7 Quotes About Being an EFL Teacher

There are countless websites, blog posts and memes extolling the virtues and pitfalls of teaching in the EFL industry. These can range from inspirational to downright hilarious. In this post we will look at a selection of the most insightful quotes and how they relate to life as an English teacher.

“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.” - Aristotle

Let’s begin with one of the most famous teachers of all time: Aristotle. Knowing how to speak English alone does not qualify you to be an excellent English teacher; it is an understanding of how languages are used, learned and taught that will set you apart. This quote, often adapted to the depreciating ‘Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach’, is of particular relevance to current EFL teaching methodology. It represents a paradigm shift from language as knowledge to language as a skill, which has been taking place since the mid-sixties. The bottom line is that, if we take listening instruction as an example, we as teachers need to understand the underlying processes involved in listening, and how these processes might be taught.

“[Students] don't remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” - Jim Henson

This is of particular relevance to those of us teaching young learners. Think back to your time at school. Try to remember your favourite teacher. Try to remember what they taught you. I’m sure that rather than long division, what you learned from that teacher was something much more holistic, like the importance of being respectful to others or enthusiastic about your learning. That’s not to say that you didn’t learn long division, but the simple fact is that students learn more from people they like and respect, so be kind, be respectful, and be enthusiastic!

“What we learn with pleasure we never forget.” - Alfred Mercier

Learning is one of the principal joys of life, but is all-to-often thought of as a chore. This is the result of years spent in stale education systems, copying down information that does not seem to bear any relation to real life. Luckily, our lessons don’t have to be like this. Although games are an obvious way to make learning pleasurable, they are not the only way. To make learning pleasurable, and therefore unforgettable, three conditions must be met: learning should be purposeful; challenging; and achievable. That is, our lessons should be meaningful (in that they have real-life application or relevance), and they should not be too easy or too difficult. Learning must be engaging, if it is to be viewed as valuable. If it isn’t - you’re doing it wrong!

“The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher.” - Elbert Hubbard

This is a pertinent quote for EFL teachers, as the majority of what our students learn will not come from us as teachers, but through their many interactions with the English language. Our role as language teachers is not to impart knowledge, but to help our learners to develop language skills and form positive learning habits. This is the difference between giving someone a fish or a fishing rod - if a student doesn’t understand a word in a reading passage, the best thing we can do is encourage them to look for contextual clues in order to make a reasonable guess as to the meaning. This skill, when practised to the point of becoming automatic, will always be of use, and enable our learners to become more independent. 

“If you want to forget something, put it in a list.” - Earl Stevick

This is an interesting quote, and one that goes against the way in which many people learn a second language. It can be taken here to highlight the importance of context and relevance in language teaching, particularly the teaching of lexical items. Research demonstrates that vocabulary encountered within a strong context is more likely to be remembered, and ultimately acquired. Many modern coursebooks have responded to this by taking a group of related words or phrases and forcing them unnaturally into a very inauthentic text. However, perhaps a more drastic approach to vocabulary learning is needed that more closely reflects first language acquisition..

“The teacher’s primary responsibility is response-ability.” - Peter Wilberg

This quote by Wilberg represents the need for an awareness of learner needs. All too often we go into the classroom and teach the content in the coursebook, without any real consideration for our students. And why not? The coursebook is written by professionals to meet the needs of a specific language level. However, Wilberg’s quote suggests that the most effective teaching may come from observing our learners and becoming more aware of the language our learners actually use. By doing this, we will be in a better position to identify misunderstandings and gaps in knowledge, and therefore to cater our lessons to the needs of our learners by addressing these issues. This does not mean throwing out the coursebook altogether, but may take the form of an error correction activity or, if needs be, the teaching or reteaching of an entire language point before moving on.

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” - Benjamin Franklin

This quote highlights the need for students to be active participants in their learning. An important distinction is made between ‘tell’ and ‘teach’ that can be likened to the difference between deductive and inductive learning. Deductive learning involves the student being given a rule (‘tell’), whereas inductive learning requires the student to discover this rule for themselves (‘teach’). With the verb ‘involve’, Franklin underscores the important role of practice in learning, as it is through practice that such rules and hypotheses are applied, adjusted, and eventually acquired.