‘He who dares to teach must never cease to learn’!

Behaviorist B. F. Skinner was one of the pioneers of the idea that the human being is born with a tabula rasa (an empty brain), and throughout the course of our lives we learn how to do things.

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This goes for everything under the sun – starting from a baby who learns how to walk after repeatedly standing up and toppling over and going all the way to professionals in a variety of fields who acquire their skills by extensive studies, but mainly by trial and error. This is, of course, a very simple and basic way of summarizing the theory of behaviorism.

In relation to teaching he was even quoted saying that “teachers must learn how to teach … they need only to be taught more effective ways of teaching.” Some say that people are either born teachers or not, speaking of this as a talent or vocation. Others, including Skinner, say that just like any other skill, teaching is something that one can acquire.
Regardless of how and by which process teachers become teachers, the most important thing is that they deliver their message to their students, and in order to do so there are various aspects which they have to keep in mind – aspects that often go beyond how well they know the subject that they are teaching!

What must be taken into consideration when going into a classroom?
Sometimes teachers go into class with the intention of teaching a particular grammar point, let’s say the Present Simple. However, it is also important to take other things into consideration, such as the different skills that teacher wants or needs to include; or the topic/s used in the lesson. However the most important part of the lesson is always the student. There are various aspects which must be considered and these include the age, linguistic ability as well as the nationality of each individual student in the class.

The learners
Whatever the subject that you might be teaching, your students are always the most important feature of your lesson and you need to take various things into consideration. On entering your classroom for the first time certain aspects might be immediately obvious. These include the number of students, the gender ratio, the apparent age, the way in which they are interacting with each other (if they are interacting at all) and also their goals, purposes and learning expectations.

Why are these aspects important?
Well, basically the learners determine the success or failure of your lesson, which therefore implies that a teacher cannot go into class with just any lesson. For example, there is a difference between preparing a lesson for two students and preparing one for twelve. Although pair work could still be done in both cases, one must dedicate more time for feedback when the group is larger. It is also important for the teacher to choose the topics wisely – it is one thing if the class contains a group of students of the same gender (in which case it might be easier to pick out certain discussion topics), and a completely different story if the group is mixed (as is generally the case in most ESL or EFL classrooms). When it comes to the selection of discussion topics it is also vital to take into consideration the age of the students – topics which are discussed in adult EFL classes might be too heavy, difficult and in some cases even boring, for teens and kids.

Student interaction is another key factor. If the teacher goes into class and finds that the students are already talking in English; that is a sign that they are (very likely) a multi-lingual group and that they are quite keen on beginning their learning experience. This is quite different from a situation in which a teacher walks into a room and finds students sitting down quietly.

Another important aspect is obviously the goals and purposes of the students. Why are they learning English? Do they need it, or is it simply something that they are doing for fun? This would also influence their performance in class as well as the topics that the teacher takes for the lessons. There is a big difference between Klaus who works in a multi-national company and needs English to be able to interact with his foreign business partners, and Gemma who loves travelling and wants to be able to make many different friends from different countries. In Klaus’s case he will probably have to prove that his English has improved once he goes back home, whereas in Gemma’s case there is no one to monitor her improvement, which probably leads to her having a more laid back approach to learning. This is not to say that one will learn more than the other, but obviously, the teacher must take all of these points into consideration to make sure that the learning experience for both these students is equally fruitful.