Teaching is an art, a science, and a journey. It’s a complex and multifaceted task that requires quite a few skills that can not be studied at university. Ideally one’s got a talent to teach and an attitude that encourages learners despite cultural boundaries.
But what distinguishes a good teacher from the rest? And how does one recognize good teaching, especially in the field of language education? I will explore these questions and share some of the significant lessons I have learned from my own experience, including some painful mistakes I made early in my career.
Signs of Good Teaching
Good teaching is not confined to a single characteristic or quality. Even the point’s I’ll be making can not be seen as conclusive but rather as sign posts.
1. Understanding the Learner’s Needs
A competent teacher recognizes that students have varying abilities, interests, and needs. They tailor their approach accordingly, offering personalized guidance and support to ensure that each learner reaches their potential. If this support is missing, learning a language often will take a lot longer and the outcome will be a lot worse than it should be.
2. Communication Skills
In language teaching, clear and engaging communication is paramount. The ability to convey complex ideas in an accessible manner, providing vivid examples, and maintaining an open dialogue with students is vital. The problem many German tutors or Youtubers have is that they obvious for the professional observer haven’t fully understood what they are teaching. They are merely showing rules and are reading them but they rarely if ever show you HOW to learn the presented information. While that works to some extend for some learners, for the majority of learners this approach makes the language learner’s life unnecessarily hard. Just because someone is presenting bits and pieces of German grammar in an entertaining manner, doesn’t mean that they are a good teacher. They are entertaining and that’s what Youtube was built for and still is used for 100%. You might still learn a bit here and there but as all you do there is consuming information without deepening it by using it in different contexts, it is not a suitable learning tool if you want to become fluent in German one day.
3. Encouraging Critical Thinking
Teachers should inspire students to think critically and creatively. Critical thinking basically means to ask the right questions and to learn where to find the correct answers.
Teacher’s must present challenges that push students to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information, rather than merely memorizing facts. Critical thinking requires practice and that’s exactly why I guide you through every sentence of my A1-B1 courses sharing my thought process with you which is highly critical and analytical but I toned it down so that it is easily digestible for German learners.
4. Emphasizing Real-World Applications
Language learning should connect with real-world situations. Integrating practical applications can make the content more relevant and engaging. That doesn’t mean that a language course needs to simulate reality – that’s usually horribly stiff and boring – but that it is preparing you for the real thing. A classroom can never replace real life interaction.
5. Fostering a Positive Learning Environment
Creating a supportive and encouraging environment is essential in language teaching. A positive atmosphere where students feel comfortable making mistakes and asking questions leads to more effective learning. That’s why I’ve created the SG Community where there’s many lovely German learners like yourself (yes, you too can be lovely) and of course that’s also where I hang out to learn from all your questions and of course to answer them or guide you where to find the answers.
6. Continuous Professional Development
The best teachers are lifelong learners themselves. They continually seek opportunities to enhance their skills, knowledge, and pedagogical approaches. In language learning that can be but doesn’t have to be learning a language themselves. After having sat in 20 language courses already, my motivation to learn a language formally is zero. But there isn’t a day that goes by where I didn’t learn anything new. At 50 my focus on what matters and should be remembered is vastly different from that of a 20 year old. I still remember those days of course but nowadays I realize how important actually emotions and expectations are when learning German. Those are tough nuts to crack and therefore I find them much more interesting than teaching you yet another ten gender signals (mountains are masculine, motorbike brands are feminine, rivers are mostly feminine etc.) just to create content for Youtube. If your motivation is high, you’ll reach your goal. And motivation is almost exclusively fueled by emotions and expectations and of course of positive, relevant experiences.
Mistakes and How to Overcome Them
While trying to get a grip on my job I stumbled into quite a few Fettnäpfchen (=putting my food in my mouth). Here’s a few things that when I remember them cause the feeling of deep embarrasment. And the sad thing is that I again and again saw and heard from students that other teachers are still making the same mistakes.
1. Overemphasis on Grammar
While grammar is essential it isn’t what you need to become fluent in German. What I mean is mainly that you don’t need to know anything ABOUT grammar but mainly need to know HOW to use it when speaking, reading, listening and writing. No grammar rule will help you with this unless you enforce it with proper practice. And proper practice doesn’t mean filling out the usual gap tests: Mein N_____ ist Michael. If you are interested in finding out what proper practice means, check out the free trial of any course of mine and see for yourself.
Students often hold on to grammar firmly when they feel insecure about what to do next. If there’s a lack of intelligent structure, grammar seems like a Rettungsring (=lifebelt) but it’s not a boat.
2. Lack of Reflection and Adaptation
Early in my career, I clung to specific methods without considering their effectiveness for my unique set of students. I started with the Berlitz “Method” which back then at least was basically listen and repeat. That’s fun for a short time and challenging but it doesn’t reach very far. I then switched to no method at all and made up for it by entertaining the students well. That also didn’t do the students any good. So over the years I learned more and more about how to actually teach. I was good at learning things and educated in how to learn fast which helped a lot but I didn’t really know how to teach. So I studied the matter at university and went far beyond what was required because learning and teaching are such fascinating matters that still influence my daily life today. And while the basics have been clear for over a hundred years now, the nuances are what arouse my interest. Especially the emotional experience when learning.
3. Ignoring Student Feedback
Students’ feedback is a valuable resource for improvement. By feedback I don’t just mean what a student is consciously sharing with me but also what they share without words. I definitely offended a handful of learners over the years simply because I was so focussed on entertaining the class. What’s funny for one person can be an insult to others. I’ve had one persion complain at my bosses because she understood I had asked students when they had lost their virginity. I got really mad back then because she (I know who it was as she didn’t come to class anymore) didn’t come to me directly as I would have explained to her that this was a misunderstanding. All I did was explaining the difference between “junge Frau” (young woman) and “Jungfrau” (virgin) because a student just said something like “Meine Mutter ist eine Jungfrau” which is funny but can lead to an embarrassing situation for the learner.
On another occasion a South Korean Priest once said a sentence out loud in class: “Ich war am Wochenende im Freudenhaus (=brothel)” which was a hillarious mistake so I pointed out the mistake, again, to rather help students not to make the same mistake but he wasn’t amused and left the class after the break. The concept of losing one’s face wasn’t (and still isn’t) too close to me back then but today I would be a lot more sensitive and avoid such a situation as I could solve the issue very gently in private – still difficult as one can lose one’s face also 1:1 especially with a teacher) or rather passively by adding a short lesson about words to avoid a week later.
Another student was always covering her mouth with her hand when speaking and I couldn’t understand her well so I asked her to stop doing that – which she rightfully didn’t – just to realize later that the reason why she did that was because she was embarrassed for her really bad teeth.
There only a few more of these anecdotes and I finally got the message but I totally understand now that despite it’s at times entertaining character it wasn’t a nice experience for the concerned students.
Culture is a difficult thing to navigate. It’s tough already in one’s own culture but add 20 different cultures to a classroom and it becomes a mine field.
Aside from such intimate feedback, noticing where students struggle and taking their requests seriously is something I need to constantly remind myself of. When I’m busy and a student struggles with some technical issue that with 99% possibility is a problem on their side, I sometimes tend to try to fix things quickly instead of first listening more precisely wherein the problem lies.
To be fair, you won’t find a perfect teacher anywhere in this world and I would never even expect perfection to begin with but what I would expect is availability and openness to look at what doesn’t work in our communication and cooperation. Mistakes – if not life threatening – are always welcome as they are an opportunity to grow.
4. Failure to Foster a Positive Learning Environment
Neglecting the emotional and social aspects of learning can create barriers to engagement and success. This mainly connects to what I wrote further above about the emotional part of learning being the most interesting part for me these days. In the past I’ve been impatient when a student simply wouldn’t get what I was trying to convey. I took that personally as I felt I gave my very best and it couldn’t have been explained any better. But afterwards I often realized that those moments were precious as they showed me where I could optimize my explanations and materials. Impatience isn’t perceived very well by students so I lost 2-3 of them even after having worked witih them for a longer time already. I understand that they were embarrassed about their performance themselves and that the issue wasn’t always my explanation but sometimes we all just stand on the Schlauch (=garden hose, meaning we are stuck somehow despite better knowledge) and one merely needs a break.
I’m human too – or so I’ve heard – which means I get kranky or impatient and I don’t have to be Ghandi or the Buddha to be an excellent teacher but nowadays I’m aware of these events and I do address them instantly and apologize and make sure that it becomes clear that my state of mind or emotional state has absolutely nothing to do with my students. I always learned from my mistakes, if not the first or second time then the third or a later time. Like in language learning, learning to become a better teacher takes patience, time and repetition of the right behaviour.
Recognizing good teaching is difficult and easy at the same time. As a student you can always ask the following questions:
- Do I feel good after this lesson? and if not:
- Why not?
- Are you looking forward to your next lesson or does it feel like a chore? If the latter, find out what the belief is that causes this feeling. My Unblock Your German course will help you greatly with this.
- Did I really get everything or is there still some doubt?
- If there’s doubt: redo the lesson once or twice. If still unclear, reach out to your German tutor/teacher.
- A good German tutor always analyses the root of the problem and addresses it right away.
- Of course it might simply be that you were tired. Don’t learn when tired. You are wasting your time.
- Is my motivation declining? If so, why? Often learners say they are bored. Boredem shows that either the material/course is too simple or too challenging. Find out which one it is with your German tutor.
A good tutor alwaws takes your concerns and doubts seriously. Don’t expect an instant realization of the problem but rather insist that they take a look at it with you. If your tutor doesn’t know how to respond to your issues, change the tutor immediately. They will harm your motivation long term and getting back on track after such a let down is rather difficult.
I hope this article was a bit enlightening – in the very literal sense of taking weight of your shoulders – and that you now are able to determine better what a good German tutor or German language classes online or offline should look like.