What do language learners expect?

The bar is always being raised in TEFL

In the early 90s, when unkempt, grubby-jean-wearing, goatee-sporting, teaching travellers like me used to hang out in Prague coffee shops and jazz bars sipping Turkish coffee or Pilsner Urquell as we discussed the socio-economic conditions that led to the fall of communism, many of us had had very little formal pedagogical training. To us, the teaching we were brought there to do was secondary to the adventure of being among the ‘first westerners’ to venture behind what was once the Iron Curtain.

Despite the fact that I was sorely lacking in professionalism and wallowing in ignorance, I remember feeling a certain celebrity status at the schools I worked at – and even more so in the pubs I frequented. Of course, this never bothered me too much since it added to my feelings of self-importance and allowed me to get away with being a hobo as opposed to a real teacher. In those days, native-speakers were anomalies in Central and Eastern Europe and provided schools with little more than babysitting services in English and an element of ‘prestige’. As an exotic novelty, I for one was treated very well, although, on reflection, I know I was not deserving of such pampering.

To make matters worse, the schools lacked the ability to provide teachers with basic support. There were no resources, no textbooks, no mentors who could speak English, no CD or cassette players, no YouTube, no Internet, no computers and even the photocopier was kept under lock and key. So I suppose I did earn my $80-a-month salary, which, by the way, could buy an astonishing amount of beer.

In hindsight, I was one of the lucky ones – one of those who could get away with being a quasi-reliable and mediocre teacher. There were hundreds like me and I am sure a lot of them were even worse at doing their jobs than I was. For many students, employers and ex-flings, teachers like me left a legacy that gave the travelling teachers who followed a bad name that would take a long time to live down. Fortunately for them, they did not have to step very high to clear the bar where we had left it.

Expectations of teachers today

We cannot expect the kind of treatment I had in today’s TEFL market. Employers and students are wise to partiers professing to be teachers and native-speakers are scrutinized much more intensely today in places like the Czech Republic than they were when the doors first opened up in 1990. Times have changed and the honeymoon is over. No longer are schools or learners grateful just to have a native speaker aboard for the prestige factor.

And why has this happened?

When I think of my own experience as a language student, the best teacher I have ever had is my benchmark. All others, before or after, are measured up against this benchmark. By reflecting on this experience, I understand that, once a learner has experienced a great teacher, it is hard for other teachers to live up to the learner’s expectations. However, from a language teacher’s perspective, I dislike being compared to other teachers unless it is in a positive light – it hurts my ego.

Nevertheless, all teachers new to any context must be mindful that their “new” students may have had a great many other good teachers who have come before. Those teachers who have come before have set the bar at the level it is at before the new teacher enters the classroom. But we must not be intimidated by stories of our predecessors – we should learn from them and add our own dimensions as we do our best to raise that bar another notch for the teacher who follows us next year.

Implications for language schools

Importantly, it is not only the teachers that are scrutinized – the language schools themselves are also forced to do better. There are always new technologies, materials, methodologies, delivery media, HR policies, tools and resources for teachers, and many other innovations and approaches that can help to differentiate a school.

Students and corporate clients of language schools become more and more critical with each new teacher and new service that language schools provide, and this makes them ever more difficult to satisfy.

The fact is that the bar is continually being raised for language schools as well for teachers and, in spite of the pressure that this puts school management, this is a natural and healthy process that benefits the learner.

Schools must continually focus on upgrading communications, accountability and their relationships with their clients. This means employing better HR policies, marketing and management strategies, and quality control techniques. It also means providing teachers with better resources, mentoring and giving them the tools they need to do their jobs better.

Today, due to standards set by the teachers themselves, materials available and technological innovations, learners’ expectations are much higher than they were when I started out in post-communist Central Europe. When these expectations are not met or exceeded in the language school business, the door is opened to competition and clients are lost. Unless language schools are prepared to undercut the competition by lowering tuition fees, which does not benefit anyone in the long run, they must continuously upgrade the services they provide and hire talented teachers in order to offer their clients more than their competitors can.

Only by constantly raising the bar in TEFL can language schools (and teachers) maintain or enhance their images within the communities they serve.

If you are looking for a way to raise the bar, we have developed a FREE service to help language teachers and schools. Click here to go to the MyLAMPA.com homepage so you can create your own account.

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