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Most wanted teacher

Posted by on October 16, 2010
Teaching: the fruits of life

Teaching: the fruits of life Photo taken in 2007

OK, it’s official. I’ve just been declared the most wanted teacher on campus by the students!  Just when I was about to sit down and relax over a cup of cappucino, I was received by a storm of students whom I taught English in the last semester at a  university in Erfurt, Germany and their first question was: “Mr. Smith, can we join a class you’re teaching?” The next comment was “Mr. Smith, I’m really interested in taking part in your class. Do you think it’s possible to do it this semester?” Then came the next one: “Mr. Smith, we really enjoyed your class last semester. Is there a way to participate in one of your classes?” And another one: “We really miss you, Mr. Smith.”  The further the trend kept going and the more helpless I became because I realized a few days days earlier that my courses were filled to the brim with no elbow-space to manoever. While I had to tell them that it was not possible this semester (which I didn’t really like doing), it led me to conclude that patronism has reached levels that had not been seen until this afternoon. In the almost 10 years I have been teaching English in Germany, the only highlights that I have seen in my success, apart from climbing up the “corporate ladder” in the educational food chain starting with freelance teaching adults to teaching students full time at a university, were students patronizing my teaching by visiting my classes over and over again, while recommending my classes to others. Many of students I’ve taught over the years still keep in touch with me through all possible means of communication, and I help many of them out when they need it. This includes having an English gathering outside the university once a week, where we just sit and remininsce over a beer or ice cream. This also includes having an English section in my facebook profile, where many students pick up some interesting facts worth noting.  But still, what makes a teacher really good at what he is doing and what makes the students patronize you for your work?

It is not necessarily the qualifications you have.  People can go to college and obtain an education degree with very little or no experience in the classroom and they end up becoming the worst teachers in the institution they are working. It is even more striking with professors at universities both here in Europe as well as in the United States, as they are faced with, on the one end, the publications versus the people scenario and  on the other end, the publish or perish approach. That means that in order to become successful, they have to publish as many pieces of work as possible, even if it comes at the expense of interacting with the students and helping them when they need it the most. If they interact more with the students, they risk not spending time with their work and thus become expendible.  Sure training courses and obtaining a certificate saying that you can teach a certain subject may help a teacher become more successful, but practical experiences make it more rewarding, something that is lacking across the board for many wanting to enter the field.

This brings me to another point worth mentioning, which is the need for English teachers in general. In the past 15-20 years, we have seen the increase in popularity in the English language because it is being used on a regular basis, while doing business, travelling, and dealing with politics on the international scale, just to name a few. In fact, while over 375 million people use English as their primary language (in other words, they’re native speakers like yours truly), almost a billion people- a sixth of the world’s population use English as a secondary language (English as a foreign language).  The numbers are increasing and with that, the demand for English teachers is also increasing, as companies, academic institutions, and even private groups (like families, for example) are hiring people who either have the qualifications needed for teaching or have practical experiences or both.  It depends on who you are working for.

The only problem with that is as an English teacher, unless you have strong connections with your colleagues or if you can identify and expose any loopholes in the regulations, you are sometimes expected to be mobile, which makes it difficult for many who just want to settle down and work in one spot for more than two years. This was the case with one of the universities in northern Bavaria where I was hired there for only two years with no contract extension possibilities, and despite building my cartell with mainly the students and other personnel, I had to leave when the contract ran out. Fortunately I did land a job elsewhere right before I left, but it clearly shows that flexibility and mobility are  also important for a teacher,  albeit it does have its disadvantages regarding gathering experiences, developing ties with other people, and settling down and having a family life just like everyone else.

This brings me to the topic of cartells, which can reap rewards if you develop your ties carefully with the right people. The success as a teacher can depend on the following factors: 1. Whether or not you can get along with your colleagues, 2. Whether or not you can get along with your students, and 3. Whether or not you can adapt to the system that is present at the place where you are teaching or if it collides with your own set of ethics. From my personal experience and based on my personal beliefs, it is important that you have your own code of ethics on how to interact with people, work with them so that they are very successful in the end, and be yourself when you’re in front of the class teaching them some new and interesting facts. By the same token, one also has to adapt to the environment and make some compromises between the teacher, the students, and the rest of the people working in the institution, so that everyone is on the same page in the end.  However, sometimes things do not work the way they should and you just have to make the best judgement and hope for the best.

One factor that a teacher should be aware of is the student-teacher relationship, which is a big deal in the USA and is becoming more and more of an issue  in Europe. This is really fragile as it can either help or harm your career, pending on the interaction between the two. While some students are better off being students, and some will become friends, there are some rare occurances where one will become your “coach” for life, changing your life and world around to your benefit. However, laws are being put into place forbidding this type of practice which has split the public into two. Proponents claim that it would avoid any types of scandals affecting the institution and the reputation involved, opponents claim that it would poison the relationship in the classroom where it should be relaxed and enjoyable to both the teacher and the students.  There is an interesting article on this topic which is enclosed at the end of this file.

But all of these factors that I’ve just mentioned only represent a fraction of what makes a teacher an excellent one. Qualifications help but practical experience counts the most. The need for native speakers and those with a solid background in foreign languages (in this case, English) is high. The relationship with the students is also important. But the secret to being a successful teacher is being you. Based on my personal experience they include:

Being creative and spontaneous in teaching some new things to the students

Finding the trouble spots and exploiting and covering them

Being there for the students when they need your help regardless of the circumstances

Being sensitive but stirn to the students- meaning man has to know his limitations regarding what is allowed and what is not allowed.

and most of all, if anything goes wrong, it is ok to admit your mistake. This is the pitfall for many teachers who claim to be Mr. Perfect but defers every single bit of responsibility to others without looking at himself first.  Students will understand if you admit and apologize for the mistake and will respect you more if you learn from them.

What makes it also useful is to develop your own set of guidelines and add the rules as you go along, whether it is on a sheet of paper or making a mental note. In either case, it helps you remember, based on your experiences, what you can do and what is not allowed. This helps you in future dealings with situations that you dealt with in the past.  The more rules, the more you’re respected by your peers because of the set of morals you have, and in the end, the more people you’ll have on your side when you need them.

And best of all, while you are the man who provides the students with the materials and stories for them to learn, it also helps to take some lessons and ideas with you from the students as they will be useful in the future.

Every great teacher has his own roots at the beginning as a novice and if he can proceed in making a difference in the lives of the students while at the same time be himself, then he will in the end become profi in his work. While my ideas I mentioned above are just my strategies in becoming successful, others may have their own set of ideas. The main point is to be yourself and be true to your students and let the success  and the patronism on the part of the students take care of themselves.

This takes me to the fazit which I can say that while many students from my last semester have to wait until the next semester when the opportunity arises, many have expressed interest in my next English gathering, which is once a week and off campus. It will be interesting to see how many of them will show up at a café in the city center for a good beer and some good conversation…

That concludes the files. Until next time, folks.

For those interested in teaching English as a foreign language, here is a link that can help you:

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