10 Questions Everyone Has About Becoming a Great Language Teacher
So, you want to become a language teacher.
Or maybe you’re already a language teacher, but you’ve only just stepped on the path to greatness.
Do you know what the job entails?
The job of a language teacher is to teach courses in or about a specific language. In most modern curricula, this also entails teaching literature and culture, broadly defined, as knowing these are essential to understanding a foreign culture and the way it uses its language.
Language teachers often instruct in several or all proficiency levels or year levels in a program and teach spelling, vocabulary, grammar, usage, intonations and accents. Language teachers aid their students in attaining proficiency in all skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing. Some may also choose to engage in research, if only “action research,” which is designed to help increase effectiveness in the classroom.
10 Questions Everyone Has About How to Become a Great Language Teacher
How can you become qualified to be a language teacher?
What do you need to know in order to succeed as a language teacher?
Here are ten questions you should consider as you set out to become a language teacher.
Self-assessment: Becoming a Language Teacher
1. Do I have what it takes?
Think about the teachers you remember best. Not just language teachers, but teachers of any subject.
What made them memorable? Why, now, as you’re thinking of becoming a teacher yourself, does your mind drift to them above all others?
Was it the knowledge they had? Probably. But more likely, it was the passion they had for their subject, the enthusiasm they showed in conveying that knowledge to you and the way they influenced you both inside and outside the classroom.
Teaching is about being enthusiastic about your subject and passing that enthusiasm on to your students. This is why the best teachers have both a solid knowledge of the subject they teach as well as passion for sharing that knowledge.
The best teachers also genuinely care about their students, their lives, their dreams and their futures beyond the classroom. Did you get guidance in applying for a scholarship, to college, to graduate school or for a post-graduate fellowship? Did you, perhaps, only hear about these opportunities because a teacher took the time to tell you about them and then spent hours working with you on your applications, helping you edit your personal statements or writing letters to support you? Were they just as happy as you were when your application was successful?
Are you seeking guidance from a language teacher right now as you contemplate your future as a language teacher?
The best teachers of any subject care about the education of the entire person, not just in a particular subject, but in life, and are willing to put in the time required to help their students meet their goals and fulfill their dreams.
This is the passion, in combination with language-specific knowledge, you need to become a great and memorable language teacher!
2. Is being a native speaker enough?
A number of English-language programs, whether online or in person, only want to hire native speakers. While you can’t do anything about that requirement if you are not a native speaker of English, you might well ask if that is the best way to seek out a qualified language teacher.
There are certain pitfalls of having a native speaker teach, especially one who is not adequately trained to teach his or her own language. While native speakers can be great as conversation partners, they often cannot explain why certain things are correct—a must for a good language teacher—without the training that all language teachers must have.
Think of the blog that you are reading right now. Or a random news site. Do you understand all of it? If you’re a native speaker of English, you most certainly do. But can you explain the tense of every verb, why the words are ordered the way they are, why I, or another author, chose any particular word over a potential synonym? You know that it’s correct, but can you explain why it’s correct? Or if the editors missed something, and any particular element is wrong, can you not only fix what was wrong but also explain why it was wrong in the first place and why the new version is correct?
Without adequate training in how to teach your native language, you might not be able to perform this critical role of a language teacher.
Many language teaching positions advertise more generally for instructors with “native or near-native proficiency.” This allows for non-native speakers to apply for positions as well as native speakers, thus allowing a program to choose what is best for them and, we hope, their students.
But, remember: A person who learned the language as a non-native speaker likely learned both how to choose the correct forms and why they are correct. Being thus educated, they, as well as native speakers who were educated to understand their language in the same detailed fashion, are best prepared to teach that language to others.
3. What types of degrees or certifications do I need?
To start your career as a language instructor, you will almost certainly need a basic college degree, a BA or Bachelor’s degree. If your degree major (or, perhaps, minor) isn’t the language you wish to teach (Russian for a future Russian-language teacher, for example), you might need a subject endorsement or other type of certification stating that you have adequate credentials to teach the language. This might involve a certain number of courses from a language curriculum, but short of those required for a major or minor in that language. This is particularly important for teaching in public schools, as certification requirements become more stringent, a result of greater oversight of public education by the lawyers who make up the governing bodies of each state, province or nation.
If you have completed your BA and want to teach English overseas, then you will likely need a certificate indicating that you are qualified to teach English. More and more universities now offer such a certification option that you can complete while working toward your BA, but there are ways of obtaining such certification online if your college years are behind you.
Many sites offer a combination of online certification and options that give you experience teaching overseas, such as paid internships. Here are a few of the best:
- Teach English Abroad offers a variety of options for online certification as well as paid internships.
- Premier TEFL lets you earn a certificate either online or in a combined online and live setting.
- myTEFL offers online certifications and job placement.
If you want to teach at a university, you will need additional education. At a minimum, you should complete an MA or Master’s degree. There are also MAT (Master of Arts in Teaching) degree options available for language teaching. Further education such as this will also increase your salary and options in pre-college education. Note that some countries such as Finland require an MA for teaching at all pre-college levels!
For English-language teaching specifically, there is the MA degree in TESOL. This qualifies you to teach in a number of types of institutions. This degree also demonstrates that you have a theoretical knowledge and research ability in the teaching and learning of English beyond what an online certification program can teach you. There is a wide variety of ways in which you can earn an MA/TESOL degree: Some are on-campus, others are entirely online and still others are hybrid models.
If you want to have the best chance of success at the university level, you should complete your PhD. You might be able to earn your doctoral degree in a field related to language teaching, depending on the program you choose. To do so, you might need to earn your degree from a Linguistics department rather than a traditional language/literature department, but the latter is increasingly becoming possible. If you earn your PhD in literature, for example, you should be sure to get hands-on teaching experience as well as a background in language teaching methodology. That will increase your ability to get the position that you want as well as to become the successful language teacher you hope to be! The PhD also gives you the only opportunity to obtain tenure at a university, although some universities offer “virtual tenure,” whereby renewal of contracts are almost automatic.
4. What specialized knowledge do I need?
Language teaching outside the full historical and cultural context of the nation or nations in which the language you are teaching is spoken does a great disservice to your students. If you are not providing some of this context to ground their knowledge, then you will not provide them with all the essential knowledge they will need to thrive as a learner inside of that language’s nation-state.
Therefore, in addition to a high level of proficiency in the language you will be teaching, you should also have a high level of knowledge of literature, culture, politics, history and current events of the country whose language you are teaching. Interest in these topics is what often brings students to your classroom, and your familiarity with them can help you pick materials that address these interests while also teaching the language.
Moreover, you might be able or be asked to teach courses in the native language, rather than the instructed language, in any or all of these topics, and your ability to do so will greatly increase your chances of getting a particular job, keeping it, and performing it well.
You should also have broad knowledge of methods and approaches to language teaching. Some universities offer full programs of study in language methodology, with advanced degrees possible in this field, but at a minimum, you should take an introductory course to learn the basics in both theory and practice. Departments will often offer their own graduate-level pedagogy course through which you can gain insight into how to approach language-specific problems. From time to time, departments or programs will also offer one-time workshops. All are on-campus ways of learning.
If you find that you need to teach yourself, one excellent book is Teaching Language in Context. Two other options are Teacher’s Handbook and Becoming a Language Teacher. All are great language-teaching references for the experienced teacher as well!
Interested in taking a MOOC? The University of Oregon offers, via Coursera and in conjunction with the United States Department of State, a two-class series called Shaping the Way We Teach English. Although geared toward ESL instructors, the lessons provided can easily be applied to the teaching of any language.
Familiarity with linguistics is also beneficial. This goes beyond just being knowledgeable in applied linguistics, methodology or pedagogy. Through studies in linguistics, you can become familiar with issues in phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, stylistics, socio-linguistics and historical linguistics, all of which can give you greater knowledge to share with your students about the basic elements of language.
It will help to be computer literate, not necessarily to the extent where you can write your own computer-assisted language learning (CALL) programs or software, but certainly to the point where you can use them effectively in the classroom. Knowing how to use tools such as Skype and Twitter will be helpful in providing out-of-class learning opportunities for your students to practice with the language. Moreover, your students will know how to use these tools, so you had better learn…if only to keep up with them!
5. How much do I need to know about assessment?
Assessment comes in many forms. It’s the tests, quizzes, oral exams, essays and homework that you give and grade. It’s also observing and making note of how your students perform in class from day to day.
Quizzes, exams and projects. By the time you enter the language classroom as a full-on professional, you should feel comfortable writing tests and quizzes, designing and giving an oral exam, assigning essay topics and having a plan for grading the resulting writing.
Homework. Come up with your strategy for assessing homework. For example, do you grade it yourself? Or do you provide an answer key and ask your students to self-correct?
You will also need to decide ahead of time what rubrics you will apply and provide them to your students, so they have a guide and a set of expectations to meet.
One decision you will have to make during various assessments is whether to engage in error correction or feedback.
Classroom exercises. In a classroom exercise or conversation, for example, you might only choose to correct those errors that are on topic for that class. For example, you may have a goal to teach a specific grammar point during one class, and accuracy will only matter when it comes to that particular grammar point in the exercise. You may also choose to make note of any other errors that hinder understanding. Giving other students a chance to identify, correct and explain the errors is a wonderful first strategy for dealing with these situations as a class.
Essays. The odds are good that, if you simply correct every mistake in an essay and return it, your students will look at the grade quickly and then stash it away. Here is a great opportunity to use feedback rather than error correction as a strategy. Mark each mistake and identify it with some type of code. Ask some follow-up or clarification questions at the end. Return it to the student and ask them to rewrite the essay, making the necessary corrections and answering the questions. That way you’ve given your students help in making their own corrections without doing the work for them. They learn more this way in the long run!
However you decide to proceed with these and other assignments, it’s important to have a basic understanding of your options and a strategy to employ before you start any given class.
And keep in mind: You won’t get everything right the first time! And what works well in one class won’t always work well in a future class. Maximum flexibility is the key!
As your career proceeds, you will have a bank of knowledge from which to draw, but starting out, this is some basic knowledge you should have.
6. How can I get teaching experience?
Most job listings ask for “experienced” language teachers. How can you get the necessary experience without having the opportunity to get the actual required experience?
If you’re in graduate school, you will be given opportunities to teach. You can gain valuable experience that way. As your progress through your studies, you will likely be given more and more freedom to develop courses as you wish, thus giving you experience that will mirror what you will be doing in your first “real” job.
But what if you want to teach language immediately after completing your BA? How do you get some much-needed experience? While you might not be able to teach a formal class, there are still plenty of opportunities to teach others.
Take advantage of opportunities in areas that have a high demand for the language you want to teach. For example, if you want to teach ESL but fear you don’t have the basic qualifications or experience to find a job in an English-speaking country, try Thailand! SEE TEFL offers paid internships in the country that are designed to have you trained and teaching in as little as two weeks.
Volunteer your time as a tutor. Tutor either the language that you’re studying or your native language. Perhaps there’s a large non-native speaking population in your city. For example, most large cities in the United States have growing Hispanic and Chinese communities. They wish to improve their English, but don’t always have the time or money to take formal classes.
Volunteer at a local community center. True, you won’t get paid much (or anything at all) for this work, but you will gain teaching experience and you might have the ability to develop your own curriculum or curricular materials. You will have the opportunity to teach a variety of types of learners with different goals and different learning styles than your average high school or undergraduate student. This is all valuable experience you can use to strengthen your application when you’re searching for that first job.
7. What role can mentors play?
Mentors play a valuable role. They will give you critical advice as you progress through your career. You will likely have a number of them in your life who can help in a variety of ways: They can help with basic tasks such as classroom organization, strategies, scheduling and dealing with troublesome students, but they can also help you find ways to balance workplace demands, give general life-work balance advice and even be a shoulder to cry on when things don’t go as planned.
Your first mentor in your language teaching career might very well be a language instructor with whom you took lessons. After all, he or she was possibly your first impression of what a language teacher could and should be, and they have gotten to a point where you might like to see yourself one day. They can certainly give you advice on getting into the field and finding the appropriate graduate, certificate or certification program. However, you will also need a mentor at your job.
In fact, you might want to find at least two mentors.
Why two? First, you should find one inside your program or department, someone who has been around for a while and who knows how that particular program operates and hopes to operate in the future. This person knows the program culture and can help you navigate the demands of your job.
But you should also find someone at the same school or institution, someone who has some familiarity with the entire operation, but who is outside your own program to give you a different perspective if something doesn’t seem to be going right in your program and you don’t know what to do about it. They can help you find other sources of support and alert others to the problems that you, and possibly others, are facing.
Of course, you have to remember that everyone, especially anyone who has been around a particular school, university or institute for some time, has their own biases. A good mentor will provide you with a variety of perspectives and, most importantly, will be there to listen to you and guide you to find your own answers.
You should also be sure to maintain contact with your first mentor, that first language instructor, as her or she will always be thinking of you and will want you to succeed.
8. How can I make contacts and keep current on the state of the field?
The best way to make contacts in the foreign language teaching field is to go to a conference. Try going to a local or regional one, perhaps, rather than a national or international one. Go to panels, overcome your shyness at being new, introduce yourself and ask speakers if it’s okay for you to contact them with questions on their presentations or to share your ideas later. Be sure to have a business card to hand out, and be prepared to follow-up with them when you get home.
If someone has really inspired you—maybe you asked them a great question after their presentation—approach them after the panel to see if they have time to discuss it further. In the worst case, they will be too busy but they will invite you to email them. If they have time, and you find you have a great rapport, then maybe you’ll find another potential mentor. It’s rare that a fellow teacher will completely blow you off, as we all know that the way to become a better teacher is to be willing to learn from others and share ideas.
As time progresses and you develop new strategies of your own, you should go back to that same conference and give your own presentation. Then you’ll be the one approached for advice, and you might find yourself a mentor to another teacher!
Part of going to a conference often entails joining a professional organization. It’s generally cheaper to register if you join. Perhaps you’ll join ACTFL, or maybe you’ll join a smaller group that specializes in teaching your language (AATSEEL for Slavic languages, CLTA for Chinese, AATF for French or the TESOL International Association for teachers of English as a second/foreign language, to name but four).
One of the benefits of membership is receiving the academic journal for that organization. This publication contains everything from academic research articles to teaching tips to textbook reviews. Read it regularly. Get a feel for what they like to publish, and then write something yourself. If you’re shy about submitting a full article, send in a teaching tip or offer to write a book review. All this will get your name out there in the field and help to grow your list of professional contacts.
You can also follow the groundbreaking work done by National Foreign Language Resource Centers. If you live in the United States, and you have a center near you, sign up for their activities and workshops. You will quickly make contact with individuals on the cutting edge of language pedagogy. JNCL-NCLIS keeps instructors informed about public policy and language teaching, and they offer an e-newsletter that contains both news stories and links to grants.
If you happen to live in Texas, you can make contact with the Texas Language Center, one of the most innovative centers in the world today for foreign language teacher training. What if you live too far away to take advantage of these Centers? Many of them put their workshops and lectures online for free, giving you the opportunity to watch and learn in the comfort of your own home.
You can also keep current on the field by reading online language learning and teaching blogs. Maybe you’ll even want to write an entry yourself one day!
9. What else will I have to do besides teach?
If you are an on-site language instructor, you will often be asked or required to perform other duties in addition to language teaching. If you teach at the high school or college level, you might be asked to serve as a club sponsor and organize related extra-curricular activities, such as film or cultural festivals. At the college level, you might be asked to lead a study abroad program over Spring Break or in the summer. Some high schools now have trips abroad as well.
In addition, you will likely be required to fulfill a number of basic, but essential professional obligations such as show up to meetings, attend conferences, make formal presentations on and off campus and obtain continuing education credits.
10. How can I become a great language teacher?
Becoming a language teacher itself is a long-term process. Becoming an excellent language teacher is often a lifelong process. We talk about giving our students the ability to become lifelong learners, but the most excellent language teachers are also lifelong learners. This doesn’t only mean we continue to learn the language that we teach (although we should do that too). It means that we continue to learn about teaching methods and how to best engage our students.
The best teachers are always learning from their students and do their best to be flexible enough in teaching strategies to meet the needs of all students.
What kinds of things might we learn?
We learn new ways of teaching. We aren’t afraid to try them, but we also aren’t afraid to speak up when the “flavor of the month” methodology simply doesn’t work. We aren’t afraid to share our ideas when a methodology being pushed by an administrator, especially one who doesn’t actually set foot and teach in the language classroom, doesn’t get the job done!
We learn new ways of helping, mentoring and inspiring our students. We’re always open to the student who comes into our classes and makes innovative suggestions. We read and take our evaluations seriously, treat our students as individuals, with individual needs and dreams, and we learn ways to reach, teach and mentor each and every one of them, sharing in their joys and grieving in their sadness.
If we’re lucky enough, they find ways to keep us in their lives for years after they leave our classroom, graduate and make their way out into the world. That’s how we know we truly made a positive difference in their lives!
Jonathan Ludwig has 25 years of foreign language teaching experience. He has successfully directed language programs, taught and mentored current and future teachers, and is always looking for new and exciting ways to engage and educate his students.