I have been teaching in China for over 4 years, and during my time here, I have seen great teachers perform what looked like magic in a classroom. I would go in to observe a class, sitting in a chair, quietly in the back, but leave the room with my jar scraping the floor. Some people just have what it takes to be amazing teachers, and others, myself included, can sometimes struggle to find that thing, to make everything work, the way we want it to. I very often go into my classes, fully prepared, with the correct mental attitude, and yet, the class does not quite progress the way I want it to and it can be frustrating. So I started to take notice at the things that I know have worked in my own classroom, and combined it with things that I have seen other teachers do in theirs, to have great results. Here are some of the qualities I believe, can make a great ESL teacher in China.

A genuine relationship with the students

Knowing your students has, for me, always been one of the most important tools. By getting, to know my students I can establish a relationship with them, a relationship, in which, I am not just a foreign teacher that they have to listen to, but also a person who also has thoughts and feelings, as they do. I want to know about their lives, their hobbies and interest and in return, they want to know about mine. I am not saying you have to become best friends with all of your students, but if they like you as a person, they are more likely to respect you as a teacher than if they only see you as such. Researchers Deiro (1996) and Noddings (1992) found that teachers who genuinely care about their students have a higher impact on the student’s attitude, motivation and behavior. The students are more likely to work harder and become learners that are more successful. When you were in school, I am sure you were a better student around a teacher that you liked as a person, the same goes for your students. I have seen this with my own eyes. Students that I saw more often, spent more time getting to know and talk to, generally performed better in my classes and were always the good students, even helping me calm other students down when needed. Furthermore, some of the best teachers that I have seen and worked with, all really cared about their students and went and extra mile to get to know them, even some of the younger ones. My good friend Paul, who is a colleague of mine at my current school, is a great example of this. His students sometimes arrive long before their class starts, and he always takes the time to talk with them. They come directly to him, because to them, he is more than a teacher, he is a friend and because of that, they WANT to be in his class.

Talking with students outside of the classroom, leads me to another of the characteristics of a great ESL teacher.

Encouraging English conversation outside of the classroom

As ESL teachers, we spend a lot of time trying to get our students to talk during class. With some students, it can be an easy task, with other students it is a different story. I teach a variety of classes from one-on-one VIP classes to groups of six. My VIP students generally talk a lot during class, most of them also in English. A few of them, can do a full 90-minute lesson without a single word said in Chinese, and the rest can pretty much do 80%. The students that do really well are also the ones that I can speak to outside of the classroom. In addition, as I mentioned above, Paul’s students who talk to him before and after class, are generally doing better than the students who do not. Developing a friendly relationship with the students will make them more likely to talk with you before and after class, if you so choose and they will likely speak up more during class as well. I started QQ groups for all of my classes and VIP students and I spend some time each week, making sure I am visibly online. Most of the time, I am contacted by the parents of my students, but every once in a while, the students themselves reply to my messages and we can have a short chat. Again, the students who do well in my classes are the ones who speak English to me outside the classroom as well. Even if they are some of the weaker students in the class, they are the most active and engaged.

Understanding the cultural background of your students

Learning about and understanding the cultural background of your students, can save you a lot of grief in the classroom, but it can definitely also help earn the respect of your students. Westerners tend to have a different set of ideas and methods for teaching than Chinese people do. Understanding these differences, and how to use them to your advantage, can be very beneficial. Also, understanding how the Chinese students spend their time after school and how much (or how little time) they have to do homework for each subject, can help you better understand why your students act the way they do. Learning the language, the culture, important holidays and festivals and customs is important. Moreover, some of the best teachers I have seen have done just that. They understand how to treat their students in the classroom, using familiar methods for teaching them, but also working in the methods that we are taught to use. They help students prepare for holiday events as well as take an interest in them, wanting to learn more from the students. On many occasions, I have seen English teachers who spend the last 5 or 10 minutes of a class, learning Chinese from their own students. It is an interesting turn of the table that allows the students to be in control, even if just for a while. And they get to see, what it is like, standing in front of them, as a teacher.

Being passionate about what you do

Becoming a skilled English Language teacher is not necessarily difficult. Many travel to China to just get a TEFL certificate or similar, and then they start teaching. I did so myself. Learning the basics, the methodology and skillets used to teach in a classroom is not a difficult feat. Putting them to good use can be a challenge but not too difficult. However, those who really shine in the classroom are the ones who not only have the skills and the knowledge, but also a passion for teaching and for what they do. They are the teachers who seem like natural leaders, who can control a class of little monsters that no one else can. They are the teachers who take great personal pride in their student’s achievements and see a student who is struggling in class, not as a failure, but as an opportunity. Unfortunately, I think in China, there are many teachers who come here, just to find an easy job and score some cash. And those teachers can be easy to spot. I am often impressed when I see new teachers who come into work much earlier than they have to, in order to plan for their classes and observe others before they start their own teaching. Those who will come and ask questions, just because they want to learn more, not because they really needed a specific piece of advice. When you observe them teach, they will come and ask you how they did, and how they can improve, because they want to do a good job. They set themselves apart from those, who just want to earn money and just barely do what they must.

Understanding the needs of each student, and why they act as they do

Every student is different, learns in a different way and at different speeds. Some students will suck of knowledge like a sponge, others will need to hear it again, and others still will have to, somehow, link your content with a physical action in order to learn. Understanding how each of your students learn can be a giant task, but it is also, what sets great teachers apart from good ones. I have not mastered this skill yet, but I have seen teachers who have and their classrooms and their students transform. The way they present new vocabulary and grammar to their students is custom tailored to fit all the students in that class. Using a variety of methods, using different skills such as listening, touching, writing and seeing, they engage all of their students at some point, making sure that they all understand the new material. This is also a key element in understand why some students sometimes act out in class. It is not always, because they are inherently naughty students, but children can get frustrated when there is something they do not understand, and that causes them to act out on you. However, keeping them all engaged, targeting their specific needs, with help keep them in their seats but on their toes, because even if they do not understand right now, they know that in a few seconds, you will show them in a way that they will.