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Bringing the World Closer

This is a blog entry by David Deubelbeiss. You can check out his blog here.

What I know now but didn’t then

Teaching a language isn’t as easy as it sounds – to do it well. Just showing up to a class and speaking (we call this modeling language) is only half the job. And that other half is an artform that one acquires over the years.

My own growth as a teacher has been on many levels: my beliefs as a teacher, my own classroom management skills, my knowledge of resources, my ability to design materials, my knowledge of the subject, my understanding of the process of learning and in particular language learning and much more….

I remember being a “pup” just out of teacher’s college. I was thrown into classes with multiple levels, multiple age groups and just a piece of chalk. I had to learn as I went along. It was a sharp learning curve. I wish I had known then, what I know now. Fortunately, I had a reflectiveness, some creativity and a love of teaching that allowed me to swim and survive.

What do I know now that I didn’t know then? How have I grown as a language teacher? Here’s 10 nuggets of the things that I’ve learned along the way.

1. Teach students not the subject. Find the key to motivate/help each student when possible. Personalize all content and get the students to have a personal connection to the language point/material. Further, if a lesson isn’t going well, chuck it. The most important thing is student happiness and not the knowledge they acquire. Promote happiness, you’ll make a lifelong learner not a temporary one.

2. Give students responsibility. My mother puts it, “there is a big difference between holding a hand and chaining a soul”. Figure out that difference. Get students learning autonomously, discovering their own mistakes and taking responsibility for their own learning and the classroom.

3. Disappearing. The best teacher is an unnoticed teacher. Truly. Teachers organize the learning environment and then step away. Teaching isn’t a spectacle with the teacher in the spotlight.

4. Reception before production. When I first started teaching, I thought the aim (for all) was to get students yakking. I didn’t realize the power of comprehensible input and extensive reading/listening – for preparing students to communicate and be ready for fluency.

5. It’s not “My Way” but “Our Way”. Listen to your students. They should have a say and voice in the curriculum. Same with colleagues and staff. Listen to them, learn from them. The classroom door may shut but you are not alone.

6. Slow down. Pause often and allow students to process the language you uttered. Be deliberate. I used to teach at a hundred miles an hour and never finish anything. Now I teach at 10 mph, we finish everything and we learn much more.

7. We teach for those who need help. I always used to teach to the top 5% and damn the rest. They’d have to be satisfied with the morsels that fell off our table. Usually those top 5% were in the front row. Now, I use the whole classroom and am there for the bottom students – the other ones will learn in any case. Not the ones that really need help.

8. Learning words is not learning language. Words are only one piece of the puzzle. There are many more pieces. I used to think I was a good teacher if my students remembered words. Now I think I’m successful if my students can use those words in real situations, to communicate real needs. Word play, word searches are sometimes useful but more often then not, just for a breather in the classroom.

9. Find your place. There aren’t really any bad teachers out there. Just teachers that haven’t yet found “their place”. I think anyone can teach. But what’s crucial is that the teacher put themselves in an environment that makes “good teaching” happen – one that suits their own personality and teaching style and belief set. I realize many teachers don’t have the choice but we should try if we can – to really figure out what is the best teaching “place” for our own talents. I just went through this – leaving probably the best teaching job in the country. Money, top school, brilliant students, low hours, status. However, I knew it wasn’t for me, for the benefit of my own teaching talents. Be true to thy own teaching self.

10. There is a difference between “busy work” and “busy working’. Years ago, I just wanted the students to be busy. I thought that was an indication they were learning. I didn’t understand something fundamental about learning – it must be a process of emotional engagement. Students can do things in class and not learn a drop – mostly because they don’t have an emotional commitment to that activity. Create and foster this through the provision of motivating content and context, giving students material / assignments where they can succeed and making the classroom a place they want to be.

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A very comprehensive and useful list for people like myself who are just starting out. I particularly like the “there is a big difference between holding a hand and chaining a soul”. I'm sure we've all had an oppressive teacher or 2 when we were growing up who was more interested in autocratically controlling the classroom than allowing students to flourish and learn and take responsibility for their own mistakes. I will be bookmarking your blog for future reference..
I am completely new to teaching ESL as well and this list is really helpful. Hopefully I can keep all this advice in my head when I'm teaching my first few lessons or maybe just a couple a work my way up from there.
Hi, David.

Thank you for your contributions and list. There were three points that really resonated with me.

First, promoting happiness will promote lifelong learners instead of temporary learners. I would go a step further and say contemtmnet, rather than happiness, will promote lifelong learners. I chose contentment rather than happiness because contentment is the on-going sensation of being satisfied versus happiness, which is a fleeting, instantaneous sensation. The art of engagement is so crucial for contentment. Books (FLOW, etc.) and brain research all reiterate that when one is actively engaged, they will be more likely to find the material at hand useful and relavent and, thus, more likely to succeed. What a wonderful goal for teachers -- to create life long learners!

Second, teach those who need help. I think this is a statement of a truly masterful teacher. The "sage on the stage" concept of an educator is long abolished. Current educational practices stress the importance of differentiated instruction to make learning accessible for the top 5% and the bottom 5% and everywhere in between.

Finally, your philosophy of "be true to thy own teaching self" is so important. A teacher must find his/her match not based on career goals, but of personality, philosophical and inter-personal stregnths.

Thank you, again, for sharing what you have learned with us.


I agree with your points, but I would like to point out that there are students whose goal in language acquisition is not to become lifelong learners. They may want to pass a test or get a job. So, for them, their happiness is the acquisiton of knowledge. If it is possible to turn those students into life long learners, then it would be the correct course of action, but not at the expense of their own personal goals.
I am delighted I am not the only one going into this as a 'newbie.' I found this list extremely insightful and it made me think of the techniques my own teachers used when I was learning Spanish. My most effective teachers embodied and employed the same ideas that you share.

One of my weaknesses is getting into a routine and sticking with it but I will remind myself to 'teach students not the subject,' and that it is not 'my way but our way.'
This post was helpful to me because I am also new to teaching English. For me, number 3: "The best teacher is an unnoticed teacher....Teachers organize the learning environment and then step away. Teaching isn’t a spectacle with the teacher in the spotlight" really hit home. I get the feeling it won't be as easy as it seems, but I hope that I will come away from this course with a better understanding of how to effectively lead and teach a class.
I'm also new to this, and found this very interesting. I particularly liked the idea of the teacher not being the 'spotlight', and also letting students have a say in the curriculum. This list really reminded me of my best (and worst) language teachers, and I will definitely try to keep these points in mind!
I am a beginner to teaching English and I have to agree with the others that this seems like really good, helpful advice. From my own language learning experiences and feel like I can relate a lot to those on the receiving end of many of your scenarios.
I think that is a really good point that students' happiness is vital to the success of the class. From happiness stems motivation, a congenial atmosphere, etc. The students really desire to BE there in the classroom, which is also ideal for the teacher! Also, I think the "find your place" comment is very encouraging because it recognizes that teachers have different types and levels of experience as well as training. Like any job, you "learn on the job" while teaching!

As a starter of CELTA course, also one of the people have studied English as second language, this really is a awesome advice. During I was reading this I got to recall all the lessons I had before and think deeply about what would be my teaching style. Thank you David and happy to see other ppl sharing their experiences and opinions.

I'm happy others have found my advice helpful. your own comments have helped me also. That's the nature of teaching, it is a dialogue, like the dialogue we form as central to our curriculum and teaching.

Find a lot of my best essays in an book and ebook on my blog. I've been teaching TESOL for over 20 years, training teachers for another 10 or more but I still don't know what I'm doing but I trust in a few things within me and that sees me through. Chanced upon this posting because I found out a great teacher mentor I loved died tonight. (too hard to explain how this links). But it shows the light continues, we are all connected. Here's the post about Doug, my former teacher who died tonight. None great than what he did - may we all be just a fraction of how his spirit sang.


This is a wonderful list. Have just copied it and will keep it in my CELTA binder as I continue the course. Will also take the words "Be true to thy teaching self" to heart. Slowing down and getting more done is such good advice too. Sometimes we get so passionate about our 'subject' that we forget to let the students have a chance to savor their journey too. Will enjoying following your blog. Just read about Doug. What an amazing person and teacher he must have been! And the spirit of his teaching is in so many hearts to share with others. That is a very good thing.


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