Just be yourself

“Just be yourself”.  What does that mean in the context of teaching?  When I was in my TESL program many years ago, there was a very outgoing, guitar-playing young man in the course.  He was vibrant, fun and obviously musically-talented.  I thought that he was “cool” and imagined what a great teacher he would be. 

Instead of looking at what I had to offer as a teacher, I started thinking about what I didn’t have to offer.  In hindsight, I wanted to be something that I was not.  I recently told my TESL students that story.  At the end I said “you just need to be yourself”.  They loved the story and were grateful for this advice.

What I am trying to say is that we can only be who we are.  After one of my teaching practicums many years ago, the mentor teacher said that I was like a “warm blanket”.  I never understood what that meant until years later.  I was just being myself but was that enough to inspire students and attain teaching excellence?

I believe that students want teachers who are authentic, know their subject matter well and care about them.  I decided to support my view and found two interesting studies.
How do you think students define inspiring teachers and teaching excellence?
Lamb & Wedell (2013) conducted research with English language learners in China and Indonesia to find out 1) what they thought were the qualities of “inspiring” English teachers and 2) what effect these teachers had on their feelings about learning English.

“While good or professional teaching may be commonplace, inspirational teaching - the kind that learners remember for positive reasons years later - is probably quite rare” (Lamb & Wedell, p. 17).  What Lamb & Wedell discovered is not surprising to me.  Teaching is hard work and requires years of dedication and continuous professional development.  But is it that difficult to go from being a "good" teacher to an "inspiring" teacher?  I think not as you read the list below.

Lamb & Wedell (2013) discovered that there are some universal inspirational qualities of teachers that have broad appeal such as:

  • patience and kindness
  • attention to individual learner needs
  • re-assurance and encouragement
  • professional diligence
  • subject knowledge 


What I think are the most inspiring results of this research are the student outcomes. The learners reported that because of an inspiring teacher, they:

  • became more interested in learning English
  • progressed more
  • worked harder
  • became more confident


Isn’t that the outcome that we want for all of our students?

In another study conducted by the London School of Economics, the focus was on teaching excellence.  According to a survey of university students at three London universities, only 8% of teachers were perceived as excellent (Boo, 2015). 

Students reported that the qualities that made a teacher excellent were:

  • being able to clearly explain content and provide good examples
  • caring for students and being kind
  • being authentic, using humour and telling good stories


Even though both studies surveyed students in different parts of the world, and who were studying different subjects, I think we can see similar results which I suggested at the beginning of this blog post (students like teachers who are authentic, knowledgeable and caring). 
Perhaps being inspiring or excellent is not one of your goals but if we are truly dedicated to student learning, we must continually push ourselves professionally.  We owe it to our students.

I would say that most of you possess the above-mentioned characteristics. English teaching seems to attract people who are caring, encouraging and knowledgeable but we should not become complacent.

I do think that I was inspiring as a new teacher, but becoming “excellent” required many hours of teaching and reflection, considerable reading and a concerted effort to develop as a teaching professional during the past 20 years.   

Would you describe yourself as an inspiring teacher? How would you become excellent?  What are your professional development goals for 2016?  

Boo, S. (2105). Top Ten Qualities of Teachers.  Students’ views of excellent teachers. Retrieved from http://www.ipositive-education.net/students-views-of-excellent
Lamb, M. & Wedell, M. (2013). Inspiring English teachers: A comparative study of learner perceptions of inspirational teaching. ELT Research Papers 13-03. British Council. University of Leeds.

Patrice Palmer, M.Ed., M.A. TESL has 20 years’ experience as an ESL Teacher, TESL Trainer, and Curriculum Writer in Canada and Hong Kong. Patrice has taught students from 8 to 80 years in a variety of programs such as ESP, EAP and language programs for new immigrants. She now spends her time creating resources for teachers which are available at https://patrice-palmer.mykajabi.com