Welcome to English. I’m your guide, Jen.

How to shift your mindset about your role as a language teacher and what it gives your students

Jen Hill
6 min readMay 24, 2021
Upper Waterton Lake, Waterton National Park, Alberta, Canada (taken by author)

Consider an activity such as this for your students:

I would like you to think of one of your favourite travel destinations. Imagine the sights, the sounds, how this place makes you feel. Find a picture online of this place (or upload one from your computer) and put it on a Google slide (our shared class slides), and write a sentence or two of why this place is important to you.

Now, speak with your partner or with the class about this place. Your speaking partner is going to ask you an unusual question. Ready? It’s this: what can you see along the way?

I’m a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in the city of Prague, the Czech Republic. For the purpose of context, what I am proposing is best used with teenage or adult learners, students who have some inner motivation to learn a language. It is useful if the students have achieved a solid A1 level, or are beginning with A2, for this method to be successful. I use this method with individual students and small groups.

I am also a supervisor, trainer, and mentor for other teachers within my language school. I observe my teachers and then give feedback on their lessons. I’m particularly passionate about reducing TTT (teacher talking time) and teaching without textbooks.

After years of teaching my own lessons and observing the lessons of my teachers, I have the following hypotheses to share:

Hypothesis 1: Most teachers are addicted to authority and control. Lessons are planned and executed at the direction of the teacher. They are paid to teach, the student is there to learn.

Hypothesis 2: All students are capable of saying something in the target language and have a desire to express themselves.

Hypothesis 3: Students retain language better when the topics are related to their own lives and experiences.

Everything hinges (is dependent) on hypothesis number one. So let’s change it.

I promise you, when the teacher gives up control of the lesson and gives autonomy back to the student, magic happens. Learning happens. The student learns the language by speaking it. Their response time lessens, their confidence grows, their vocabulary expands.

So throw away the textbook. No more uninteresting topics, vocabulary banks, matching exercises and gap-fills. Let the student learn a language by speaking it.

Stop teaching so damn hard. Just hold a space. The student will fill it with authentic language. Trust me.

We are not teaching. We are creating conditions for someone to learn.

Rule 1. Shut up.

I know it sounds harsh, but too many teachers just can’t stay quiet. They have to help the student find the right word, they have to explain the difference between this and that, they can’t handle the discomfort of watching a student struggle to express themselves.

Silence is courageous.

If you have a hard time being quiet, make sure you always have a cup of tea or water nearby. If you want to say something, take a sip instead. Don’t help the student, not unless the student asks for help. They don’t know a word? Move on. They don’t need it. They’ll manage without it. They always do.

Rule 2. Correct mistakes fearlessly and often.

Once you know the students’ level and the language they should be able to produce, correct them consistently and with kindness. Write their mistake into the chat, put an X in front so they know it’s a mistake (for example: X I look forward to see you next week). If they don’t know the grammar (that this is an +ing form), then you can teach it. Once you teach it, correct it every time you hear it. Use gap fills (I’m great ___ cooking, Jen!). Keep a record of these mistakes in your own online document and review it at the end of the lesson and the end of the next. Don’t teach something beyond their level. It’s not needed.

Not every moment is a teaching moment.

Rule 3. Follow the student, and be prepared to open up.

Most students, when given the opportunity to speak freely about their own lives and experiences, will speak freely and gladly. Most students will also ask you questions in return, about your life, your weekend, your plans. Please share a little. (Not too much, watch that TTT!) But remember, this is not really a conversation. This is still a language lesson. Ask thoughtful questions in return, consistently turn the focus back to the student. Go wherever the student wants to go. This is their language, after all. This is their learning.

You are just a tour guide, showing them the gems you know are along the way. Slow down. Stop and smell the metaphorical roses.

I live in the Czech Republic. That means I’m a student as well, because I’m learning Czech. After four years of Czech, I’m comfortably in the A2 level of the language. This means I have trouble saying exactly what I want to say sometimes. I make lots of mistakes. I have excellent teachers, who give me lots of space to speak, and correct me to my level. They let me speak about topics that I love. They give me grammar if I ask for it. (I don’t often ask, but sometimes I do.) They model the correct forms when they ask me questions, or when they answer my own questions.

I’m training my Czech teachers to teach me the way I like to learn.

Let your students train you.

Some final thoughts.

  1. Yes, this means that the students have to take more responsibility for their language learning. Discuss it openly, if needed. This can be a difficult shift from the educational models of the past, when students passively absorbed whatever the teacher was talking about. Give them time. Ask great questions. Always remember rule 1.
  2. If you’ve been teaching with textbooks for a long time and need more help in the transition to this communicative approach, you may want to ask the student what success and improvement means to them. For me, in the Czech language, success means being able to leave the capital, go to some random town, and manage every single little interaction that may occur without resorting to English. Success differs from student to student. Your idea of success may be VERY different from your students’. Let go of your own need for success. It doesn’t matter. You are successful when your student is successful.
  3. Want to have a large course load without losing your mind? Prepare one general topic for the week. If a student can’t maintain the conversation without help, go to your topic. Any topic will do. (My last topic was about caves, because I saw one recently on a trip. Guess what? People like talking about caves.)
  4. At the beginning of a lesson, simply ask: what do you want to do today? Ask this question often enough, and the student really learns that you mean it, this is their language, their space, their time. They are in the driver’s seat. Believe me, they will soon learn to love being in control of the lessons. If the lesson turns into therapy, you may need to establish stronger boundaries. If you’re okay with it, go with the flow. If you’re uncomfortable, say something.
  5. Here’s my simple yet magical tip for group lessons: train your students to ask follow-up questions. When their peer says something, invite the students to ask follow-up questions. (I use a gesture for this, and now I don’t even need that very often anymore, because they are genuinely more interested in each other.)
  6. Assign creative and interesting homework. Use articles, videos, ask the student to research something. This can provide all the fuel you need for the following lesson.
  7. This may sound like a lazy, easy approach. Think again. This requires active listening, deep trust, total focus, and persistence. Your work takes place in the continuous notes you take, the errors you correct, the space you hold, the creative homework you assign.
  8. But when it comes to the lesson itself? Relax. Let the student lead the way.
Meadow wildflowers in front of the entrance to Waterton. (photo by author)

Learning a language is a lifelong journey of discovery and exploration. Slow down. Enjoy it. Your students will thank you.



Jen Hill

Just a girl in Prague, writing about love, teaching, and spirituality. I enjoy shamanism, writing novels, and drinking craft beer.