15 Pieces of Timeless Teaching and Learning Advice


I like lists and judging by how popular they are for online articles and videos, I am not the only one. A good list helps clarify things, puts them in a logical order and inspires you to get things done. A few years ago, I subscribed to the Alux.com YouTube channel with its motivational videos based around the subject of lists. They have a business bent to them, but they are very interesting and inspiring. Instead of waiting for them to come up with a list for teachers, I thought I would write one in the same style.  


By Rory Dunkan


The current coronavirus crisis has made many of us embrace futuristic technologies, but sometimes it can be helpful to look back at what others have said for guidance. You may recognise some quotes, others are from my own personal experience. I believe all are helpful for teachers.

1) “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Teachers often get stressed about students not participating, being nervous, doing things the wrong way and other behaviours outside of their control. This quote teaches the value of remembering there is more than one person responsible for the completion of the teaching and learning process. Do your best, encourage them and be patient until your students are ready. I also found this as a great justification for the test-teach-test approach.

2) “Education is not filling a pail, but lighting a fire.”

Too often we think about teaching as imparting knowledge into the empty vessels of the students, expecting them to remember everything we tell them perfectly. Students have busy lives and they don’t always pay attention. This quote initially seems to be about inspiring students, but it is also about teaching students to (like a wildfire) find their own way out of problems. Encourage them to use online dictionaries, to derive meaning from context, to relate to or disagree with the context with critical thinking.

3) “In learning you will teach and in teaching you will learn.”

This quote should be of some assurance to new teachers or those less confident with grammar or other language aspects. From personal experience, I never learned more about grammar than from reading the explanations that came with students’ books and incorporating them into my own presentations and concept checking measures. Make sure you learn what you plan to teach well. Success will consolidate this, reflecting on failure will teach you how to improve it for next time.

4) "No plan survives contact with the enemy."

Having a plan (like having a list) is great for structure and direction but, sticking with the idea of learning from experience, it’s important to remember that we are teaching people and not plans. There will be unexpected questions and struggles along the way. Be ready for them and have a back-up plan (or a back-up game/practice activity) in mind.

5) “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

Unlike Sun Tzu, we aren’t fighting people, but teaching learners. The same idea applies, though. Don’t think of students as inert matter. They are individuals with their own ways of responding to the world. Take the time to do some intelligence gathering and talk to students, make notes about their behaviour, likes, dislikes, etc. and work this into lessons. When you know your students well, you can make predictions about what will happen and need not despair about what to do as a result.

6) “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”

You can get to know people, but like we acknowledge with quote number 4, things will go wrong. A student shows up late, there is an unexpected interruption from an administrator and they are bringing in a brand new student 30 minutes into the lesson. Use these unfortunate events as teaching opportunities. How do we apologise for being late? How to be politely asked not to be interrupted? How do we welcome someone new to our class? What language will we need for these things? Don’t be afraid to take advantage of the emergent language in chaotic situations.

7) “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.”

Teaching young people comes with a unique set of problems and behaviour is always at the top of teachers’ lists of these issues. For a guiding principle for how to deal with wayward students, this quote can be very helpful. Talk to students (perhaps with the help of parents and administrators) about how their behaviour affects the lesson and others, and why it is unacceptable and must stop. If they cooperate and follow some rules, teachers and their peers are more likely to like them, which is a handy trait for later life.

8) Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.”

At the same time, children are children. They take risks and push boundaries to find out about the world. While some behaviour cannot be allowed, it’s important not to leap down the throats of children when they are experimenting with language. Give space to allow them to try and then offer another way when things don’t work out. If they spend their time relying on the teacher for constant support, they’ll never achieve the independence they need to speak outside the classroom.

9) “You can instruct or endure people.”

When students make mistakes or do things that disrupt our calm, it’s important to explain why this is a problem and how to avoid it. If you don’t tell people where they are going wrong and how to prevent it, you’ll have to deal with the consequences further down the road.

10) "If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't really understand it."

I was at a conference once where a teacher trainer explained that teachers are people who make complicated things simple so students can digest and use them. Keep this quote in mind when thinking about grammar or vocabulary explanations. Do you need to give a long explanation about that tense or will a timeline do? Do you have to talk about the finer differences between a horse and a pony, or can you just hold up two pictures and ask which is usually smaller? Of course, the world is a complex place, but when the student is ready to ask about the finer points of the distinction, the teacher will appear.

11) “Don't compare your English to someone else's, compare it to how it was yesterday.”

I came up with this when asked to give a quote for a marketing campaign. People are constantly insecure and looking to the achievements of others in comparison to their own. But they have no idea how the people they compare with got there, what had to be given up in one area in exchange for success in another. Students don’t know about the lives of others in sufficient detail, but they do know about themselves well enough. Encourage them to see progress in this way and their motivation will be easier to sustain. After all, no-one wants to be a worse version of themselves. 

12) “To become a good teacher is tough. It’s a tough job and you’re not going to make a fortune out of it for sure, but it’s one of the jobs you really feel like you aren’t just taking but giving as well. And that is worth doing.”

A teacher I interviewed for my new book said this to me when I asked her if she was making a difference. This reality check is important to keep in mind before and after you get into the profession. Would you rather be serving coffee or exchanging tips with your student (in English) on the best places to get one?

13) “I think it’s a great job. It’s not without stress, but it’s a great job.”

This one comes from another teacher and is a bit more upbeat than the last one. At the same time, this quote keeps it real by admitting there will be stress along the way, but we need to balance this with just how rewarding our work can be.

14) “The students will complete the tasks in the time given. Or they will not.”

I read this once in a lesson plan and laughed since it seemed absurdly obvious to have both of these possibilities covered. Then I realised it was the launch point for a back-up plan in terms of timing. Students don’t have to do everything you have in mind, but they should do enough to help their understanding and progress. Keep this in mind when thinking about your timing and how you will recover if it doesn’t all go to plan.

15) “Robots are boring.”

We all want things to go to plan, for the students to be perfect angels who never do anything wrong and complete all the exercises and their homework in a timely manner. Science fiction is filled with stories of perfectly ordered societies and I don’t think you have to read them all to work out why they are in the fiction section. People are quirky and hardly ever straightforward for a variety of reasons. You can tell students the best ways to do things, but if they take their own path even after all that, just remember how boring it would be if everyone always did exactly as they were told.


And there we have it, 15 pieces of timeless teaching advice taken from many different spheres. Some are calming, others are more practical. All should survive the test of time.

Author's Bio: From Dundee, Scotland, Rory Fergus Duncan-Goodwillie is the Senior Assistant Director of Studies for Young Learners Aged 10-16 at BKC-International House, Moscow. Aside from Russia, he has lived and worked in Ghana, South Africa, East Timor, Fiji, and across the United Kingdom. When not teaching, he writes extensively, and is the author of Mission to Second Hygra and Bloody Contact.