Thursday, May 07, 2009

How to spot a (possibly) bad teacher

I wrote this blog because there has been a lot of discussion about teachers lately and I know many students spend their hard earned money on English teachers, only to be let down.

Let's get straight to business. There is no definition of a "good" teacher, because personality plays such an important part for any educator. Good teachers can come in all shapes, sizes and personality types in my opinion.

However, while it's also impossible to give a strict exposition of a "bad" teacher - as opposed to an obviously awful teacher - there are certain things to look out for and I will describe them here.

But first, be very clear: there are very good teachers in Thailand. A whole damn lot of them. Some are fully qualified, some partly qualified, a few unqualified. Wherever you are in Siam, look in the right places, ask the right questions and you will find them. I make this point because part of me feels like a traitor whenever I criticise the state of foreign teachers in Thailand, but sadly it needs to be done. I could go on at length about the attitude and approach of bad teachers but it would not help.

What will help is this; my list of 'warning signs' for possibly bad teachers. Bear in mind this guide is aimed at adult students. While much of it would naturally apply to a teacher for any age group, some things will differ for obvious reasons. I also want to stress it's aimed at teachers of English language, which is not my own full time profession.

1) Look at appearance.

Not too much needs to be said here as Thais are hot on appearances anyway. While I know some very good but overworked teachers who can be a little scruffy, it's generally a warning sign. Shoes are a particular signal. Teachers are not rich of course, we don't strut around in Armani leather soles but a glance at a teacher's footwear can often be a surefire giveaway to their attitude. Which reminds me, I must buy some more polish ;-0

2) Ask a very basic grammar question e,g:"What's the difference between the past simple and past perfect?".

It doesn't matter if you want to study grammar or not, a teacher who cannot answer such a question is like a pilot who doesn't know where the cockpit is. During my stint as head teacher at a certain school, I had an applicant teacher fill out our test form. One of the instructions was: "Name all the tenses". He answered: "Past, now, tomorrow". He was not employed.

3) Ask him if he's ever taught TOEIC or IELTS.

If you get a puzzled look, he's probably not a very experienced teacher. That doesn't make him bad, of course.

4) Ask a general question that has an open answer e.g: "What do you like about teaching?"

This has two purposes and is especially important if you wish to be a private student. First, you can actually listen to an answer to an important question. Secondly, you can test how much you understand of your potential teacher when he speaks. If he talks at a native speaker's pace and for a long time, he is probably not a very good teacher. I've only ever met one exception to this rule in my career.

5) Ask if you can watch him teach a class.

I don't know many people who jump for joy at the thought of a stranger watching them work but a teacher should be understanding and readily accepting of this. If he makes excuses as to why you can't, he is almost certainly a poor teacher.

That's all. Some people may be wondering why I didn't tell everyone to ask after a teacher's qualifications. Well it's simple: the bad ones will lie. Unless you are prepared to take the time to check the qualifications for yourself, you will achieve little. Following these steps should be enough to let you take a guess at his qualifications anyway.

Finally, the question of money. I avoided this because I think it's wrong to equate a person's wealth with their value but it is generally true that a cheap teacher is not such a good teacher. Keep this in mind when you go to the "shopping mall schools". That's not to say you can't find good teachers at the cheaper places , certainly you can, but your chances lower with the cost. It's like any type of shopping, you might strike a bargain, but you have to look carefully. I'd go as far as to say this is the most frequent mistake made by Thai students; they hunt for the cheapest private teacher without asking themselves why that teacher is cheap.

As usual, I never claim to be a good teacher and I'm certainly no authority on pedagogy. I have students that rate me very highly, a couple that probably don't like me (Thai students rarely say such things to your face) and most are somewhere in-between. I have never broken any of the above laws except on days when I forget my tie or shoe polish. I do not teach English myself, I teach grade nine and ten (and, next semester, eleven) Social Studies. My colleague in this is an ordained man with two masters degrees so to keep up with him, I must be doing OK.

I would be happy to give advice on teaching or checking teachers of young children or teenagers if people ask, and I invite other teachers to add ideas to my list.


Fonzi said...

Very interesting blog.

I'd say that the best measurement of a good teacher is the results.

Some will argue that this can't be a quantifiable measurement, especially since you can't force a student to do what you want, regardless of skills.

However, if you put two teachers side by side, teaching the same subject matter, and one teacher gets his students to master the material to a proficiency he was hired for, while the other teacher doesn't produce any results, I think you can measure who is good and who isn't good.

hobby said...

I'm not a teacher, and realise you are talking about foreign teachers of English language in Thailand, but a couple of your points listed still grate with me:

#1 on your list - that really has nothing to do with teaching ability, and the fact that someone is not prepared to play the image game could even be a positve.

Also # 2 seems slightly 'anally retentive' to this cynic.

Red and White said...

Hobby, point taken :-) Of course appearance is no guide to ability. Norm Chomsky has more ability in his little finger than most teachers have and he is not always dapper. Still, in the world of foreign Thailand teachers, I do find it to be at least a fallible guide to ability.

Fonzi, I do agree. Of course though, this guide is aimed at first impressions, how to measure results could make a good follow up blog :-)

Roger said...

Sure, the best measurement of a good teacher is the results, but how do you go about doing that, exactly? If you are able to find some students who took classes with that teacher previously their opinion would be useful -- students know if they're learning or not. Some teachers try to cultivate popularity with their students, but I think those are usually not the good teachers.

Anonymous said...

Fonzi ...

How about say, two literature teachers. One gets their students good exams results but turns then off literature forever; the other doesn't get as good exam results but their students love literature and reading and carry that around with them for the rest of their lives ?

Talen said...

The best measure is the final result but I do believe appearance plays into it.

Anyone teaching in Thailand knows that a presentable appearance is expected and if a teacher can't be arsed to present himself well then O doubt they will be arsed to do the job to the best of their ability.

expatudon08 said...

if you applied these principles half of the schools in the UK would lose there teachers I guess
education standards have slipped while results have got better well they would if you kept making the tests more easy to let unsuitable students into worthless university places welcome to the UK and you thought Thailand was bad

Anonymous said...

I do understand your concern about a teaching standard, but in my opinion expats in Thailand should help each other, not create difficulties in this generally uneasy environment. I'm sure you understand that.