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In this episode, I’ve decided to dissect the main problems of the language teaching world.

  • the society’s historical assumptions
  • the students wrong expectations/assumptions
  • the ideas of how languages are learned
  • the idea that what students want is what they need
  • the idea of having a talent for languages
  • our role in all of that

Have a listen and let me know if you agree!

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Now, it’s time to go get richer, teacher!

Podcast transcription

Hey, hey, hey, and welcome to another episode. This is another one in the series of “I just felt like recording it”. There is no specific marketing strategy behind it. There is just me reflecting on a few things I’ve been noticing while working as a coach, as a teacher, as a teacher trainer as well. So, hopefully this episode won’t turn into a big rant but it might, so, that’s my disclaimer, I guess. I just wanted to ask you that when you’ve listened to this episode in which I’ll be talking about what’s wrong with the language teaching world and whether we can do anything about it (if you agree, if it resonated with you in any sort of way), I want us to have a conversation about it rather than me talking at you because I might have my own ideas, but who knows: maybe you completely disagree – just let me know. 

I just also wanted to say “thank you” to a client and a listener who just literally made my day this morning saying that the way he discovered me was via the podcasting app. My podcast literally popped up and I didn’t think that would ever happen to anybody. I think I always assume it’s via the word of mouth or some sort of a recommendation or maybe even an ad, but to find me via a podcasting app, just brought me so much pleasure. Because if you can’t tell, I’m gonna tell you that this podcast is a massive passion project of mine. It’s not perfect, but it’s exactly how I want it to be. And I just wanted to say thank you. 

Let’s start the rant now. No, I’m joking. I’m gonna talk to you about seven things that I’ve identified as being wrong with the teaching, but specifically the language teaching world. So, the things I’m gonna talk about are our society’s expectations, students’ expectations, the idea of how languages are learned, the idea of what students want, the ideas of having a talent for something, all-or-nothing thinking, and our own attitude towards all of this. So, stick around to see whether you agree or disagree, because that’s also allowed.  

[1] The first thing I wanted to talk about is the society’s historical assumptions or the historical sort of stories, let’s say, that they’ve created around teachers in general. I think that’s quite universal towards all the teachers. We obviously know that teaching is a very specific profession and that the society expects that people who go into the profession are on some sort of a mission. I even remember that kind of conversation with my German teacher from high school, who said that when he was about to pick what he wanted to do with his life after school and what kind of subject to study at college, language was one of those easy ways out. So, I think that there must be some residue there. There must be some historical thinking behind “Oh, people who study languages or even methodology are lazy people.” Isn’t it? Because I think that’s still quite present in a lot of people’s minds. And even if not that, then there is always that kind of assumption that: “Yeah, teachers know what they are signing up for, that the work is hard but the satisfaction that comes with helping somebody achieve their goals is what makes up for it.” Hmm, does it? I mean, let’s be honest: you are probably a teacher, some form of an educator, an ex-teacher – whatever you do in life – you probably started doing it because you felt quite passionate about it. You felt that there was something thrilling about seeing somebody make progress, that it was exciting for you and it gave you some personal satisfaction. But believing that that’s enough in order to be successful and self-realize (because I think that’s the last bit of the Maslow’s pyramid, isn’t it?) is a bit naive, isn’t it? I think that we forget about the fact that when we choose a certain path in life it doesn’t mean that I’ve made my bed, now I have to sleep in it. We’re totally allowed to change our circumstances, no matter what people tell us. And sometimes it might be that you need a little push, that you need a little bit of permission. And I always say: “Don’t look for permission and listen to yourself.” But sometimes it’s hard because the society and the circumstances that we grow up in – it might be your country or it might be the educational system there or the educational system in general – put you in those frames or in that little jail of thinking what you can do with your life. And maybe you think that you’re just meant to be stuck doing what you’ve been doing in only the way that you’ve been doing it. So for example, stuck at working at school, long hours, bureaucracy, being frustrated because that’s what you’ve chosen. And sometimes we assume that because we’ve put so much effort or have spent so much time working towards something or working in a job, then that it would be a waste to stop doing it. But to be honest, the way I see it now and the more I do this coaching work and work on my own mindset, the more I realize that the biggest waste is your own potential. The biggest waste is not doing something because it doesn’t matter whether you’ve been a teacher in a state school for 25 years or 2 years – it literally doesn’t matter. If you’re unhappy there, just stop doing it or change something about your circumstances because the society will always tell you: “Oh, but you can’t do anything else” or “What are you gonna do? At least you have a stable job.” Well, stability is not the only goal in life. As I said in my previous episode, your brain will always seek safety and comfort, but that doesn’t mean that you have to settle there. So, that’s one thing: those assumptions that the society makes and how we can, actually, change that at least in that micro world for ourselves.

[2] Then the second thing is the students’ expectations – usually very wrong expectations and assumptions. If you’ve been doing a little bit of study around how languages were historically taught and learned, you may have heard that we had all sorts of weird methods that haven’t been exactly effective, such as the grammar translation method where people were just looking at books and translating sentences, and that’s how they learned grammar. Did they ever learn how to speak? Maybe some did, but in general it wasn’t very indicative of communication and skills, and anything else. It was just basically translation and understanding, passive understanding of the language without the practical application of it. Then we had the audiovisual method, or just the auditory method where there were lots of repetition, all sorts of Callan methods – and I know it’s still effective because some people don’t need to understand the rules, they just learn chunks and this is absolutely enough for them. Then we had all sorts of focus on accuracy, and I think people generally have a very hard time adapting to new ideas. I find a great link here from language teaching methods to parenting methods. If you’re a parent, you may know that 50 years ago punishing kids physically was a completely normal and done thing. Nowadays, we’ve got research and we’ve got people who are able to tell us that that’s really detrimental and that’s really, really wrong to do because it has a really bad and strong impact on the future of the children. But people still don’t understand it. There are still people who punish kids physically. So, this will be the same for languages: there will still be people who think that if they translate sentences… Let me mention that: in my German classes in secondary school we were translating sentences and that’s it. We were never speaking because people found it hard to adapt to new methods or nobody ever taught them, or maybe the teacher at uni never had any sort of training on how to actually improve people’s communication skills. So, again, it might be that our students have expectations that are anchored in those old, old ways of thinking. For example, that language is just basically consuming more knowledge, more words, more grammar, and then this is how they will learn and be able to communicate – even if you give them some very practical examples. You know that you won’t be able to play a certain sport, like basketball, even if you know the rules because you have to practice. But it’s very hard for people to understand it if for many, many years the only thing that they knew was those old methods of consuming more knowledge. I think there is also another thing when people go to school and they have all sorts of different subjects that they learn, and most subjects are taught by basically somebody giving a lecture and then students taking notes and then basically memorizing all of that, then how can we expect that they will know that language is a completely different story? They won’t. We have to educate them on that. There is another thing as well: if people once heard something that sounded logical – for example, native speakers are the best, most proficient users of a language, so they are the best teachers – it’s a logical assumption. Let’s be honest. It’s not like it’s ridiculous when you first hear it. No, it’s something that actually sounds logical. Then no wonder students have an expectation that a native speaker should be their teacher because they might only associate a good teacher with a native speaker. I also have a digression to make here because I never know; I actually have this reflection that I don’t know what was first: the chicken or the egg. Whether the first was the marketing ploy of language schools and institutions saying we only have native speakers because they’re the best or whether the thought in consumers’ or customers’ or students’ head was “native speakers are the best teachers”. That’s something for us to reflect on: what we think was first but, anyways, it’s still very much present, isn’t it? It also might apply to the situation when students think that they want one to one classes while you would want them to study in groups or offer group classes; then it’s gonna be hard to convince them because you will still have to do the work of dissecting why they think one-to-ones are more effective. And they might be – I’m not saying that they’re always a bad idea – but very often teachers tell me: “I would want to offer group classes, but my students only want one-to-ones.” So, it’s up to you to figure out what’s blocking your students from seeing the benefits of group classes. 

[3] And then another thing is the ideas of how languages are learned in general. There are certain assumptions around: “Okay, people just need to learn more or jump from one level to another, and then everything will be fine, and they’ll be fluent.” And yes, while I do agree that you have to spend enough time studying and acquiring and learning how different things work, I also think people mainly put 99% of their effort into that and they never spend time practicing. Here’s an example: I’m a CELTA trainer and in the lessons that we observe on CELTA when the teachers are training to become qualified teachers, there is usually a certain pattern. So, if a teacher is teaching a lesson in which they have to introduce a certain grammar point, the lesson usually has a certain structure. (You might know what I’m talking about if you’ve been through CELTA or if you are a trainer maybe.) So, those teachers usually have to do some sort of a warmup. Then they have to introduce the grammar point in a good context. Then there is some practice, and at the end there is the freer practice – the most important bit, in my opinion. But very often what happens is that people put too much pressure on delivering that knowledge, and there is no time whatsoever for students to actually practice, which very often – and especially in terms of English – people have so much more awareness of the language than we even give them credit for. So, what they actually need in order to make progress is to practice, is to just bloody speak. But nobody gives them a chance because we think, and we also feel that kind of imposter syndrome, that if I don’t give them a new thing every week to learn, then they’re gonna complain. What if they won’t? What if all they need to feel like they’re making progress is a chance, a safe space for them to practice. So, all those ideas are really, really detrimental to everybody because I think they affect teachers and how they teach and over-prepare, and over-plan for lessons. That was my biggest struggle when I used to teach: over planning, over preparing because I always felt I need to give them more. What if that’s not the case? 

[4] The next thing is that we sometimes assume that students – and especially that’s when it comes to business – want certain things and they equal with things that they need. It could be: “I want a native speaker” or “I want to study grammar rules”, or “I want you to give me lists of words.” Students often have those sometimes ridiculous expectations (sometimes they are ridiculous, let’s be honest) or even demands. But it’s our job, and especially as business owners who should be in a way kind of the captains of that ship, and we should be deciding and be in control of what we actually offer because people’s results don’t depend on how much you give them. It depends on how you help them make progress in their particular situation. So, if there is a person who comes to you and says: “Oh, I just want to understand the tenses” but the person is absolutely fine with their grammar, like their grammar is at B2+ level, but then you notice is that their speaking is so inaccurate and it actually could use some practice; then, it is obvious that you should be focusing on that – even though they tell you that they want more grammar. Your responsibility lies in giving people what will actually help them make progress rather than what they want. Yes, there has to be balance between giving them what they want because they’re customers. I totally agree with that and it’s like a marketing strategy: sell them what they want, but give them what they need. But you have to practice that discernment: do they actually need what they want or could you give them less of that, but instead give them something that will actually have a real impact on them?

[5] Then there is an idea of having a talent for languages. You must have heard that there are so many people who claim that there is such a thing as a talent for languages. And I wouldn’t completely disagree with the fact that there are certain people who have certain predispositions or maybe they grew up in circumstances where it was easier – for example, I can totally imagine how my son who’s growing up in a bilingual environment, he’s gonna have it easier to learn another language because he’s been naturally a language learner since he was born – but again, I think people put too much pressure on themselves and the all-or-nothing thinking (which is actually connected to my other point). If I don’t have a talent for languages, I just have to accept that it will always be hard or that it will always be a matter of me having to work harder and just getting a grip. Maybe it’s not, maybe that student has just not found a way that would be pleasant, that would bring them joy into the learning. So, this is our job, again. 

[6] This is where I’m arriving at that last point: yes, we have a mission as teachers. We have a mission of changing the world, of making the world a better place by helping other people reach their goals – in this case, linguistic goals. But we know that there is so much beyond that, that people don’t study the language for the sake of studying the language. Language opens doors to them to other things that they can achieve in life. And remember, always have that perspective at the back of your head because it’s extremely important – especially in your day to day teaching – that you are not just helping somebody understand the language better or have more language in their head, because that doesn’t help anybody. You actually help them make progress in life in different areas, depending on your niche, depending on your specialism, depending on the needs of your students. That’s how it works. So, if students express any of those concerns, have a little bit of all-or-nothing thinking that they think they need a talent, that they think they need one-to-one classes, that they think they need a native speaker, or if there are things that are generally wrong assumptions about language teaching, teaching in general, you have the power to change it. This is it: the most important thing that you can understand and  take away from this episode is that I believe that the freer you are to make your own choices when it comes to who you teach, what you teach, what methods you use, what materials you use, the more likely it will be that you will actually make a change. 

[7] Imagine what kind of amazing possibilities and opportunities this presents to the language teaching world. Imagine a teacher in a language school who is given a set curriculum and a set coursebook and they just have to teach what they’re told to teach. Are they changing the world? I don’t think so. Maybe they’re helping people make some progress. Yeah, absolutely, totally agree with that, but are they actually making a meaningful change? I don’t think so. Imagine that having your own business and doing exactly what you feel is right – because you can totally challenge those wrong assumptions, those wrong expectations, the way people think about language learning, the wrong things that students think that they want or need – you have the power to change that. Isn’t that absolutely the best? Isn’t that absolutely the most important aspect – or maybe not most important because it depends what motivates you – but one of the most impactful things that your business can do: changing the perspectives, changing the world so that it understands better what is actually right and what is wrong. What if we all, what if all my clients (more than 200 people now) change the perspective of at least one person? The ripple effect of that is absolutely incredible. So, if you are still at that stage of: “Oh, well, I dunno what to do. I dunno if I should start. I dunno if I’m too old. I dunno. It’s just too hard”, just think about it. Think about what you could do and think about how it could influence the world on not a micro scale anymore, but a macro scale. It would change the perspective of the society, it would change the perspective of your students – so, there is a bunch of that. Maybe then they will be more aware and could make other people aware of how it actually works. This just literally brings tears to my eyes. 

So, that’s my ramble. Let me know what you think about it. Have you got any other ideas for things that are wrong with the language teaching world? Do you think we’ve got any influence to change that? I’m looking forward to your replies and I’ll see you again next week. Bye. 

It’s not your fault that you don’t know how to make good money as a teacher or how to market your teaching – nobody’s ever taught you but I’m on a mission to change that. Teachers make the world a better place and they can be excellent at business – they just need direction. That’s what I’m giving you here and on my YouTube channel under the same name. Make sure that you also follow me on Instagram @ ola_coaches_teachers, and check out my website: www.olakowalska.com to see if any of my paid offers, including my one-to-one coaching, my business foundation course, The Rocket, or my membership for teachers in business could be the right fit for you. 

I’ll see you soon in the next episode.