In School in Germany: The Characteristics of Being a Great Teacher of English (as a Foreign Language)

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A few months back, I was approached by a colleague of mine, who runs a pair of online columns devoted to English writing, wanting to know from me some of the things that are important for teaching English as a foreign language.  After some thoughtful consideration and looking back at what I’ve experienced in the 15+ years I’ve been teaching here in Germany, dealing with everything in the sun, I decided to compile a list of ideas that are especially useful for those entering the field or are struggling in their first year on the job. The characteristics I mention here do not necessarily mean that if you don’t have them, you will never be a great teacher. It just simply means that if something goes wrong, you may want to think about them and ask yourself if it is useful to try them, at least. After all, each teacher has his/her way of teaching English language and culture.

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  1. Image is Everything- This was the slogan that tennis great André Agassi used for his Nikon camera commercials in the late 1980s and 90s. As a teacher, you have to market yourself to the students in a way that they will respect you from the first day on. This goes beyond your outer appearance. It even outguns the knowledge of your native language. It has to do with being on the level with your students and finding ways to get them to follow you. Sometimes you and your students find the right chemistry right away and you have a productive and successful class. Other times there is a wall that you cannot overcome, even if you try. Then it is like the love affair between man and woman, or in my case, the beamer and the laptop as stated in an earlier article.
  2. Your Students are your Audience; your Friends. Treat them with Care- I was once told that teaching is a business and the students are your customers. If you have students who “hate” you and your teaching and decide to annoy you at their convenience, then that is where the German formal “Sie” and the business-like relationship comes in. However, not all of them are like that. Many of them stay with you as long as you are working at their institution and even become your friends for life. To give you a hint: In my last semester teaching in Bayreuth in 2009, I had a class where all but three of the 20 people had been in my previous classes. All of them are still in contact. If you have this experience, then it is because you did something right, by listening to what they want, customizing your classes to make them interesting and you are integrated into their “culture” and they into yours. Almost all of them are eager to learn from you, and not just for the sake of languages.
  3. You need Structure; You need Discipline- A Frank Fitts from American Beauty quote that definitely applies to teaching, especially English. As Germans, especially in the eastern half, are obsessed with a structured form of teaching, you should structure the teaching to cater to their needs. It’s like a presentation: you have the introduction, the key points, the summary and time for questions and clarity. Then you make sure that they are kept in line with what they learned. Entertainment only serves as a frosting to the cake. This was a lesson I learned from a colleague at a private institution recently.
  4. Less is More- Too much of everything in an English classroom, even worksheets, are never a good thing. If you find yourself having a complaint where there were too much print materials to work with, you may want to reduce it and alternate your teaching methods. Sometimes some help from another source will help a great deal.
  5. Back-up your stuff in the classroom: Stewart Tunnicliff, who runs a couple Leipzig-based websites and a translation/proofreading business once said this when he presented the WordPress presentation at the Intercultural Blogger Conference in March. I have to say it also applies to teaching as well. Despite the careful planning that Germans are famous for, a back-up plan must always be in store, should your original plan fail in the classroom due to the students’ lack of interest, some technical glitches, missing elements because you were in a hurry, etc. While some teachers believe that Plan B is non-existent, they haven’t seen some situations, including those I experienced, where it was warranted. So have a Back-up plan ready, and ……
  6. Plan for technical doomsday- Your computer will crash, its relationship with the beamer will fail, the files will not open, the speakers will not operate, anything will happen. It has happened with the best teachers and they have dealt with them. Almost all of those who experienced a technical “Panne” have learned to do this one important item next time they work a technical equipment: check to make sure everything is in order before entering the stage with eager students awaiting to watch something “educational.” 😉
  7. Creativity and spontaneity are bread and butter- If there is a characteristic a teacher must have, there are two of them: being creative and spontaneous. A creative person comes up with activities on paper, through brainstorming and best of all, in the classroom in a spontaneous manner. A spontaneous person foregoes a planned session because of cock-ups along the way, presents a new strategy out of the blue, and gives it to the group for them to do. 99 times out of 100, that works every time. Teachers must have the brains to do both if they wish to continue with their career in the long term.
  8. Be a great storyteller- Storytelling not only provides students with a sense of entertainment, but also lessons for them to learn from, both in a moral and philosophical manner as well as when learning a foreign language. The stories told don’t have to be very personal ones, but they should be ones that are related to reality, and students can relate to. Even the tiniest story, including a person and a chain-smoker, who disregards the no smoking sign, getting into a debate on smoking, brings value to the students as some of them are smokers wanting to quit but don’t know how. Think about it. 🙂
  9. Slow and easy always wins friends- Especially for Americans teaching foreign languages, teachers love to speak at their tempo, which is for the non-native speakers of English, too fast. Sometimes a problem with dialect can hinder the success in the classroom. Slow down. Speak high English (with a Chicago dialect), have someone listen to you if you feel it is necessary. No student will mob you if you speak extra slowly and clearly, or did one student do that?
  10. Make sure your exits are covered- If a student complains about a bad grade, explain to him/her why and what can be done to improve it. If students become a smart-ass, surprise them with a quiz to test their knowledge. If a person wikiing his assignment says his grandma helped him with English, invite her to class unannounced. If lectures are needed, give it to them. Students will respect you if you keep pace with their learning but will love you if you are ahead of the game. A lesson I learned after dealing with the unbelieveable. 🙂
  11. Finally, be decent. Teaching students goes beyond the subject or the basic skills needed for the job. The main goal of a teacher is to show students how to be decent. Decency is a commodity that is well underrated but one we need so that we can love our neighbors and friends and respect their rights and wishes. It also means that teachers learn by example, by being professional and kind to others. A video with a lecture of how decency and justice goes together, shows us how important our job is, which is to teach our future generation how to be decent.

There are many more, but these eleven are the most important elements of a teacher, in my opinion. Each teacher has his/her style of teaching which works in some cases and fails in others. Even more so, teachers have different personalities that can work out or cause conflicts. In either case, what is important is making sure the students get a proper education so that they can go out, see the world and experience it themselves. How it is done is solely up to the teacher, yet if something fails, they should take a different approach. In either case, in the end, if students walk out of the halls of school or university with a great sense of satisfaction, then it is a sure-fire sign that they will leave footprints in your hearts forever,

let alone pairs of sneakers on the line outside your home. 🙂

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In School in Germany: No Tailored Exams, Please!

Empty study corner at one of the German Hochschulen. Could tailored exams have something to do with that?

If there is a word of advice I could give to the teachers on the school and university level, speaking from my own experience as an English teacher, I would give them this one: Exams are no free tickets to success. Students have to pay for their ticket in order to pass. Exams are designed by the teacher with the goal of not only testing the students’ knowledge on a topic, but also to determine which areas the students need to improve on. From my standpoint, an exam is used to challenge the students- to get them to think outside the box and use the acquired knowledge in other ways and in their own words.

Sadly, looking at the exams today from a teacher’s point of view, as well as that of the students’, I see their value sliding down the mountain in a violent avalanche. And here’s a question and story to share with you as the reader:

 

First the question (and it is ok to post in the comment section and remain anonymous):

What was the weirdest exam you have ever taken in school or college? How was it structured? What about the content- was it relevant to what you learned? How were the questions formulated and how difficult were they?

 

While there were a couple instances where I formulated an exam where some sections were difficult to a point where I in the end had to throw the sections out and give the students some extra points (for the former students I taught English at the University of Bayreuth, you should have an idea what I’m referring to), as a student pursuing a teaching degree, I encountered an exam that was so bizarre, that even as a teacher would lose face if this was given in a lecture. This was known as the Tailored Exam.

 

The object of the tailored exam: a week before the exam, students get to choose a selected amount of questions to be inserted into the exam. These exam questions are based on the questions provided during the semester, sometimes in the PowerPoint presentations.  As soon as the questions are chosen, the students choose the point value for each question. This type of exam resembles ordering a meal deal at a fast food restaurant where you choose the burger as well as the size of French fries and soft drink you want.  And while this tailored exam does help the students narrow down the content needed to be studied before the exam (because the questions are already given, directing the students to the topics where they need to concentrate on), there are several drawbacks to this type of exam.

 

First of all, students have the tendency to select the easiest questions and reformulate them to their liking, thus leaving out the most relevant information needed for their studies, let alone their careers. This is similar to an exam for students of medicine, where a question on the different blood types outweighs the procedure to remove an inflamed appendix. Both are important, but if you don’t know how to conduct an appendectomy the proper way…… Taking the easiest way out through easy questions is delaying the inevitable, which is the real-time praxis. And if a person cannot handle the problems facing them in their profession, this shortcut will come back to haunt them.

Secondly, tailoring the exams to their needs will allow for a debate among the students as to which questions should be in and which ones are to be omitted- an argument that is a waste of time, especially if they need the time possible to prepare for the exam. And as for the teacher’s credibility….

Last but not least, while the teacher may find it easy to correct the exams, his/her credibility would vanish like water vaporizing from a pot at 200° Celsius, for students would dictate how the exam should be structured, and by allowing them to do this with the teacher’s consent, the authority to control the students’ wishes would be gone. And no matter how a teacher redeems him/herself (by adding trick questions or reformulating them to make them difficult for students to answer), his/her reputation would be lost for good. As a chain reaction, word about the tailored exam would spread, and the population of the student body would be divided up into those going to the teacher for an easy grade and those complaining about the fairness of the exam provided by the teacher and the institute he/she is employed at.  Not a way to end a working relationship between the university and the teacher should he/she decide to move on to another academic institution after two years or even retire.

In the 14+ years I have been teaching English, including seven at three different universities, I have found that the best way to win the hearts and minds of the students is to challenge their thinking but also be honest and fair to them. After all, as I have witnessed, students will best remember you for these characteristics in addition to your humor and creative ways to get them to listen. In the case of one of the universities I taught, I accumulated a vast number of student veterans- those visiting my classes semester after semester- as a result of this quality of teaching.  By having the students make the exam for the teacher, that teacher is diluting this quality of teaching that is badly needed in today’s schools and academic institutions. The end result is the teacher losing all the respect from the students and a career becoming short-lived.

There are many other variants of exams to give to the students, such as multiple choice, fill-in the blanks, short answer questions, essays and even the hybrid forms- the last of which I prefer. These plus a list of subjects students should expect to see in the exams will encourage them to go through the materials thoroughly and know the essentials. But tailored exams- the ones made (or should I say dictated by the students) is a no-go, unless you are a teacher wanting a quick exit from your career. But even then, there are other ways of getting out of it that are more honorable. It is also more honorable to challenge the brains of your students and get them to learn the most important things for their future careers.

So from the heart of this teacher to the hearts and creative minds of other teachers out there: No tailored exams, please! You will do yourself and your students a big favor and give education a better reputation.

 

Thank you and best of luck formulating your next exam, keeping this in mind.

Mr. Smith

 

Note: If you have some stories of exams that you wrote that were unorthodox but are considered useful for other teachers to use, or if you have some tips on how to create an exam that both the students as well as the teacher can benefit from, put your suggestions here in the comment section or send them to Jason Smith at the Files at: Flensburg.bridgehunter.av@googlemail.com. These ideas will be forwarded on in a different article as the Files continues to look at education in Germany vs. the US, based on the author’s experience as well as other factors influencing the educational landscape.  Thanks and looking forward to your ideas and thoughts.