Stephen Louw

A good teacher

Who gets to decide what it means to be a 'good' teacher?

In my role as teacher trainer, I get to meet a lot of interesting school-y sort of people: teachers, managers, a DoS or two, and the like. As might be expected, a lot of the conversations I get involved in are about teachers and teaching, and as these conversations develop, almost invariably the all-encompassing descriptor 'good' appears.

Let me give you a quick example of how a conversation might go. My phone rings, it's a strange number.

"Hello?" I answer, distractedly.
"Aj. Steve, it's Khun Yai from Wat Awandaphul School."
To which, despite my deplorable memory, I reply:
"Oh yes, great to hear from you, Yai. I hope everything is fine." I am the perfect gentleman, am I not?
"Fine Ajarn Steve. We need a good teacher. Do you have?"

If this were an Austin Powers movie, at this point there would be a loud zing from the violins, and a dramatic camera zoom into the depths of my eyeballs. I would look confused and bewildered and maybe bite a fingernail. Let's pause the conversation here, and see what it is that is causing all the drama. It's that word 'good'. What exactly is a 'good' teacher? How would I know a 'good' teacher if I saw one? Whose criteria should be used for judging this 'good'-ness?

To investigate this tricky (and serious) question, we will delve into the murky depths of (this fictitious) Wat Awandaphul School, and explore some opinions about teacher 'good'-ness. For the purposes of illustrating my point, allow me to indulge in some stereotyping: for which I apologize in advance.

A question of good

First, let's visit P5. Here's Pop. He's 11 or so. He likes hanging out with his friends and is not too keen on nerdy explorations of foreign languages. If we were to ask him about a good English teacher, he'd talk about Teacher Andy. Pop really likes him. Teacher Andy is never serious; he likes to have fun and play games in class, or just chat, and he never gets angry. In fact, he doesn't even mind if Pop chats to his friends during the lesson or does his maths homework.

Perhaps Teacher Andy doesn't notice - Pop can't be too sure. Teacher Andy also doesn't give homework; and even if he does, he doesn't check it anyway. Everyone got high scores in Teacher Andy's class. Pop thinks he is definitely the best teacher ever.

Pop has a brother, Poom, who is one year ahead of Pop and wants to be a doctor when he grows up. Poom used to study with Teacher Andy, but didn't like him. To Poom, Teacher Bee is a good teacher. Teacher Bee is so interesting! She always brings things into class to show everyone, and seems to know so much about everything. Her lessons are inspiring.

In one class, Ms. Bee told them about British food, and brought some for everyone to try. It wasn't delicious, but it was fun. Poom never feels sleepy in Ms. Bee's lessons. She likes everyone to walk around during class and talk to each other, and doesn't even care if the students can't say the things in English correctly.

Once Ms. Bee had a worksheet about the soi in front of the school, and everyone had to go and find things there. That time, Ms. Bee had an argument with Kr. Oil about why we were all leaving the school. Even if Kr. Oil doesn't like Ms. Bee, Poom thinks she is a good teacher!

Oil is Pop's homeroom teacher. Oil doesn't think Mr. Andy is a good teacher - he is absent a lot and never marks his books. Ms. Bee isn't very good either; she always has trouble managing the class and has to call someone to discipline the students because they aren't listening or doing their work. The parents have also complained about Ms. Bee because the students never do the work in their books. She wishes she could work with Teacher Ced. He always manages the students very well. The students are always well behaved and quiet, and he always finishes all the work before the exam. Teacher Ced likes to teach alone, and never asks for help. When he's teaching, Oil can have some time off! Teacher Ced's a real teacher!

The head of the department is Noi. Noi has had a lot of problems with Teacher Ced. The students are always complaining about him, and he once even hit Somchai (or so the students say). Oil always leaves the classroom during his lessons, so he was alone at the time and it's not clear what actually happened.

Last year, Teacher Ced got really angry when the school decided that they were going to change the scores of some of the students in his class who had failed, and he shouted at Kh. Yai. He is so impolite. Noi likes Mr. Dee because he understands Thai culture. When he greets, he always uses the 'wai', and he smiles a lot. He is always clean and dresses politely. He never gets angry like Teacher Ced, and always accepts decisions about the schedules and activities. Mr. Dee is such a good teacher.

Pop and Poom's mother fondly remembers Ms. Eve, who used to teach her boys. Ms. Eve could speak Thai well, and always informed the parents about the classwork and the boys' progress. Besides, Ms. Eve was so cute, with her curly hair and blue eyes.

One of the other parents told her that Ms. Eve even stayed behind after class to help the students who were failing so they could pass successfully. Wow. Ms. Eve was a wonderful teacher! Unfortunately, Ms. Eve left the school because she had an argument with Teacher Ced - he got angry when all her students got high marks and blamed her for letting them cheat. Everyone knows about it because they were shouting in front of the children.

A popularity contest

So, we have a very complex set of opinions. It seems that 'good' depends very much on who is speaking, and what it is they are looking for in a teacher. However, this all implies that being a well-liked teacher is the same as being 'good'. Is popularity a good measure of teacher 'good'-ness? In some cases, possibly; but there are plenty of teachers who are popular with students, but unpopular with their fellow teachers. Or popular with neither students nor colleagues, but popular with the school management. Or some other combination.

Back to my conversation with Kh. Yai of Wat Awandaphul school. She's asked me if I have a good teacher. Do I? Does Yai like relaxed teachers like Andy? Or an inspiring one like Bee? Or a militaristic teacher like Ced? Or a culturally sensitive one like Dee? Or a dedicated one like Eve?

Or perhaps there are there a completely different set of requirements that haven't been covered here - qualifications, youthfulness, ethnicity, length of experience? Is there some convoluted and tangled mix of all of these characteristics that Kh. Yai is hoping to find all in one neat package?

A good question

I have to admit that it is easy and tempting to think about teachers in shades of 'good'. But perhaps the reality is that there is no such thing as a good teacher. Or, if you are a glass-half-full sort, every teacher is good (in their own little way). I would like to say I go for this option: after all, does any teacher wake up in the morning and set out to be a 'bad' teacher? I rather doubt it.

Perhaps instead of 'good', we need more explicit adjectives for teachers. So instead of trying to decide if I am 'good' or 'not good', I can label myself as an 'open-minded' teacher, set out to live up to this characterization, and then hope I'm in a school where this trait is appreciated.

Teacher Eve, for example, may decide she is a 'caring' teacher, and feel vindicated in her argument with Ced, who she may see as lacking this virtue. How might Ced characterize himself as a teacher?

Or alternatively, and probably an easier option, I can just go with the flow and accept the imprecise adjective. Following this line, let's see how I can answer Khun Yai:

"Fine Aj. Steve. We need a good teacher. Do you have?"
(pause for Steve's crisis around the meaning of the word 'good')
"Of course, Kh. Yai. All of the teachers are good - I trained them!"

A nice piece of self-aggrandizing pretentiousness - go Steve. It might even be true.

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


1 Subject knowledge, licensing.
2 Love for students
3 Responsibility and support for students and position
4 Progress

By Jim Beam, Remote Holiday (3rd April 2023)

In my opinion a teacher who is 100% reliable, always well prepared for his lessons, alongside understanding, respecting and responding to his students' needs and requirements - is a good teacher. (Yes Jack, well predicted, that is the way I teach.)

However, I can see where you are coming from Stephen, that's if you were to ask 5 students or 5 Thai teachers to tell you about how good a particular teacher was or wasn't for that matter, then you would possibly get 5 very different answers. And not a single one of them would have to be distorting the truth, or even be wrong.

By Richard Constable, Bang Na (3rd June 2022)

Depending on the orientation of the course or school, I'd say results are quite a relevant measure of a good teacher. When I taught CAE, IELTS and university exams, everyone was focused on the fact that I got them through with good results. But of course, even in exam courses, it's important to make classes fun and participatory at the speaking level, however, if students are heading for good exam performance, then they are normally at a good participation level in class too. (IELTS perhaps is a slight exception).
If the course is not exam focused, then criteria of good teaching should include how much progress and confidence the students have gained, in handling the language and its uses. If this is good, they often feel very grateful to a teacher, regardless of any initial misgivings they may have had.
So in the broader context 'popular' usually incorporates some valuable teaching assets and abilities, although maybe Thailand is not highly developed on this side. Some students still really' believe in' teachers who just don't make them try hard, in favour of being relaxed or lazy.

By elisha watson, South Thailand (15th January 2017)

What makes a good teacher? In a county like Thailand where you can teach kids with 0 qualifications or experience, I'd say being normal is the biggest thing. Having a good work ethic and integrity will enable you to learn as you go, try your hardest and simply do the best you can do.

But let's get away from the teacher, and focus on their surroundings. Let's look at a good boss. A good boss is responsible for finding the best teachers hers/his budget allows. You can only work with what you have. If you take from the budget because you're a greedy boss, looking for good teachers will become increasingly harder and karma will rear its head now and again. I was given the job of finding new teachers at my old school and 2 of them couldn't have been better. The 3rd one turned out to be awful and was quickly replaced.

Instead of whining and moaning about this guy being a bad teacher, I took full responsibility. I told the school to employ the guy and the buck stopped with me. I got a new guy in and he was 'okay'. It was hard really. The budget was limited and their were no perks to offer. I tried to reward the 2 good guys as much as I could, but they quit at the end of 2 years because it really was a disposable job, and they were headed home anyway.

In the end, I went back home. I was in two minds when leaving and this swayed me. The final straw was telling the new guy that it was a 12 month contract when really it wasn't. It was 12 months if the school wanted to retain you and you wanted to continue another year. If you wanted to go or the school wanted you gone, it was 10 months. Lying to the guy didn't sit well with me at all and I really felt like a scumbag. Fortunately, he left after 4 months. I decided that it wasn't for me. Loved my teaching, but hated having to find new teachers. It takes a certain kind of person in this environment to lie and not give relevant information just to get someone in the door. That really isn't me.

I left early in 2016 and it seemed to be getting so hard to find good teachers. As I told my school when they complained about wanting good teachers, "good teachers are not obliged to come and work for you". Basically 'pay up or shut up'.

My advice to any schools in the current climate is, if you find a good teacher, hold onto them for dear life. I fear it's becoming near impossible at a TEFL level now in Thailand to find new good ones.

By Eoin (Ian), Kerry, Ireland (9th January 2017)

This is why I do not like it when a teacher spends many years with the same group of students. The students need different personalities in their lives.

I hope we get back to the times when school is less about a written test and more about preparing students for the real world. To me that is what makes a good teacher. So all these different personalities need to be experienced.

My Nic name from a school I worked at a few years ago was "Sunook Jai Lai. The interesting and funny monster.

So what to i think makes a good teacher. That is very easy "fairness". This word is not used very much these days.

Have fun

By T mark, chantaburi (31st December 2016)


Another thoughtful, interesting and thought provoking article! Your articles seem a bit different from the unsupported opinion which makes up much of what passes for professional discussion on teaching in Thailand.

My first thought in response to the question, what makes a good teacher, was the same response Stephen King gave to the question, what makes a good writer? His response was getting paid for your efforts (paraphrasing here).

While at first this might seem like a flip answer to a thoughful question, after some thought, it might seem somewhat more insightful.

The term teacher and teaching are extremely abstract, and even a basic review of the research on education tells us students learn in different ways and different approaches work better in different contexts and as the author mentioned there are different perspectives from different stakeholders in the educational process. While there might be some general principles which apply in most teaching situations (showing respect for students, make the topic relevant to the student’s lives, be adaptable, etc.…), specific teaching practices will of course need to be adjusted for the topic, age level of the students, expectations of the students, and so on.

If you can get paid, sustain a career, see a few pay increases, develop somewhat of a career, then you must be a “good” teacher in an objective view.

Although I suspect most teachers will respond with a subjective answer which more or less means to teach more or less like the person responding does.

By Jack, close to home (30th December 2016)

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