Wednesday, December 20, 2006

You'll like this, not a lot..........

What makes students like their teacher? Should a teacher try to make students like him or her? If so, how hard should a teacher try? Does it matter? Should it matter?

These are questions I have pondered over my three years of teaching. I've discussed the issue at length with my contemporaries and now that some peers see me as an experienced teacher, I occasionally get asked the questions myself.

Let’s face it, it's a natural human trait to want people to like us. Whilst most people are confident enough to stick to some principles and avoid trying to please everybody, most of us - given the choice - would rather have the next person in the ATM queue like us rather than not. Even those who profess differently can have something to hide. I often find those who try hardest to project an "I don't care what anyone says about me" image are the most sensitive.

So with that in mind, let's tackle some of these questions, in no particular order:

"Should a teacher try to make students like him or her?"

The best straight answer I can muster is "Yes- but for the right reasons and only to a certain degree". Let me clarify: it's a popular and easy trap for many teachers - particularly newcomers - to think along the logic trail of "I taught this class, we played games and they liked me. That makes me a good teacher". Of course, that's wrong.

If any non teachers are reading this thinking "That's stupid. How can anyone think they are good at teaching just because students liked them?" , it's important to understand about the nature of this profession..

Teaching is based on human interaction, not a task that is always easy to measure. There's no scoreboard, no knowledge thermometer to let you know exactly how much your students learned today. Some things like vocabulary are easy to check, but other things such as verb tenses , language application and context are harder to measure (so your students learned "Excuse me, would you mind if I borrowed your pen?” , but do they know if this style is use for their best friend or their boss? It's not so easy to remember when it's not language).

Education is reliant on effective communication. Teachers instinctively look for natural responses to gauge just how well they've done. Most students will be too shy or polite to give a blatant assessment of their tutor, so most teachers will look for more subtle reactions such as pupil’s body language and expression as an indicator.

Now here's the problem: many students don't want to learn. This is particularly true of teenagers and children, with some exceptions. Adults usually have some interest (the obvious exception being office workers who are so happy their boss decided to send them to learn English on Fridays after work) but even adult students aren't always aware of what is genuine teaching, and what is wasting time.

Children and teenagers don't usually want to learn the present perfect simple tense, no sir, they want to play!!! Didn't you when you were that age? And they can be pretty persuasive about it. It's very easy for a self conscious teacher to give in to a group of youngsters more and more frequently after they give the oh so polite "Thank you, you are a good teacher!" after each round of hangman with superhero film titles.

Adults can also be a risk. Many adults have set beliefs about language learning . That may involve the teacher simply talking non stop, or teaching only grammar. This is fine if the teacher explains to the student how this may not be the best method for communication, but adults also have ways of persuasion. Again, a teacher can easily take a subconscious drift into the world of making the student happy rather than educated.

So in summary, it's easy for a teacher to try and be liked by not doing their job very well. Yes a tutor should try to be liked, but not because he or she plays hangman and crosswords every five minutes, or because he has an ever so novel way of teaching indirect and direct objects twenty times over. In my humble view, a teacher should try to be liked for professional reasons.......

What makes students like a teacher?

Putting aside the follies mentioned above, it's time to focus on some skills that do count. They can be harder to develop and maintain than the aforementioned methods, but they are far more rewarding.

1) Trust. A student needs to know that a teacher really does understand what he or she is doing. Without that confidence, a student constantly questions and seeks reassurance over what the teacher explained, and that affects learning. Another mistake of teachers is to believe that they must answer every question instantly. In my experience, it's far better to be honest and say "That's a good question, I don't honestly know the answer but I will check and let you know", this way student knows that when you answer them, it's a good answer.

Of course, a good and knowledgeable teacher shouldn’t be caught out very often. This may sound elementary and indeed it is, but it never ceases to stun me how many incompetent and insecure teachers in South East Asia will verbally batter a student for asking a question the teacher didn’t know. Inexperienced foreign teachers tend to fall into the mental trap of making up an answer or simply waffling.

2) Rapport. It's good to have fun and joke with the students. It builds trust and makes lessons interesting and unpredictable. With adults, this humor is normally pulled in or study at the right time, with youngsters, they sometimes need to be reminded that it's time to study.

Another potential pitfall lies here. Many a time I’ve seen a teacher become so overjoyed at making students laugh, the lesson becomes a comedy show rather than education for the future. Of course, a really good teacher can teach and have fun with students in balance.

3) Understanding. In my experience, students respond well to a teacher who shows that he or she really identifies with what they need. Some students want to pass an exam, some just want to develop a good skill, and others are looking for an English speaking romance. It's important that a teacher not only understands but shows that he or she understands and is looking to help.

As I type this, I think back to my early teaching days and how many times I stuck rigidly to a workbook with frustrated students who wanted to learn conversation for an international school. IF I had listened to their needs, I would have been better.

4) That little extra. Most students can see through their teacher quickly. If the teacher couldn’t care less and comes unprepared, students will sense that and respond in kind. A little preparation, a few notes and bit of structure will please students. Adults in particular will notice these beneficial traits.

That's by no means my exhaustive list, just a few ideas. Of course it needs to be borne in mind that different personalities will attract to different styles of teacher behaviour. Some students repect a diciplinarian, others prefer a 'warm' teacher and so on.

I truly believe that most students will pick up on the qualities above and respect the teacher for them. That respect runs deeper than just being liked.

Does it matter? Should it matter?

Yes and yes. Sometimes for the wrong reasons with the former question.

The most important rule here is that students will learn better with a teacher they like (again, withstanding the aforementioned misguided, oh so fun teacher). Most students will like teachers who are fun, but prepared and knowledgeable and understanding. It makes a big difference. It also matters sometimes for the wrong reasons. Many Thai schools - mostly government ones - will use students like of a teacher as a gauge of that teacher's ability. Sadly of course, this can lead to misunderstandings of what is a good teacher.

So there we have it. My shy opinion of a "liked" teacher and all the misunderstandings that come with it. I can think of several teachers who try so hard to be "liked" and of one teacher who wore the self appointed "most popular" title like a crown. It's a dangerous slope borne from lack of confidence. I recall another teacher - a thirty two year old - who was so keen to be "the cool" teacher he would actually become desperately violent and combative during friendly teachers’ basketball matches, he thought the twelve year old female students would be impressed.

Being liked is not equal to being a worthwhile teacher and it can be dangerous to think so. However, being liked for having the qualities of what most people consider as a truly able teacher can be endearing and beneficial to the tutor and her students. I'd be lying if I said I didn’t' feel good every time someone told me I was "the best" teacher, so I'm as guilty as everyone else. (Of course, all compliments have to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt, too)

My main thoughts here lie with the teenage class I taught for three years. I made numerous mistakes in my classroom management with this bunch. In the early days I wanted so hard for them to like me that I was woefully soft on their pubescent behavior. By the time I woke up, I had a far more difficult job to reign them in and it involved a lot of verbal reprimands and various punishments. Throughout that tumultuous time I had to explain repeatedly that I loved them and what I was doing was because I wanted them to learn, and learn well. On my last day of teaching the class, one girl made a speech where she told me "You are not the best teacher in the world, but you are the best for us and we love you". I can't deny, it was a moving moment.

So what if the ball is on the other foot? How does a teacher deal with a hostile class or a particularly virile student? I'll write about that next time.

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