Finding a balance between formal training and personal approach

Diary submitted by Lisa L., Barcelona, 2020

During my internship, I observed classes from different schools, by different teachers, and for various age groups. At the end of each class, my overall impression was always the same: I was impressed by how easily teachers made it seem, and I wondered how they did it. I thought there was a magic way to achieve it, but after a while, I realised that they were all different people and had different approaches, meaning that there is not only one way to do it and that their ability to teach so efficiently had to come from what they had learnt but also how they put it in use as individuals. 

I know that formal training is important for EFL teaching, and most of the teachers whose class I observed had attended an intensive CELTA course, completed a TEFL trainer internship, or obtained a Master´s degree in teaching. These formations provide them with the tools to efficiently approach teaching. In fact, as defended by Jeremy Harmer, “classroom management” (2007, 28), choosing “matching activities and topics to the different groups [they] teach” (2007, 29), and “having a knowledge of the grammar system and understanding the lexical system” (2007, 29) are key factors in being a good teacher. Having a teaching degree or a teaching diploma entails knowing both the English language and how to nurture the teacher-student relationship.

However, I think that once skills and knowledge have been acquired, personality is what allows teachers to put it into practice. Although they are clearly intertwined, a fitting personality can always make up for any doubts that one could have. For example, I observed a few classes for students aged between 18 and 20, and I noticed that they preferred when their teacher told them they didn’t know the answer to a question rather than someone who would try to maintain the appearance of knowing everything. In fact, admitting it usually turns out better for everyone: the teacher usually looks the answer up and then explains it, while students feel like their teacher takes them seriously.

Knowing your students is also a sign of a dedicated teacher, as I noticed at an exam preparation class in Valencia. In fact, in his book Jeremy Harmer mentions that “knowing about students” (2007, 26) goes further and is better than simply knowing them.  That is exactly what the teacher did: he showed he knew where his students struggled since he anticipated vocabulary questions by clarifying everything on the board. It was quite useful for him then to speak Spanish and to be aware of his students’ cultural background. Once they went over all the answers and each student had told him their grade, he remembered their previous one and knew how to encourage them, which I thought was a simple but efficient way to show he was involved in his students’ progress. 

Finally, what made me realise more than anything that personality and individual skills had an important role in teaching was when I observed a class for 8-year-olds. Of course, the teacher used what she had learnt in her training, such as using stickers, games, and colours, but she also used her own enthusiasm to navigate through each activity, never spending too much time on one to match her students’ attention span. She could draw too, and while the importance of illustrations is highlighted in formal training for teaching children, it wouldn’t have been as easy if she hadn’t had the ability to draw fast and nicely.

When I first got the opportunity to teach at the school where I did my internship, I felt a bit of apprehension because of my lack of formal training even though I was doing the TEFL trainer course. After a while, I realised that my age, close to that of the students, and my own background as a non-native speaker, made up for my lack of formal certification. If they needed someone to explain reported speech again, I would do it in a way that had worked for me when I learnt it. 

Besides, being a language student myself, I could relate to some of their insecurities and tried to help them overcome them, even if it was only for one class. I remember that one day we were working on phrasal verbs and they had to fill in sentences by adding the right preposition. There were only a few students and I really wanted everyone to give it a try, however in a class that I had observed weeks earlier, a teacher had told me that it was better to make sure that less confident students knew their answer was right before participating in front of everyone. So, I made sure that they all had at least one correct answer, and told them to go first and choose the sentence they wanted to correct. I think it worked because they participated more willingly afterwards since they knew they had a choice. Another time, someone couldn’t decide between two prepositions to form a phrasal verb fitting a sentence, and I didn’t know how to help her without giving her the answer straight away. In the end, she suggested I could tell her in English what each verb would mean with each preposition. It did work, and it made me realise that listening to what students had to say was a great way to go forward.

Overall, from what I gathered, it is primordial to find a balance between what formal training has taught you and who you are. While the former is required to provide students with the theory of EFL learning, the latter can impact the way you teach students despite your knowledge. The challenge may be to adapt or choose the part of your personality that fits best for a teaching role, yet the number of good teachers shows that it is achievable.  


Harmer, J. 2007. How to Teach English (2nd edition). Harlow: Pearson Longman. (online)

+ TEFL mind map: what makes a good teacher?

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