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What makes an “ideal” English teacher?

What makes an ideal English teacher

By Punam Mohandas @PunamMohandas


We cannot ignore the fact that ‘Whiteness’ has fast become a contentious issue when it comes to discussing an ideal English teacher in Asia. Do educational institutions tend to ignore a teacher’s competency over ethnicity/nationality? This is one of the questions that I sought an answer to from the students themselves.

Given that it is the students (and not the educational institutions) who have the ultimate interface with the teacher, I attempted to find out what ticks the box, quite literally, based on a survey questionnaire of 118 Thai senior university students.

The usual perception of an English teacher in Thailand is that he/she should be a westerner, a perceived native speaker of English, so preferred because of the teacher’s assumed inherent accent and fluency in the English language. However, what is often overlooked is that, given the cultural context of being in an Asian milieu, do such westerners demonstrate an adequate amount of teacher empathy and sensitivity towards their students, the challenges Asian ESL learners face and their preferred learning environment of an emotionally conducive classroom climate?

As far as the students themselves are concerned, the factor of ethnicity appears to be a non-starter. I found that students ranked the teacher being a fluent English speaker with a clear and understandable accent and the years of teaching experience as number one, with females giving it a significantly higher ranking than the teacher’s ethnicity, which actually came in at the fifth ranking, proving rather conclusively that students and educational institutions are not quite on the same page as to what constitutes an “ideal” English teacher.

Apart from the teacher’s own competence, the learning of the English language successfully is in equal proportion to the student’s intrinsic inclination as well as stimulation in doing so. However, contrary to the misconception that students welcome preferential treatment, the actual student perception of ideal teacher behavior is that he/she should be patient in explaining things, be approachable, supportive and have confidence in the students’ ability. I further learned that understanding, as a quality, ranked the highest among both male and female students, followed by kindness, while respect for the students came in at third. This supports my premise that sensitivity on part of the teachers, including respecting those younger or culturally different, plays an important part in building a rapport and creating a perception about an ideal teacher.

It is true that students’ perception versus teachers’ perception of what constitutes an ideal teacher and an ideal teaching environment, can be poles apart. Rather surprisingly in this age of digitalization – and quite effectively shattering the myth that technologically advanced classrooms are ‘preferred’ - I found that students had actually given the lowest importance to the use of technology as a teaching aid in the classroom, with a significantly higher number of males compared to females ranking it as of low import. This was mindboggling and goes to prove that, regardless of what academic institutions and teachers themselves may opine, students still want to have individual or group interactions with an actual teacher rather than a slide projector! Given a choice between ingenious or futuristic methods, students will almost always opt for more conventional teaching.

Students seek teachers who have a constructive attitude and who inculcate motivation as part of their teaching method and this brings us to the point of student motivation as an extrinsic factor linked to the teacher, with female students giving it a significantly higher ranking than males; it was rated higher than approachability or a sense of humour, both of which were hitherto seen as strong attributes for an ideal teacher to possess. Giving clear and constructive feedback by compliments before criticism helps students to be more receptive; motivation is inexorably linked to Thai culture, where students perceive their teachers as surrogate parents and thus, they need approbation from their teachers, more so because they are still at a pubescent stage where such approval from those who carry weight is critical.

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Monday, 27 March 2023

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