Some Thoughts on the Role of a Language Teacher

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Teacher: One who carries on his (sic) education in public” (Theodore Roethke, American poet, 1908 – 1963; In: Jim Scrivener, Learning Teaching: The Essential Guide to Language Teaching, 3rd ed. 2011, p 8)

Keywords: learner’s autonomy, teacher as moderator
I have always felt uncomfortable with calling myself an English teacher. To me, the word ‘teaching’ assumes a way too active role on my part – or on the part of any language teacher – in the process of a language learner’s development. It also shifts the blame on the teacher when the learning seems to have failed or seems to be failing.  And it gives the student of the language a false sense of security: let’s visit a class and have someone teach us the language – all we have to do is go there.

Going ‘there’ surely is a first admirable step to take when one decides to take a course, and more difficult at times than one might think. And although I do believe that some kind of learning takes place in any kind of situation in which I expect it to, the concept of ‘teacher’ places the emphasis too much on a person that will teach me; on a person who will put the skills inside my head somehow.

The term coach, on the other hand, derives its meaning from sports, and I believe the metaphor of sports training to apply adequately to the learning of a language – in more respects than one. Though I will continue referring to myself as an English teacher rather than a coach (for means of communicative convenience – I can’t use ‘so-called’ all the time), I would like to discuss the implicit connotations of both terms that derive from the contexts in which they are commonly used.

Calling language teaching coaching is a simple analogy, and will not do justice to all the complexities of the (language) learning process. I still believe it to hold in many respects. A coach helps the athlete along a path of improvement, provides concepts and ideas for development, observes the athletes’ activities and advises where necessary. The practice itself, i.e. doing whatever necessary or helpful to improve their skills the athletes have to do themselves; and though in sports regeneration – meaning adequate breaks – are necessary, the more you practice the better you get.

Sure there are qualitative differences in how you train. But when practising certain techniques, quantity matters and there are no short cuts. Understanding a technique theoretically can support the learning process, but in the end: practice, practice, practice. For the language learning process, this translates into: in-put, in-put, in-put, also in form of situations that provide opportunities for meaningful communication. The more you surround yourself with the language, the more you read e.g. or listen to whatever interests you, in other words, the more in-put you get the more your language proficiency will increase. There are no short-cuts.

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The whole question of the role of the teacher in the language classroom is complex, as is the question how languages are learned. However sometimes it seems to me that we make it more complicated than necessary. Maybe it’s the need for feeling we are actively doing something to ‘teach’ the learner. When we just sit there and listen to the group talking or discussing something, maybe occasionally moderating when necessary and/or taking notes of one or the other language issue that might come up for later reference, are we actually ‘working’?

Sometimes my concepts and ideas of learning and my own role therein might clash with those of my students (though I don’t think very often), and one reason for this could be that their expectations and concepts are (still) influenced by their own experiences in school, which at times might have still followed traditional ideas of teaching that I don’t share.

Some would say: well if your students believe the way they learned in school is the best way for them, give them what they want – and I do  – sometimes. Like the occasional more traditional grammar exercise or vocabulary practice. At other times, though, I believe certain preconceptions to stand in the way of successful acquisition of language skills.

These and related questions I intend to discuss in my blog under Learning and Teaching.

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