It took me a while to find my teacher and classmates. I had just arrived at the German fair for our planned class outing, and I was late. I was also, in another sense, just in time.
When I joined my class, they were in front of one of the booths, listening to its ranting exhibitor.
“What’s going on?” I whispered to my teacher.
“She runs a rival school,” he said, “and she’s promising impossible things to students.”
A classmate pointed one of the posters behind her, which said that her course could take students from zero knowledge of German to B2 level in six to eight months.
“Our school,” my teacher continued in a low voice, “has teachers trained in Germany, the latest books and materials, and state-of-the art classroom technology. And we can’t take you from A1 to B2 in eight months. It’s just not possible.”
The exhibitor heard him anyway and retorted: “If your school is so good, then why is it that when students from there, supposedly B1 or B2 level, come to my school, they can barely conjugate on the A1 level? All your expert training, books, and computers were no help to them, but my course was.”
Then she pointed to the second poster behind her, which featured a whole grid of photos. “See all those faces? Those are successful graduates of my course who are now working in Germany and Switzerland. There are many more I could show you, but the booth was too small for a third poster.”
By then, my teacher was steering us away. When we were out of earshot, he muttered: “I’ll bet she stole those photos from unsuspecting people’s social media pages.”
But I had a very strong feeling she hadn’t.
A Teacher on Teachers
One reason I have very high standards for language teachers is that I used to be one myself. And if I may say so, I was very good at it. My “secret” was that I really listened to my learners. I cared about what they had to say, and I knew how to help them say it more clearly. My focus was not on a learner’s grammar or on the topic of the day, but on the learner himself.
But I did also care that he learned something. At the end of a lesson, you should be able to do something that you could not do at start. Like use a new tense . . . or some new words . . . or new (meaning: correct) pronunciation. A skilled teacher can choose the right objective for your level, interests, and needs. And based on both the progress of my learners and the comments of my supervisors, I did this consistently.
My favorite analogy comes from the ex-girlfriend of a professional tennis player. In an interview, she said that she loved playing tennis with him because he used his skills not simply to beat her (which would have been boring for him and pointless for her), but to hit the ball where she needed it to be. If he also had some teaching talent, he would have hit it a little farther away with every match! We don’t improve if something is too hard; but we also don’t improve if it’s too easy.
Staying with the analogy, a “bad” teacher is someone who hits the ball anywhere except where the learner needs it. Or someone who has no plan about where to send the ball. And I’m afraid that my own teacher is exactly like this. He’d rather talk about his own interests in English than ask about his learners’ interests in German. When we manage to say some things about ourselves, he does not ask follow-up questions to keep us talking. And though he at least guided us through the textbook, at the end of his B1 course, the majority of the class could not pass the mock exam.
Of course, I know that not everything is the teacher’s fault. Sometimes a learner does not do the required work or really needs more time with the material. But this is something we can say about someone studying alone. A teacher should provide an extra advantage worth paying for. I can’t say my B1 course was worth the money.
I did not say much at the rival school’s booth, but the teacher there noticed me anyway. The noon sun had broken through the clouds and I had brought out a large folder to shield myself from it. Seeing me, she asked, “What’s the matter? Are you afraid of getting a tan?”
It was unnerving to be put on the spot, but an answer still came to mind immediately: “No. I’m just worried about liver spots when I grow old.” I almost said so in German — but didn’t know what the word for “liver spot” was. (I do now: “der Altersfleck.”) And my teacher had already started to lead us away. But the “damage” had been done. I wanted to learn more about the rival teacher’s methods.
Two days later, I was at her school for an assessment interview. She chatted with me for five minutes about my family, my job, my plans for the future, and my reasons for learning German. I can honestly say she paid more attention to me that morning than my B1 teacher did during my entire time with him. At the end of the interview, she got up and said, “My B2 class starts in five minutes. Please proceed to room 302.”
The class dispelled all my lingering doubts — and my lingering guilt — about “dumping” my former teacher so impulsively. My new teacher is brilliant at what she does. It would take a whole other post to explain it properly. It is enough to say here that she pays attention to all of us in class, d.h., that she knows our interests and quirks . . . and that everyone, regardless of level, ends the lesson a little better than he was when it started.