By Cathy Sunshine
Do you ever wonder, when you walk into the classroom and see ten or fifteen faces gazing back at you, what your students are really thinking? I know I do.
Of course, we get warm praise from our students every day, which is one of the things that makes teaching at Language ETC so much fun. But it’s usually generic praise, along the lines of “thank you so much for helping me.” We don’t often get specific feedback, much less negative feedback. We can only guess what students like — or don’t like — about the way we teach.So we asked them. A number of LETC teachers surveyed their classes, asking students to complete two phrases: “I like it when teachers . . .” and “I don’t like it when teachers . . .” Responses were received from classes at levels 3A, 3B, 4A, 4B, Advanced Workplace, and Advanced Plus. While all the responses came from levels 3A and up, many of those students have been at LETC for some time and started at lower levels. So the responses should be seen as applying to all class levels and, of course, to all teachers, since every student is exposed to multiple teachers every term.
Many thanks to the following teachers for contributing to this post: Anne Hearne and Karuna Mehta (3A); Dominque Cahn and Natalie Wexler (3B); Deirdre Donahue, Elly Perl, Claire Sayler, and Philip Wallach (4A); Liz Lourie (4B); Dan Lebiednik and Theresa Schlafly (Advanced Workplace). And thanks to their wonderful students (and to my Advanced Plus students) for participating! Their candid answers will help all of us become better teachers.
I like it when teachers . . .
- Come on time
- Come to class prepared
- Prepare the blackboard with the date, textbook page, and names of the teachers
- Write large
- Speak with me; have a conversation with me
- Speak slowly
- Correct me
- Practice pronunciation; make everyone pronounce; stop me and correct pronunciation; “show with tongue pronouncing”
- Know our names
- Are friendly
- Are patient
- Are cheerful
- Are flexible
- Are dynamic and keep your attention
- Help us
- Repeat an explanation when a student doesn’t understand
- Explain grammar; explain “old” grammar again
- Explain things well
- Explain new words
- Have a “word of the day”
- Use pictures and visuals to explain vocabulary
- Teach new vocabulary and phrasal verbs
- Write new vocabulary on the board
- Put words in context
- Give a lot of examples
- Answer questions
- Give dictation
- Encourage participation
- Give students equal chances to speak
- Check homework
Great! Obviously, our students find a lot to like. I was struck by how often pronunciation was mentioned — more than any other single response. Students clearly value the opportunity to converse with teachers and to be corrected when they make mistakes. It’s also encouraging to hear that students notice and appreciate it when we are friendly, patient, helpful, and cheerful, because that’s a strength of LETC teachers, I think. We teach because we enjoy it, so smiling comes naturally.
Students like it when we write new vocabulary on the board, put words in context, and use pictures to explain new words. We should speak slowly and write large. We should also encourage participation and “give students equal chances to speak” — that got my attention. It becomes especially important at the higher levels, when students are beginning to be somewhat fluent and to want their share of talk time.
Now that we’re all convinced of our awesomeness, let’s move on to the constructive criticism.
I don’t like it when teachers . . .
- Talk too fast
- Talk too loud
- Are hard to understand
- Ignore me when I have a question
- Focus too rigidly on structure
- Don’t correct my mistakes
- Don’t check homework
- Erase the board too soon
- Take the class very fast
- Don’t explain things well
- Waste time explaining things to students who missed class
- Spend class time on questions unrelated to the lesson
- Stretch out an activity or repeat it to fill up time, so that it takes longer than necessary
- Make us work in groups — we don’t learn from hearing other students make mistakes
- Let students use phones in class
- Are not prepared
- Are boring
- Act like they’re bored
- Don’t pay attention
- Text in class
- Are not patient
- Are unfriendly
Some of these are things we know to be true. Almost all of us talk too fast and too much, and this is something we can work on controlling. As for being hard to understand, well, students are here because they’re learning to understand English. But we can adapt our speech to suit the level of our students: slow down, simplify, cut out unnecessary words and rambling digressions. The lower the class level, the greater the need to simplify. Our experienced Basic teachers use pared-down speech and nonverbal language to communicate with students who know very little English.
The comments about homework are reasonable. If students take the time to do it, they want it to be checked. I’ve sometimes assigned homework and then by the time I see the class again the next week, I’ve forgotten all about it.
Three of the responses deal with wasted class time. It’s a useful reminder that our students are adults with jobs and families, and their time is precious, just like ours. I should note, though, that the comment about stretching out activities longer than necessary came from my Advanced Plus class. With their greater proficiency, they like a fast pace. At lower levels, in my experience at least, activities often take longer than you think they will, and students don’t want to feel rushed.
The comment about group work likewise came from my class, and I doubt that it’s representative of all levels. Advanced students have a strong desire to interact with native English speakers so they can emulate their accents and expression. They are highly conscious of errors and want to be corrected when they make them. For this reason we often break into two groups, each facilitated by a teacher who models native English, which is a technique that may help other classes as well.
Finally, I have a hard time believing that any LETC teachers act impatient, bored, or unfriendly, but I can easily believe that we are sometimes visibly tired after a hectic day and perhaps not as prepared as we would like to be. We’re volunteers, and human, and our students kindly forgive us many failings. Which makes our trademark cheerful smiles and friendliness all the more important!