Minimum requirements for (language) teachers

How do you know if you’ve met the minimum requirements to walk into a language classroom and teach? Is there such a thing as minimum requirements, to begin with? Shouldn’t teachers be ‘lifelong learners’ themselves if they expect their students to learn new things every day? Will I be able to really help my students learn? Have I got what it takes?

I’m pretty sure most teachers have already thought about these questions – even if it was only when they first started working. As I see it, if you decide you want to do something, you must make sure you have a shot at getting it. This means you should always think about what is it that you need in order to have the chance to actually do what you want to do. Just the other day, there was a nice discussion on Twitter about language level, certification, and other related matters concerning language teachers. What are the minimum requirements language teachers should meet in order to walk into a classroom.

I’ve already written a post or two on this blog – or many – on what I believe to be essential qualities and skills teachers should develop. I still believe ‘people skills’ is one of the most important skills that language teachers (or all teachers) must always strive to improve. However, when we’re thinking of language teachers, we mustn’t forget about one crucial point – command of the language. Now, bear with me for a moment, I’m not saying here that NESTs (Native English Speakers Teachers) are better than non-NESTs. This will have to be dealt with on a different blog post – in the meantime you could have a look at this post I wrote that touches this matter.

So, for the time being, let’s stick to non-NESTs and the kind of command of the language that is necessary for one to walk into a language classroom. In 2009 I attended a lecture by professor Jack C. Richards where he addressed “what a good English teacher is”. He mentioned nine core dimensions of teacher development:

  1. Acquiring appropriate proficiency level in English
  2. Acquiring content knowledge
  3. Acquiring Contextual knowledge
  4. Acquiring a repertoire of techniques and routines
  5. Developing learner-focussed strategies
  6. Developing pedagogical reasoning skills
  7. Theorizing from practice
  8. Joining a community of practice
  9. Becoming a language teaching professional

All of these are things English language teachers should worry about if they really care about their job and about their students. Professional development is paramount! Even though these are all core dimensions of professional development, I believe the very first one is what will allow for the development of the others. I do understand that context is key, and I very much agree with what Stephen Bax said in his text entitled “The end of CLT – a Context Approach to language teaching” (you’ll need to register to read the article – it’s free). Context is indeed very important, but, the way I see it, language level also has got to do with our own personal language teaching methodology. Our approach, and consequently our theories of language and language learning (Richards & Rodgers – chapter 2) will play a big role in defining what the minimum requirement is.

What's number one on your list?

As I see it, language, especially nowadays, language is a means for communication – spoken and written. If that’s the case, shouldn’t language teachers be able to prepare students for both kinds of interaction with the target language they’re working so hard to learn? And if, again, this is the case, I want to believe that there’s a minimum requirement in terms of Language level of teachers – and if we think in CEF terms, I’d say C1 is the minimum, which would be equivalent to a CAE certificate issued by Cambridge ESOL. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of other more important skills that teachers need to develop and possess. However, language proficiency is the one thing teachers should try their best to acquire even before they start teaching. It’s the one thing that will allow for the development of all of the other skills. Language proficiency is also the yardstick against which many learners measure their teachers’ teaching skills, and this might even account for how high students hold NESTs despite their teaching skills.

The discussion on twitter was really interesting, and I had the chance to talk to one of my old school teachers right after it took place. He’s also a language teacher, but he teaches Portuguese. I asked him the very same question I ask now “What is more important for language teachers – language proficiency or teaching skills?” We seem to see eye to eye on the matter. There’s a lot more to teaching than language level. Nevertheless, it’s much harder for teacher trainers to work on language proficiency than it is for them to work on other skills. Jeremy Harmer’s “How to teach English” also deals with the topic of good teachers. One of the most important characteristics of good teachers is willingness. And this is particularly true if you think about willingness to become a better teacher. All of the nine core dimensions listed by professor Jack C. Richards are important and have got to be pursued by good (language) teachers.

Can we consider being knowledgeable as the most important factor in a teacher’s life? Some may argue that there are lots of other skills that are way more important, that knowledge these days can be found in many different sources and that teachers should aim at being facilitators of learning. However, I still truly believe that being knowledgeable is the one thing that will make all of the others easy on the way of becoming a good teacher. What do you think?

9 thoughts on “Minimum requirements for (language) teachers

  1. Hi Henrick!

    Intersting follow up to the discussion we had going on on twitter. And I have to say I agree with you on the issue of the importance of language proficiency for a language teacher – whichever language we’re talking about. I know many people (?!?) won’t agree with us on this. But we’re not saying tecnique or teaching skills aren’t important. It doesn’t matter how great you know and speak a language – if you can’t get it through to your STs, you’ll crash and burn. And I believe when Jason says he’s seen teachers with poor language skills deliver great lessons and teach their STs great skills. But I also believe those are exceptions. It takes one heck of a fantastic teacher (a very rare one) to be able to do that. But as a language learner myself, I value my teacher’s language proficiency.

    Now, what I (we?) feel might be a reflection of us being non-NESTs, I don’t know. It might also be a result of my (our?) professional experience being a teacher in Brazil, teaching SS who really find it essential to learn English to a point where they’ll sound native-like. Yes, I know about global English, about the world having so many different varieties of English. I firmly believe that a fluent speaker is not the one who can go unnoticed as a foreigner in English-speaking countries – is that even possible, really?; but rather the person who can communicate (understand and be understood) effectively. But we know what we have in our classes, the STs’expectations, their demands. And quite frankly, as a language student I want a teacher who is proficient (or at least that can fool me into believing that 😉 So yeah, I’m with you. There has to be a minimum required language proficiency for language teachers. If they’re great teachers but lack that they have the challenge to go after it and achieve that.

    Having said that, I’d like to comment on your question about whether being knowledgeable is the most important factor in a teacher’s life. I think (as I think you do too) that being knowledgeable is not the most important thing. Wanting to be so, studying, reading, going after it – that’s the most important thing. A great teacher, in my opinion, is one that is humble enough to know and admit he doesn’t know everything. Far from it. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know. You know? : ))) Confused you? I don’t think so. Constantly striving to be better and to know more, that’s a good teacher.

    Great post!

    1. Hi Cecília,

      Thanks for the great comment! 🙂

      I agree with pretty much everything you said there. However, I don’t think most of our learners find it essential to learn English to sound native-like. I mean, I guess you got it when you said that a teacher has got to be at least good enough to fool us. Unfortunately, I think this is a lot more frequent than we expect. Many learners lack the understanding of their own shortcomings as well as their teacher’s. More often than not students are just worried about getting the certificate instead of really learning the language. And the fact that there are so many language schools in Brazil that are not concerned with education contributes to that. Many students still look for schools that are ‘famous’ instead of thinking about their learning. If they can see such a school being advertised on TV all the time, that’s likely to be a good school, right? After all, schooling is just like any other product…

      Sorry for the bit above, but I had to vent that. I’m really concerned about how our educational system will meet the needs of our kids in 10 or 20 years’ time. 🙂

      I loved your last sentence and I couldn’t agree more! Good teachers know they don’t know it all and never cease to learn. 🙂

      Hope my reply wasn’t confusing! 🙂

  2. Hi, Henrick!
    I completely agree with Cecilia. As I was telling you the other day, I am happy to find out every single day that what I know is never going to be enough.

    Great blog post, by the way!


    1. Hi Monna,

      Thanks for dropping in and leaving a comment! 🙂

      That’s exactly it. I’m just a bit sad to see there are many “teachers” out there who don’t seem to think likewise. 😦

      Cheers! 🙂

  3. Most important in my mind would be an engaged learner who has a good knowledge base. A teacher who doesn’t believe there is more to know because they have “mastered the content” is not an effective teacher for very long!

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