Your Students are Your Best Teachers

by Helene J. Uchida

When I gave birth to my son in Athens, Greece, twenty years ago, I thought, “Oh, how will I do this? I know nothing about being a mother.” And since I was in a foreign country, I had no friends or family to give me advice. But interestingly enough, my son taught me from day one how to take care of him. I watched him and got all my cues from him in terms of what he needed and what pleased him. If am a success as a mother, it is because I had a good teacher, my son.

I think it is the same with teaching English in Japan. All teachers start as novices. We can read books and newsletters, attend seminars and workshops to improve our skills and expand our know-how, but in the final analysis, it is what happens between our students and us in the classroom that determines how successful we are. That is why I want to stress to you the importance of observing how your students respond to your lessons, your activities, your methods in an effort to improve your teaching methods. In a nutshell, your students may very well be the best teachers you will ever have.

I also think one of the ways of judging how successful you are as an English teacher is to look at your class time and see how much time your students are spending speaking English. I think an ideal situation reflects the teacher speaking English 25% of the time and the students speaking English 75% of the time. They don’t have to be speaking perfect Engish: they don’t even have to be speaking in full sentences. But they should be saying their ABC’s, counting, naming body parts, colors, objects in the room, the days of the week, the months of the year, self-introductions and question and answer couplets together. After all, one doesn’t learn how to play a musical instrument by watching the teacher play it, and one doesn’t learn to play a sport by watching the coach play it. One learns by doing, particpating, trying, failing, trying again until one succeeds. I think teachers who speak too much Japanese or even too much English in class rob students of the chance to experience English.

Your students are happiest with you and with themselves when you orchestrate activities which enable them to speak English. I think pair work is an ideal EFL activity, and I am a big believer in it for three reasons: it demonstrates the point that one cannot speak English alone in that one needs a partner; it gives students a chance to experience English first hand, and it frees up the teacher by allowing you to observe your students to see which activities work best.

Are they speaking English? If they are, then this is the signal that you are doing the right thing! Learn from you students so you can be a better teacher!