How to become a better English teacher

What is the way to improve your English teaching? The answer might surprise you.

Don’t teach English.

That is it. That is the way to improve your English teaching.

Now, this is not one of those trite things where I tell you to teach the people in the class and not the content. What I mean is teach something other than English and it will positively impact your English teaching by giving you insights onto your English teaching practice. Guaranteed.

I have experienced this phenomena a few times in the last few years and I think there is something to it. My experiences teaching things that are not English (or TTTANE, pronounced Tayne) has been limited to teaching politics and Korean studies to (mostly) international students at a university in Seoul. Well, that and teacher training. I often think I learned more in 6 months doing teacher training than 6 years teaching.

Last year at this time I was teaching Korean politics to international students and I was thrilled the course was winding down. Here are some thoughts from my ridiculously titled blog post from that time, “Politics, comfort zones, confidence, arrogance, shots of courage, scattered thoughts, a bit of bragging and burritos.” Even a year later I can still remember those stressful but ultimately enjoyable Sundays of research and Mondays of waking up early and planning a lesson, I mean lecture. I feel like there were so many key insights I gained from this process and experience.

One way my teaching outside of English impacted my thinking about teaching English was related to the idea of helping students develop skills or gain knowledge about certain things. My non-English teaching self was much more concerned about ensuring students gained the required knowledge and were able to show it. My English teaching self is/was typically more focused on helping students develop specific skills in terms of their English use. From stepping outside my usual teaching I was able to question what that even means. It gave me a lot to to think about and gave me some nice confusions about what knowledge and skill really mean to me. Update: I am not really sure what I think at this point.

When I think about teaching courses other than English courses the idea of pairwork is something that jumps to mind. Specifically the utility of it and what I hope to accomplish when having students do it in class. I think in regular English classes I have at times been too easily swayed by the logic that students don’t have chances to use English outside of class (Korea being an EFL context after all) so just letting Ss run with discussion tasks for extended periods of time was seen as completely acceptable  and even advisable. You know, something about fluency something something. But in this politics class that need was not present or even helpful. While some students in that class could have benefited from a bit of English practice, a large percentage were L1 users of English. Organizing discussion tasks for the politics class helped me see my regular English classes in a new light. I like to think I was able to make changes to the types of speaking tasks I gave in my English classes based on the insights gained from teaching non-English classes.

Another of the big takeaways is the feeling of not being an expert and not even seeming like one or playing the part. In an English class there are surely things I don’t know or am not fully comfortable with but I can almost always find the answer in an acceptable amount of time. I know where to start and where to look and how to give a decent placeholder answer. By continually providing reasonable answers (and yes, also by being a White “Native Speaker”) I easily build on the credibility that is instantly afforded to me. When teaching politics I didn’t get this instant credibility (and in fact might have lost any hope for it when I announced in the first class that I was not an expert.) What I am trying to get at here is that for the first time in a long time I felt a vulnerability attached to not knowing what the hell I was talking about and also being seen for not knowing what the hell I am talking about. This brought me back a bit to when I was first teaching English and I found it helpful to revisit these feelings of vulnerability and a lack of confidence. In terms of my “regular” English classes I think this lack of confidence helped me see some questions were I might have previously felt quite confident in my choices. I think I benefited greatly from jumping back to being a naive beginner.

I truly think my experiences teaching things that are not English was incredibly helpful and I’d recommend it for every English teacher. So, in order to become a better English teacher what are you going to teach? My experiences were more about politics and Korean studies but I think teaching another language could be great. Or a sport. Or an instrument. Or a computer program. What ideas and experiences do you have?

In case you are not convinced this one way will work for you or you don’t see how it is possible here are 20 Ways to be a Better Language Teacher by Martin Sketchley and Professional Development now and in the Future by Vicky Loras. 

 

Honda_Insight_with_optional_front_grill

 

Clarification Station: 

I sincerely apologize for the click-baity title and introduction.

I probably should have said “a way” instead of “the way.”

As you might know, there are no guarantees.
I say teaching something other than English “will” improve your teaching. “Will” is a strong word here. Please feel free to replace will with can/could/might/might just in your mind at your discretion. Your mileage will vary.

In an early line I call it trite to say “teach the student not the content.” That is not strictly fair because lots of people miss this lots of the time. I guess that might contribute to the reason it is for frequently stated by well-meaning folks.

Of course the types of insights and changes I talk about might not require actually teaching something else but it was helpful for me and I hope I have been sufficiently convincing.

Additional  Whathaveyous: 

Lots of Two people on Twitter wondered/suggested that my advice is only or more applicable to native speakers. I think this is an interesting point and one that I wondered about (especially in the section related to confidence and the beginner mind). My current thought is that the experience of Teaching Things That Are Not English can be beneficial for teachers of all experience levels and L1s. I think stepping out of the comfort zones we inhabit can help us see our regular situations from a different angle, thus potentially providing insights. What do you think? Why exactly would it be different for so called native speakers? Because they (we) are more likely to feel comfortable with the content? I am not so sure about this (but I am willing to hear more) as I think the reason for my relative comfort mentioned above is because I have been doing this for many years and I have put in the time and effort to have answers and explanations for the type of questions that come up. Of course I might be missing something because I only have the experiences and background that I have. I often think of my brother when considering questions like this. He is a well-read monolingual English user who works in business. I think he’d be, pardon the expression, totally screwed when faced with esoteric or challenging questions about English. Is this a relevant point? I am not sure but it seems like it from here.

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15 comments

  1. Florentina Taylor (@_FTaylor_)

    Hello, there! Thank you for taking the time to share this post and add further clarifications. I personally thought adding a reference to NSs to the title would better reflect the content of the post itself (though, yes, it would spoil the style/ punchiness). I do agree that what you’re saying applies to teaching any language and any subject, whatever your L1.

    This reminds me of the stereotype of the science nerd who’d know their stuff inside out but wouldn’t necessarily be able to teach it. Or anybody who (thinks he/ she) is so good at something that they don’t remember what it’s like to be struggling to understand the most elementary principles of the subject. Same goes for somebody who successfully learnt or acquired the language they’re teaching but is perfectly comfortable with the ‘OK plateau’ – whether in using or teaching the language (http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/10/17/ok-plateau/).

    • mikecorea

      A belated thanks for these very thoughtful comments. I think I started to respond at one point but lost the comments.
      I think the NNS/NS point about this has been covered above and maybe elsewhere too. You wrote, ” I do agree that what you’re saying applies to teaching any language and any subject, whatever your L1.” I think the process might be different but I think this feeling of not knowing what the heck you are talking about is a nice wake up call for a teacher. 🙂

      One thing that comes to mind a lot when thinking of this is the question of how expert do you need to be in order to teach a (college) class on something? In the cases I described I think I would have benefit a lot from just a little more expert knowledge. I think you touched on the reverse and this is all very interesting to me.I often think about the typical college courses students take.

      Thanks again for the comments.

  2. ljiljana havran

    Thanks so much, Mike, for your very interesting and thought-provoking post, and for your further clarifications, as well.

    When I suggested that your advice is, maybe, more applicable to native English language teachers, I had in mind particularly the section related to confidence and the beginner mind (as you have wondered about,…and I have been musing about lately). I know that this may sound as a stereotype, but I somehow feel that NETs who are naturally fluent and confident speakers tend to be impatient of the slow progress of their students… NNETs (who speak the same L1 as their students) are somehow more aware of the problems their students face while learning English (e.g. false friends, language errors caused by the completely different syntax/ phonetic/orthographical systems), because they were struggling with the similar problems before. This is why I think a native English teacher would benefit more “from jumping back to being a naive beginner”.

    I fully agree with you that teaching something other than English will positively impact your English teaching. As you know, I had a similar experience as you did, and gained a lot of insights while teaching aviation English to my students (and it was much more about navigation, air traffic control, meteorology etc. than the english language).

    Thanks again for the very enjoyable post, and very funny Tayne video 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Hello! Thanks for commenting. I am so glad you saw the video. Haha, not a lot of people clicked through and who can blame them?
      I think you make some great points about “NETs” as related to this beginner mind. You wrote, “NNETs (who speak the same L1 as their students) are somehow more aware of the problems their students face while learning English (e.g. false friends, language errors caused by the completely different syntax/ phonetic/orthographical systems)” and I think there is something to this but I also think it can be too easy to assume this is always a huge benefit that can’t be countered. I’d argue that experience and the teacher learning aspects of the students’ L1 as well as common confusions can be a good start with this. I think you are right but I think sometimes we get carried away with this line of thought. You suggested “NSs” would benefit more from jumping back to the naive beginner. I am not totally convinced of this, but I surely appreciate your thoughts and comments.

      • mikecorea

        Just to clarify…I think what I am saying and thinking is that alll teachers can benefit from this jump back to the naive beginner. It might be different for different teachers based on language abilities and experience lots of other things like this but I think this feeling can be helpful for all.

        Maybe maybe maybe you are suggesting “NNS” teachers already feel this already more often? I am not sure…

  3. livinglearning

    I was going to leave a snarky anonymous comment about how SOME PEOPLE don’t ever get the opportunity to teach something other than English. But then I realized that we make our own opportunities (when they don’t fall right into our laps). And then I realized that I DO teach something other than EFL with my one to one class – I teach high school English Lit. And I am missing an opportunity to look at my other classes through this lens of “making it up as I go along” and “always questioning every decision I make”. (Which sucks, by the way, but is useful.)

    • mikecorea

      Hello and thanks for commenting.
      I wonder if I would have recognized the writer, even if shrouded by snarkiness.

      I like to think I would have been slightly polite and would have asked if there are any

      Games(including card games)
      computer programs
      languages
      tricks
      sports
      concepts

      a friend or family member might be interested in learning more about.

      Or something like that.
      I’d also suggest that we can make opportunities if we really want to, as you suggest.
      Fortune favors the bold, perhaps?

      Thanks for the point about lenses and for the comments in general.
      I feel re-committed to finding some opportunities to look at my (English) teaching from other perspectives.

  4. Paul Read

    Yes! Double, triple, quadruple like.

    Whatever the historical reasons are for EFL teaching to consider itself a wholly different enterprise than the teaching of modern foreign languages (or the teaching of anything for that matter), we surely need to reappraise this. EFL seems to have no connection whatsoever with mainstream education, at least amongst us native speakers, and I used to think I was the only one confused by that. I am encouraged to notice more and more bloggers querying the value of this.

    There are important questions here about subject matter expertise and the role of the teacher in facilitating knowledge transfer that many us (myself included) would do well to reflect on. Thanks!

    • mikecorea

      Hello!
      Thanks for commenting, Paul.
      What you wrote sort of reminds me of some things “The Secret DOS” wrote about ELT being so disconnected from mainstream ed. I think it is an interesting situation to say the least. I often thought this was something “wholly other” and now I am not so sure at all.

      I think in my post I was focused on how teaching something else helped me English teaching. There is also the side of how being an English teacher for so long helped the subject teaching but that is a another story, I suppose. 🙂

  5. springcait

    Wow, I realized that I have been wandering around this idea like a blind feeling that there must be something but being unable to find it and shape it. And here you come with this post making me see. I have a Business English group and I’m perfectly sure now that this is the very thing they need. Firstly, if you don’t understand business you are not interested in business English. That is why I have to replace many business tasks and activities by those which are closer to my students so that they know what to speak about while learning Business English. Sounds stupid actually. Starting from tomorrow I’ll try to teach them Business rather than Business English.
    Million thanks for inspiring me!
    Kate

    • mikecorea

      Hi Kate,

      Thanks soo much for the comments. This is one of the lovely things about blogging, how people can find their own meaning in something you wrote. I am very happy my post could be helpful for you.

      You wrote, “Starting from tomorrow I’ll try to teach them Business rather than Business English” I wonder how it went for you.
      (At the risk of being too pushy, that sure sounds like a blog post!)

      Thanks again for commenting.
      BTW I am enjoying your blog very much.

      • springcait

        Hi Michael,

        Thank you very much for your comment. I’m happy to know you like reading my blog.
        I’m actually working on a post about trying the idea of teaching business, not Business English but I believe I need some more experience as I have just started.
        Thank you for your inspirational post.

        Kate

  6. Pingback: Teaching business not Business English | iamlearningteaching
  7. Pingback: They dare ask for help | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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