What Makes a Good Teacher?

Have you ever been a student in a class and thought, “What is this teacher doing up there? Doesn’t he/she notice that no one knows what the heck is going on in his class?

Have you ever been assigned to teach a class you’re not so familiar or confident with?

Sometimes, it feels like the more I teach, the more I am unsure about how to teach. I say this with two specific conditions in mind:

  1. with new teachers who are provided relatively little support in terms of curriculum
  2. with subjects that teachers are unfamiliar or don’t feel confident teaching

And though this is really just from my own reflections from my teaching experience, I suspect it’s something teachers go through, a phase perhaps, during their teaching career.

For the past two years in Taiwan, I’ve been teaching undergraduate language skills classes, specifically public speaking (PS), listening/speaking (LS), and writing (WR). And I would say that over these two years (or rather, I conceptualize them more as four semesters), I’ve noticed an interesting pattern in the way that my self-efficacy and confidence over teaching these classes has fluctuated in unexpected ways. Here is how I would rank my levels of teacher self-efficacy (from lowest to highest) for each of the three classes I’ve taught over four semesters:

  • Semester 1: PS / WR / LS
  • Semester 2: LS / PS / WR
  • Semester 3: LS / PS / WR
  • Semester 4: LS / WR / PS (didn’t teach PS this semester, but if I had, I would have ranked my self-efficacy as highest of the three)

What interests me is why teaching listening/speaking started as the class I was most confident of teaching but over the past two years has become the complete opposite.

Teaching Listening/Speaking v.s. Teaching Public Speaking

I believe that one of the major factors that has affected the way I approached teaching listening/speaking  and teaching public speaking during my first semester has to do with the way I conceptualized the two in relation to my training as a instructor of TESOL. Before coming to Taiwan, I went through a teacher training program while studying for my M.A. TESOL degree and the core class I was assigned to teach was intermediate listening/speaking for an academic Intensive English Program. It was a very comprehensive teacher training program; rather than throwing us into a classroom to figure out what to do on our own, the program provided me with a mentor teacher, detailed materials for a semester-long curriculum, plenty of opportunities for observation, reflection, and evaluation, and a community of other teachers-in-training to socialize with. We were trained to teach with a large emphasis on communicative teaching, inductive questioning, teacher scaffolding, student schema, and teacher reflection. Everything we decided to do as teachers needed to have theoretical rationale. During the training, we were constantly asked to think about using theory to inform our teaching and making sure our teaching was backed up by theory. When started to teach listening/speaking in Taiwan, I approached that class with what I had been trained to do: apply theory to practice.

Teaching With/Without a Theoretical Background

One can argue that this is exactly what we want, exactly what teacher training and teacher development should be about.One can argue that most people who become English teachers in Taiwan don’t come to the classroom equipped with enough theoretical understanding about basic TESOL concepts, such as second language acquisition, comprehensible input, schema and scaffolding, affective filters, etc. They may not have any formal language teaching training at all; it’s not uncommon to hear about English native speakers who have had no training or experience in teaching easily becoming English teachers in Taiwan. However, one can also argue that all that theory and training is unnecessary; the best way to learn how to teach is to teach. While I am not arguing for only one or the other, I think that I had approached my listening/speaking class thinking that “I knew how to do it” and that the theories I had been taught and ways to apply them where unshakable.

In stark contrast, I approached teaching public speaking with no theoretical knowledge at all. I had absolutely no experience teaching public speaking and public speaking isn’t really a subject traditionally covered in TESOL. Although I was told what public speaking textbook the previous instructor had used his class (“The Art of Public Speaking” by Stephen Lucas), the textbook contained too much theory and explanation that I didn’t think it was helpful for the students in terms of doing public speaking. Because of this, based on a co-worker’s recommendation, I joined Toastmasters, an international organization to help members improve public speaking skills, once I got to Taipei. I adopted aspects of Toastmasters I had learned through participating in their meetings, such as specific roles everyone can take to facilitate a meeting, different types of presentations, and strategies for providing feedback to presenters. One semester after another, I developed more resources, activities, and assignments for my public speaking class, tweaking my class every semester to improve upon what I had done the semester before, but based solely on experience and observation of student performance.

A large part of my decreasing confidence in teaching listening and speaking and increasing confidence in teaching public speaking was in part due to the way students reacted to my class, in terms of interest, performance, and learning outcomes. In my listening/speaking class, not only did I not see any visible improvement in my students, but many of them also became disinterested and felt like they were’t learning anything. Even though I was teaching similar material and using the same theoretically sound techniques that I had been trained to use, I think it just wasn’t effective because my students here in Taiwan are so different than those that I had been teaching during the teacher training program.

In contrast, not only did I witness my public speaking students improve by the end of the semester but I also felt they maintained stronger interest. I suspect that student performance reinforces a teacher’s sense of self-efficacy, which encourages the teacher to do more of what they’ve been doing, and thereby increasing student performance. I also suspect that the opposite is true of feeling students stagnate during the semester, affecting a teacher’s sense of self-efficacy, causing them to question what they do in class.

What Makes a Good Teacher: Reflect and Adapt

This semester, my schedule has changed and I’m teaching listening and speaking and pronunciation. Part of me is sad that I won’t be be teaching public speaking anymore but part of me is also  glad that I’ll have another go at teaching listening/speaking as well as a new experience with teaching pronunciation. I think overall, I’ve learned two things:

  1. Adapt: Teaching is an ever-changing endeavor and teachers need to be able to adapt to changes. Even if you’re teaching a subject you’ve taught for many years, a new group of students may change the way you need to teach for that class. 
  2. Reflect: Having theoretical background doesn’t equate to effective teaching. And not having theoretical background doesn’t equate to ineffective teaching. If I had to point out one characteristic of good teaching, I would say that it is the ability and awareness to self-reflect because it is only in raising awareness of how you teach and how your students react to your teaching that you can learn to adapt to new teaching situations.
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