Language and Literacy Teachers as Leaders

Language and literacy teachers and tutors are instructional leaders. Every day they act as role models for the students that they teach. They are a source of inspiration, motivation and encouragement. For the most part, they also lead by example. When a literacy tutor teaches a learner to read, write and learn the alphabet, it is because they have also learned it themselves and they are sharing what they themselves have learned. Many foreign language teachers have lived and taught abroad. They understand the difficulties in grasping a foreign grammar and new vocabulary, as well as culture shock and learning how to “be” in a new place.

Here are 5 tips for celebrating your role as a Language Leader:

1. Share stories with your learners.

Humans connect through stories and shared experiences. Tell your students about your own experience as a learner, or a story about someone you know. Think of a student you have who is struggling. Then go back into your memory banks and find an anecdotal story about you or someone else that may help your learner in some way – to provide relief, inspiration or hope. I advise changing the names of characters in your stories, to protect the innocent, of course. But it OK to share stories about former students who have overcome similar difficulties and succeeded. Connecting through stories is a powerful way to lead.

2. Share your own tips for success.

Students sometimes struggle to find strategies that will help them succeed. One way they figure out what will work for them is to get tips from those who have already done the same. As a teacher, you act as a leader when you share your tips that will help others succeed. For example, I had trouble learning to roll my “rr” when I was learning Spanish. I had previously studied French and my “r”s were too far back in my throat for Spanish. I struggled with the new sound of the trilled Spanish “rr”. My teacher gave me the tip of practicing it in the shower. (Seriously!) I practiced every day in the shower until I could do it.

As a teacher I passed that same tip on to my own students, telling that that practicing every day for just a few minutes is important. The method of doing it while doing something else that is pretty routine and does not require much “deep thinking”, also helps to decrease anxiety. It worked for me and my students tell me that it works for them too. They appreciated the tip! Every teacher has good learning tips. What are some of your personal success tips that you can share with your learners?

3. Show your humanity.

Adults have this thing about failure. Children are less self-conscious about it until they learn that it’s bad to make mistakes. Adult learners may have feelings of shame or stigma about what they don’t know. As a Language Leader you want to show your learners that it is not only OK to make mistakes and not know things, it is inevitable! What we don’t know creates a space for us to learn in. No one knows everything and we all have the capacity to learn. When you’re working with your learners find ways to take yourself down off whatever pedestal your learners may want to put you on and show them that you are just as human as you are.

4. Laugh with your learners.

Along with showing your humanity comes laughter. I tell my students about the time when I was giving a presentation as a young college-age student who was studying Spanish. I concluded my presentation, which was an anecdote about my experience studying abroad in Madrid with the line, “Y al final me quedé bien embarazada.” A few people in the class broke out into laugher and my teacher stifled her laughter. What I said was “I finished up good and pregnant”. What I meant to say was, “At the end of it all, I was really embarrassed.” Oops! Needless to say, there was no pregnancy involved, but there was embarrassment – both during the initial incident and during my class presentation. And I learned to say it properly in Spanish – “Me dio mucha vergüenza.”

I share that story with my students so they can see my humanity. We have a good laugh over it and hopefully, they learn from my mistake!

5. Encourage learners with a “can do” attitude.

Every now and again we all become discouraged. When this happens, it’s easy to say, “I can’t do it”. As a Language Leader, your job is to say, “Oh yes you can!” I tell my students that I am actually a very slow learner, which is true. I tell them about times I wanted to give up and didn’t. I tell them that by tapping into their own personal determination and perseverance, they will learn to read and write the way they want to. They will learn their verb conjugations. More importantly, they will empower themselves to gain new skills and experience the world in new ways – that their effort will be worth it.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

16 Responses to Language and Literacy Teachers as Leaders

  1. Pat Warkentin says:

    A great time to celebrate our Volunteer teachers and tutors with national volunteer week coming up April 18 -24!! I’m going to pass on much of this info to our terrific literacy/ ESL volunteers and the local papers to recognize all community volunteers!

  2. Liesbeth says:

    @point 3 “Show your humanity – admit your failures”: I totally agree and see the power in sharing with your students (or anyone else around you) the moments when failure from the past has made you want to stop trying for whatever you wanted to achieve. Whenever you recognize that you want to stop out of fear for failure it is important to remember your goals and go on. Examples of this will show your students the value of pursuing your dreams and at the same time teaching them what might hold them back in this process.

  3. Gilles Mossière says:

    Good reminders, there, Sarah! Yes, teachers are leaders, even if scrutiny and criticism from the public and governments sometimes try to make us forget that…

    Another good point too: sharing stories and laughter work well not only as icebreakers, they play an important role in fostering student empowerment.

    Sarah, I also like your “don’t give up attitude”. I kind of need that right now…


  4. Mary O'Brien says:

    If we think of the people who are best at what they do–regardless of the field they are in–these are certainly the traits to describe them. The rest of us can keep this list in mind and strive to be better. Thanks!

  5. @ tutoringmatch, hyaniv, Jennifer, Emma, Christine and Rosanne – Thanks!
    @Kurt – Good point about being invested in the learning. Hadn’t thought of the leadership aspect extending beyond teachers, but you are right. Thanks for that.
    @Brent – You being philosophical is you being you. 😉
    @ Courtney – Thanks for picking your favorite!
    @ Rick – Thanks for the point re: frustrations. This is a very real part of the process of learning. Once we see it as “normal”, it can become less stressful, maybe?
    @ Carol – Love your point about reducing the barriers between us.

  6. carol mccullough says:

    I didn’t realize how powerful it can be to admit I make mistakes to the students. It reduces the barriers between us, relaxes the tensions and makes for a much more comfortable atmosphere in the classroom. Especially around spelling!! And then I have the opportunity to model using the dictionary!

  7. Rick Grimm says:

    I agree that it’s important to share stories with students, especially those relating to the frustrations we experienced when in the same situation. I believe it allows students to better see the human side to the educator and, importantly, to witness real cases where frustration eventually led to progress and, yes, success.

  8. Rosanne Burke says:

    Very inspirational! Good reminders, not only for teachers, but for those of us who are in different fields and interacting with many different people every day. Laugh, learn, share, be human! A good recipe for all to follow!

  9. Christine says:

    I like the advice about sharing your own experiences with students. As a teacher you sometimes forget how humanizing it can be to share a bit of your personal life, especially when it concerns your own learning process.
    Well said, Sarah!

  10. Courtney Hare says:

    Many thanks for sharing this recipe for succss!

    I would especially like to emphasize #5 “Encourage Learners with a can-do attitude.” It is so imporant to re-write the recipe for disappointment, some of our more destructive self-narratives such as “I´m too busy” or or “it´s too hard” + misconceptions about adult learning, such as “it´s harder for adults to learn languages or literacy.”


  11. Brent David Novodvorski says:

    Thank you, Sarah for identifying the sources of inspirational elements in our challenging work.

    Often, we forget the humanity of our humanness. Or, did I just become too philosophical?

    Regardless, we all need to embrace the pedagogical vulnerability and bring out its necessary nakedness in our practices.

  12. Kurt Cordice says:

    To me, these seem to be useful tips for leadership of any kind. It is about really investing part of yourself in the process of teaching and leading. When students (of any age) see this, they respond by also investing. It is not the only way to teach, and requires much energy from the teacher. But for me, it is the best way, and the most fun!

  13. Emma says:

    Great info, can be used for any training/teaching session. Totally agree with sharing stories and having a laugh with the students. Not only does this show that you are human, it also makes them more comfortable and helps them relax more.

    Great advice Sarah, keep them coming!

  14. Jennifer says:

    Literacy teachers as leaders… Speaking from personal experience, learning another language as an adult is a humbling experience. Language is a medium of strength in that in addition to regular communication, it is your medium for expressing thoughts and ideas, emotions. When learning another language this ability is gone and that can be frustrating. Having an instructor following the above 5 tips is essential in maintaining the fragile ego, and motivation, of those learning how to speak – very good tips indeed.

  15. hyaniv says:

    I agree with your points, thanks for sharing.

  16. Positive and uplifting!

    Thank you for sharing!

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