Two days after I first arrived in Japan, on my first day of a week-long training period, I was awarded the title sensei. You are probably familiar with the word, which is usually loosely translated as teacher in English. In Japanese, it can be used to refer to any professional or expert in a particular field. A doctor, an artist, a poet, all can be a sensei. So, what made me a sensei? My passport, my eye colour? In a private Japanese language school, basically, yes. Having said that, there were some fine teachers there – they were kind, friendly, smart… and with no official teaching qualifications whatsoever they were able to help their students learn.

When I returned to the UK, I was qualified to teach at a university thanks to my CELTA certificate. This time, I had colleagues who were not native-speakers of English. Of course, English Language instructors are not necessaily afforded the same wages and conditions as teachers in other university departments… people who have never studied teaching at all, not even for four weeks.  A historian, for example, just has to demonstrate that they know a lot about their subject. They are not required to prove they can teach it. So a teacher has to have subject knowledge to be considered a true professional?

Now I am in the higher education system in Japan, and the entry level qualification is a masters degree. It used to be unimportant what that degree was in, but now more and more schools expect it to be in English, Applied Linguistics or a related field. Competition is such that a doctorate is increasingly useful, and it is expected that teachers publish and present fairly regularly. A DELTA, whilst handy, is not well recognised. In order to call oneself a teacher, then, research is a high priority.

I don’t know enough about the UK Further Education sector, but from what I can gather there are an incredible number of hoops to jump through in order to qualify. Every ESOL teacher I have ever met, as well as being very nice, has also been in the middle of some nationally standardised training course or another. Perhaps standardisation is the key. We need to be sure that our teachers can fit into a qualification structure?

So what gives someone the right to call themselves a teacher? Because the last one was so much fun, I’ve made a poll… but this time you can vote for as many as you like. The real game is in the comments box though, so get stuck in! I’d also like to know what you have to do to be called a teacher where you are.

(By the way, I never worked at the school advertising above! My company employed teachers of all races, as long as they were native English speakers, or proficient Japanese speakers of English. Click on the picture to read more about the dodgier side of the industry)

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17 Thoughts on “what gives you the right to call yourself an english teacher?

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  2. Interesting question! I once had a beautiful but unqualified young lady who taught for me – I’ve told this story before so I’ll try to keep it short this time round – she was a “desparation hire” at a time when I really needed a teacher ASAP and I hired her to do conversation classes, initially… however she had an amazing ability to get students communicating and learning and really pushed herself to learn how to teach in ways I didn’t see my MA teachers doing 🙂 (her talents which were often discounted, by them, out-of-hand as solely due to the blond hair, perky nose and blue eyes) – anyway, I said this’d be short so… yes, think qualification very very important but let’s not put “ugly” as a necessary category either, ya?


  3. I think there’s a big difference here between calling yourself a teacher (or earning a living as one) and being a teacher. Plenty of native speakers can’t teach their own language in any way shape or form. And if you haven’t had any teacher-training, being good at something doesn’t make you able to teach it. (Top sportsmen don’t often make good coaches).

    Having classroom experience is one thing, but I’ve met more than a few terrible English teachers with years of experience. They had people skills and were very entertaining and were often adored by their students, but students weren’t learning much and the lesson content was approaching zero. Being entertaining is a great attribute for a teacher, but it has to be backed up with content.

    To be fair, I’ve also met a few certified teachers who were very weak, but nowhere near as often as in the cases where the teacher had no qualification.

    Sadly, a lot of doctors and professors teach and present in a way that would be totally unacceptable in a classroom. If, during teacher-training, they don’t model what they expect teachers to do in their own classes, then maybe they should retreat back to their libraries and publish a few more papers in a language that is designed to exclude the majority of readers (which when you think about it is a strange approach to teaching communication).

  4. Even though I’ve heard of such schools and it’s a known fact that people who are not in the field tend to favour native speakers, this was the very first time I’ve seen such an advert. It’s not that native speakers are good or bad teachers – but sometimes they aren’t teachers and take up the job simply because they’re living in a foreign country and can’t (or don’t want to) find anything else to do. As long as the media and common knowledge advocates for native speakers as the best teachers, the general public will fall for this.

    I can relate to what both Karenne and Olaf commented above: sometimes training is not the most important thing, and to be quite honest, in an age in which we have much more opportunities to learn from our PLN, formal training might not be as important as it was. Besides, in my view, any course – teacher training or not – relies a lot on who is teaching it. I’ve known people with formal education who are lousy teachers, just as I’ve known teachers with no training who get their jobs done, i.e. students learn.

    The bottom line is, if schools take their part in education seriously, not only will they be more selective when hiring, but they’ll also provide teachers with ongoing education.

  5. darren on March 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm said:

    Karenne – It’s funny that no one has voted for good-looking yet. I like to use this website with classes to talk about beauty – research shows that beautiful people are perceived more positively in other ways. I used to come out of class observations quite frustrated sometimes – students sometimes love a crappy teacher if they have good teeth and crack a couple of funnies. But, to be fair, I don’t care how well-organised, creative, patient, interesting my teacher is… if they have halitosis and B.O. We are all only human, and negative affect can spring up from the basest emotions….

    Olaf – I love your first sentence! If I go back to my early years of the conversation schools, we had to ‘promote’ certain self-study materials to students. They were pretty good materials, and we were also expected to give feedback and counselling for alternative (free) self-study techniques. Nonetheless, some people got snotty about the process.”I’m a teacher, not a salesman” was the refrain. Now wait a minute, buddy, what gives you the right….?

    Henrick – Horrible, isn’t it? The chain I used to work for was generally very good… I remember one small school, with only one foreign teacher, which had a complaint because he wasn’t ‘foreign’ enough (he was Asian-American). The manager sent him away with his ears burning, lost a customer, but gained plenty of respect. Nonetheless, in parts of Asia a ‘native speaker’ is tall, blonde and blue-eyed. It’s changing though – here in Japan there are more teachers coming from Africa, the Philippines and other less ‘traditional’ sources.

    And as you and Olaf say, you can still be a lousy teacher, even with experience and qualifications. But you are less likely to be so.

  6. This is such a hard one. I find that the CELTA is a very good starting point and teachers who don’t have it often immediately fall back into chalk and talk. On the other hand, many students come out of the CELTA heavily dependent on the book, PPP, and grammar I’ve noticed, which is a big negative. The standard of CELTA training also tends to vary and I don’t find it as standardized as many others do.

    I side with Olaf as well that there often seems to be little correlation between experience and a good teacher, at least in the Turkish context where training, observations, and sharing is rare to non-existent. Sometimes I find it easier to talk with a teacher that’s been in the game longer, but also sometimes I find it harder as they are too set in their ways.

    Also. the entertainment thing is a biggy in ELT. Many schools will keep a teacher on as long as the students are happy. This means that an entertaining teacher gets the job although the students aren’t getting much out of the lessons. I often hear managers say “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” or “the students are happy, our job is done.” This is the wrong attitude to take. The students should be learning as well.

    For this reason, “Their Students are Learning” is my number one choice. Now, how do we determine that is a question fraught with peril, but, in my experience, it’s easy, you can see it. Has the students’ levels of English improved since they entered the classroom.

    Along with this is “They Have Good People Skills.” Teachers with good people skills have the best base to become great teachers. Teaching people skills is incredibly hard, so this is something I find necessary in all applicants. Often, if you have good people skills, you motivate the students, engage them, make them comfortable, treat them as people, etc. These things are the foundations of a good classroom. From there, if their are areas that need some work, we can work on them.

  7. To carry on from what Darren said, I consider myself to be very much a salesman. I sell myself (which is essential for a top working relationship with the learners) and I most certainly sell my product – the language.

    To a lesser extent, I certainly sell or at least market materials related to learning English. Customers frequently ask for my opinion on this or that book or learning aid. I often get asked about software or Web 2.0 tools I use in class. For me, this is not just a part of the job, it’s an essential part of the job as it provides extra value to the customers.

    None of the above makes me a good teacher, by the way, but it is “nice to have”.

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  9. I despise the ‘sensei’ title that is used in Japan and throughout East Asia so much. Despite all the good intent behind the meaning, in actual day-to-day Japan it often translates more accurately in English as ‘shut up and bow to authority.’ Not always, but often.

    Japanese politicians are all referred to as sensei despite it being well know that a lot of them are nothing short of corrupt sleezebags. Dodgy dentists who haven’t updated their skills in decades can be called sensei too. It refers to anybody who is older, or perceived as wiser, and this automatically means that it is nearly impossible to openly disagree with what ‘sensei’ is saying. Read the terrifying example of the Korean Air story in Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point for a good example. Sure there are lots of genuine ‘sensei’s’ out there that live up to the real meaning of the word, but there are lots who don’t.

    I always correct my students when they try and use the word with me.

    I am an instructor. I instruct my students on how to use English to their advantage. I like the word instructor; it doesn’t carry any of the awkward baggage that teacher and sensei do.

  10. Nick – I quite agree. You can do the wrong things for a very long time, experience is not necessarily an indicator of skill (although it certainly helps)

    Olaf – It is something a little bit ‘dirty’ that teachers are almost afraid to admit… but education is a business like any other, and students are clients who need to be served.

    Sean – Love it! Actually, my official job title is ‘Language Instructor’, and I’m happy with it. Something I am very concerned with is ensuring that students understand I cannot learn for them! Teaching doesn’t guarantee learning – So I don’t focus on language per se, but good study habits, personal responsibility, critical thinking skills. After all, I only get 90 minutes a week for 28 weeks over a year with most of them – how much language can I really teach?

    This coming academic year one of my goals is to become a better language learner myself – to practice what I have been preaching. It seems fitting that a good teacher is a good learner….

  11. As there is a Malcolm Gladwell theme running across the TEFLsphere at the moment, it might be worth mentioning that in Outliers he worked out the need for 10 000 of practice before anyone becomes an expert at something (citing Bill Joy, Bill Gates, Mozart and The Beatles as his everyday examples). According to my trusty calculator that works out at just under nine years of teaching at 25 hours a week. Of course, I should point out that I have nowhere near 10 000 hours of practice at using my calculator.

  12. darren on April 4, 2010 at 9:10 am said:

    I haven’t read it, but I’m assuming it’s not a number pulled out his pocket. I have to admit, it has a whiff of the ‘factoid’ about it, the oft-repeated truism which, at best, loses the nuances of the original research.

    But yeah, doing something a lot will probably make you better at it!

  13. Tell that to my bookie.

  14. Darren,

    I totally agree that a good teacher should be a good learner, not only in language study (of which I’m very lax), but in forever developing their understanding and appreciation of techniques and methods.

    Reading the comments I was about to ask, “How do we know if we are a good teacher or not?”

    Olaf’s first comment brought this question to mind. I’m happy to tell you that I am very much liked by my students, they love my lessons apparently… but, taking that with a pinch of salt, I always ask myself (and the students) did I teach anything, did they learn anything? And sometimes it’s not so easy to tell, especially with higher level students, whether they’ve learnt something new or cemented parts of their IL.

    I think that classroom observation is a valuable tool, both for observer and observee, in assessing and developing our teaching. Having another person’s input on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of a teacher’s lessons can surely be an advantage… if carried out in a supportive environment of course.

    Kudos for the blog ;0)

  15. IL… you don’t mean interlanguage, do you? You might want to listen to the Jennifer Jenkins interview, if you haven’t already.

    But yes – how do we know if we are a good teacher? Student approval is nice, but not necessarily indicitive of quality teaching.

    Cheers for the kudos!

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