Any teaching job is hard work, but being a language teacher is perhaps the most difficult of all! There are a number of very specific challenges for language teachers that all practitioners have to handle and work through. This blog post summarises the top ten challenges that are common for teachers of all languages regardless if they are English teachers (EFL, ELT), Japanese, Arabic teachers or any other language for that matter. These most commonly mentioned challenges are drawn from a review of the literature in the second language education space and from feedback from Sanako’s global customer base.
We would be really interested to hear your thoughts. Are there other challenges that you think we need to include? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your additions and with comments on this list. Get involved with the conversation on our social media channels – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. So, let’s get into it!
1. Languages are complicated
To teach a language, educators usually need to have native speaker fluency, but that’s often not enough to do the job. It’s absolutely essential that educators also understand the grammatical structures that underpin all languages – this part of the job is frequently ignored and underappreciated but it’s vital for classroom success. After all, if you don’t know the difference between an adjective and an adverb or cannot provide examples of countable and uncountable English nouns if you are teaching English language, then how can you hope to explain key concepts to students?
2. Language teaching is hard work!
Keeping your students engaged, interested and motivated in their learning day in and day out can be a challenge. Particularly in formal education settings (like in primary school or secondary education) where students often don’t have any choice about attending.
Educators will frequently find themselves teaching different subjects to different classes across different age groups (read also our dedicated post about teaching languages to different age group). All of which require a bespoke lesson plan using a variety of stimulus to work through – teachers therefore need to be highly organised, detail-focused, creative, resilient (I could go on!) to succeed. Creating lesson plans, marking papers, writing reports and doing all of the other student analysis required is also very time-consuming. It’s important for language teachers to keep focus on language learning outcomes and to ensure that this administrative work does not take up too much of their free time.
3. Classroom management
Of course, a key challenge for all educators is ensuring that all students stay on task and work in a calm and orderly manner. Yet in every language classroom and in every school, there’s always someone who seems determined to make life as difficult as possible for the teachers. Handling those students can take skill and experience.
For language educators teaching their native language overseas, this does present real challenges. Just imagine that you’re trying to engage a 14-year old who is refusing to participate in your Spanish class and she’s talking to you in her mother tongue which you don’t understand. How would you respond to ensure that her behaviour doesn’t distract the rest of the class? Remember to check out our other post “6 effective strategies for classroom management” for further tips on classroom management!
4. Supporting your learners
Ultimately, the role of the language teacher is to help students improve fluency in their target language, so working with individual students’ needs can present a wide range of challenges. Although teaching in higher education or teaching adults can be hugely satisfying as you help them achieve their life objectives, the classroom environment can often be serious and overly goal-oriented. This puts additional pressure on teachers as they expect top-quality teaching class after class to get the grades they need.
On the other hand, teaching students in primary school usually means more time spent on behaviour management, more time spent building basic language skills and certainly more time spent developing engaging lesson plans and resources. And of course, there’s parents to deal with too!
5. Handling parents
Many language teaching institutions are privately-run businesses with demanding, paying customers. Parents want to ensure that their children are getting the best education possible and that they are making or exceeding expected progress. Parents can therefore be a regular and sometimes unwelcome classroom presence for both students and teachers. Setting clear boundaries and building a positive communication and relationship with parents does therefore pay dividends.
If you’re teaching overseas, it’s also important to carefully research the culture of the country or region that you’re working in. Every parent will be different, but being culturally aware can help you avoid unintentionally offending someone and causing a major diplomatic incident.
6. You’re in charge
In the classroom, the teacher is in charge. You set the course of the lesson, you look after the students in your care, deliver the learning outcomes and control the learning environment. Language educators, and all teachers, therefore have a huge responsibility every time they walk into their classroom. This doesn’t suit everyone but the best teachers see this as a unique opportunity and a privilege.
7. Classroom resources
Many language educators take the opportunity to use their skills to travel and to see different parts of the world. Depending on where you end up, the school may not have all of the educational technology or materials (e.g, apps, broadband, laptops, textbooks etc) that you’re used to. This can understandably come as a shock and forces teachers to rethink which language teaching methodologies they can use and the resources that they have available.
In other settings, teachers may be presented with a strict curriculum or schemes of work that they must follow and resources that they must use. If you’re used to being creative in developing your own materials that are tailored to each class, then this type of environment can also present its own challenges for educators.
8. Support and assistance
Wherever you teach, it’s vital that you have support and back-up when you need it. Teaching a room full of strangers a new and foreign language can be difficult, so building a network of peers who you work with is invaluable. Whether that’s for sharing teaching resources, tips for professional development, student insights and, of course, for socialising! If problems arise with students or with parents, it’s vital that your head of department and school leadership are available to help and support you.
9. The best laid plans…
Anyone who has ever taught knows that things don’t always go to plan in the classroom! The laptops don’t work, the photocopier is broken, the WiFi isn’t running at full speed and when you work with children anything can, and frequently does, go wrong!
Life as a language teacher can therefore be super stressful and it’s impossible to be 100% in control of everything all of the time. This is one of the most significant challenges facing language teachers – all you can do is to learn how to respond quickly and with humour, trying to make the best out of every situation and always, always having a Plan B!
10. Being far from home
For many language educators the opportunity to travel and see the world is one of the profession’s biggest attractions. But moving to a foreign country to live and work can be difficult. It’s challenging to be outside of your comfort zone, particularly if you don’t speak the local language. And there’s always loads to quickly get to grips with: the new school, new colleagues, new students, customs, climate, transport and so on.
Culture shock is real and can be a big challenge for educators teaching internationally, so take time to familiarise yourself with your new surroundings before getting started. Knowing a little of the local scene can also really help to engage students. And no-one wants to start a new job whilst shaking off jet lag!
BUT despite the challenges outlined above, it is worth repeating that being a language teacher is a hugely rewarding job that genuinely helps transform the lives of your students. It can be a great way to experience a new culture and possibly to learn a new language of your own. It’s full of personal development opportunities and enables you to meet, teach and learn from a wide range of people.
Sanako salutes and supports language teachers everywhere. We know the challenges that you face on a daily basis, so we’ve designed our language teaching software tools to improve learning outcomes in classrooms around the world. Contact us today for a free demo or a product trial and we’ll show you how our technologies can make your teaching more effective.
This blog post was last updated 18 October, 2023.