Random ideas for ELT people, plus guest blogs & travel notes

Tool 1

This is a slide from one of the talks I’m currently giving. It’s called ‘Ten Quotations To Make You Think’. Vesna Novicic, a teacher who came to see the talk in Belgrade, posted the slide on Facebook. It’s actually the second part of a quotation from Bill Gates. This is the whole quote:

Tool 2

Vesna’s re-posting of the slide led to the following Facebook remarks from Graham Stanley and Daniel Martin. 

Tool remark 1

Daniel’s is quite amusing, so I’m posting it to give all you teachers a bit of a chuckle. Graham’s prompted me to post this rejoinder.

Tool remark 2

Now, I know that over the past twenty years, the emphasis in education has shifted from teaching to learning, and the needs of the learner should be at the forefront of all our thinking as teachers.

But teachers, don’t you ever get a little fed up with all this emphasis on the learner? Some learners are absolutely delightful, of course, but some can be (dare one say it?) a bit of a drag. And the less than delightful ones are the ones who mean you have to really work to earn your dollar a day.

I’m aware that teachers reading this will be rehearsing the usual arguments about finding strategies to engage all students, which is one of the points I make in my ‘Ten Quotations’ talk. I don’t mean this post to be a criticism of lazy students. I just want to fly a flag for teachers, their rights and the reality of their situations.

Some observations about the relative importance of teachers and learners:

>       Not all teachers are saints, but most of them I’ve met are hard-working and dedicated. Plus, they take the job on long-term, which in some cases can mean a career of 40+ years. How long do students last?

>       Teachers almost always prepare a lesson plan, even if they have to stay up half the night. Students often don’t do their homework and give some poor excuse for not having done it, which the well-meaning teacher smiles and accepts.

>       Students may wake up in the morning, look at the inclement weather, turn over and go back to sleep. Teachers lose their jobs if they do that more than once.

>       If the students actually manage to turn up to class, some of them take their seat and sit back and enjoy the teacher’s presentation. If the flow of information stops and the teacher asks one of those awkward questions – ‘What do you think?’ ‘Do you agree?’ or worst of all, a direct question: ‘François, can you give me an example?’ – there can be an embarrassing hiatus, what we educational gurus call ‘silence’.

Teachers, can you honestly say you have NEVER experienced that icy cold moment when you throw an activity open to the class and absolutely nothing happens?

It happened a lot during my German classes last spring, which I blogged extensively about at the time. Our teacher had a lovely soothing voice and was a joy to listen to, even when she was taking us through grammar paradigms. If you read my blog regularly, you will know that the grammar paradigm is an aspect of teaching that is guaranteed to make me froth at the mouth and throw machinery around.

When my German teacher stopped and asked for a response, there was often an embarrassed silence, usually broken by me piping up to fill the void. Eventually, the rest of the class just looked at me, knowing I was bound to say something, even if it was wrong.

The point I’m making here is that students often enjoy the sound of the teacher’s voice, preferring to listen to a monologue and reluctant to turn the classroom event into a dialogue. And this reinforces my belief that it’s not wrong for educational thinkers – at least OCCASIONALLY – to think about putting the needs of teachers above the needs of learners.

I realise some of the points above relate more to students in private language schools, but I also have extensive experience of observing state-school English teachers at work in places as diverse as Beijing and Bucharest, Tokyo and Teresina, Brazil. Even when it’s clear that students in these classes really love their teachers, many of them are still happy to play the role of recipients of information, rather than taking a more active role in proceedings.  

So – let’s hear it for teachers. And I’ll add another quote from my Ten Quotations talk. This one is from Maja Angelou.

Tool 3

I’ll leave you to reflect on the importance of this statement in your teaching life. Think about how many people you have affected, and how positive that effect is. How many warm memories of you there are every time your students get together.

Teachers, you deserve medals. Learners, keep on working to make your teacher’s life a little easier.

I’m writing this on Monday January 14th, and tomorrow night, Tuesday 15th, I will be giving my ‘Ten Quotes To Make You Think’ talk at the British Council in London. The talk won’t be live-streamed, but it will be filmed, and will appear on the BC website in the fullness of time.

‘In the fullness of time’ – what a lovely phrase to end on. And if you’re using this blogpost as a reading text, now you can stop talking and say – ‘François, can you give me an example?’ and enjoy the silence. 


Comments on: "Forget about learners, let’s hear it for teachers!" (22)

  1. very amusing post! i feel that it underlies a growing discomfort of the way education is following the business model of learning as a service?

    do you have a source for where/when that bill gates quote was said?

    i ask because i suspect given his say funding of khan academy, the recently released gates foundation report on teaching quality in the US, the significance of that quote lies elsewhere than its surface import?

    • Hi – well, there may well be some nefarious reason why Bill Gates said that, and I’m sure there are some dodgy recipients of the Gates Foundation’s money, but I hope Bill is influenced by his very switched-on wife Melinda when it comes to deserving places to support. Whatever his reason for saying it, I’m aware of a kind of relief among certain teachers when I reach that part of my talk.

  2. Great rallying call, Ken!
    I think because the vast majority of teachers put in so much effort and enthusiasm into every lesson that it’s very easy to take it out on yourself if you get a moment that didn’t go as amazingly as you had anticipated it would go beforehand. But, hold on a sec… as you rightly pointed out, how much input are students actually putting in at the end of the day? The disparity in commitment can be of chasmic proportions!

    I flew into Berlin last week to teach an intensive CLIL course in an extremely large and well known company that has its own Bachelor program. The lack of ‘up and go’ of a few of the twenty-something students was laughable. Then I found out that they are all getting paid to be students! They’re getting paid to slump in their chair! Crazy!

    Don’t get me wrong – it was just a couple of students and the rest were loving the ‘Bren-time’ 🙂 but come on, or should I say ‘Kommt schon!’ – put a BIT of effort in!

    I saw your ‘Ten Quotes’ talk in Eger, Hungary.. I was the ‘one born in Lichfield’, but you probably don’t remember that bit 🙂

    Anyway, me and my DoS HUGELY enjoyed your talk and we would both highly recommend anyone to get along to see it wherever you do it.

    I gave a short review of your speech in my blog (below) and funnily enough picked out the same quote as you did above.


    Looking forward to the next time I can be in ‘An audience with Wilson’ 🙂

    • Thank you, Bren – yes, of course i remember the Litchfield moment, it put me momentarily out of my stride, but I think got a good response from the audience, so I think we can both take a bit of credit for that!

  3. Elek Mathe said:

    The great Péter Medgyes once said that his goal always was to enjoy his own lessons. If the students enjoyed them, too, it was just an added bonus. This is not a cynical idea at all. Let me put it this way: we have all had lessons where we had a great time and our students enjoyed themselves too; we have also had lessons where we suffered and our students were less than happy too. Can you imagine a lesson where the students are having a great time and the teacher is not? I can’t. The reverse is possible. So from this I think it logically follows that we should make sure that we enjoy our own lessons, and if things work out, students might have a good time as well.

  4. Nice post, Ken. Interesting to see Bill Gates has been misquoted: “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.” http://thinkexist.com/quotes/bill_gates/ – As for the focus on the learners, it was about time. I remember when I was at school it was all about the teacher and what he or she wanted to teach us, which at times led at best to me sitting through some irrelevant and dubious lessons and at worst, some mind-numbingly boring rants. This got worse at university (I blogged about this here: http://blog-efl.blogspot.com.es/2011/08/teacher-effect.html)…so, by all means, let’s hear it for the teacher, but, please, not at the expense of the learner and the learning!

    • Graham, this is how it all started.

      I really don’t think the kind of teachers you and I hang out with – let’s call them the ISTEK crowd – EVER stop thinking about their learners. And yet all along the way, there are pious reminders that it isn’t about teaching, it’s about LEARNING. Well, yes it is – but if the teacher doesn’t do a bit of preparation, even for an unplugged class, not a lot of learning will take place.

      I’m reminded of a brilliant story in a talk by (I think) Andrew Littlejohn about an overzealous DOS who told all the teachers to start the first class of term by asking the class what they really wanted to do. One class decided they wanted to go home – and did!

      • Wonderful! Yes, we have teachers like that too! “Shall we watch a film?” and then nip out for a cigarette. Needless, to say they are the minority and never last more than a year.

  5. davedodgson said:

    And let’s not forget that ‘digital era’ issue of a teacher staying up half the night to prepare an online activity only to be told that it didn’t work on an iPad so the student couldn’t be bothered to do it!

    I like the focus to be on my learners and their learning but it’s often worth reminding people that I’m the one who put the focus there in the first place. 😉

    • Another good point – hours of preparation for activities that for one reason or another are undoable. And even worse, preparing great materials and only half the class turns up!

  6. Interesting points Ken and others! The last note was particularly poignant, considering I spent a good couple of hours prepping a fun, interactive approach to an (optional) exam prep session last week and then no-one came 😦 gutted!

    There is a lot to be said for the materials-light approach and students as the ‘source’ of the lesson. Lesson learnt (again!) 🙂


    • No one turned up? Shocking. Even if it was optional. So the message is – ‘The learners are VERY important, but only if they turn up.’

  7. Tremendous post, Ken, and I really like that last quote about remembering how we are made to feel. So true! I have a terrible memory, I rarely remember specific classes, but I usually have it pretty clear whether we were having a good time or not. And I know exactly who my favourite teachers were at school for that very reason. A lovely Mr. Bunce springs to mind (I was 9-10) – always smiling, giving us sweets, … can’t remember a specific thing he taught me, though my *father* says he was a fantastic teacher! And I clearly learnt *something* from him!

    • Thanks Mike, and as I mentioned in my talk last night, there are also teachers who actually make us feel at least apprehensive and at worst frightened. I gave a powerful example from my own grammar school experience. Thankfully, there are no intimidating teachers in ELT. Or ARE there….?

  8. Hi,

    I’ve come back around to thinking the teacher is more important because it’s a given that learner centered teaching is effective teaching.

    The teacher provides the climate for responses, rapport between students, 21 century learning, and a wealth of opportunities for ALL students to progress.

    The teacher is the one who is the least respected out of school admin, parents, and students.

    It is the teacher who hears the least positive remarks.

    It is the teacher who is expected to fulfill the growing list of learning objectives and added expectations each year to the fullest.

    The teacher is the one who needs to adapt to the behavioral and intellectual challenges that increase each year due to kids increasing time online, or on medication.

    There is a maxim that students had to respond with an opinion paragraph to on our blog, “There are no bad students, only bad teachers.” The responses were all very honest and reflective, so they wrote that they disagreed and then listed all the negative things students do, but that there might be some teachers who might not care enough about students. Which brings me to another quote that I have used a lot, “Students don’t care how much you know till they know how much you care.”

    And it is the teacher who puts themselves in the line of fire for their students.

  9. Love that Bill Gates quote and I agree with everything you have said, Ken. Personally, I’ve been shifting the way I teach a lot recently, focusing less on materials and tools and more on my own development – as well as “owning” my teaching again. And the results have been very positive 🙂

    I do have to agree with Graham though, that there are all kinds of teachers. But I guess when I read your post I naturally thought of teachers like me, him and the others from the PLN, who I know to be committed and passionate about teaching.

    Nothing much to add since a lot of what I think has been said on the comments. So thank you for this post and for always being so supportive of us teachers 🙂

  10. Enjoyed the post, Ken. One thing I’ve noticed while doing an MA program… the emphasis of everything is always on the learner. Ha! Sometimes I want to research and write about the teachers, but so far, there has been little place. Let’s hear it for us.

  11. Reblogged this on Stop Complaining – Enjoy Teaching! and commented:
    Ken Wilson, teacher trainer, songwriter and one of our plenary speakers this year, has something to say in favour of US, TEACHERS. It’s nice to be appreciated.

  12. Reblogged this on enashussien and commented:
    I have found a very interesting post which combines both student-centered learning and using technology (As a tool). I thought I will share it with you to view the comments made on facebook. It is absolutely true that technology has entered the world of teaching in various areas. I believe the teacher should create a balance in the classroom between computer as a took and normal classroom teaching. Enjoy reading the post !

  13. What a great post. And really interesting comments, too.

    My take on it is that as teachers, we get a buzz out of helping our students to get results / make progress and so on. So we see it as part of our job to put in a huge amount, because that’s where we get job satisfaction. We might also be hamstrung with less than ideal materials, which means we spend ages preparing extras to make the classes more interesting, useful or appealing.(Most teachers I know are more than familiar with a pair of scissors and a tube of glue – I swear we are all Blue Peter presenters at heart…)

    But as I teach more mainstream (English as a subject, rather than English as a foreign language) I get less motivated to do anything particularly whizzy. The emphasis in state schools is far less learner-centred, and far more “get through the curriculum without losing too many of your students along the way”. With classes of 25+, (and lots of them per week) you just don’t have the time – or inclination – to spend a lot of time on activities that won’t produce immediate, gradable results.

  14. Fabiana Casella said:

    Dear Ken: You are so, so right!!. Everything you have just said is absolutely true!. It is all about (if you would let me express it in my Argentinian-English-Spanish-Castellano) a combo inspired educator-enthusiastic learner-effective method what really counts…and I am not mentioning the material side of it…being well-paid. I know, I know!!…everybody complains about that, but here I can assure you, we are on “life-long charity plan”. I love teaching, and teaching English even tough it is not even my Second Language!. Always a great pleasure to read you and listen to you and the wonderful “mates” you work with.

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