Christian Lingua

What’s the Role of the Language Teacher?

Many people are accustomed to a model of language teaching that is heavily teacher-centered. To our minds (influenced no doubt by many years in China), this teacher-centered approac

Many people are accustomed to a model of language teaching that is heavily teacher-centered. To our minds (influenced no doubt by many years in China), this teacher-centered approach calls up images of the great sage Confucius sitting amidst his disciples, explaining the Way and occasionally asking questions to check his disciples’ comprehension; hence, we will refer to this approach as the sage model of teaching. The sage owes his exalted position to the fact that he knows more than his students do, and his primary task is to transfer his knowledge to his students. Once the students understand what the sage is trying to explain, the teaching task has been successfully completed.

A certain amount of the sage is virtually inevitable in your teaching life, and it is not necessarily bad. You do know far more about English than the students do, and one of your roles as a language teacher is to convey as much of that knowledge as possible. However, excessive reliance on this model has serious drawbacks. One is that it can be hard to play the sage role well. For example, setting yourself up as the final authority on English can result in very uncomfortable situations, particularly if you are not a master at explaining the intricacies of English grammar. Students often have more explicit knowledge of grammar rules (and the vocabulary used to discuss them) than NTs do, and this can prove awkward when students ask questions that you can’t answer.

Even for NTs who become proficient in explaining obscure points of grammar, the teacher-centered sage model still presents problems. In this model, teachers are personally responsible not only for transmitting most of the knowledge students are to learn but also for deciding what is to be learned and how. A (usually unintended) side effect of this approach is that students learn to be passive, to do what they are told rather than actively finding ways to enhance their learning. Another unfortunate side effect is that, as suggested earlier, the teacher’s role may degenerate into a formal one of covering material during class so that students can be held responsible for it on the final exam.

A second flaw of the sage model is that it is often classroom centered; in other words, it assumes that most learning takes place in the classroom and downplays the importance of work students do on their own. Of course, the sage also assigns some homework, but in the minds of the teacher and students, the homework is simply a rehearsal for the main show. For students, the subtle message of this assumption is that real learning requires the teacher; for teachers, the temptation is to measure success by the polish of classroom performances rather than by student progress.

A final problem with the sage model is that it assumes that learning a language is essentially an accumulation of knowledge that is complete once students understand what the teacher is trying to explain. Unfortunately, this assumption isn’t true. Though the acquisition of knowledge plays an important part in language learning, it is not enough — as we have seen, learning a language is also mastering a set of skills, and skills are not learned via explanation. The explanation is generally only the beginning of the learning process, and the teacher who plays the sage role often puts on an impressive show but leaves students to face the real battle alone.

A better model for a language teacher is that of the athletic coach or piano teacher, a model that we will call the coachThe main advantage of this model is that it assumes that most of the learning process takes place during practice away from the teacher’s watchful eye and that success or failure depends much more on what students do outside class than on what teachers do in class. A coach provides tips on how a basketball player should make jump shots, but it is the player’s hours of practice shots that teach the skill. Likewise, a piano teacher cannot teach a student digital dexterity by explaining it; a student must practice scales many times before they can be played smoothly.

Of course, one duty of the coach is to share knowledge of the subject, but equally important parts of the coach’s role are

  1. helping students better understand the learning process,
  2. encouraging students and cultivating motivation,
  3. helping students build discipline through accountability, and
  4. guiding them toward taking the initiative and responsibility for their learning.

These are not the only possible roles that NTs could adopt, but they are vitally important ones that are worthy of further discussion.

This article has been provided by Christian Lingua.