What Makes A Good Teacher?|
Diane Breach, M.A.
To complete this two-part article, the author looks at classroom
implications and cross-cultural comparisons.
Part 1 of this article, published in our November 2004
teacher cannot know everything. If I don’t know
issue, had finished by discussing the Vietnamese class-
something I will try to look it up for you, but you
room virtues of “sympathy” and “strictness.” The dis-
should come to ask me after class because the
cussion continues here with further consideration of
questions you ask are too difficult for the normal
how these values play out in the classroom.
student and take too much time to explain. My main
aim for the lesson is to give the universal knowledge
Strictness and Sympathy In the Classroom
to all the members in the class. If I only answer the
question to you, the other students will be not
Situations and Responses
successful in their class.”
Of course I will research more materials and
These situations were based on lists of problems and
overview my knowledge so that I can improve my
scenarios provided by Vietnamese teachers.
ability to answer her.
responses are quoted from interviews with fourth-year
Situation 2: One new student in your class is rather
unattractive and awkward. He has some trouble social-
Situation 1: You are a new English teacher. There is
izing with the other students. Yet he is very hardwork-
one very gifted student in your 12th grade class. She has
ing and eager to participate in your class. He often vol-
been studying English for seven years. Her family is very
unteers to answer questions even though the other stu-
rich, and she has many language learning resources—
dents laugh at his poor pronunciation. One day, you
tapes, videos, magazines, and books in English. She also
want to do group work in your class and you put him in
took extra classes from a foreign teacher at a Foreign
a group with three girls who are excellent students and
Language Center to improve her listening and speaking.
close friends. The girls look annoyed. One girl comes
She is very proud of her English ability. Sometimes in
over to you and quietly asks if you can please put the
class she asks questions you do not know the answer to.
boy in a different group. You already know that no one
You suspect she is trying to embarrass you or make you
else in the class really wants to work with him either. So
look stupid. What would you do?
you disagree and quietly tell the student that the boy
will be in her group for today’s lesson. She goes back to
First, I can praise the student who ask
her group and begins working. However, whenever the
question for their longing to get to know more about
boy tries to say something, the girl and her friends
the subject. And after that, I should talk to the class
ignore him. Eventually they turn their backs to him and
that the question doesn’t belong to the lesson they are
do not include him in any of their conversation. What
studying now and there isn’t enough time to answer
would you do?
the question at that time. And I will tell the student
who ask the question to meet me after class.
Response to the group: I will stand nearby to this
[When we meet] I will tell her that “I always
group; therefore they must communicate to him.
encourage all of you to improve your knowledge by lis-
Whenever he says something that is good, I will praise
tening to the tape or reading further, or anything to
him. If it is not good, I will say nothing. By doing so,
improve your skill. It is good, and I always encourage.
the other members may realize that he is not very bad
But, it is not good if you show off your knowledge in a
as they acted towards him.
boastful attitude. Especially toward me. I am your
Response to the whole class: I think this situation
teacher, and a teacher is not a dictionary, so the
usually happen in reality. And, the situation is rather
Teacher’s Edition 17
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difficult, but I think I will tell the class a story about a
their house to find out about their conditions. And
horse and a donkey. The donkey and the horse both
then, I will hold a meeting with the leaders of my class
belong to a boss, they have to carry a lot of goods on
to ask them if they know the situation of their friends.
their back. And, because the donkey have to carry
And if they don’t know, I will tell them. I will ask them
more and the horse don’t have to carry very much, the
to plan to help them. Maybe they have to send some
donkey asked the horse to carry a little more. And the
excellent students in the class to help them revise and
horse disagree with him. And, after that, because of
learn the lessons in the break time between lessons.
having to carry too much, the donkey become exhaust-
And, they should plan to send some other students to
ed and died. And all the goods was loaded to the horse.
come to their home in the free time to help them with
And the lesson from this story is that if you don’t help
their work so that the poor students can have more
the weak, you will have more troubles and sadness for
time for studying. I will also ask some students from
yourself in the end. And I will tell them that we should
good families to help me to get the books or some
learn from the way he is so hard-working and eager in
money so that we can support them to study.
the class. And, he can learn from you to improve his
Response to poor students and families:
English ability and pronunciation. We must to work
I will meet
together to achieve the mutual benefit.
the poor students at another time and tell them that I
sympathize with their situation and that they needn’t
Situation 3: You have a student who is very well
be ashamed. I will tell them that they are very good
behaved and hardworking, but not very good at learning
person because they are responsible for his family.
English. She comes to your house a month before her
But, in the future, they will be better if they are respon-
exam and brings you an envelope. She asks you to
sible for their life by studying hard. I will talk with
please “help” her because her parents will be so disap-
them that the only way to improve your problem is to
pointed and angry with her if she fails the exam. What
study. When you study well, you will have a good job
would you do?
in the future, and at that time you will improve your
life and you can help your family very much. I think
Response: I think the “help” in quotation marks is
you will help them the most if you try to do this. I will
popular these days. Of course I don’t receive the enve-
help you, and your classmates will help you. Please do
lope, because that is not the “help” for her. But, if I do
not be discouraged, and we will try to help you to over-
like that, I will do the bad thing for her. Because she is
come your difficulties.
a student, so maybe she is immature; and if I do like
Also, I will meet with the students’ parents. Firstly,
that, I will damage the character of a growing child.
I will compliment and praise them because they pay
And I will say to her that, “You have good behavior, so
money and try to let their children come to school.
you are not stupid. A person who have good behavior
This means that they love their child and must make
is usually very wise. And I think a month is maybe
sacrifices to pay the school fees and tuition. Maybe
enough time for you to improve your knowledge and
because of this, I know that they think education has
pass the exam because you are very hardworking. So,
importance. But, I will also tell them that if the child
you should bring this envelope to home; and if you
attend school, he also needs some time to study,
really want to make your parents happy, you should
because now he is too tired and busy, so he can’t learn
try to study. And, whenever you need help, I will help
well. I will ask them for sending some good students
you.” And I can explain for her the things she doesn’t
to their home to help them sometimes. Also, I tell that
understand. And I can help her to find a better way to
working only solves the problem now, immediately,
study and a better way to review the lessons well.
but not in the future. If their son has no knowledge,
so he cannot find a good job to help his family more
Situation 4: A few of the students in your class are from
and more. I think they will be willing for me and the
very poor families, so they must work after school to
other students to help them for the sake of they love
help their families. They do not have time to study like
their son so much.
the other students in the class. Often, they do not do
Situation 5: Some of your students are very talkative in
their homework and cannot answer your questions in
class. They often read magazines or chat in Vietnamese
the class. What would you do?
about topics that are not relevant to the lesson. Every
Response within class:
Of course, with poor stu-
time you turn around to write on the chalkboard, you
dents, I feel emotion for them. Firstly, I will come to
hear a lot of talking. What should you do?
Teacher’s Edition 17
— 29 —
Response: Of course I want to say that I feel so angry
will give prompts to my students. And, it depends on
with them; but I will not express my emotion, because
them. If she is very good, she will only need a little
I think that I must think first about my methods. If the
help like that. If it is bad student, even with the
students don’t pay much attention to my lesson, I have
prompts, he still does not know the answer. In this sit-
to look again to see if my lesson is boring or not.
uation I will fail him if his level is far, far too low. So,
Because, once the students get involved to the lesson,
I will help them, but not give the direct answer. We can
they don’t have time to talk with everyone around.
give some hints or prompts. Also, the students who
Because I am too strict, I will also punish them if they
work very hard may have more assist from me. I don’t
don’t obey me. First, I will scold the students who
like this way, but I have to do like other people.
behave badly. Maybe I will make them stand up and
talk in English about the subject they are talking
about in Vietnamese. Probably this is difficult for
them, so they will be embarrassed, and I will give
Although many cultural distinctives could be
them a bad mark if they can’t speak fluently. Or, I can
explored through these scenarios and responses, I have
ask them to write answers to some difficult questions
chosen to single out the following:
about the lesson. I will take their papers and mark
• Privacy is not emphasized. Teachers are not expect-
them seriously. If they don’t do well, they will get low
ed to conceal their knowledge about students’ family or
mark. After several times of doing this, they know that
economic situations, but may freely express them to
they must pay attention to the lessons.
other students or parents in seeking help.
Situation 6: You teach at a Foreign Language Center.
• Assessment can be used as a tool for punishment. It
Your Center offers special examinations—English Levels
is perfectly acceptable and even expected that teachers
1, 2, and 3. Many of your students are taking the exam
will assess students and assign low grades in order to
because they need to get into the next level in order to
punish lazy students and motivate them to work harder.
get a job, or to get a promotion in the job they are in. So
• One must accept and work with institutionally
the exam is quite important for their future. Each
This was notable in the final
student will receive either a “Passing”or a “Failing”grade.
scenario involving testing. Every interviewee expressed
You will give the exam, but other teachers will grade it.
dissatisfaction with the situation. However, each con-
You feel that the exam that you must give is very unfair.
cluded that she had no choice other than to help the stu-
It is not appropriate for the level of the students, but is
dents. No one recommended requesting a change in the
instead far too difficult. You also know that many other
teachers will be “helping” their students by providing
I further explored the acceptance of institutionally
some of the answers for them. You are afraid that if you
imposed guidelines by returning to several of the inter-
do not “help”your students, they will be the only ones to
viewees. I asked if, in Situation 6, they would consider
fail. You feel that their English is at the same level as the
gathering other teachers who were also unhappy with
students in the other classes who will be receiving
the system to meet with the administration to request a
“help.” So it would be unfair to your students if all the
more appropriate test, or to offer, as a committee of
other students appear to be much better than them.
teachers aware of learners’ actual levels, to write such a
What would you do?
test. The respondents said they would not do this for
fear of angering the administration. One respondent
Response: I think in Vietnam, usually have like this.
concluded,“We haven’t the right to complain. We only
So, in the examination I can act like the thing the sit-
have the right to obey.”
uation requires me to do. If the test is too difficult, I
Teachers are not expected to conceal their knowledge about
students’ family or economic situations, but may freely express them
to other students or parents in seeking help.
Teacher’s Edition 17
— 30 —
Interviews With Vietnamese Teachers
express sympathy by being aware of social, family, and
economic conditions of students, and by advising or
The goal of these interviews was to view from
assisting them in these areas.
Vietnamese teachers’ perspectives the differences
In terms of differences in classroom style, most
between their own teaching and the teaching of
Vietnamese teachers felt that Western teaching method-
Westerners, and to gather suggestions for foreigners
ology is different, perhaps more creative and less cur-
seeking to adapt to Vietnamese educational settings.
riculum-bound. Foreign teachers focus on parts of the
Initially, teachers expressed their own values regarding
curriculum they feel are most essential, and supplement
the characteristics of a good teacher. These closely par-
the curriculum with extra activities. Several teachers
alleled the student views collected in Cycle One. Every
noted that they cannot teach this way because in
teacher interviewed mentioned knowledge as the most
Vietnam syllabus design is imposed and must be fol-
important characteristic of a good teacher, and good
lowed exactly. For most teachers, deviation from a cur-
teaching methodology as a secondary characteristic.
riculum is impossible because they do not write their
Additionally, three teachers mentioned sympathy, and
own tests, but simply prepare students for ones given by
two mentioned strictness. Two also mentioned that a
the school. Teachers were also asked about potential
good teacher must love students and love her profession.
problems that could arise in a foreign teacher’s class-
Teachers connected these views with Vietnamese
room. Most of the problems mentioned were linked to
traditions through the concept of “losing face.” They felt
students’ passivity, lack of creativity, or inability to
that being knowledgeable as a teacher was a cultural
express themselves clearly in English.
value closely connected with the fear of “losing face”
Teachers then advised that foreign teachers who
before one’s students by being unable to answer a ques-
want to be successful in Vietnam should focus on devel-
It was also noted that famous scholars in
oping a good relationship with the teaching staff and
Vietnamese history were known for their consideration
their students. They also strongly recommended that a
of or sympathy toward their followers. Strictness was
new foreign teacher observe several classes taught by
also praised as a traditional virtue. One interviewee
Vietnamese instructors in order to understand ability
noted: “This [strictness] is traditional. As for my case, I
levels and Vietnamese student-teacher interaction pat-
had strict teachers when I were at school, and when I
terns. All the teachers felt that foreign teachers should
was at college. And I admired the teachers who had
make an effort to understand Vietnamese history, cul-
good knowledge as well as strictness. They had a good
ture, traditions, and language. A final recommendation
influence on me.”
was that foreign teachers should make every effort to be
In my questioning of Vietnamese teachers regarding
aware of the purposes of the courses they teach. They
the differences between their view of a good teacher and
should realize that “fluency”may not be the goal of every
a more Western view, several of the teachers said,“I think
course. They should find out what skills the school
it is the same,” or “I think there is no difference.” Two
expects them to teach students.
teachers said they could not really answer this question
because they had never been abroad or had a foreign
E-Mail Interviews With Foreign Teachers
teacher themselves. One teacher who has worked exten-
sively with both Vietnamese and foreign teachers felt that
the biggest difference was in the way teachers are
The purpose of these e-mail interviews was to deter-
expected to be considerate of their students.
mine what cultural differences foreign teachers may
According to this teacher’s analysis, Western teach-
have experienced in teaching in Vietnam, and to under-
ers are expected to be considerate by paying attention
stand steps they have taken to reconcile misunderstand-
to the learning styles, expectations, or academic con-
ings these differences may have caused.
cerns of their students. They express sympathy and con-
First, these foreign teachers, all of whom were
sideration for students through attention to academic
American, were asked what they believe to be the most
issues. But they are not expected to know the social or
important characteristics of a good teacher.
family circumstances of their learners.
responses are summarized in Figure 1. After identifying
teachers, on the other hand, plan their teaching with no
their own views, foreign teachers were asked to com-
concern for learning styles or student input. Rather, they
ment on ways in which they thought their own ideals
Teacher’s Edition 17
— 31 —
Figure 1. American teachers’ views on the characteristics of a good teacher.
The number in parantheses indicates the number of mentions each characteristic
(1) A good teacher inspires, motivates, or challenges students to learn, think, or consider
things in new ways. (9)
(2) A good teacher is competent and knowledgeable (but not all-knowing). (8)
(3) A good teacher is flexible enough to adapt to student needs and to seize teachable
(4) A good teacher takes a genuine interest in (cares about) her students and is aware of
their academic and emotional needs. (7)
(5) A good teacher knows how to communicate, that is, uses effective methods to commu-
nicate in a way that is clear and interesting. (6)
(6) A good teacher is consistent, responsible, dependable, and fair. (5)
(7) A good teacher is a lifelong learner. (4)
(8) A good teacher appreciates and respects the value of each student, and acknowl-
edges the uniqueness of her contributions. (3)
(9) A good teacher is humble and willing to admit when she makes a mistake. (3)
regarding a good teacher might differ from their stu-
without any errors.
dents’ views. An overwhelming majority focused on the
My students think that a good teacher would correct
topic of knowledge, with a few comments regarding
them every time they make a mistake.
error correction as well. Quoted sample responses:
Most students believe that a teacher is a fountain of
My students think that a good teacher should correct
every mistake constantly and teach the same way
knowledge and their main responsibility is to pass on
they have been taught all their lives. And I feel that a
that knowledge to the student. Basically, a teacher
good teacher should equip them with the skills to
should know everything...They are not as concerned
think critically and to use a variety of tools (hopeful-
about learning to be independent learners as they are
ly, this includes their brains) so they can correct
about simply having the information that they need to
themselves and explore different possible answers to
transfer to the exam.
I think my students think that a teacher needs to be
In addition, respondents were asked to describe ways in
incredibly knowledgeable—nearly all-knowing!!!
which their classroom behavior or style differed signifi-
I’m under the impression that Vietnamese students
cantly from that of their Vietnamese colleagues. The
view a good teacher as a strict teacher—one who car-
most frequently occurring responses were:
ries all the knowledge and imparts some of that
• Their classroom behavior is more humorous
knowledge to the quiet, respectful students who sit
(entertaining, funny, silly) than that of their Vietnamese
there waiting to absorb it.
• Their classroom behavior is more casual (friendly,
Students in Vietnam think a good teacher knows all
open, informal) than that of their Vietnamese colleagues.
the answers and pours their knowledge into them. The
• Their methodology requires a great deal more partici-
whole philosophy is that they are empty cups and the
pation and interaction from students. In particular, they
teacher is the teapot waiting to pour into them. A good
ask for more oral communication in English than
teacher is strict. Her/his teaching should be flawless,
Vietnamese teachers expect.
Teacher’s Edition 17
— 32 —
The teachers also described potential problems that
gradually when it is most useful to student learning.
could arise from these cultural differences. Many of
Teaching grammar: everybody’s classic, ‘Don’t want to,
them noted that students may wrongly equate “fun”with
but I will.’ After all, the students are tested on it.
“easy” or think that because they are enjoying them-
selves they are not learning. Some students may be
I have found that students like the interaction and
resistant to communicative activities or group work
constructive learning activities; however, they also
because they feel they can learn only from the teacher.
want to know the best way to memorize grammar
Such students may feel that if the teacher is not lectur-
points and vocabulary for the exams that they take.
ing, she is not fulfilling her teaching responsibilities or
Students’ entire lives are aimed at doing well on the
they may think that they can be lazy because of the
educational system of exams because through these
more relaxed classroom atmosphere.
objective exams their futures are based. Though I
These same foreign teachers also explained ways
would love my students to learn vocabulary and
they have adapted their teaching to meet their students’
grammar through conversational practice, I know
expectations and address these problems:
that my students want some kind of special formula
or rule to help them logically understand the English
I lecture more—I find that giving students specific
language. I must balance fluency-based activities and
information every class keeps them from viewing the
the communicative approach with accuracy-based
lesson as a “play session” where the students may feel
activities and the grammar translation approach.
they are learning nothing concrete.
The last couple of semesters I’ve been more strict—less
I have lectured more and prepared well outside of
tolerant of students being late, not standing to answer
class for possible questions the students might ask me.
a question, sleeping, or goofing off in class. I realized
I make sure that lecture and note-taking precede any
that that’s normal behavior for their Vietnamese
and all communicative activities. If students don’t
teachers and the students aren’t going to have a prob-
have notes in their notebook, they feel they like they
lem with me doing it too. Since I teach “informal”
haven’t learned anything. At the beginning of the next
classes that don’t have grades, marks, or strict atten-
class, I orally “drill” them on what they should have
dance policies, I think it’s helped some of the students
learned from the communicative activity the week
take the class a little more seriously. I think [the stu-
before. This drilling serves two purposes. First, it
dents] appreciate and respect a teacher who’s stricter
proves to them that they have indeed “learned” some-
than I had been at the beginning.
thing. Secondly, it helps to prepare them for the exam.
Before I use a different technique, I explain it to stu-
When I plan each lesson, I ask myself, “How would I
dents. After each technique, I have them assess what
test students on this?” Then my weekly review ques-
they learned and how well they learned it. I might do
tions reflect potential exam questions. This is impor-
this through quizzes or discussions.
tant because students are so exam-focused in Vietnam.
My students know that review questions at the begin-
As can be seen, these changes mainly involved lec-
ning of class may be on the exam, so it motivates them
turing more, explaining grammar, following textbooks
to come to class on time and alleviates some of their
more closely, being stricter, and explaining new methods
fears about how the exam will relate to the fun games
they played in class.
Overall Discussion of the Research
Many of the Vietnamese students respect strict class-
room structure and are less familiar and perhaps less
comfortable with creative lessons. While teaching in
Vietnam, I’ve had to use more drills and follow books
more closely for their benefit. I haven’t been able to
A weakness of this project was its limited data tri-
make my lessons as communicative as I’d like. I’ve
angulation. This was primarily due to the time restraints
also had to realize that a teacher in Vietnam is seen as
of the project and the difficulty of collecting data in a
the ONLY one with the knowledge. Therefore, the stu-
timely fashion. Greater collaboration with and input
dents don’t see the value of independent or peer learn-
from experienced Vietnamese teachers would have
ing. I must accept this philosophy and stretch it only
greatly increased the scope and depth of insight of the
Teacher’s Edition 17
— 33 —
project. Despite their willingness to help, many of these
specific aspects of my own teaching. Next semester, I
teachers carried full teaching loads at the university and
plan to conscientiously show sympathy to my students
taught in additional evening programs. This, coupled
by becoming more aware of social and family situations
with the distance many of them lived from campus, pre-
that have helped to shape their identities in the class-
sented formidable scheduling challenges. To avoid this
room. I plan to do this by interacting more intentional-
problem, future research involving teachers might prof-
ly with the Head Teacher responsible for disseminating
it by including time from the teachers’ summer holiday
relevant student background information. I would also
into the research schedule.
like to explore the way Vietnamese teachers use advice
Another difficulty was that the processing of data,
to express sympathy.
particularly the data collected in Vietnamese, was often
A practical concern which will shape my future
dependent on outside help and required a great deal of
teaching is that of strictness in the classroom. I hope to
waiting on my part. By the time the data was finally
begin acting upon my new awareness of this topic as I
processed, it was too late in the semester to implement
begin the next semester. I would particularly like to
many changes in classroom policy without being unfair
develop new procedures for assigning, checking, and
to students. Thus, the actual implementation of and
grading homework on a more regular basis. As I devel-
reflection on actions suggested within the research had
op these procedures, I expect to actively evaluate stu-
to be postponed.
dent responses to these changes. Because the subjects I
teach—pronunciation and listening—are not writing-
based, I had not considered giving a great deal of home-
work. I had certainly not considered checking 120 stu-
A distinct benefit of this project was the opportuni-
dents’ pronunciation every week! However, one of my
ty for professional dialogue it created between
Vietnamese colleagues suggested that I assign weekly
Vietnamese teachers and myself. Interaction with these
word lists and call on several students each week to pro-
teachers strengthened existing relationships and deep-
nounce words from these lists. I would like to experi-
ened my appreciation and respect for the social values
ment with her suggestions by designing a system for
and professional expertise my Vietnamese colleagues
grading students, holding them more accountable for
bring to the classroom. It also reinforced my position as
their practice in pronunciation throughout the semes-
a learner—a student of my students and of their culture.
ter, and analyzing the impact of this system on student
Another reward of this research was the interaction
performance and motivation.
with other foreign teachers via e-mail. Because we are
Overall, this experience has offered me a unique bal-
geographically dispersed throughout the country, we do
ance of fresh discovery tempered with collaborative
not often have the opportunity to discuss specific class-
experience in stretching beyond the confines of tradi-
room issues and strategies we have encountered or
tional research. It has enabled me to better understand
applied. This project allowed me to learn from the expe-
my students and respond more appropriately to their
riences of others who are facing similar issues.
needs. This action research project has led me on a jour-
ney that has enriched my knowledge and broadened my
awareness of the cultural values within the educational
community I serve. Additionally, it has allowed me to
Several areas of inquiry in this research have had an
begin to probe some of the underlying perceptions
immediate effect upon my development as an educator
upon which these values are based. Consequently, my
in Vietnam. First, this research has encouraged my pur-
commitment to adaptation has been solidified, allowing
suit of knowledge and expertise in the subject areas I
me to envision my own role as a teacher within new and
teach. Also, it has prompted me to begin to explore
Students may wrongly equate “fun” with “easy” or think that because
they are enjoying themselves they are not learning.
— 34 —
Teacher Education,Washington, D.C., 16 June 2003.
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ERIC Clearinghouse on Teacher Education, Washington,
Smith, Mark K.
“Kurt Lewin: Groups, Experiential
D.C., 16 June 2003.
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Diane Breach (M.A., TESOL, Azusa Pacific University)
Research. Case Studies in TESOL Practice Series. Ed.
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©2005 Brian Fisher
What types of things do
people often carry on
Discuss with a partner.
Where do you think the
driver is taking the
octopus? In a group,
brainstorm at least five
and explain why you
use it in
What is the strangest
item you’ve ever seen
or collect it
on the back of a
motorbike? Write a
short paragraph describ-
ing the situation.
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