How to know whether you’ve found a good language teacher

I’ve done over 600 class hours learning Mandarin Chinese, the vast majority with teachers from GoEast, but also with several from other schools, freelance teachers, or simply Chinese people functioning as teacher but without the proper education for it.

Throughout these lessons, I’ve been making notes about my learning observations and my relationship with teachers. Here’s that summarised. I think this is useful for teachers who want a student perspective, but also for students looking to find a good teacher.

Summarised, a good teacher should have the following traits:

  • Adaptive to the student
  • Expert in language
  • Expert in teaching

But what does that mean? How do you grade that?

I think in short, a good teacher:

  1. Lets YOU speak, not her/himself
  2. Fully understands your target language (and if you are a beginner or elementary level, then your teacher must also be fluent in your current language)
  3. Is a guide (and a learning partner, especially on an intermediate level)

Let’s look into each one of them.

Lets YOU speak, not her/himself

I’ve seen teachers who talk a lot themselves, they will introduce a new word by saying it and saying what it means. And they’ll explain grammar points. But this alone doesn’t work, even if you do a lot of self-study. For two reasons.

The first reason is simply that you memorize it much better this way. The second reason is to verify whether you really understood the lesson. 

My best teachers always asked me, when I learned a new word: “Can you give me an example use?” and then sometimes I’d answer and the teacher would say: “Hm, no you cannot use it like this”, and clarify it.

This is key, because languages don’t overlap precisely. For instance, in Chinese 原本 and 本来 both kinda mean “originally” but you cannot use both in all situations just like in English. If your teacher does not let you speak, she/he doesn’t know you understood this. 

Good teachers create opportunities for you to speak. When I learned the sentence structure with “把” in Chinese, the teacher asked me how I make pasta (because he knew I regularly make pasta). I had to say several sentences:

  • To put the water in a pot
  • To put the pasta in the water
  • To put the vegetables and sauce in another pan

And in each of these sentences, it’s very natural to use “把”. This grammar part in Chinese is notoriously hard to learn. By making me use it with my own situation, I both learn and remember it way better rather than just reciting it.

Master of your target language 

A bad teacher will explain a grammar rule like this:
“It’s just like this, don’t ask why, just remember it!”

But a good teacher (who has studied the language in university) can tell you the logic behind a grammar rule (even if it’s an arbitrary logic). This makes it easier to remember, and it’s a better basis for when language adds more complexity to it on an intermediate or advanced level. 

A bad teacher doesn’t teach you radicals, so as you learn more characters you become infinitely confused with Chinese characters like 情qíng (love), 请qǐng (please) and 清qīng (clear). If he or she simply says the radical of 问Wèn (ask) is that of 门Mén (door), because to ask is a door to knowledge — but not explain that this is the sound part, then you’ll run into difficulty later on with characters such as 闲xián (idle), 困kùn (sleepy), and 闷mèn (depressed).

In Chinese, you can be afraid (害怕) or a thing can be scary (可怕) but these words aren’t interchangeable like “scared/scary” in English. A good teacher is consciously aware of this difference and warns you of this.

A lot of Chinese people also use 凯旋归来 even though it’s a pleonasm, or in Dutch people say “de prijs is te duur” (The price is too expensive) which is wrong; you can only say it’s too high.

A good teacher can easily explain the difference 未免, 难免, and 免得 (all mean avoidable but again, distinctly different). To use an English example, the difference between rationality and reason, or empathy and sympathy. Even synonyms like always or forever aren’t the same, or aid and help. 

This is especially needed for an intermediate language level and beyond. 

If you’re at a beginner level, it’s also necessary for your teacher to be fluent in your current language. How else would she or he explain words to you? And how else would she or he knows that you don’t understand a grammar structure because you misunderstood, or because the grammar in your current language is like that? 

To give an example:
In Chinese, you need to unlearn the sentence order and put time before place, before verbs and object. If your teacher isn’t familiar with English sentences, she or he won’t know you make this mistake because of this reason.

A good teacher is a guide 

A teacher should not be someone with an ego who bestows knowledge on you, but at the same time I’ve also seen too many teachers lift up their shoulders and ask their students: “So what shall we learn?”

I think this is not right. A student can explain her or his learning goals, preferred learning methods, and intensity. Here’s what that looks like for me:

  • I’m not a super disciplined and not a huge flashcard-fanatic
  • I don’t need to do an exam for my visa of university entry
  • I want to learn spoken language, not written language
  • Twice per week two hours of class is a good rhythm for me

Then a teacher should take the responsibility to think and say: “OK, here’s what we’re going to do.” She/he can recommend a book or method, focus on reciting texts together or words, or focus on small-talk to talk a lot, or or write a speech or article together.

The things you do in class should be mainly the things you cannot do on your own. If you spend most of your class reading to what you can read yourself, you’re wasting valuable teaching time. The same for extensive flashcards practice, or extensive listening.

A teacher who asks “What shall we learn?” may seem caring, but it’s not helpful. You are my guide, I come to you for guidance. Give me the confidence I can learn, but don’t put it on my shoulders.

…and a bit of a partner

Especially when you reach an intermediate level, a good teacher also becomes a partner in learning. You can discuss words together, you can ask what it means, and you study texts together. At an advanced level, this discussion is even more important.

Note that this is different from being a friend. A friend you can drink a beer with. I don’t need to relax or have a good time. I want to attack a text and at the end of the class, I want to understand the words and sentence structure in it. I want my teacher to push me and lets me be mentally fatigued when the class ends.

Other qualities in a teacher

You could add some other traits here: 

  • Shows you care
  • Is flexible in her or his time
  • Passionate about learning

These are either bonuses or just obvious (like, “I don’t want a teacher who punches me in the face”). It’s also not useful for knowing whether you have a good teacher or not.

If your teacher’s biggest benefit is that she or he is passionate about teaching Chinese, well, then I think it’s time to find a better teacher.

You could also say you want your teacher to have a great character, but this is more subjective. I’ve found that sometimes I clicked really well with a teacher if we had common interests, or they were more similar to my age. But again, this is subjective. Another point is, I would also want a teacher who speaks clear Putonghua (普通话), but this is also subjective: if you plan on living in one area for a long time, you may want a teacher who has a bit of the local accent.

What makes a good student

It’s only fair to look in the mirror as well, right?

  • Get off your phone during class
  • Try not to look up a character immediately, but first try to guess the meaning
  • I don’t think you must spend a fixed amount of homework every day, but a constant rhythm is good so your teacher knows what to expect in terms of preparation
  • Don’t complain about how tired or busy you are. Everyone is
  • During class, just be serious and make sure you have the energy for it, for instance take a walk before class starts, make a new coffee and get ready.
  • Look at your weak spots and work to improve them out of class, for instance with graded readers or YouTube videos
  • Give your teacher feedback on what works well and not. This can be a bit awkward if you say it out of the blue, so you can say it either out of the class in an email or text message, or say “OK it’s now been 1 month since we started, can I quickly feedback?” — you can also say “I really like the parts of class where I can make my own sentences” or something like that, this is useful feedback for a teacher
  • Create your own opportunities to speak and motivate yourself to learn your target language