The joy of becoming redundant


Even though the financial rewards that you can expect as a teacher are dismally (and often abysmally) low, most teachers, perhaps partly in an effort to protect their sanity, would insist that they love their job nevertheless, claiming that teaching is rewarding in other ways; when asked about the rewards of teaching as a career, they will typically mention things like the appreciation they get from students and former students, the fact that they can help improve their students’ lives, the sense of accomplishment that they get from watching students succeed and overcome difficulties and even, for the idealists, the impact that their actions have on society at large.

And yet, essentially, teaching is a thankless activity. The whole point of teaching anyone anything is to make yourself redundant: ultimately, you are only successful as a teacher if your students can reach a stage in their learning where they no longer need you, not only because they have learnt everything that you were able to teach them, but also, more importantly, because they have developed the ability to continue learning independently of you and thus are learning more than you could ever teach them and, hopefully, much more than you, their teacher, actually know.

Text by: George Vassilakis

When their students surpass them, many teachers begin to doubt their skills, talents and accomplishments and experience feelings of frustration, self-doubt or even envy. This is, however, the only way in which human knowledge can advance: students have to surpass their teachers, otherwise knowledge will inevitably deteriorate from one generation to the next. This realization may initially be a difficult one, but it is clearly essential that as teachers we should come to terms with it and act accordingly.

When I started training teachers thirty years ago, I must admit that I used to take pride in the fact that most of the teachers I trained thought I was so much better a teacher than they were and some of them even said they didn’t think they would ever be as good as they believed I was. So insecure (and so clueless!) was I at the time, that I actually felt good when my students essentially said that the best they could hope I could teach them was less than what I had learnt at the age of twenty-five! It was not just my young age, however, that had led me up that particularly treacherous garden path; it was my ignorance of the true nature of teaching and learning, i.e., of what I was supposed to be teaching those teachers about, of the very thing that they sang my praises about! In short, I really did not know enough, and had not reflected enough, about the nature of teaching and learning to realise that there are very few easy answers and even fewer irrefutable conclusions when it comes to good educational practices and that teacher education is not about transmitting the knowledge you (think you) have, but rather should focus on the critical appraisal and re-appraisal of pedagogic principles and practice.

To this day, I think the most embarrassing incidents in my teacher training career involve a failure on my part to help teachers develop the ability for such critical appraisal and re-appraisal. There have been experienced teachers, for example, on courses such as the Cambridge DELTA, who even after months of training will ask questions like “ok, so what is the correct way to teach the present perfect?” or who will simply imitate in their lessons behaviours and practices that they have seen demonstrated by their trainers, without considering the possibility that these may be ineffective or inappropriate for their particular classes. And there are still teachers who take it for granted that the way I do something in class is the best and only way and that they will, “of course”, never manage to do it the same way, as if it was even desirable, let alone useful, to do anything “my way”.

On the other hand, I have been lucky enough to teach teachers who have doubted me, questioned my beliefs, brought things to my attention that I was not aware of, experimented with new techniques I was not familiar with, and reached their own conclusions about teaching and learning, which sometimes contradicted mine. A lot of them have developed into much better teachers than I have ever been and I have had the pleasure of learning from them by observing their classes, but also by attending presentations that they have given in conferences, reading articles that they have published in teachers’ magazines, including the ELT News, and discussing matters of educational theory, language analysis and  professional practice with them, in some cases years after they successfully completed their teacher training course.

Some of the teachers I have had the pleasure of training over the decades have pursued careers in teacher training or academic careers in TESOL and Applied Linguistics. Most recently, a past DELTA student successfully completed her training as a CELTA tutor with me. I observed her deliver a training session and noticed that she had made quite a few changes to the training material we used at ACE TEFL. She also used activity types during her session, some of which I had never thought of using in training. The session was one of the most successful and engaging training sessions I have observed in my life. Even so, she was eager to critically examine every detail of her session plan and of her delivery afterwards, offering alternatives and discussing how she could improve the session further. I asked her permission to use her version of the training material. And I told her, and really meant it, that I wished I had video-recorded her session to use as an example of good training practice on future trainer training courses.

For me, this is the most rewarding experience you can hope for as an educator: when you can honestly say “I could never have done that as well as my student did it!”.