The five behaviours of my teachers I absolutely HATED (and what I learned from that)

Para português clique aqui

One of my biggest eye-openers as a teacher was swapping seats and becoming a learner myself. I have, throughout the last couple of years, tried my hand at learning French, German and Italian. I have had three different French teachers, three different German teachers, and five (yup, five) different Italian ones. Why so many? Obviously! I am a dedicated teacher and a very demanding, obnoxious, picky student. With French and Italian, I eventually decided to study alone, and with German, I did find a great one but had to stop because I moved abroad. I am currently at A1 at German (it takes a lot of effort to progress), B2 at French and C1 at Italian (these two were quite easy to learn independently due to their similarity with Portuguese).

Here’s what I have learned NOT to do with some of my teachers :

Talking too freaking much

One of my teachers never let me finish a sentence. She would ask me a question and the minute I started talking she would say "aspeeeettaaa" (wait!) and there you go. She would talk for five minutes about my mistake and related topics. That means that in her conversation class she spoke five times more than me. In a 60-minute lesson, I spoke for 10 minutes, she spoke for 50. Worst of all? I could never remember exactly what I was talking about when she interrupted me. Or where I had stopped. Or what she had taught.

Another one of them was a teacher I had a paid 1,5h-long trial class with. OK. I explained to him that my goal was to move to Italy. OK. When I got to class, he spent 20 minutes speaking in Portuguese about himself, the school and teaching methods, and another 40 minutes about the history of the Italian language. A huge waste of one hour of my precious time, as I wanted to learn everyday content so I could move abroad. Then he went on to teach an off-the-peg class he had about the alphabet. This class was so copy-and-paste and he didn't even give me a chance to spell my name, not a mention of how Italians use city names when spelling, nothing. Also, he finished ten minutes early and didn’t have anything else to do so he talked a bit more about when he lived in Italy. The center of the class was him. Everything he delivered was things I could have found on youtube free of charge.

What I learned: It's not fair to charge the student to provide a self-introduction and talk about you, your method and your company. Such content, in my opinion, should be provided in a free consultation, or could easily be made available in an email or website. Before you teach anything to the student, ask them a little about themselves, try to find out what they need and especially what they already know. In my case, for example, if he had asked me about my background I would have said I majored in languages, and therefore everything he told me about the history of the Italian language was things I had already studied.

I also believe we should divide our speaking activities between fluency and accuracy activities. Fluency activities are those for the student to train speech and reduce hesitation; In these, the student can and should make mistakes and you do not have to interrupt them to correct them. It's an opportunity to build self-confidence, train the mind to think fast, and to organize ideas to communicate with people in real life… even if that means making mistakes. Correcting every little mistake makes the teacher the focus of the class when it should be the student. I tend to only correct on the spot if the student’s error is something that prevents or confuses communication, or on specific occasions I record the class and then have them watch themselves again.

Demanding students use a specific verb tense/grammar topic/structure at freer practice

One of my multiple Italian teachers did this all the time and it drove me mad. Every time she taught new grammar topics, she’d invite us to start a random conversation and demanded we created sentences using those specific structures and other ones we had covered in our made-up dialogues:

Here’s a short list of the ones I hated the most:

“I want you to talk using i verbi riflessivi”

“Create sentences using the present perfect.”

“Talk about your job using il superlativo assoluto”

“But you didn't use any pronomi indiretti singolari tonici!”

To me, the main issue with commands like that is they deviate so much from real-life situations it makes the process of talking almost mechanic. NOBODY plans a conversation around FREAKING VERB TENSES! As much as she wanted us to practice the specific things she’d taught, in my honest opinion, this was the least effective way to get us to do that. It got boring, a lot of the time we had to make up things, and in many situations she got frustrated because we were talking about things which were interesting to us… but… the structures she wanted us to use were not included in the sentences.

What I learned from this: in less controlled tasks it is very important to guide students to do what we want in a natural way. If my learners aren’t necessarily using the structure I want them to when they get a chance to produce language independently, I must think of a way to conduct the conversation to what I want them to say without demanding it. Contextualization can be enhanced by pictures, follow-up questions or a practical topic.

But most important of all: if I am giving my student a task where they have the liberty to use language more freely, I need to be ready for them to use different things from what I had planned, and to try as much as I can to elicit them to use the structures I want them without specifying. It’s not about using a specific grammar topic. We, as teachers, need to create a context where this comes in as a natural thing. If you’re having to specify which verb tense you want the student to use at freer practice, likely, you didn’t contextualize well enough.

Overusing on the spot corrections

One of my teachers never prepared her classes. She didn’t use a book, didn’t have a theme for her course or anything of the sort. She would proud herself on her focusing on conversation, which literally meant she expected me to come and talk to her during the class. If I didn’t start off by telling her something, we’d sit in silence. The main thing was, she corrected me and made comments ALL THE TIME. I found it funny because when we started she said I spoke Italian abbastanza bene (quite well) but the feeling I had at the end of each class is I was just so terrible. The worst to me though was when I made a mistake I could have corrected, but she was faster than me so I missed out on the opportunity.

She always sent me the correct forms as Skype messages while she clarified things, which meant I actually couldn’t look at what I had said incorrectly to try and correct my own mistakes later or even during the class. At the level I was this was crucial, as I was able to perceive correct forms and understand them, but not necessarily to use them independently. Plus, I mixed Italian, Portuguese and French in my head, so a lot of the time I didn’t even notice what I had done. I always left these classes feeling my Italian was awful and I didn’t know where to start to improve it…

What I learned: on the spot corrections don’t always work. People tend to sparingly correct us on the spot in everyday life situations, and most of these come when intelligibility is affected. As a teacher, it is important to encourage students to speak, even if it means we will miss out on the opportunity to correct a few of their mistakes. It’s ok. When you constantly interrupt someone, you actually focus the whole class on yourself and that makes students less encouraged to talk. It is very important to be patient and give it a few seconds so students can think of the answer. If you’ve clarified something once, it is likely they will remember it. The most effective interruptions are non-verbal because they allow for another try. It feels good to be able to try again and it feels even better when we get it right the on their second attempt. Noting down the correct forms for students to look at is great, but they need to see what they have actually said as well. After all, identifying the correct language and using it independently are NOT the same thing. My learners often tell me, “did I say this, Teacher?” So I say: “Yup.” And it’s amazing how after seeing what they had said they start to become aware of that in their own speech.

Scripting the book

One of the reasons why we hire a teacher is to go beyond textbooks and beyond what youtube can offer. Therefore, having a class where we simply repeat what’s on the book and fill in gaps can be quite boring. I once had a German teacher who did exactly that. There wasn't a single opportunity for me to produce language freely, to try and talk about myself, to go beyond the book.

One of my French teachers didn’t prepare anything for the class, and I knew that because I’d always get asked what page we were on at the beginning of the class. The feeling I often had is before and after our lessons, he’d literally erase me from his memory, and simply pick up from where we left on the book when we met again, something I was supposed to remember. The book was the center of the course, and that was all we did. And you know what? Once I told him the wrong page number and he carried on with the class as if nothing had happened.

My lesson: if something can’t be applied to a student’s routine/tastes, it’s not worth teaching. It is very important to show students how they can benefit from using whatever we are teaching them. It’s important to prepare our classes and make sure students know they matter. The fee you charge should consider you are also going to prepare the class and offer a follow-up to it. You need to offer learners an opportunity to communicate.

Doing the exact same identical tasks every class

One of my teachers made us spend SIX MONTHS talking about our last weekend  every class. For six months, she made each one of us tell the others what we had done the weekend before. I mean, come on. That took half an hour every class and while one person spoke all others just sat there and listened. We all lived in West Sussex where nothing really happens that often… It just became so boring after the first month, I actually would turn up late to miss that part of the session. Sometimes I would turn up just in time for the weekend task, which I dreaded and couldn’t hide. I’d think to myself: cazzo di fine settimana scorsa! On one occasion she asked us what we thought of the classes. I fed her back about how I was tired of this task because it was repetitive and didn’t allow for all of us to participate and interact. She got very defensive and asked the entire class how comfortable they felt with her and with her methods. This, of course, was the easiest way to get people to nod and not tell the truth.

The lesson I took: A lot of the time we see students' motivation gradually vanish, and I agree this is partly because they might not be working as hard. In spite of that, I also think if we as teachers always do the same things this is very likely going to make our classes less challenging, less interesting and less fun. Getting feedback for the tasks we assign, rather than for how much they like us as teachers, is a good way to make sure we are keeping them motivated.

What about you? Have you ever had a terrible experience with a teacher?

What about you? Is there anything your teachers did that drove you mad?