Total Pageviews


Good English Language Teachers Are Those Who

In this post, I would like to raise a question that I believe is an important one for all teachers, regardless of  language status or racial or ethnic origin: What makes a good language teacher? Or to put it in another way: What are some of the characteristics that good English language teachers have? While I intend to identify and discuss a few factors, the list below is not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive. In fact, I hope that you will respond to this blog entry by posting your ideas on the topic.

Some of the factors that contribute to good English language teaching are….
1.     English language proficiency. First of all, teachers do not need to be native speakers in order to teach English. This fact has been well established in the literature. Pasternak and Bailey (2004) argue that being a native speaker is not the same as being proficient in a language or dialect. One can be a native speaker of a language and not be proficient in it. I would argue that what is necessary is a high degree of English language proficiency. However, how high the level of proficiency needs to be will depend on a variety of factors, including but not limited to the setting in which the teachers function, the skill areas to be taught, the purposes for which students study English, the students’ level of proficiency, etc. I believe that having a high level of proficiency is important because proficiency (or lack of thereof) contributes to teachers’ self-perceptions (positively or negatively) in the classroom (Kamhi-Stein, forthcoming) and contribute to teachers’ instructional practices, which in turn, can affect student motivation and learning (these points have been made by Butler, 2004; Richards & Lockhart, 1994).
2.     Declarative and procedural knowledge. Pasternak and Bailey (2004) explain that teachers need to have two kinds of knowledge: declarative knowledge (knowledge about something, for example, knowledge of how to explain a grammatical rule) and procedural knowledge (“the ability to do things” (p. 157, for example, being able to use the rule in connected speech).
3.     A good understanding about students’ needs and a plan of action for how to meet such needs. Good teaching draws on students’ needs (see Graves, 1996 for a description of several teacher-led projects that start with needs analyses). However, the process of designing a needs-based course is not a linear one or a fixed one (Graves, 1996). As Graves (2000) puts it, “designing a language course is a work in progress in its whole, in its parts, and in its implementation” (p. 9). Therefore, good teachers go into the classroom with a well-designed plan, but they are also flexible and modify their plans as needed.
4.     Pedagogical practices that are sensitive to the sociocultural context in which the teaching is done. What may be considered to be good teaching in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for example, may be very different from what may be considered to be good teaching in Pusan, Korea. In Buenos Aires, teachers are expected to use the target language only. They are also expected to implement communicative language teaching (CLT). I contend that these two expectations can, in part, be attributed to the strong impact that Argentine language teacher education programs have on teachers’ beliefs. Specifically, in Argentine language teacher education programs, there is a strong emphasis on and a belief in the notion that good teaching needs to avoid the use of the L1 and instead maximize the use of the TL. I also contend that the emphasis on CLT draws on the training and preparation of teacher educators themselves, who have been mainly exposed to Center country pedagogies (me included). In contrast to the situation in Argentina, Korea presents a different picture. Currently, there is a mismatch between governmental expectations on one hand and teachers’ beliefs about teaching and their language proficiency on the other. Specifically, while the Korean government expects teachers to teach communicatively and in English, teachers do not necessarily believe that English needs to be the sole language in the classroom. Another factor that contributes to the teachers’ non-exclusive use of the English language is that teachers may not necessarily perceive their language proficiency to be sufficient to teach in English (Butler, 2004). To further complexify the situation, the test-driven educational system may contribute to limiting the teachers’ instructional practices in that teachers may see themselves forced to “teach-to-the-test” (I should note that this is currently the situation in the U.S., where the No Child Left Behind law places great emphasis on test scores; thereby, leading teachers to teach-to-the test). In summary, the point that I want to make is that discussions of what counts as good teaching need to be contextualized and localized.
5.     Reflection. Critical reflection on one’s own teaching (through video-tapes of one’s own classes; journals; peers’ observations of one’s teaching, etc.) is critical if teachers are to continue developing their professional skills.
6.     A caring relationship. I contend that while all the factors that I have described above have been widely addressed in the literature, a discussion on the notion of caring relationships has been missing. Gay (cited in an autobiographical narrative by Callet, forthcoming in Kamhi-Stein) argues that teachers who establish caring relationships with their students create environments that contribute to student empowerment and academic achievement. Some of the strategies that caring teachers may implement in the classroom involve establishing a positive atmosphere that promotes teacher-student and student-student trust, engaging students in activities that allow them to see themselves as successful language learners rather than poor imitations of native speakers, etc. While the notion of caring relationships might be taken to be “touchy-feely,” there is nothing “touchy-feely” about them. In fact, I argue that caring relationships are critical if teachers and students are to be members of a classroom community.

While the list of factors that contribute to good teaching could have been longer, as I explained in my introduction, the list was not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive. The list is simply meant to provide us with a starting point for a discussion. Therefore, I hope that after reading this blog entry, you and I will engage in a dialog that will allow us to discuss the above factors as well as identify other factors that have contributed to your instructional practices. I look forward to the exchange of ideas!

Butler, Y. G. (2004). What level of English proficiency do elementary school teachers need to attain in order to teach EFL? Case studies from Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. TESOL Quarterly, 38, 245-278.
Kamhi-Stein, L. D. (forthcoming). English language teachers narrating their lives: From the construction of professional identities to the construction of the language classroom.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Pasternak, M., & Bailey, K. M. (2004). Preparing nonnative and native English-speaking teachers: Issues of professionalism and proficiency. In L. D. Kamhi-Stein (Ed.), Learning and teaching from experience: Perspectives on nonnative English-speaking professionals (pp. 155-175). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Lia Kamhi-Stein (Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, and Learning, USC, 1995) is Professor in the M.A. in TESOL Program housed in the Charter College of Education at California State University, Los Angeles (CSLA). She is originally from Argentina, where she worked as a certified public translator and EFL teacher and program administrator with the Instituto Cultural Argentino Norteamericano (ICANA).