Whatever you do, just keep them spinning.
That’s what we tell ourselves as teachers.
We keep spinning one after the other until we’re balancing a whole slew of plates as easily as if we were chewing gum.
But instead of spinning plates, we’re spinning goals—around and around they go!
And we’re really good at it. Because, as you know, being a teacher is more than a vocation, it’s a calling. We’re not just preparing students for a class, we’re preparing them for life.
With such lofty ambitions, what are the goals that the teacher needs to keep in mind?
Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said:
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
As teachers, we need to think bigger. We need to teach students to think beyond common classroom tasks and awaken their desire to excel in English (and in life). But how do we do that?
Teachers have to look at their own goals as a professional, as an authority in their field and as a person capable of sharing and imparting their knowledge.
Here are some goals that will help teachers to do as Saint-Exupéry suggests and inspire students to learn. And we’re not only going to give you some pointers about student goals, we’ve got one just for teachers as well (though of course it’ll help with student achievement).
6 Basic Goals to Have in Teaching the English Language
1. Be a Student Informant
There are three things to remember when teaching: know your stuff; know whom you are stuffing; and then stuff them elegantly. — Lola May
An “informant” is a native speaker of a language who provides linguistic information to a person who is studying the language. The student isn’t necessarily doing so in order to master the language; more likely, the student is creating some type of analytical evaluation of the language to increase understanding.
Put language in context
In the classic English teaching environment, the role of the informant has been relegated to the teacher. Although some schools employ native English speakers as informants, giving them a title like “auxiliary teachers,” being a true informant sometimes takes a back seat in English teaching.
Combining the classic linguistic term with the active need for information in language teaching means that you not only provide utterances for your students to copy and learn but also additional information that puts language in context.
Balance the role of informant with that of teacher
Fortunately, being both a teacher and an informant is a pretty easy combination. You probably already inform a great deal in your classroom as you plow through the curriculum.
When sharing an example with your students, give “added value,” explaining not only the obvious reason you’ve shared the word or phrase, but also adding background information about the utterance itself.
For example, if you’re teaching the difference between “may” and “can” (this one was classic with my mom, how about yours?), you won’t just give the two examples with explanations of their differences:
May I use your telephone? (polite request)
Can you fix this? (request for information on the capacity of the person to do something)
Go a step further and explain how, when you asked your mother, “Can I have a glass of soda?” she would reply by saying, “Yes, you can, but you may not,” highlighting how using the polite form was an important part of your upbringing: your mom considered the “can” question impolite.
This type of additional information places an otherwise academic explanation into the framework of language as a living, vibrant device for communication.
Include anecdotes like how speakers in southern parts of the U.S. distinguish between “you” singular and “you” plural with “y’all,” while those in the north don’t. These will help students remember and apply the academic information they’ll later need when speaking.
Turn the tables and make your students informants
Hand the “informant” role over to your students! This is an excellent way to offer them a theme to speak about in English. It also encourages an attitude of comparison between their native language and English.
A true bilingual person will always be aware, while speaking a second language, how things are expressed in their own language. This is natural and should be encouraged. Sometimes the expression of ideas will be very similar, while with others there may be a huge difference.
In English, for example, a straw breaks a camel’s back, while in Spanish, “la gota que colma el vaso” (one drop overflows the glass). While you make a connection between the straw and the camel, ask your Spanish speaking student to imagine why it’s a glass instead. Ask any student to explain to the rest of the class, in English, how they express the same idea in their native language.
2. Put on the Coach Hat
Sports are such a great teacher. I think of everything they’ve taught me: camaraderie, humility, how to resolve differences. — Kobe Bryant
When asked how they won the gold medal in the Barcelona 1992 Olympic games, all of the men on the Spanish water-polo team highlighted that the most important thing for them was “team spirit,” a total surrender to the team effort to win, an effort of the individual to be part of the team.
One of the most important roles you’ll play in your classroom will be that of “coach,” not only in the modern “improve yourself” interpretation, but like a sports coach, someone who’s there to encourage and push team members to their limits, to bring the individuals together in meeting common goals.
Allow students to discover their talents
As with any team effort, the coach will first evaluate the individual talents of each team member and then assign them their best slot in the game. John is fast, so he becomes a running-back. Peter is stocky and firm on his feet, so he becomes a tackle guy. Jane has a strong right arm, so she becomes a outside hitter.
- Do a student survey in class.
- Place general talent headers on the board: sports, language, art, music, history, science, mathematics, etc.
- Ask for a show of hands of students who believe they’re strong in any of these categories and list their names under each header.
- Group the students, then, into these categories and ask them to work on a group accomplishment list in this field.
- Have each group share their list with the rest of the class.
Find ways that certain accomplishments overlap between categories. A person who has excelled in mathematics will certainly be able to help a person who’s great at science. A student who understands music can be very helpful to someone trying to learn the rhythm of a language.
Nurture student talent
Now, ask your students about their strong points in English.
- Juan says that he loves grammar—he becomes the guy who checks to make sure that sentences are well-constructed.
- Akiko believes that she knows a lot of phrasal verbs—she will oversee replacing literal verb use with more metaphorical expressions.
- Inga has strong organizational skills—she takes charge of making sure any group project is well-planned and executed.
When you allow students to lean on their natural talents and knowledge of English, you’ll find them cooperating and helping one another, creating a pleasant and productive team environment for all.
Foster team spirit
No matter what aspect of English you’re teaching, always come back to the concept that the individuals are working as a team towards a common goal.
Like dealing with level diversity in the classroom, where your best strategy may be finding a common need that all students share despite their proficiency, giving your students common goals will head off a number of otherwise difficult situations in the classroom, including discipline problems.
Any good teacher knows how important it is to connect with students and understand our culture. — Adora Svitak
Sometimes we English teachers get trapped in the idea that we’re teaching some kind of “standard” English to our students. I’ve personally met teachers who have asserted that theirs is the “correct” pronunciation, vocabulary and structure, while the rest are variations.
English, though, is a widely spoken language, both by natives and non-natives. Behind each English speaker there’s a rich cultural heritage that makes their use of the language unique, yet part of the overall, world-wide use of English. You as a teacher will have reasons for speaking English as you do, and you should share those reasons with your students.
Share your heritage
Do a personal inventory of who you are, where you come from, why you currently speak English.
- Are you first, second or third generation in your country?
- Are you a native speaker, did you learn English as a child/adult, was your home bilingual?
- Were all of your ancestors English speakers? What part of the world did they come from and what was the nature of their contact with the English language?
- How are you connected to your native land? Are you patriotic?
- If you learned English as a second language, why did you choose English instead of another language?
- How important was language to you and your family as you were growing up?
- Did you live in a culture where English was easily identified by accent, vocabulary, expressions?
- Did you have to make a special effort to normalize or standardize your English before becoming a teacher?
As you move through your school term, share personal, language-related anecdotes with your students. When “Every little bit helps” comes up in the text, share that your mom always continued that wisdom with “…. said the old woman, as she peed in the ocean, while trying to drown her husband” (make sure your group won’t be scandalized!)
An engaging activity for your students is to ask them to create their own family tree, identifying their own heritage, the history behind why they speak their own native language, the future they expect upon having learned to speak English.
Share your experience
The most valuable sharing you can do is that of your own experience in language learning. While many may think this means studying a foreign language, you can also share your experience studying your native language.
In the case of a second (or third!) language,
- Describe and contrast the ways your past teachers tried to get you to understand. These can be pleasant memories, like that foreign language festival or when Ms. Lane encouraged you to recite that poem, and you won a third-place ribbon.
- Tell anecdotes between what language class was like in your high school as a college entrance requirement versus the way you’re teaching English to your students as a means of communication.
If your native language is English,
- Recall any difficulties you had while learning to use English in your day-to-day life. Share a silly childhood pronunciation problem, or a total lack of understanding of spelling rules in grade school (and that time Mrs Lovegrin caught you cheating on a spelling quiz!).
- Remind your students that all of us (native speakers, too!) have had to study English, its idiosyncrasies, its rules and regulations.
When you talk about these experiences, you’ll connect with your students, letting them know that you, too, have had to jump through the hoops to get where you are.
Share what it means to be who you are
Students often look at a teacher as that authority figure at the head of the class, with the blackboard and chalk and the book with the answer key. This distance between the teacher and student, often necessary, can become a barrier between people who are striving to communicate.
You’ve become a teacher for some reason or other. Though none of your students may want to be a teacher when they grow up, one way to share those reasons is to assume that all of them want to be teachers in the future. Let your students know exactly what being a teacher means to you. For example:
- Share a story about your favorite teacher; ask them to share as well.
- Tell them about that particular moment when you just knew that you wanted to teach, and why.
- Ask your students to make a list of qualities of a good teacher and compare those qualities to what you offer them.
- Talk about education, what your education has been, what you think education means in the modern world.
- Ask your students about the importance of education in their lives, if they feel they’re getting a good deal.
- List ways with your students that all of you can improve education, how to act upon those that are within your reach.
Remind your students that you’re constantly learning new information, either through outside workshops, summer language programs or even within the current classroom. Reinforce the idea that learning is a lifelong activity.
4. Animate Students to Become Agents of Change
I’m not sayin’ I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will. — Tupac Shakur
I was born at the end of the 1950s. That means I’ve lived through nearly six decades of world history. Throughout those years, change seems to be gradually accelerating, never stopping. Change is natural, but now, well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, change seems incredibly fast-paced.
Either in our own personal lives, in our communities or in the world-at-large, each of us will participate in the changes that will come. Being able to use English, being a speaker of the current global language, means being able to actively participate in this change.
Open the world of communication for your students
The principle way in which we communicate our thoughts is through language, either spoken or written. Through language we can listen to, understand, debate and negotiate what goes on around us.
Only a few years ago, a foreign president would’ve addressed the American people through an interpreter or a spokesperson. Recently, the president of France directly addressed the American people, in English and without middle-men.
Whether it be a small, personal relationship with someone on the internet who lives on the other side of the world, or perhaps someone with whom we want to do business, learning to use English will open doors for us.
Encourage human interchange
With your students, brainstorm ways communicating in English makes it easier to imagine and reach goals in the world, such as:
- Ensuring a clean planet for ourselves and future generations
- Understanding world conflicts and leading them towards peaceful relations
- Facing human rights challenges across cultures
- Dealing with cultural conflicts at home
Demonstrate how change is natural through language learning
Part of the magic of learning a second language is the act of “decoding.” People who speak or study other languages find themselves actively using a part of their mind for this decoding, the action of looking at the new code, comparing it with the familiar code and, finally, breaking the new code while keeping a hold on the old.
Monolingual people usually forget that period when, as babies and youngsters, they had to figure out what their parents were saying to them while they learned their native language. Once the native language becomes old-hat, conscious decoding occurs primarily when a new word or unfamiliar expression shows up in reading or conversation.
On the simplest level, this code-breaking may involve learning nouns and verbs that look different between the native and second language. “Chair” is quite different from “silla,” “hablar” doesn’t look at all like “speak;” however, the English speaker learning Spanish has little choice but to learn the words “silla” and “hablar” if they want to be understood.
On a more complex level though, students will begin to understand that the change is not simply one of replacing a Spanish word with an English one. The change will be in how the speaker of one or the other language views reality.
In English, we may say “I’m hungry,” and that will represent a state of being, accompanied by a rumbling in the belly. A hungry Spanish speaker, though, will say “Tengo hambre”–literally translated to “I have hunger.” This isn’t a state of being, but rather something they possess. Once having chomped down on that apple or cookie, the English speaker will have changed their state of being. The Spanish speaker will have stopped possessing the sensation of hunger.
Naturally, the common denominator is the grumbling stomach (though for the Spanish it’s not just the stomach, it’s the “tripas,” that is, almost the entire digestive tract!) and neither the English speaker nor the Spanish speaker considers the above analysis when rushing to dinner. These distinctions do exist, though, and you as a teacher should be aware of them.
When they appear, point them out to your students. Look at how the metaphorical language of English differs from the metaphors used in the students’ native language. Help your students to understand that changing how they think about these matters will help them to change how they express them in English.
It’s not so much “think in English” as it is “think like an English speaker”—language begins in how we think.
The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. — William A. Ward
Being a teacher is an integral, active part of learning. While motivated people pursue their own learning every day, so many students look to teachers to help them in their quests for knowledge.
The basis for success in imparting your knowledge as an English teacher is motivating your students to want to learn what you have to share. You need to not only inspire your students, you want to be an inspiration to them.
Help students learn the “mission statement”
Language learning is a lifelong process. After over 30 years of living in Spain, at least 25 of which I have considered myself a fluent Spanish speaker, I find myself constantly studying Spanish.
Not a day goes by that I don’t learn a new word or expression. I see a phrase in a news article or hear it in a translation of a film. I look at those, note them, use them for several days, and they become part of my ever-growing proficiency in Spanish.
Though I can say “I have learned such-and-such” in Spanish, I also keep present the concept of “I am learning” and “I will have learned.” “I will have learned” became my mission statement.
Do a mission statement activity with your students. This differs from generating objective statements: it’s broader, outlining a progressive attitude that can be fomented through achieving small goals:
- What do you plan to do with your English knowledge? (Look for a job overseas? Join a NGO and help the needy? Translate the great works of your culture to English so others can enjoy them?)
- What will you have to do every day to make English useful to your long-term plan? (Take skill-specific classes that will help you in your work? Learn diplomatic language to deal in local conflict resolution? Pour through previous translations to see if they can be improved upon?)
- At what point do you believe your English study will be over? (Once you’ve landed the job? Once you’ve returned home from that far-away country? Once your translations have been published?)
This type of exercise should help your students realize the importance of a learning attitude, that study will never end, that human beings learn something new every day.
As the old Spanish refrain goes, “No te vayas a la cama sin haber aprendido algo nuevo.” (Don’t go to bed without having learned something new.)
Give students tools for learning
Read the clues: giving fish vs. teaching how to fish. Sound familiar?
Your job as an English teacher should go way beyond simply explaining, diagramming, translating, grading, informing. You will want to share, on an almost daily basis, the many tools available for learning. You can begin by brainstorming with the students in class.
What tools do we use in the classroom?
- Blackboard and chalk
- Note and textbooks
- Pencils and pens
- Flash cards and realia
- Video and audio recordings
Now, take each of these tools and place them outside of the classroom.
Where can we use each of these tools in the outside, real world?
- Blackboard and chalk (in a board meeting, at a restaurant, at a sporting event)
- Note and textbooks (at the kitchen table, on a long train ride, sitting on the sofa on a rainy day)
Make a list of tools not related to the classroom:
- Carpenter tools
- Mechanic tools
- Kitchen utensils
- Sewing materials
Now, put those tools into your classroom and discover how they can be used for English study:
- Carpenter tools: explaining the use of each tool, giving directions on use, types of materials that can be manipulated or changed with the tool and how, etc.
This exercise allows students to connect with how almost everything they have around them contributes to learning, whether it be within or without the classroom setting.
Show the benefits of learning
Learning has benefits. We don’t always stop and look at them, though. Do a “benefits” exercise with your students:
- When did you learn to walk? What are the benefits of having learned to walk?
- When did you learn to speak your native language? And the benefits?
- …. to add and subtract?
- …. to use a computer? A cell phone? A gaming console? (Program the video recorder–oops, too 20th century!)
- …. to make friends?
- …. to deal with conflicts?
- …. to use English classroom language?
- …. to order food in English?
Make the “when did you learn” exercise a regular part of your class plan. It can be language-related (When did you learn to use the irregular form of “go”?) or it can be life-related. The answers should always be a moment the student feels they have learned, coupled with how having learned has improved their lives.
Make a habit of evaluating the benefits of learning: it’ll contribute to converting learning itself into a beneficial activity.
6. Choose Your “Niche” and Stick with It
A man should first direct himself in the way he should go. Only then should he instruct others. — Buddha
The goals up to this point have been student-focused. This one is just for the teachers.
A common source of stress for English teachers is a feeling that they must cover all aspects of language teaching throughout a language class cycle. You think you have to explain grammar, syntax, pronunciation, communication, writing and listening, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera!
This attitude, often mandated from “above,” can leave you juggling these aspects, holding each for a moment before catching another and then throwing the next into the air.
This juggling act overlooks a student reality: no student will learn all of their English from one single teacher. All English students will, throughout their studies, experience the methods and techniques of several teachers.
Trying to be a one-room-schoolhouse English teacher robs your students of in-depth study of what you can best teach them. The key word here, then, is “niche.”
Carving out your niche/choosing a focus
Coming from a Latin noun meaning “nest,” a niche is that carved-out spot in a wall where you put something decorative, like a bust or a statue. That’s a pretty image, isn’t it?
Related to people, though, a niche is that area they carve out for themselves, where their particular strengths or abilities can be showcased. When thinking about your niche as an English teacher, you should consider what you can showcase of yourself. You’ll want to identify a personal teaching focus.
Make a list of your past “life achievements.” Scribble down everything you’ve been proud of, or recognized for, as a person.
- That time you won a blue ribbon in a pie-eating contest
- The applause you received during the curtain call of the school play
- The scholarship you received because of your high SAT/ACT test results
- That year that you actually made it to the end of the town marathon
These accomplishments reflect not only your personal interests, they reflect those things you’re good at.
Now, make a list of “headers” involved in English teaching:
- Listening/speaking improvement
- Test preparation
- Teaching business English teaching
Combine the two lists, slipping your past accomplishments under the English teaching header that you feel it most closely resembles.
Getting a good grade on an exam will naturally fall under “test preparation,” while running the marathon may best fit “business English.” Pie-eating contests? Well, you’re not embarrassed to be silly in front of a lot of people, so slip that one into “listening/speaking.”
When you’ve finished, you’ll probably find that one of those headers has many more accomplishments listed under it than the others. That’s where you’ll begin chipping away to create your niche.
Those other areas shouldn’t go unnoticed. You’ll begin showcasing yourself in one, then branching out into the others. Niches in museums are often found alongside other niches, each with their own showcased object, the whole creating an overall impression. You’ll become part of that impression.
(Remember to keep this list handy, as it’ll become the framework for a student discovery exercise you’ll want to do later!)
How will your expertise flesh out in the classroom?
Once you’ve identified your expertise as an English teacher, that expertise should become a foundation for all of your teaching.
A teacher who has an expert grasp of grammar sometimes doesn’t understand the subtleties of pronunciation work.
Another teacher may have the creativity to excite students with role plays or games but know only the basics of sentence structure.
A third teacher may control the material involved in standardized testing while having only a cursory knowledge of conversational dynamics.
Though I have a strong linguistic background, a complete understanding of English grammar and years of academy ESL teaching experience, I discovered early on that my niche was based upon my flair for the theatrical. Before becoming an ESL teacher, I pursued a Masters in Fine Arts in theater, direction and management. From that education, I was able to parse together a series of talents that could be used in the ESL classroom.
Consequently, I focused on two areas: pronunciation and improvisation.
Theatrical voice study gave me a complete background in the production of clear pronunciation of complete utterances for communicating to an audience. It was there I also learned the IPA, the importance of stringing sounds together, how it’s physically done.
Improvisation and interpretation classes, as well as direction, aided me in working with ESL students in a variety of activities, from role plays to actual theatrical performance and movie making.
Everything I taught, I taught through pronunciation. Grammar, phrasal verbs, idioms, conversational English, business English, all passed through the filter of “how are we going to get those concepts out of your mouths?”
If you’re an excellent grammarian, couch your work in the classroom in grammar. Highlight the grammar in any activity you present. Dialogues can be studied through their grammatical structure. Reading exercises can look at how the sentences have been constructed. Use your knowledge to deepen your student’s grammatical understanding of English.
If, on the other hand, your niche is more along the lines of test preparation, then what you do in class will always include a reminder to students of the tricks and techniques they’ll need to be successful in passing any exams they consider to take for certification.
Concentrating on grammar doesn’t mean you can’t do role plays—go for it! But, if you’re not confident about doing role plays, no problem! Your students will certainly have the opportunity to do them with another teacher who just loves theater.
Test preparation doesn’t mean you can’t play games in class. Use your imagination and adapt test questions and situations to any number of fun, trivial-type ESL games.
Choosing a niche is actually choosing that personal filter through which you’ll be teaching everything. This means that you may not focus so much on one aspect (grammar in role play or drama in sentence structure). You’ll be leaving that aspect to the expertise of another teacher, while fully taking advantage of your own strength that the other teacher may not have.
What I’ve shared above is meant to help you, as the educator, improve yourself both as a teacher and as a communicator. Some of the ideas involve self-analysis and perhaps answer some questions you’ve been avoiding.
When you’ve worked together with your students in reaching these goals in your professional life, you may find yourself in an entirely different environment in your English classroom.
We can’t ignore the importance, nowadays, of English in a global world. Your part in that evolution has gone beyond simply teaching grammar and pronunciation. You’re the inspiration, the agent of change, the vocational catalyst for yourself, your students and your corner of the world.
Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach. — Aristotle
Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into teacher training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.
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