A learning experience that made my day
Recently, on a particularly stressful afternoon during which I was in an awful mood, I attended a webinar delivered by a very well-known, highly respected teacher trainer and it changed the course of my day. It made me feel refreshed; it calmed me down and helped me feel good about myself, about my colleagues and my profession in general. I had been de-stressed, re-energised.
Later that same day, I sat down and tried to reflect on the experience and try and identify what it was that made that webinar so good. Which shows that the webinar didn’t just inspire me, it also urged me to delve into the process of reflection once again and, therefore, help me work on my own presentation skills.
As I was brainstorming and listing some of the things that were great about the webinar, I suddenly remembered several other occasions similar to the webinar: decades ago, when I used to attend exam-prep lessons with another teacher. The parallels were obvious. Back then, those lessons made me feel equally good about myself; they always made my day –not in a Coelho-esque superficially positive manner. On the contrary, they genuinely sparked my curiosity and hunger for learning; they stimulated my brain for wanting something more profound, something insightful and unique. And that ‘something’ was not a goal in itself, that ‘something’ was not a prize, but a process. In fact, the goal (passing the exam) had almost become immaterial at that moment.
Teachers vs. teacher trainers
It was clear to me that there were a lot that the trainer whose session I had just attended and the teacher who had taught me decades ago had in common. Inevitably, the obvious question came to me: Is there an essential difference between teacher training and teaching the language itself? Or even better: what are the similarities between training language teachers and teaching the language to a group of students?
I should say that the more experienced I become, the more discussions I have about this specific topic, the more webinars I attend, the more books I read, the simpler the answer is: what makes a good teacher and what makes a good trainer are basically the same few things. And it can be dangerous for a trainer not to realise the similarity!
I am, of course, like everyone, talking about my own preferences and prejudices when I talk about what makes a good teacher. And admittedly, I may be dwelling more on the characteristics that I sometimes feel, or fear, I fall short of.
What makes a good teacher?
So, in my opinion, what makes a good teacher is…
- our ability to listen to our students: One of the most important characteristics of a good teacher; if we cannot actively listen to and understand our students’ needs, wants and preferences, then how are we supposed to help them?
- our ability to empathise with our students: once we take an active interest in our students’ preferences and needs, we can start showing empathy towards their difficulties, their problems, and the things that make their learning more challenging perhaps. We can establish good rapport and mutual trust.
- being open to feedback from our students: getting used to accepting criticism and getting feedback from others can sometimes be a painful process; however, only then can we actually become better at what we do. No matter how experienced we might be, there will always be things to work on and improve.
- our willingness to show we’ve taken our students’ feedback on board: accepting feedback means nothing if we do not take it on board and actively show our students that their opinions matter and have value.
- being humble enough to admit we cannot know everything: once we get into the role of a teacher, we tend to forget that we are not the light of the world, and we tend to believe we have the answers to everything – even if we knowingly sometimes give answers which are inaccurate and misleading. It is absolutely fine not to know the answer to a question a student might have, as long as we then do our homework, find out the answer, put it into words that are easy for the student to understand, and get back to them at the first opportunity.
- our overall sense of duty as educators: that’s admittedly a huge discussion. However, what I consider important is the sum of our ability to listen, to simplify and explain, to monitor, to reward, to correct, to provide a safe space, to motivate, to subvert.
Why is this relevant to teacher training?
Some teacher trainers seem to believe that they are now in a position to advise and admonish teachers, as they are no longer just teachers themselves. After all, a teacher trainer enjoys a higher financial and social status, right?
Well, not exactly – even our government does not seem to think that way, and that speaks volumes!
There are certain dangers lurking behind the deliberate and misleading divide between teachers and trainers.
- Thinking that we trainers are it: becoming a self-professed authority and losing our humility is the gravest of dangers which logically leads to arrogance; consequently, we do not listen to our students’ feedback, we cannot learn from them (or anyone else for that matter) and we end up detaching ourselves from them (and reality) growing more and more distant.
- Resting on our laurels without caring to develop ourselves any further: arrogance tends to have that effect on teachers turning us into so-called gurus negligent of the fact that we might be resembling dinosaurs as time goes by.
No matter our title (director of studies, teacher trainer, teacher educator, trainer trainer), we remain teachers. Only upon this realisation can we make the difference and bring about some genuinely positive changes – and not just in the relatively limited environment of the classroom.