(Published in ‘The Journal of English Language Teaching – India [ELT@I] March-April 2010)

Conscientious teachers often ask themselves, “Do my students learn what I teach, and how well?” “Am I a successful teacher?” “Are my students happy with my teaching?” I do not know if I am a good example of the class ‘conscientious teacher’, but, motivated by such fundamental and essential questions, I conducted a little informal survey. I asked about a thousand students from diverse academic, social and economic backgrounds to determine who, according to them, was a conscientious teacher. For a start, I proposed that seven traits—qualities or patterns of behaviour or ‘habits’—may be used as framework for responses to my query. So each student surveyed was asked to enumerate seven traits he considered essential to conscientious teaching. The result of the survey was most interesting as well as surprising. Here is a summary of its findings.


The first thing students expect from a teacher is a smile. A smile establishes an instant rapport between students and their teacher, which is a prerequisite for a successful class. Students cannot be bothered about what has happened to a teacher before he enters a class. A teacher must learn to keep his personal life and professional life separate. Students expect a teacher to smile irrespective of his condition, the subject he teaches, how much of the syllabus he has dealt with, the topic he intends to teach on the day in question, and other such matters. The principle seems unambiguously clear: Spare a smile and spoil a class, to exploit an old adage.


The second habit that students look for is Action—a teacher’s ability to involve students in doing something. Students love action. They implicitly and very strongly believe in the age-old method of ‘Learning by doing’. If our aim is to teach skills—knowledge and ability to do something—then we must make students do appropriate tasks, within and/or beyond classrooms. If you do not accept this response, try teaching a child how to make a paper boat merely in words, and then leaving him alone to make a boat. See how long it takes, what difficulties the child faces, and whether and to what extent he succeeds in making a boat. Indeed, observe whether he is even willing to perform the task. Then show another child how to make a paper boat, letting him do it with you. And then ask him to make one on his own. Compare the result with the earlier case. You will realise that a child learns a skill more willingly, much quicker and better by doing rather than listening to merely verbal instructions. When students are asked to do something, they enjoy the learning more because their involvement is greater than when they are passively listening to a teacher spouting verbal instructions.


Sense of humour is the third quality students expect in a teacher. A bit of humour does not go amiss in any class. Present-day students are already under considerable pressure. Learning new concepts adds to that strain. It is common knowledge that one’s efficiency reduces in direct proportion to stress. Students expect a teacher to be cheerful, and to exploit opportunities to generate humour in class. Sharing a humorous anecdote or a joke, for instance, will enliven any class.


The fourth most sought-after quality of a teacher is the ability to keep students in suspense for a while. A teacher must bring variety into each class. If a teacher only does what he always does, the predictability makes a class boring. Students like teachers who frequently give authentic but lesser known information, experiment with different ways of teaching, and use a variety of tasks and materials.


The students I surveyed ranked effective feedback as the fifth most important aspect of teaching. Students will make mistakes at times. It is human to err. Besides, mistakes are the provocation for teaching—if a student already possessed excellent command of English, why would you want to “teach” him? And it is common knowledge that positive feedback concerning errors is a very powerful source of motivation. Most students are vulnerable to criticism and ridicule. Drawing students’ attention to their mistakes and making or suggesting corrections without making them feel ridiculed or disgraced, and winning their trust in your method and intention is an art worth mastering.


It is human to relish challenge. The ability to create challenging tasks was ranked as the sixth ingredient that makes teaching effective. If teaching presents challenges that are inviting, not intimidating, it stimulates students to think hard and long and do their best to deal with the challenge, which increases the overall outcome of the process of learning. Most students nurture a desire to stand out, and a challenging task provides them with an opportunity to do so.


The seventh important aspect of effective teaching is receiving worthwhile rewards. Learning is a reward in itself. But nothing de-motivates or demoralises a student more than neglect of his successful effort to learn. It is equally true that nothing motivates a student more than a timely reward for doing well. A sincere word of praise can do wonders. However, it is worth giving away by way of reward pencils, chocolates, interesting newspaper clippings, handwritten copies of poems or stories, pictures or objects made of waste material.


Teaching is one of the most demanding tasks human beings perform. The many skills and abilities in my survey list as well as those that have not been included in the list come into the process of teaching. However, the report of my survey shows amply that if we keep in mind what students look for in a teacher, our teaching will become more fruitful, interesting and successful.


(Based on the Presidential Address I gave at the 1st International Conference organised by ELT@I Jaipur (Rajasthan) on 20-21 November 2009)