discuss and review.

My thought is to develop our classes so that his interests in contemporary Americana is supported and developed erstwhile the need for fine-tuning his grammar.

Do you have any suggestions?

Thanks so much!!


Comment from Tamara Jones
July 2, 2012 at 4:17 am

I loved the anecdote about ‘fresh water’. What a nice image!

Comment from Tamara Jones
July 2, 2012 at 4:22 am

I have come across many high-level adult students who have studied grammar and may even know the rules better than many native speakers, but run into trouble when writing and speaking. I suspect if you have your student do some writing in class and record him doing presentations in class, you will be able to locate errors that can be addressed by assigning appropriate grammar exercises from the Azar book. Choosing topics, such as you suggested, that keep student interest is ideal, but having them produce the content cuts your workload down!

Comment from Mallory
July 3, 2012 at 10:55 am

I agree with your conclusion that these seven characteristics are “A good place to start” to becoming highly effective teachers. I only hope that I can embody all seven for the benefit of my students.

Comment from Tamara Jones
July 3, 2012 at 10:58 pm

I agree that the key is always keeping these characteristics in mind! I am not a perfect teacher, but I strive for ‘highly effective’.

Comment from Natalie Harvey
July 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm

At least I know I have number one, and that I can achieve the others with time and perseverance. I have only one year of the experience, but even that year has taught me a lot! Thanks for the insight.

Comment from Tamara
July 21, 2012 at 3:37 am

You are certainly so much further ahead of me than I was when I had 1 year of teaching under my belt. I didn’t have any training and didn’t know about resources, like this blog. Impressive!

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