Issues | LEARNING CURVE

What makes a good teacher? It depends on who you ask

by Heidi Wiltamuth

Contributing Writer

During a job interview last week, I was asked to provide three words that describe a “good teacher.” It made me think, what is the best way to respond to a question that is so subjective? Everyone will have a different definition based on their own learning experiences, personal preferences and individual beliefs about learning.

From the point of view of a professional educator, for example, a response to this question might reference theories of language acquisition and sound methodological practice, and contain educational buzzwords like “student-centered” and “communicative.” Teachers have their own personal view of the nature of language and of language learning, and teach according to what they feel is best practice.

From the perspective of a student, the methodology isn’t as important as the classroom environment. Adjectives such as “kind” and “friendly” often come up, along with “interesting” and “fun.” Learners want a classroom where they not only get plenty of speaking time, but also a safe environment. Learning a language requires making mistakes, and beginners in particular need to know that they can trust their teacher to guide and encourage them. When it comes to receiving feedback in particular, students need to feel confident in the teacher’s ability to recognize and address their weak points in way that makes them feel supported and free to take risks.

An employer, on the other hand, would likely use words like “reliable” and “professional.” Their main concern is providing a quality product, in this case an educational one, to their clients. This means they are looking for someone who will show up on time, be fully prepared and show enthusiasm for the work. Often, they have their own goals and ideas on how these goals can be met, which can affect what happens in the classroom.

A better way to come at the question of what it means to be a good teacher is to consider the context in which it is being asked, and with all three points of view in mind: that of the learner, that of the institution and that of the teacher. For example, a lot has been written about student-centered learning in teaching journals and teacher-training programs. Student-centered learning is generally defined as “students directing their own learning” with the teacher’s role being that of a coach. Giving the learner control over their own learning experience boosts motivation and a “negotiated syllabus,” where the learners have a say in what skills are to be learned and what tasks and activities are employed, is considered best practice. However, what of cultures like Japan, in which learning is considered to be a teacher-centered practice where it is the teacher’s job to impart knowledge and it is the student’s role to take it in?

It is here we must consider that teaching to the needs and interests of the learners also means considering their cultural background. In this case, a good teacher would be someone who could work within the cultural expectations of the learners and strike a balance between both student-centered and teacher-centered activities, and consider ways to motivate and engage learners that may not require them to plan their own learning.

As educated and experienced professionals, teachers often feel they know best what learners need. A request from a student or an institution to teach in a way that doesn’t align with the teacher’s philosophy or beliefs about best practice can seem unreasonable. But being a good teacher means considering all contextual factors, being flexible and finding a happy medium.