6 Things No One Told You about Being a Language Teacher

Contortion_backbend1. How over-the-moon you’ll be to hear a student construct a grammatical sentence.
It’s like teaching reading to small children — you read book after book with them, teach them the alphabet and phonics, train them in phonemic awareness by sounding out c-a-t and f-a-t and h-a-t, trying to show them both the pattern and the differences, but when they get it and BOOM, they start decoding all alone, and they can read you log, dog, fog, you’re just tickled pink.
You can get the same feeling with language learners. Maybe you’ll get nothing but “Yes” responses from them for weeks, or the telltale statement-as-question format (“I can borrow a pen?”) for ages (which is tough to master, admittedly), but then, out of the blue, they’ll build this wonderful, thoughtful sentence, perhaps with obvious effort, perhaps completely effortless, and you’ll just be pleased as punch.
2.Your students know more than they (and others) think they do.
Language is complex, but it’s pretty much a fact that we understand more than we produce. For instance, if you’re a native English speaker, you might know the meaning of vehemence, aberration, and locomotive, but how often do you use them in your speech or writing? Even in our first language we understand more than our working vocabulary, yet no one judges us for NOT using those words more routinely. Why should second language learners be treated any differently?
By arming yourself with the knowledge that your students know more than anyone expects them to, you can set high standards that are somehow also achievable. Students crave challenges. Even the beginningest of learners need more than fill-in-the-blank and matching to stay motivated, and sometimes, only the ELD teacher knows that!
3. Learning a language is hard.
Bilingual brains seem to work more efficiently than monolingual brains, as three recent studies (January, October, and December 2014) indicate, but first, they work harder. Second language processing takes an enormous amount of RAM, and it’s not uncommon to see students’ eyes glazing over or frequent yawning. Keeping things engaging, interactive, and moving at an appropriate pace are good ways to prevent that slump.
4. Teaching a language is hard.
You might crash into bed every night, because, who knew? Teaching English can be physically demanding! You enunciate, exaggerate facial expressions, use gesture–sometimes dramatically–write on the board, use different tones of voice and accents, fold yourself into a pretzel, do backflips off your desk… whether you’re trying to convey meaning, or make content interesting, or get your students to smile, you’ll get quite a workout!
5. You’ll learn new words and customs from authentic cultural participants.
Even though you hold the title of teacher, as you get to know your students, you’ll find that they’re willing teacher-experts in areas that are new to you, like their home cultures. With your inquisitiveness and genuine interest in their whole identity, students’ confidence will get a huge boost, and you’ll sense in their work a new pride and ownership. Your teaching will be enriched, too, as you are able to relate to and motivate more students in a personal way, as time goes on.
6. The best way to learn a language is to speak a language.
We all know how important comprehensible input is to language learning, but it’s not intuitive for a language classroom to be silent, or resemble a lecture hall! Especially now, in the Common Core era, giving students ample opportunity to do the talking is key. Lesson planning with a student-led approach may be a challenge at first, but as you watch students master your objectives, you’ll get a rare moment to sit down and rest your voice (See #4) and get hooked on their success (See #1)!
Is there anything else you’d add to this list? What new things have you discovered since becoming a language teacher?

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