Jason Renshaw’s Six signs that you are on the right track as a language teacher

Jason Renshaw’s Six signs that you may be on the right track as a language teacher

This week I’m extrememly happy to be joined by none other than the English Raven himself, Jason Renshaw. For those of you who don’t know him, Jason is a writer and prolific blogger based in Australia. He’s known for his coursebook series Boost, but also for creative and provocative posts on different aspects of teaching and methodology. I’ve been bugging him a long time to do a guest post, and he’s delivered the goods! Here are six signs that you may be on the right track as a language teacher. Enjoy!

1. Your classes almost never begin or end with coursebook material

This to me is a sign that a teacher is connecting with students as people, and sees their interests and daily lives as the first and final priorities. It is also a positive answer to a question I put to a lot of newer teachers: Who is actually running this class – you and your students, or a book?

2. The students in your classes talk more than you do, and speak to each other more than they speak to you

This is a skill and an important priority. It means you have started to see your role as being more along the lines of facilitator rather than leader or controller. In language learning, the students are the ones who really need the opportunities and time to talk – not you. Language learning is possibly more enhanced by talking to a range of people – not a single expert. Also, to really help students you need to be able to listen to them. If you’re doing all the talking, you’re probably doing very little listening.

3. Motivation has become the students’ responsibility

Teachers who try to overtly motivate their students either fail dismally, or become the entire source of classroom motivation (which is also a form of failure, but harder to spot and more drawn out). At some point, this responsibility for motivation and commitment to the learning process has to become an intrinsic part of the students. The earlier this begins, the better. Teachers who can let go of this perceived responsibility and find the right ways to help it blossom in students are worth their weight in gold.

4. You feel a constant need to create and apply your own material and activities

Some coursebooks are better than others, and some suit your learners better than others do. But none of them (on their own) can be perfectly ideal for your students. It is a very positive sign in a developing teacher when thoughts like the following become more frequent:

– I’ll skip this part, because it’s not all that relevant or useful to my students

– This part could be better. Here’s how…

– I can do this part better, and I will

These feelings often lead to teachers making more and more of their own material and activities, often to either supplement or replace sections of coursebooks, and more often than not they lead to more effective and relevant learning in class. They are also a positive sign of teacher self-belief and confidence.

5. There are more questions than answers

I would apply this on two fronts.

One is related to the point above about interaction in class. When students are answering a lot but not asking many questions, their passive and receptive skills are being emphasized at the expense of productive skills and creative thinking. We may also be creating situations where what students know takes priority over what they don’t know or would like to know.

On the second front, this is a good sign in teachers as well. As you become better at what you do as a teacher, you will find that answers lead to more questions, and more questions lead to more answers. It’s sort of like watching a tree grow. Teachers I’ve met who figured they had more answers than questions tended to be the sort who had started to plateau, or even backslide. They didn’t realise it (or didn’t want to realise it!), and had started to misinterpret the whole idea and role of experience.

6. There are regular surprises

Being able to predict what will happen in classes is a sign of good teaching in many respects, but in other ways it can be a sign of rot. A highly predictable lesson with predominantly predetermined use of language is rather like taking a single well-used track through a very large forest. Good teachers facilitate, expect, and embrace the unexpected. They thrive on it. Surprises in language classes not only represent what language experience is like in the real world, they also create the most effective bases for teachers to explore what the students (feel they) really need to learn about and experience more.

Published in: on May 17, 2010 at 8:42 am  Comments (25)  
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  1. What’s this? No one’s writing their own blogs any more – Emma’s doing Ken’s; you’re doing Thornbury’s, Lindsay; and now Jason is doing yours! =)

    Thanks for this post, Jason. Sometimes I think I’m not always on track, but I recognise a lot of what I do in your 6. But then I think a little bit of doubt is also possibly a good thing as a teacher as it shows your really thinking about your practice. Though not too much doubt, I hasten to add!



    • You’re right Mike, everyone is doing everyone else’s blog this week! Must be one of those blog-meme things. Still, all part of the sharing going on 🙂

      • Yes, that’s true – the sharing is all good.

        I’d be up for writing ‘Six boring admin tasks that teachers have to do’ sometime, if you haven’t already written it.

    • Hi Mike – my blog’s (obviously) free this week: feel like writing something for me? 🙂

      Yes, if I could have had a list of 8 instead of 6, two more I would have included are:

      7. You experience failures
      8. You regularly experience doubt about what you are doing

      Those are also very strong signs of progress in teachers, but let’s not break Lindsay’s cardinal rule here…


      ~ Jason

      • Gasp! Of all the guest bloggers I should HAVE KNOWN that the Raven would be the one to try and subvert my sacred rule of six…


  2. Ouch, Lindsay – I would like to think that the unflattering raven shot is your Sixish way of revenge for my parody of “Global” (called “Spousal”), but I have a feeling readers of both of our blogs will say you’ve come up with a brilliant representation of the at times untidy, “beak in your face”, feather-ruffling, squawking nature of some of my blog posts.

    Love it!

    ~ J

  3. What a great piece, Jason! Phewww…. seems on the right track! LOL! I definitely agree with these items. I find #3 especially interesting and hope in you will expand on how to shift student motivation in a future post. I find in later years this becomes difficult as the majority of students are used to finding motivation from their teachers or just lack motivation altogether. If a child is fortunate, then they have parents who are also the source of motivation. Also, I know this ties into rewards and this is definitely something I have worked to rely less on.

    • Hi Shelly,

      Yes, there are entire articles and even books written about the issue of motivation, so it’s hard to expand on it too much in a blog feature…

      But I will say two things:

      – H. Douglas Brown’s ‘Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy’ was a book I was lucky to get my hands on very early in my teaching career, and it had a massive influence on my thinking – especially the parts about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Both can be powerful, but extrinsic motivation alone is rarely enough to keep the fleet sailing.

      – Creating a classroom where intrinsic motivation flourishes usually begins with the simple process of a teacher sort of “letting go” of this feeling that it is entirely his/her responsibility to create and sustain the motivation. From there, it’s a simple (but careful and long-term) process of helping the students become aware of their own goals and successes, however limited these might seem. I’ve worked with a lot of teachers who never got to these stages, because they were still so busy putting themselves under the pump lesson after lesson to keep their learners motivated.

      But I will explore this in some future blog posts, I think. It’s worth discussing (and sharing) more!

      Thanks Shelly,

      ~ Jason

  4. Jason,

    PURE GOLD! Very nuanced and insightful for any teacher.

    So “unusually” I have little to say….. But if you Glogster those 6 principles – I’ll buy the poster or at least market it for you!


    • That is quite a compliment coming from you, DD! Thank god there are a few good eggs in that Raven nest, and not all of them are cracked!


      – Jason

  5. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with no.3. Isn’t motivation part of the reason why students attend classes rather than learn for themselves at home? I’m more of the opinion that motivation should be a shared responsibility between teachers and students.

    I agree that intrinsic motivation is more valuable and more sustainable over the long-term but the feedback that teachers provide, praise and encouragement they give and sometimes just simply nagging to do more homework are all vital aspects of a teacher’s job in my opinion. I wouldn’t count any of these as intrinsic types of motivation but they are very important I feel.

    I once had a student complain that I didn’t motivate the students enough and at the time I was of the opinion that for an adult class, this wasn’t my responsibility. My attitude wasn’t to harass my students for homework or insist that they came to lessons on time as they were all attending out of their own free will. Looking back now though, it is possible that it could have seemed that I didn’t really care that much about their progress (not true obviously).

    Recently, I was teaching a one to one student who was preparing for the TOEFL examination. He was a very independent student (he had even found your website before I recommended it ;)) and I suggested that he record himself at home for the speaking part and send the audio files to me to assess. He was a bit reluctant at first but once I had done some examples myself and emailed them to him to listen to, he felt much more motivated to do it. I’d say that source of motivation came directly from me but was also very beneficial too.

    It’s not true for all students, but in Poland where I teach, I generally feel that students want and expect to be pushed by their teacher to work hard and that a teacher who leaves it too much to the free will of the students is not perceived to be such a great teacher.

    • Hi Peter,

      Thanks for the very valid reminder that the issue of motivation (like many others) can vary by country and context.

      * Isn’t motivation part of the reason why students attend classes rather than learn for themselves at home? *

      I think this depends to some extent on whether students have chosen themselves to attend a class as opposed to being forced (for whatever reason of from whatever source) to go.

      I do, however, see it as a major responsibility on my part to see the students in my classes – irrespective of their initial level of motivation – eventually leave it with more belief in themselves. More belief in their own ability, and more belief in their own ability to learn more, on their own and/or with others (including teachers). It doesnt happen all the time, but it is a goal worth pursuing, and I maintain that teachers who pursue it (even against all odds) are definitely on the right track.

      Your point that so many students rely on teachers and expect them to praise them and push them all the time sort of reinforces my point that when teachers become the whole source of motivation, this becomes harder and harder to shake. It can be hard, because (as you point out) the teacher who starts to leave more of it to the students to sort out can be accused of being uncaring or even unprofessional.

      After several years of teaching, what I found most important was a very good relationship with the students, based on honesty and frankness. It eventually becomes possible to start telling students homework and commitment and effort are really their responsibilities, without insinuating you are somehow uncaring. In fact, it is even possible to show the students quite poignantly how much you DO care, by doing some hard yards with them on this front. I have told many students how it would be easier for me to scold and praise them more, but it would not really help my longer term goal of making them more independent and working WITH them on this language learning thing rather than working FOR them. If the relationship and lines of communication are good, a lot of students can and do grasp this.

      I should also point out that I am not saying this means we turn all of our learners into super independent and incredibly self-motivated learners. That is of course close to impossible to achieve in a lot of contexts. But if the learners walk away with more self motivation at the end of your course (more than when they started), and do not require you to do ALL the pushing and praising, I would not hesitate to tell you that you are on the right track.

      It is not a simple issue, as you rightly point out (and I like your point about it being a shared responsibility – which I see as the starting stage), and it requires a lot of work, but as I said – I think this is an indication a teacher is heading in a fantastic direction, and it is worth striving for.

      Happy to hear your student found my TOEFL website and you were also willing to recommend it to him – thanks a million!


      – Jason

  6. Thanks for the reply Jason. I think we mostly agree and I would add that I’m definitely strongly in favour of a high degree of student autonomy and self motivation.

    Extrinsic motivation is probably the quick-fix solution but as you rightly pointed out, not particularly helpful in the long term. That said, intrinsic motivation is a lot more difficult to come by and sometimes a quick-fix solution is the next best alternative.

    A good diet and plenty of exercise might be the best way to achieve a healthy lifestyle, but a few energy drinks and the odd painkiller might be just what you need if you’re about to run a marathon.

    The same might be true for a student who’s just about to take an important test like the TOEFL, don’t you think?

    • Love the comparison to healthy diets and energy drinks + painkillers!

      Thinking again about your main points here, something occurred to me: the transient nature of so much ELT (with learners rarely spending more than 6-12 months with any one teacher) could very well contribute to perceptions of motivation (and who really has the main responsibility for it).

      I also think the patient building of independence and intrinsic motivation is especially important for young learners, who face the prospect of 8-10 years of English language instruction. The energy drinks and painkillers (and other forms of teacher-driven short-term extrinsic motivation) do not often help them last the (very long) distance!

      Thanks for the thoughts!

      – Jason

      • I quite agree that for young learners it’s a completely different matter. In my opinion, nobody under the age of about 12 should ever have to take any English tests. But it seems that ELT is becoming more and more exam focused nowadays. It certainly doesn’t make me happy to see Cambridge rolling out more and more test for young learners. I can’t really imagine what purpose these tests serve apart from satisfying a few pushy parents.

  7. great post – very succinct and very to the point (inlcuding points #7 and #8!) – I’d be tempted to add a #9 as well maybe:
    a teacher who is gaining experience, confidence and staying on track has learnt, knows and remembers that less is more – less time spent preparing materials and lesson plans, fewer materials and “whistles and bells”* activities – and more exploitation of what you’ve got, of the text, of the topic, of the students, of the unexpected as it happens, of the “white space” ** in the classroom

    * re your recent post on Lessons from Avatar – another great post btw
    ** see Luke Meddings’ post on white space at http://lukemeddings.wordpress.com/

    • I like your #9 a lot (and not just because it is likely to send Mr. 6 himself into a sort of apoplectic fury!). You are absolutely right: less is more, and teachers who realise that are on their way to brighter teaching pastures.

      Thanks also for the link to Mr. Medding;s post about white space. Already a big fan of a lot of his work, so that was a nice reminder!


      – Jason

    • I LOVE #9. Yes, less is more!!!

  8. That’s a nice post Jason!

    Seems like I AM on the right track 🙂

    Btw – I’m not writing on my blog either this week, lol

    • It seems to be the mode this week 🙂

      Thanks for the comment and happy to hear you feel you could be on the right track!


      – Jason

  9. Very interesting and practical text. I like #1 very much as I think that it’s the easiest one to put into practice.

    However, it seems like I’m NOT perfectly on the right track according to your text, Jason. But then again I’m just a person with low esteem who needs to read a lot of self-help books (see my post of the week of April 23rd, also on Lindsay’s blog).

    Anyway, could I also add a #10? You know you’re on the right track when the number of students who give you positive feedback is higher than the number of students who give you negative feedback. This, in fact, is a very objective and mathematical way to measure your worth. I keep track of both positive and negative feedback in my diary. And let’s just say that I’m not in the red!

    • Hi Paola,

      Well, I would like to remind all readers here that the title of the post was meant to be *Jason Renshaw’s Six signs that you may be on the right track as a language teacher* – the Jason Renshaw and the *may* are important to note there! This is an opinion only, and it may or may not be a fair or useful set of measuring sticks.

      I should thank you at this point, because you have reminded me that it is very important for teachers to think about and explore what THEY feel are the important markers of their progress (though it is often potentially productive to look at our own teaching from others perspectives as well).

      I am glad to hear you like #1, and I am interesting in your #10… If I may ask, what exactly do you mean by positive or negative feedback from students? Are you asking them to directly rate your teaching (and if so, does it involve any criteria?), or are you (for example) looking at how they react and respond to your lessons (with language and actions of their own)?

      I do not mean it to sound like a loaded question or anything (and please do forgive me if it sounds like I am being dismissive or oblique – it is not my intent at all), but I would encourage you to think around that sort of issue a little more. There are different kinds of feedback, and they can point us towards different realisations about teaching and learning – and our relative performance at the helm of a classroom.

      In the meantime, I hope that diary stays in the black – good luck with it all!

      Thanks for commenting,

      – Jason

      • Hi Jason,

        By feedback I mean any written or spoken comment coming from students. The spoken ones are either direct praise (“I’ve learned a lot from you” or “I want to be in your class”) or indirect praise (“X says that you’re a great teacher”). The written ones come out in the surveys that our students have to fill in when they leave the school (“My teacher is the best one I’ve ever had” or “My teacher is so passionate about her profession.”)

        Of course, the more subtle kind of feedback that you mention is also important, but it is far more difficult to count and it is not entirely objective because we so often have the tendency to mind-read. I, for one, have mind-reading deeply embedded in my way of perceiving things. It is a nasty, nasty habit. It makes me a paranoid teacher who more than often thinks she is bottom of the pit. Indeed, there are days when, no matter how much my logical side of the brain reminds me of my achievements, I simply can’t stop thinking that I really suck as a teacher. Sometimes my only consolation is that my job really isn’t that important anyway. Who cares about people’s level of English? The world will keep spinning without me.


  10. Just on the issue of motivation (in case anyone is still interested, that is!), and whether it comes from teacher or learners, you might find some relevant examples or points on my latest post over on English Raven:


    All the best,

    – Jason

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