The Ideal Teacher
What makes the perfect teacher in the EFL classroom?
ideal (adj): perfect in every way
One of the typical brain-storming sessions during any teacher training course is the one where participants are asked what they think makes a good teacher. I'd like to take this one step further and examine what qualities the ideal teacher would possess. For teachers, this could be a checklist to compare themselves to this mythical creature. For head teachers or recruiters, it could be used to separate the wheat from the chaff and spot the ideal candidates among the throngs of wannabes.
Let me point out that this list is based more on personal experience than large-scale research. Also, while most qualities on the list are probably appreciated worldwide, some are considered particularly important in the Land of Smiles. You may be able to guess which. I preferred to list qualities in random order as we could discuss forever and a day which ones are the most important as this often depends on a multitude of variables.
So how to become the ideal teacher? You should be, have or do the following:
Identify yourself with your students and try to understand their needs, problems and anxieties (this is especially important when teaching youngsters). Your empathy will create goodwill, cooperation and respect. Sympathy (sharing others' feelings) won't do the trick as you may get too involved emotionally, nor will apathy (complete lack of interest or concern) as you may be mistaken for a teacher who couldn't care less.
How on earth can you stimulate learners into soaking up knowledge and participating actively in class if you're lessons are duller than watching paint dry? Show that you love your job, the English language, your students (within the boundaries of the law and school regulations) and your host country. Don't sit glued to your chair in front of the classroom all day.
If you wake up every morning and think gloomy thoughts like 'What the hell did I do to deserve these little buggers' or 'I wish it was Friday', you're probably not the most motivated teacher in the world. Try to enjoy your job and do your best to become a better (or at least less horrible) teacher. Remember that your enthusiasm and motivation will rub off on your students. For more on how to motivate students, please read one of my last year's columns on this topic.
Good at building rapport
Try to create a bond, a harmonious understanding with your students. Promote an atmosphere of 'We're all in this together'. Make it clear that your door is always open and that you'll listen to their problems. If students see you as someone who will help them get their heads around the maligned English language instead of an enforcer shoving it down their throats mercilessly, more learning and cooperation will be achieved in the classroom. Showing empathy is crucial for building rapport.
When teaching outside the glamour of reputable international schools, you may find yourself with limited resources - or no resources at all. Never take the use of a photocopier for granted (even when there is one it may break down once in a while) and try to make lessons worthwhile and interesting without the need to copy half a dozen worksheets each lesson to kill time. If you've got absolutely no idea what to do with 40 bored and restless kids, peruse the school library (if there is one), go on the Internet and check out the countless teaching websites or create materials from scratch, based on your own experience. As for the Internet, there is a lot of good stuff out there for free; it just takes some time and effort to discover it and adapt it to your needs.
Enforce discipline on yourself as well as on your students, but do it gently. Will yourself to refuse that 17th beer on the eve of a school day, have daily showers although they used to be weekly back home, read a good book instead of going out to watch Isan damsels gyrate chrome poles. There is absolutely no need to take up self-flagellation, become a teetotalling monk or beat students' heads against the nearest wall at the smallest infraction. Leave corporal punishment to local teachers who are much better at it and enjoy administering it.
Don't be too idealistic and think that the English classroom is an peaceful and intellectual paradise where English proficiency is the highest goal of all students. It's not. It's often a war zone, with students playing the role of brain-damaged rebels keen to undermine all the efforts of the reviled officer in charge, i.e. you. Don't give up too quickly and try to see the bigger picture. Even if your materials are substandard or virtually non-existent and your students all but willing participants in the classroom, there must be something you can achieve. Instead of having them memorise Obama speeches or challenge James Joyce's writing skills, set achievable goals. For example, make sure they can at least introduce themselves intelligibly, write a short email without scores of mistakes or count to ten properly.
Sense of humour
Unless you want to establish a reputation as the driest teacher in school, have a laugh once in a while, crack a joke and enjoy at the lighter side of life. Be warned though that western humour is often very different from what locals find funny (Thais usually prefer slapstick). Telling dozens of jokes that only you think are funny will get you nowhere.
a good teacher is not necessarily well-qualified and a well-qualified teacher is not necessarily good. however, qualifications are important and in my experience teachers with formal training and a relevant degree are often in a much better position to be successful at teaching english. if you think that being able to speak english means that you can teach it you are deluding yourself, so stop sending me emails asking if you'll find a job in thailand without a degree. you probably will but i think the los has already plenty of unqualified teachers without you joining the flock. also, for visa and work permit purposes, a degree (ba) and teaching certificate (such as tefl or celta) is often required - or do you intend to join the legion of illegal workers and visa-runners - or marry your local girlfriend you met in a beer bar in a desperate attempt to secure a non-immigrant o visa? if you have a degree but have never taught, enrol in a tefl course, go to workshops, brainstorm with colleagues, ask help from the head teacher, browse teacher's books and resource packs but don't rest on your laurels because the students seem to like your lessons and the bingo and hangman games you play with them.
Good teaching skills
Whether you have your whole wall plastered with degrees or not, make sure you have good basic skills in order to teach effectively. If elicitation, seating arrangement, pair and group work, speaking prompts, TTT or PPP mean absolutely nothing to you, get on a refresher course or read a decent methodology book (such as The Practice of English Language Teaching by Jeremy Harmer or Learning Teaching by Jim Scrivener).
I realise this is very similar to creative. For example, when students ask for the meaning of a word, don't just throw the translation at them in broken Thai (or any other L1) all the time because the odds of them understanding you are small anyway. Explain it in English first, ask them to look it up in an English-English dictionary, rephrase the definition, repeat it, mime it, draw it, use flashcards, make students guess its meaning from context. Finally, after most students have grasped its meaning, translation into their L1 isn't a bad thing as it will reassure them that they got it right.
Limit your teacher talk time as much as possible. Give students the opportunity to practise the language, to digest (the material, not their lunch), ask questions, discuss and reflect. Never just sit at your desk and read literally what's in the course book. I had my fair share of lecturers in my school days and I always thought 'Do these guys think we can't read?'. By the way, the same goes for powerpoint presentations (with or without handouts).
Technology-savvy and computer-literate
You should at least be able to switch on a computer and operate common classrooms appliances such as overhead projector, tape recorder, CD-player and DVD-player. Knowing your way around the Internet, being able to use an interactive whiteboard, setting up a blog or website and coordinating classrooms projects online might get you a step ahead of your colleagues.
Patience is really an invaluable virtue. You will often need to explain something over and over again. Try your best to find different ways to explain something. Don't just explain (or lecture), but demonstrate, get feedback, let students explain to each other if necessary and give them plenty of non-threatening opportunities to practise. Learning by doing is one of my mottoes. Practice makes perfect is another.
Be on time, no matter what. 'My alarm clock didn't go off' is a pathetic excuse so don't use it. Traffic jams, heavy rainfall and stomachaches are equally non-starters. Street food has never given me stomachache or food poisoning. Maybe you should keep the arsenic safely locked up. This is really a no-brainer: never make anyone wait for you. By the way, do you like waiting for others?
As a teacher it is your job and duty to teach whenever you have a class. Calling in sick because you don't feel like it or you're hung over is unacceptable. If you did indeed ingest too much alcohol, at least be a (wo)man and teach with a hangover. You'll start feeling better in the afternoon anyway.
Schedules may change, schools may be fire-bombed, colleagues may be unavailable due to a myriad of reasons such as visa runs, 'food poisoning', appointments at the local STD-clinic or girlfriend troubles so you may be asked to fill in for these slackers, possible for no extra pay. Just do it without too much complaining as it is an inescapable fact of life. Blaming the management is counterproductive; giving the absent loafer a piece of your mind is usually more effective.
Don't be a whinger
Moaning and groaning is part of quite a few teachers' daily routine. My advice: don't do it. It's not going to solve any problems or improve the situation you're in so you might just as well keep your big trap shut as it can really get on your colleagues' nerves. If you 'just want to get it off your chest', join an Internet forum or self-help group.
Some societies - or at least some of their cultural values - might be called shallow. Locals often idolise handsome, young(ish), white-skinned foreigners. This might be an unfair yet invaluable trump card for totally incompetent wannabes. If you're less fortunate in this department, don't despair. Don't rush to your local beauty clinic to schedule surgery with the resident quack or apply bleach to yourself as there are jobs for all of us.
Calm, cool and collected
If you're in a conflict situation, stay cool whatever happens (jai yen, literally cool-hearted). Smile, take a deep breath and think of an idyllic brook running through a green valley (or whatever works for you). Don't get all worked up, don't be hot-tempered (jai-rawn, literally hot-hearted), don't shout, don't accuse, don't point your finger to assign blame as this kind of behaviour will make everyone involved lose face, especially you. If in Asia, try never to be confrontational and understand the concept of face, which I admit is easier said than done.
Not overly critical
Adopt an easy-going and care-free approach to local life. Don't expect things to be like you think they should be. Please realise that criticism is absolutely taboo in Thailand (and lots of other countries), unfortunately even when it is meant to be constructive. Criticising people, their customs, lifestyle or way of doing business will get you nowhere. Criticising important people might get you in court for libel or slander. Criticising the monarchy will get you behind bars.
Good personal hygiene
Bathe at least twice a day and remember that perfume or deodorant are no alternatives to showering. Even if time is scarce, a quick shower doesn't last longer than a few minutes. Don't sport scruffy beards, dreadlocks, long hair or ponytails (absolute no-nos in Thailand and, by the way, completely passé). Visible tattoos or piercings are not appreciated either.
If you've no idea what this means, revisit the ZZ Top video 'Sharp Dressed Men'. I suppose nicely pressed shirts, fitting trousers, spit-polished shoes, stylish tie and matching socks sums it up for English teachers. In some Thai schools, a shabby yellow polo shirt may be mandatory.
You shouldn't necessarily speak the Queen's English, but if even your co-workers have a hard time understanding you, there is a problem. In the classroom, you should speak with a clear voice and enunciate well. Don't speak slowly nor quickly but use a natural rhythm. Refrain from pidgin English at all times; when students don't grasp what you're saying, repeat or rephrase instead of asking slowly nonsense like 'You go Japan before, yes or no?' as this will only give the impression that it's okay to use Thaiglish, Singlish or other local versions of English. Unless when dealing with advanced students or on purpose, avoid idioms and other colourful language that may impede communication.
It's a fact that increasingly more parents and students insist that teachers don't smoke. Although I am absolutely against smoking myself, forcing teachers to kick their dirty habit is a delicate matter. Paying customers (who are always right) often argue that smokers - even when not smoking - emanate a pervasive and repulsive smell they don't want to be subjected to. I guess they are partly right, although employing non-smokers only is somewhat impractical and in many countries possibly illegal. When asked about a teacher's habits, I usually quip that none of my teachers smoke when they are inside the classroom.
Abstain from binge drinking and illegal drugs
Although you might argue that you are free to whatever you want in your free time, this should not interfere with your work-related activities. Smelling of alcohol or pot while on the job is inadmissible. If the damage is done, use strong chewing gum or plenty of deodorant (still better than calling in sick), but don't think for a minute this will fool the sniffer dogs at work. Let me stir up some controversy and question if we - in our role as educators - are really free to do as we please when off duty. Just put yourself in the shoes of a concerned parent. Would you want your kids to be taught by someone who is hammered on a daily basis, prefers a dose of magic mushrooms to a wholesome dinner and keeps the adult entertainment industry in business?
Respect local customs
'However daft they may seem to you' should be added here. Remember that when you're a long way from home, people do things differently. They may say yes when they mean no. The may smile when they are angry. They may waste perfectly good food to ward off imaginary spirits. They may think it's cool to wear childish clothes well into their 40s. They may think it's okay to insult you in your presence (e.g. calling you fat or pig-faced). They may expect you to join them to get plastered every day after work. They may think all foreigners are barbarians yet try to emulate them at the same time. They may think a successful marriage is based on money and deceit. They may keep the indoor temperature at 16 degrees Celsius but moan and groan (and put on thermal underwear) when the outdoor temperature drops below 18. Just make sure to prepare and adapt yourself if necessary (read a 'Culture Shock' book if available).
Local culture can be very different from your own. Whereas calling someone 'fatso' or 'slaphead' might trigger a fatal stabbing or at least a severe thrashing in the west, in some countries it is just a way of life. Don't start crying or make a big deal out of it when your students - children and adults alike - blandly state you are fat (although your relatives back home might be impressed with your recent weight loss) or ugly (although some local ladies insist you're a handsome man).
Set yourself a number of personal and professional goals, but don't overreach. If you plan to teach in a developing country, you might earn less than where you came from. Don't start arguing that 'You're worth at least 4,000 dollars in New York' or 'You could make that much flipping burgers at home' when you're applying for a teaching job in upcountry Thailand. Remember that the cost of living is usually much lower so you should still be able to have a good life and put some money aside. At work, don't expect students to become fluent within weeks. Set realistic and achievable goals.
By this I don't mean that your English should be of a high standard, which is self-evident, but that you should speak it in the classroom as much as possible during an English lesson. This seems to be especially difficult for those teachers who speak the students' L1. Many but not all of these teachers are locals who don't seem to have no qualms about conducting a whole English lesson in Thai. Don't short-change your students this way as it will prevent them from ever achieving decent communicative skills. Students need to be exposed to the language they're learning. Don't use L1 in the classroom before exhausting all other options first.
Country of origin
It is a fact that most schools prefer to hire native speakers. In my opinion however, being a native speaker of English is far less important than all the other criteria mentioned above. Let's not forget that more than 90 per cent of English teachers worldwide are locals. Actually, expecting every English teacher to be a native speaker is mathematically impossible. As long as a teacher's language and teaching skills are up to par (which, I admit, isn't always the case, especially in Thailand), it doesn't really matter where they are from. Native speakers might be great at teaching conversation and offer more natural and authentic speech, but since most of the English conversations worldwide now take place between non-native speakers, this is no longer the advantage some claim it to be. Some readers sent me emails asking if there are opportunities for either non-native speakers or degreeless teachers in Thailand. If you weren't born in the right country, just have a look at the above list and see if you think you'd qualify. The same goes for 'teachers' without a degree.
Finally, as an ideal teacher you realise that no human being in the world possesses all the above-mentioned qualities. Therefore, you understand that nobody's perfect and, as a result of this convoluted logic, you don't exist.
New batch of Thai photos available in Philip's photo portfolio on http://www.flickr.com/photos/philiproeland"