Even Teachers Have a Teacher

Jun 20, 2023 | Teaching

If I were a teacher in a traditional school, my interactions with my colleagues would probably take place behind the doors of the teacher’s room. But working as a freelancer in an online environment has its particularities and the opportunities for networking and growth are different. If you’re wondering why language teachers also have a tutor and how this collaboration can help you improve, this article is for you.
“What do you need a Spanish teacher for if you already have your certificate?” my sister asked me in amazement. Or on my recent date, “You don’t need any lessons, after all, your German is perfect!” I encounter these and similar situations from time to time when I mention to people that I have a language teacher. If I can put together a well-developed sentence and communication with native speakers goes smoothly, why bother? There are several reasons, and I’ll try to explain them in the following lines.

But First Things First – Think About Your Why

When you want to start learning a new foreign language, it is essential to have at least some intrinsic motivation. It’s no different if you’ve already reached an advanced level and are teaching the language. Yes, we are being told from all sides to try to be better, to perform better, to not be stagnant. But let’s be honest, if we’ve already reached a level of contentment and have x other priorities in life, private improvement lessons very easily get lost in the shuffle.

That’s why I want to say – if you’re happy with your language level and you don’t feel that additional work on that level would benefit you adequately, I’m not going to try to convince you to change that. But I would like to share a couple of reasons why, even though I’ve reached an advanced level, I’m continuing to learn. You may see yourself in some of my examples, either as a tutor or as a student.

There Is No Set Finish Line in a Language

I know, it’s very practical to know which European Language Reference Framework group you belong to. If you’re just starting out, you’ll hide behind A1, with B2 you can start looking for a job or studying, and if you have the highest grades of C1 or C2 on paper, it seems like you’ve mastered everything. From my observation, most courses are run to B2 level anyway, so if you can get a level or two higher, you should have no problem teaching the language.

It isn’t written anywhere that at the highest level you will know everything. In fact, the highest level of a foreign language, commonly accepted as C2, still leaves room to grow. The CEFR Companion Vol. 2020 [1] states that C2 is “not the highest imaginable level for proficiency in an additional language.”

This guide breaks down the various language levels in a very interesting way, delineating many different areas of competence for any given language. One in particular that I found interesting spoke to general comprehension. It gives a C2 candidate the ability to understand with ease virtually any form of a target language, whether live or broadcast, delivered at fast natural speed.

But what is behind “virtually”?

I will devote an entire, separate article to what it means to be at an advanced level, but for now I would just summarise it by saying that everyone can determine their own goals and methods to reach them. Someone will focus on specific areas of vocabulary, another will express themselves as precisely as possible, and yet another will aim for sounding naturally fluent. To illustrate this, I am adding excerpts from a teacher Facebook group discussion of which I am a member (names have been changed to protect privacy):
We could also look at it through numbers – a native speaker of English knows about 15-20,000 words [2], and that’s not the only number I’ve come across. Moreover, I have not been able to find any reliable source for estimating the word knowledge of a C2 level speaker. Considering that an official dictionary has exponentially more words than simply 20,000, we can see that there is a lot to work on if you wanted to focus on vocabulary alone.

Not to mention that I still repeatedly find words in my native language that I don’t understand. Also, my native vocabulary – as an IT student – is not going to completely imitate that of my doctor friend. Language reflects everyone’s world, and why should we expect any certification institute to be able to fully integrate those worlds?

Even the Teacher Doesn’t Know Everything

So, if it is natural for each vocabulary area to be developed to a different degree for each individual, don’t be surprised if your pupils outperform you in some of those areas. How many times have I not been able to say semolina pudding, funnel or Jericho city. That’s why I always keep a list with me during my classes where all the tricky questions go, which I then go over in my own lessons with a native speaker. It also happens the other way around – sometimes it’s only after a lot of thought that I can think of the Slovak equivalent of a word that a student asks me about. And sometimes the word may not exist in your language – not every culture has a need to express the same phenomenon. Over time, certain questions also tend to be repetitive, so I find it natural to be prepared and work on improving the quality of my service.

Language Is More Than Just Words

I don’t keep my lists of questions because a student catches me off guard and then I repentantly look up the specific word as a form of penance. On the contrary, I am quite picky about what I give capacity to in my head. That’s why, for example, I don’t do 100% tailor-made lessons. If someone is interested in, say, bicycle parts, I – who would go to a repair shop even only for a flat tire – will recommend someone else.

Such situations are rare though – mostly I want to get to the root of even the most mundane nonsense. Why, then? Because I have a sincere interest in language and in culture. Because many times, with teachers, I uncover something that I hadn’t even considered a topic before – a teacher thinks of a saying, an advertisement, or a political affair associated with the word in question, and the discussion takes care of itself. There are also culture-related issues such as:

  • How strong is this word? Would a person of my generation use it? How direct would you be in a given situation?
  • To what extent do you use words from foreign languages? German, for example, uses many more unchanged English words than Slovak, or the word is used in a different context. If I don’t like someone, I say in Slovak that we don’t have a vibe, in Spanish you would be more likely to talk about a connection or a feeling.
  • Are the cultural sidenotes really as prevalent in a society as they are written in a language textbook?
  • Juicy tidbits, gossip, and trivia. While it’s nice to read about the sights in the capital, do you know which of its neighborhoods people look down on? How do people perceive tourists, foreigners and differences? What does my teacher think about the current political crisis in their country?

These are all questions that, with a native speaker, help you to keep your spark for a language that you’ve been married to for a long time.

Sometimes You Don’t Even Need Lofty Goals

For many teachers, development isn’t about sentiment at all, but about the practical side of things. Again, I’m posting a comment from a teacher discussion that earned the support of a large portion of the discussion participants:
If you’re like Rebeka and specialize in lower levels, the ability to simplify language is both a gift and a curse. You don’t have to expand your target audience of students to include all levels in order to avoid self-regression. Partaking in advanced-level conversations yourself can be a refreshing change and an opportunity for a teacher to grow by stepping into the role of student again themselves.

Do It For Your Self-Esteem

Everyone who doesn’t teach their mother tongue has doubts now and again about whether they’re good enough and whether they’re up to the challenge. I had a similar experience. I hadn’t been living abroad for that long and I wasn’t at all sure if my German was authentic enough that I could sell my adopted language to students. If you don’t try, you’ll never know, and so I signed up for some trial lessons with three different teachers to assess where I stood in my German, especially during the Covid pandemic which seriously limited my availability to speak naturally with other native speakers in my environment. And that’s where things started happening. At first, just the feeling of continuing to work on myself helped me to show up for my own classes with more confidence. It wasn’t necessarily my language itself that found improvement – according to some teachers there was, in fact, “not much to improve.” Rather, with each more complex debate or question answered, I found myself letting go of my perfectionism and gaining a changed view of the language itself.

Lessons with teachers from different places showed me that there is not just “one” German, and when my German teacher shook her head in incomprehension at some Austrian expressions, I realised that the fault did not only lie with me. It also helped me to realize that not all expressions from my language exist in others when, even with multiple tutors, we weren’t able to find an equivalent for what my native language has such elegant formulations for. And vice versa, I have, many times, come into contact with concepts and phrases in foreign languages for which I have not yet found an equivalent variant in Slovak.

You Are Your Own Best Guinea Pig

If you are lucky enough to teach your native language, the previous reasons may not have told you much. I now present you with reasons that make collaboration with other teachers meaningful for native speakers as well. I would follow up on the previous point regarding self-esteem – if you want to realize the value of your lessons, try a lesson with someone else. When taking advanced lessons to maintain my language, I’ve come to realise where the qualities of my lessons lie and where I could, in turn, learn from others. For example, I noticed that I might speak too fast/slow for someone, that I get annoyed if I see a teacher looking at their mobile phone for a long time, or that perceptions of the role of a teacher vary across the spectrum of online tutors. In this way, I’ve not only had people who expected me to make up the complete agenda for the lesson they were giving, but also teachers who shoved their procedures down my throat and were unwilling to at least try to listen to my needs and desires. It showed me how important it is to listen to students, who I should give more freedom to and who, on the other hand, needs more intervention from me.

What’s more, in the case of Slovak for foreigners, I like to participate in lectures and discussions about teaching methods and materials, of which there is no shortage, even in a language spoken in such a little corner of the world. Imagine, then, the lesson development opportunities you have if you teach one of the main world languages.

The biggest empathy trainer for me has been the classes I am currently taking in the new language I am learning. Time and time again, this is how I test the principles and practices that I, myself, recommend to students and how I experience both the pleasure and frustration of learning new phenomena. Indeed, in the language teaching community, most people are not monolingual (hello America!). It has become almost a cliché, thanks to any individual’s foreign language abilities, to say, “I know full well how difficult it can be to learn a language.” It seems logical to me, then, that even as a teacher, you would continue to be a student in order to be a shining, congruent example for your students in turn.

You Are Not Only a Teacher, But Also an Entrepreneur

If you’re not just treating tutoring as a casual side hustle, and are a bit more serious about your lessons, there are a number of areas that are relevant for you besides just teaching. There is a wide range of aspects to consider – everything from the various online tools you will need for your lessons, organisation (staying on top of your materials and students), marketing and the principles of freelance entrepreneurship, to mental health and the biases we face within the profession.
Dinge, denen ich bei Online-Unterricht bis jetzt begegnet bin.<br />
A language teacher has to wear many hats, and here are some of the things I have dealt with across my tutoring career to date.
When pursuing progress, it is common to look for role models and more experienced professionals to learn from. One of the professionals I like to learn from is Czech entrepreneur Robert Vlach, author of the book The Freelance Way. In his book, he talks about the importance of seeking know-how in your own field:
„Mentoring is about the informal transfer of experience, including various tricks and customs that experienced professionals know, but almost nobody publicly talks or writes about. A mentor isn’t a consultant. They are a professional who is farther along than you and whom you view correspondingly. At the same time, they should be someone who can be not only a professional model, but also a role model and a psychological support. A mentor’s role is thus informal, but important. They offer an opportunity to talk about things that are uninteresting for the people around you or close to you. And since this is a private connection between two people, mentoring can take on many forms. Your mentor doesn’t have to be a celebrity in their field; an experienced colleague whom you respect for what they have achieved is enough.“ [3]
That’s why I like to cast my net further within the online tutoring industry, and the accounts I follow include some of the most inspiring people in our industry. From one person I can learn communication, someone else, in turn, offers valuable courses or creates materials that can liven up my classes. In this way, I indirectly have several teachers who don’t directly teach me the language, but are also important to my future career trajectory.

1:1 Lessons Don’t Have to Make You a Lone Wolf

The online environment and social networks bring one huge advantage, and that is that you don’t have to remain a passive observer, but can be an active member of the community of the emerging profession of online tutors. At first glance, it may seem that there is rivalry, which is not entirely untrue. Ultimately, there will always be competition, but with decent interaction this competition can be healthy. I value my membership in tutor groups very much, and not just because they help me to improve the quality of my own lessons. I’m sure you know the feeling when you share similar problems with someone else – you can vent together but also get insight on your situation from people in the profession.

Here I attach a graphic with topics that are not directly related to lessons, but I find discussing them at teacher events and forums very beneficial:

I don’t want to end this article in a corny “together we can do more” style. I just want to encourage you not to be afraid, to come out of your shell, and to give a chance to the new possibilities that come for you as a tutor when you make the choice to continue to work on yourself. Facebook groups, profiles that tiktok spits out at us, teacher conferences – the possibilities are endless. You could be just one click or one message away from your better lecturer self. Here’s to learning!


[1] https://rm.coe.int/common-european-framework-of-reference-for-languages-learning-teaching/16809ea0d4 
[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-44569277 
[3] Vlach, Robert. The Freelance Way (p. 39). HarperBusiness. Kindle Edition.


Student, language nerd, expat

Helping students and tutors get the most out of 1:1 lessons.