These days, English learners (and L2 learners in general) can get as autonomous and independent as they wish. There is a plethora of mobile apps, movies, games, songs and books for them to learn English from. So I often ask myself what’s there left for us, L2 teachers? And, most importantly, to what extent does the feeling of uselessness influence the teachers’ performance and ultimately their attitudes towards their job?
I’m not a pessimist but sometimes, I can’t help feeling threatened. It’s not merely because I personally believe that language teachers may soon become obsolete, but because I fear our students start realizing this possibility too.
I’m now talking about the state system of education, namely here in the Czech Republic. The expected outcomes in English have become very low recently. To say the least, they definitely do not match the knowledge and skills students can or could realistically achieve if they were motivated to do their best. Quite ironically, I believe that the lower the expectations from the school system, the more threatening the environment becomes for the teachers.
What do I mean by this? You may have heard of the Pygmalion effect – the phenomenon whereby others’ expectations of a target person affect the target person’s performance. A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the Golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance. I simply fear that if students believe there’s very little the teacher can offer, there will be very little the teacher will feel they can offer. Eventually and inevitably, this will decrease their motivation and effort to come up with something valuable. It’s like offering somebody a locally produced apple (which you know is juicy and healthy) when there’s a table full of colourful exotic fruit anyone can grab a piece of at any time.
Don’t get me wrong; there will still be lots of learners who will need us – those who don’t find it easy or possible to learn independently and those who see the teacher as a door to obtaining certificates and degrees of all sorts. The former will probably find the current state of affairs more and more frustrating since they will become the outcasts of the system. Actually, they already are; often very talented in other subjects, they are laughed at by their peers who, unlike them, find learning English to be a piece of cake. The latter lot will probably dump us as soon as they pass their high-stake exams.
This brings me to a hasty conclusion. I said I’m concerned that English teachers will become obsolete, mainly at the secondary level of education. Every teacher probably feels there is a threshold. Past this stage, it gets more and difficult to offer something useful and meaningful to everybody in the class. You can’t start teaching C1 language to satisfy your best students and leave the A2 students behind, can you? Well, yes, you can try personalization and differentiation and whatnot but why would you even do it when your job is to primarily prepare your students for their final B1 exam?
This isn’t to say that I believe teachers, in general, will become obsolete. As far as ELT is concerned, we’ll probably need to closely look at and possibly follow the example of Finland, for instance, where the focus is on work across school subjects, including English. This is something that is already done at some schools here in the Czech Republic. However, it will probably need to become more large-scale than this if we, English teachers, want to keep our jobs and find them meaningful and satisfying.