Boosting students' confidence in the teacher
Summary: Ways of helping students learn by helping them learn to trust the teacher.
Students’ confidence in their language ability and its impact on speaking and learning is a common topic in TEFL articles, teachers’ room conversations and student progress reports. There are also two other kinds of student confidence that have a serious impact on student progress: their confidence in the teacher and their confidence in the techniques that are being used in class. These two kinds of confidence can perhaps have the biggest impact of all on how much students get out of education generally, and this is even more important in TEFL because:
- The youth and lack of qualifications of some teachers is often talked about, including in the press and online.
- Ditto for the lack of government standards, e.g. for the private language learning sector or for the recruitment of native English speaking Assistant Language Teachers.
- The standard qualifications in the profession are often unknown by students.
- Techniques are often very different in adult classes to what they experienced in school, but without students necessarily showing sudden huge leaps ahead in progress.
- The profession’s idea of an expert teacher and students’ idea of one can often vary, e.g. in the emphasis on knowing prescriptive grammar rules.
The easiest way of thinking about the impact of this kind of confidence on learning is to imagine examples of trying to study in a class where you have no confidence in the teacher and/ or the approach, for example:
- Listening to the grammar explanation of a teacher whose language knowledge you generally believe to be unreliable.
- Doing a mingle activity for learning collocations with “Why do I have to stand up? This is so childish and such a waste of time” running through your head from start to finish.
- Being given language learning tips by a teacher who you know has only picked up a few sentences in their two years in your country.
Reasons why students might have confidence in their teacher:
- Qualifications and experience
- Other professional recognition
- Other people’s confidence (e.g. they have seen that the school has confidence in them or they have heard good things about the teacher)
- Language level (e.g. in English, in the students’ L1 or in other foreign languages)
- Knowledge (e.g. they have seen that the teacher knows the language, the materials, etc and the teacher is honest the few times when they don’t know something)
- General professionalism (e.g. appearance, time keeping and organisation)
- Other behaviour (e.g. outside class)
I will give tips on how teachers and schools can boost students’ confidence in each of these ways. These ideas are aimed at both teachers themselves and the management of schools. Please note that in general there is a thin line between the tips below and plain boasting, and that too much trying to give them confidence in the teacher might make them wonder why so much effort needs to be made!
Qualifications and experience
Schools can publicise teachers’ qualifications and experience, either as a general statement (“All of our teachers have a qualification in teaching and a qualification in a foreign language”) or (with their agreement) with information on individual teachers. As qualifications like “CELTA” and “Cambridge Delta” are likely to mean little to students, it is worth explaining them with phrases like “The world’s first and most popular qualification in teaching English as a foreign language, offered by part of Cambridge University” and “One of the highest level practical qualifications in teaching English as a foreign language”.
Teachers can also find subtle ways of mentioning their own qualifications and/ or experience. One is to use your own CV in classroom activities. I use an edited version of my CV for a pairwork speaking task by putting different gaps into the Student A and Student B versions, and we go on to discuss similar interview questions and writing a CV. I originally used my own CV simply because it was easier than writing a fake one, but student comments have since convinced me that letting them know how long I’ve been teaching and in which countries doesn’t hurt.
Teachers can also mention their training and length of experience in Getting to Know You activities.
The most common way of doing this is with the game where the teacher writes true short answers such as “Ten years” and “Seven countries” on the board. Students must try to get those answers from the teacher by asking questions like “How long have you been teaching?” and “How many places have you lived?”
Other professional recognition
As there are usually at least a few people studying English who are also teaching English at some level, there is no reason why a school or teacher shouldn’t publicise their articles or conference presentations about teaching, e.g. on the school noticeboard. If the teacher has produced photocopiable material that is published (on paper or online), it is also well worth using those materials in class with the copyright message and the teacher’s name still on them. If the teacher is asking the students to do something to help their research for an article they hope will be published it is also worth mentioning that and maybe also telling them when it does go in the publication, with appropriate thanks for their help.
Other people’s confidence
This is a difficult one to plan but there is one specific example is that is worth subtly mentioning. If a group of people (e.g. CELTA trainees) are observing the lesson to see how it should be done rather than to check if the teacher is doing their job properly, there are non-boastful ways of making students aware of that. If you are involved in online communication on TEFL matters, you could also mention when people have agreed with you on the best way to learn English etc.
If the teacher speaks a foreign language well or many foreign languages (however poorly), that can be mentioned in Getting to Know You games like those mentioned above. Students might also be interested and impressed if the teacher knows which language English words come from or where words in their own language that they assume are English actually come from.
Knowledge which is likely to impress students includes:
- Use of phonemic symbols
- Ability to answer student questions, e.g. when asking them to correct their own mistakes
- Typical student mistakes
- Reasons for language being that way, e.g. origins of sayings or Latin roots of words
- Knowledge of Second Language Acquisition
A mention of the final point above can easily be justified during discussion of self-study tips.
A particularly complicated situation is when your knowledge contradicts what students have been told before, particularly if your explanation goes against that of a favourite teacher or traditional prescriptive grammar. Being able to show that your version is better than the previous one is obviously one of the best reasons for students to trust you, but be prepared to justify your version a lot.
A good general rule on appearance is to dress one level above the smartest student, e.g. in a tie if they are in a shirt and in a jacket if they are in a tie. Students may also have views on which colours are considered professional.
The teacher should obviously be in class on the dot at the very latest, and definitely come early if something needs setting up, e.g. the IWB needs to be turned on or chairs need to be moved. Alternatively, it is worth coming in briefly ten or so minutes before the class to check the whiteboard pens are all there, put the air conditioning on, etc. It is perhaps less obvious that it is at least as important to finish the class on time.
You can also show your organisation in the class by:
- Having the pages you need suitably marked with a post-it or paperclip so you don’t have to search for the right place
- Cueing recordings before they are needed and being able to quickly skip back to the right place (e.g. by use of the counter)
- Dividing the whiteboard into sections
- Explaining the plan for the class (e.g. by writing the plan on the board)
- Having any worksheets divided up ready to hand out, e.g. by using a folder with pockets
- Having a backup plan if the technology doesn’t work
- Being able to cope with unexpected changes, e.g. late or extra students
Giving out business cards can make a good impression in some situations.
I would personally ban teachers from taking hot drinks into class, even if students are doing that.
If any students or parents are likely to disapprove of teachers smoking, it is worth having a smoking area well out view of people coming into the school.
Teachers need to be careful what personal information they give students, e.g. to be cautious about mentioning their love life, drinking habits, number of jobs, rebellious youth, etc.
As confidence is something it is very difficult to get back, teachers should try to achieve as much confidence boosting as they can in the first couple of lessons, e.g. using phonemics very early on, and wearing a tie and conservatively-coloured clothes for the first few classes.
It is worth trying to brainstorm reasons why your students might lack confidence and things that are likely to make that worse, including culturally-specific factors. Getting students to talk about their previous good and bad educational experiences, e.g. as part of needs analysis, can help with this.