This article was inspired by two things I saw online in the past week. First, there was a request on Facebook for a native speaker English tutor to work with an advanced learner, which – as always – led to an extended fight in the comments between advocates of non-discrimination and defenders of personal choice. Second, my Instagram feed delivered a series of screenshots of Reddit posts about ‘green flags’ in a friendship: those moments when a new friend demonstrates through their actions that they are genuinely loyal and have your best interests at heart. I hadn’t heard the term green flags before, but I think it’s a useful one.
I’m not intending to join the native / non-native teacher debate except to say that I can see little practical purpose in making a distinction between the two: I am a native speaker, I have worked with non-native speakers and with fellow native speakers, and differences in the way we taught was much more about personality, attitude and beliefs rather than country of origin.
With this in mind, here are my seven top tips for the characteristics or habits to look out for in a new teacher.
1. They’re selling hard work instead of magic potions
Browsing through social media, you’ll find plenty of individuals or schools offering a miraculous new solution to the age-old problem of how to learn a language without putting in too many hours or too much effort. Be very wary! If there was a quick fix to get from beginner to advanced level in any language, everyone would already have used it. A responsible teacher will not minimise the amount of time and effort you need to put in to attain your language goals. Instead, they will offer you support and practical help with the process of working towards those goals.
2. They don’t immediately accept you as a student
Not every teacher-student partnership works out. If it’s a group class, there’s the whole group dynamic to consider too, and adding another student into the mix can affect the experience of the whole class. A teacher who cares about having happy customers will take care to choose customers whose expectations and attitudes to learning match with what the teacher is able to provide. Consider it a positive sign if the teacher asks to interview you before rushing to sign you up for a series of lessons. If they feel that you’d be better served by finding another teacher, they’re doing you a favour. On the other hand, avoid teachers or language schools whose only question is “When can you start?”
3. They challenge you
In order to upgrade your English, you’re going to have to tackle things that aren’t straightforward or fun. You know that already, of course! However, in these moments it’s easy for learners to complain and try to give up. After that happens, it’s easy for teachers to fall back into ‘just talking’, having a friendly chat every lesson. A teacher who is serious about your learning needs won’t let that happen. They might leave the challenging part for later, but they’ll certainly come back to it. They might have some tough conversations with you about the need to be persistent. They might revisit your goals and ask you if you’re really serious about them. What they won’t do is give up and take the easy option.
4. They’re open to questions
Some teachers ask a lot of questions in class – I certainly do! But how does your teacher feel about students asking questions?
- “But why?”
- “Why did you correct me just now?”
- “What’s the difference between these two words?”
Sometimes, it’s hard to explain the answers. Sometimes, answering takes a lot of time. Sometimes, the teacher may not actually know how to answer and will need to say “I’ll explain it next week”. However, as a learner, you should always feel able to ask for more details when you don’t understand something, or when you’re curious about a piece of vocabulary or grammar. It’s important to find a teacher who encourages you to ask questions, not only to answer them.
5. They are aware of the complexity of language
Which of these sentences is correct and which is incorrect?
- I’m taking English classes once a week.
- I attend weekly English language lessons.
The answer is that both might be correct or incorrect, depending on what you want to say, and depending on the context.
With frequency adverbs (like once a week) the standard form is the present simple I take…. Yet the present continuous in the first sentence isn’t wrong in all situations. If it’s a temporary situation and likely to change later, the continuous I’m taking is perfectly correct: for example, “I’m taking English classes once a week, but I’m thinking about increasing that to twice a week”.
The second sentence, meanwhile, is faultless in grammar, but more suitable for a written document such as a job application. In conversation, words like attend and weekly can sound stilted and over-formal: chatting to a neighbour, most people in English-speaking environments would say something like “I go to English lessons every week”.
What we have here is one sentence that looks incorrect but isn’t always incorrect, and a sentence that looks correct but isn’t always the best one to use.
Now, some teachers – and some learners – like to see things in black and white, with unbreakable rules which they must follow in every situation. I can understand why. Life is a lot easier if you see just one correct option for every decision. However, as I’ve written before, this is not an accurate model of how a language works, and especially not English: unlike with other languages, there is no organisation officially responsible for creating vocabulary and grammar rules, so even respected works such as the Oxford English Dictionary are based on how the language is used everyday in speech and writing.
Therefore, for a teacher, a flexible approach to English usage is a sign of confidence and experience. Conversely, you should avoid any teacher who relies on fixed rules and constantly finds mistakes in other people’s vocabulary or grammar.
6. They are aware of tone, register and style
Consider the following text exchange. What’s wrong with Sally’s reply?
- Cindy: We’re having a BBQ on Thursday, starting about 5. At our place. Can you come?
- Sally: No, I can’t come on Thursday.
Clearly, Sally has answered the question directly, in a coherent and grammatically correct way. But you probably noticed her reply comes across as too direct: it’s not at all friendly, and really only suitable for a toxic ‘frenemy‘ whom you’d rather not hear from ever again. This is an example of how tone is important: word choices can make a person sound friendly, formal, cold, over-friendly, sometimes even rude.
Words have other properties too. Register is about context: as with the second example in point 5, vocabulary can be better suited to writing than speaking, and some words are really only suitable in a business or scientific context (audit, blue-sky thinking, resistivity, stratification etc.).
Style is about how you put those words together, and can help to entertain and persuade the listener or reader. A poor style can confuse people, or send them to sleep. At an advanced level, and particularly if you’re doing a lot of writing, style is an essential component of your learning.
An experienced English teacher will meet questions such as “what should I say/ write” with more questions: what exactly do you want to say, who do you want to say it to, and how friendly or formal do you want to be? An expert English teacher will prompt you to consider how well your choice of words highlights the message you want to convey.
7. They help you in practical ways
In points 5 and 6 I advocate finding a teacher who takes you deeper into the language, rather than offering quick-fix rules. However, it’s no good if the teacher answers everything with “Well, it depends…”! At some point, you will need to get down to the practical business of learning and practising specific bits of language, and you deserve targeted help with this. In other words, make sure your teacher doesn’t neglect the following basic teaching skills:
- correcting errors
- suggesting alternative vocabulary or grammar you could use
- giving direct answers to direct questions
- giving example sentences to contextualise tricky vocabulary
Another way that a teacher can support you is by pointing you towards quality self-study resources to use in your own time. There are plenty of English-learning resources out there, including free online ones, but they vary a lot in quality, so it is always a good idea to find a teacher who is willing to do some research and make recommendations.
Here’s a reminder that finding a great teacher isn’t the only ‘ingredient’ in successful language learning! As a learner, you have a lot of input into your own learning. In another post, I’ve written about habits and attitudes to help you become the best learner you can be.