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7 qualities of every great ESL teacher


In my time at York English and at other ESL schools I worked with dozens and dozens of ESL teachers, helping to train them and give guidance on how to grow as educators. Here I pick out 7 qualities that the best of those teachers shared.


1. Dedication

Put simply, the teachers who care the most, get the most out of their students and their students get a better English education. Dedication in ESL teaching is about putting real thought and effort into every lesson plan. Some teachers go to amazing lengths when preparing their classes, putting real thought into what the students will get out of every activity, squeezing every last drop of language from them and sequencing their classes so that the students are challenged every step of the way.

Dedication doesn’t just start and end with planning though. One of the most satisfying feelings you can have as a teacher is helping an underperforming student achieve their potential. If faced with a weak student a great teacher will work with them outside of the class for even just 5 minutes. That one-to-one time can make all the difference by giving the student the confidence to succeed.

2. Organisation

Writing a lesson plan doesn’t guarantee a good class but it’s definitely the first step towards greatness.

Every class you teach, whether it’s 30 minutes or 2 hours should be planned. That means knowing what you and the students are going to be doing every 5-10 minutes. For each activity ask yourself, what activity are you going to do, how long is it going to take, what skills are the students going to be practicing and where are they going to be- in their chairs, moving around, in pairs, on the floor. Keeping variety to this will help your students get more from the class.

3. Patience

Yes, teaching can be frustrating sometimes. We’ve all had the odd student who can make you tear your hair out. Maybe they’re misbehaving constantly. Maybe they’re really slow to pick things up. Maybe they don’t listen. 99 times out of a 100 this is down to something the teacher is doing in the classroom. Behaviour issue: be stricter (see below), slower student: more help after class, not listening: use a trigger and make activities shorter to keep their attention span.

4. Strictness

The greatest teachers know that student behaviour can be changed to something more positive and they know that big behaviour problems make their classes less effective so they deal with them quickly and effectively. Our teacher trainer here at York likes to think of this like a formula: a perfect class has  behaviour issues and the students get 100% from the class. A class with 5 small behaviour issues may mean that students only get 95% of what they could from the class. A class with lots of major behaviour issues means that students only learn 50% of the material. In short- being the ‘bad guy’ every now and again is essential to giving students more practice.

5. Altruism

Not in the sense of charity or buying gifts but in the sense of being concerned for the well-being of your students. In the classroom the students should be the star. You as the teacher should take the back seat regularly so the students get the practice they need. Turn and talks, pairwork, groupwork and mingles are all great at achieving this and can be done with any age group.

6. Fun

Showing a lighter side is essential when working with younger kids. This doesn’t mean being a clown, but it absolutely means: smiling, praising and making jokes. The first step to this is to get to know your students. Personalising materials to the students can make even the most boring grammar come to life “What were you doing last night?” “I was with (student name) playing (video game that student x likes). Of course, knowing when to draw the line is very important. Too much fun and those dreaded behaviour problems will resurface.

7. Reflection aka “Evolve or Die”

There’s no glass ceiling on teaching. A class taught 4 weeks into your teaching career will be immeasurably better than your first one. The same goes for a class taught 1 year in, compared to 6 months in. As educators we want our students to learn and learn, but we must remember to learn ourselves. Teaching gets boring if we do the same activities over and over again and rehashing ideas isn’t just boring for us it’s boring for the students too.

After each class take a moment to reflect on what went well and what didn’t. Put a tick next to activities that worked on your lesson plan and notes next to those that didn’t. How could you change that if you had to teach it again?

Better still, being able to take feedback from others is essential. That could be from your teaching assistant, a parent, or the students. Learn to love observations - remember they are there to help you!



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