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This post is about an English teacher who’s never followed fashion trends but who’s always been in. No, I’m obviously not talking about clothes here on a blog that is mostly related to ELT stuff. I’m describing the way this teacher teaches English. I’ve actually had an opportunity to observe his methods over a long period of time. At first, he was my English teacher at high school, later on he became my boss and my teacher trainer (though an unofficial one), and now he prepares my son for the FCE exam.
Although I’ve experienced a great deal of his teaching only vicariously, I can claim that he is one of the most intuitive teachers I’ve ever met. When I was in his class as a student, I didn’t really pay attention to what he did as a teacher but still, some things stuck in my mind. Already back then I noticed things other teachers didn’t do. For example, he had those small cards that he kept looking at throughout the lesson. The cards were always the same – the same colour, the same size (about 10×15 cm), the same material, and I think they had thin, colourful lines on them. Back then I thought of them as notes; in retrospect I realize that they were actually concise lesson plans.
He made us learn vocabulary systematically but in a meaningful way (in chunks, to use modern terminology). Most importantly, he wanted us to absorb vocabulary in manageable doses. I was quite good at English so I obviously couldn’t be bothered to revise for vocabulary tests. When I got a B in a test though, I felt aggravated and I protested wildly (not really) because I thought that it was OK to use a Go with me instead of Come along with me (my goodness, I can’t believe I still remember this language point!). He, very patiently, said something along these lines: “Your phrase is fine and you will be understood if you use it but if you don’t expand your vocabulary you’ll soon get stuck.” (on the intermediate plateau, I should add now).
One of his virtues was impartiality. He was always fair to all students. I still remember an argument I overheard during the final Maturita examination – one of the examiners was questioning his decision concerning a student’s score in the oral part of the exam. She maintained that it was not fair to give Student X an A because she was worse than Student Y, who had also got an A. My teacher tried to convince her though that it wasn’t fair to compare those two students – Student Y was brilliant at English and didn’t have to try really hard to achieve such a high grade, but Student X made a lot of effort to succeed, even though she didn’t use such a great variety of vocabulary items and grammar structures as Student Y. I was impressed with his attempt at what now we might call formative assessment.
Although he was a really serious guy, and rather conservative, he wasn’t afraid to experiment now and then. For example, he once made the whole class (of 32 students!) meditate. I still remember the beginning of the guided relaxation: Clasp your hands. Clasp was one of the words that were new to me, and this technique helped me remember it instantly and for good. I suspect he might have been researching some unusual methods and techniques, such as Suggestopedia, or maybe it was just an activity he had come across somewhere and liked so much that he decided to try it out with his students. One way or another, it definitely spiced up the lesson.
When he later became my boss, he gave me lots of valuable feedback on my lessons, which he occasionally came to observe, mainly at the start of my career. I admit that at that time I considered the way he provided feedback a little patronizing. Now I realize it was due to my inability to accept anything but positive feedback. However, many years later, when he observed another lesson of mine, he said how much I had developed as a teacher. I believe I managed to improve my teaching partly because I had followed his advice.
Another thing I remember is that he would lend out graded readers and encourage his students to read as much as possible outside regular classes. He asked me to do the same in my lessons. I considered this a bit of a nuisance because the paper work, i.e. keeping track of who’s borrowed/returned what, kept me from doing more ‘important’ stuff. Plus it drove me crazy when some of the books got lost. However, he introduced the principles of extensive reading long before I fully realized its benefits for language learning/acquisition.
At the moment he’s helping my 16-year-old son to prepare for the FCE exam, so I can peek into his lessons again, though just in the metaphorical sense of the word. Judging by what my son tells me, I couldn’t wish for a better teacher. When I look at the vocabulary lists he creates and photocopies for his students, I can’t but think of the lexical approach. Also, I like the fact that he doesn’t hesitate to reject an essay that I would normally deem acceptable in my teaching context. His approach is good because it challenges students and makes them think about possible ways of improving their writing skills. The truth is that he makes his students a little upset too, but not too upset to become frustrated. He actually practises Demand High, and I dare say he does so absolutely intuitively and naturally.
What I most appreciate and admire about this particular teacher is the fact that he’s been consistent throughout his teaching career. He’s been immune to all the lures and fashionable trends, but he’s always been able to pick what’s good for his students and I’m bound to say that his teaching has always been learner-centred.