The Sub-Roles of the English Teacher

Unlike other jobs, the “job” of being a teacher does not end when we step out of the classroom (like the job of a factory worker when he exits the gates of the factory). If we say that a teacher’s work is never done, no one inside the educational system will contradict us, although many other members of our society think quite the opposite (they believe teachers have a lot of free time on their hands, after finishing their 18 classes a week). Teachers juggle through so many roles and responsibilities that sometimes they feel overwhelmed.

The secret is in prioritising and organising the amount of work, and, of course, in a good management of time, resources and energy. If we like what we do, then all our roles and responsibilities will not feel like a burden. As they say: “Enjoy what you do and you won’t have to work a day in your life!”

Most of our roles and sub-roles derive from the five stages listed in the Cambridge English Teaching Framework (Cambridge English Teaching Framework – Competency Statements 2014):
1. Learning and the Learner
2. Teaching, Learning and Assessment
3. Language Ability
4. Language Knowledge and Awareness
5. Professional Development and Values

As one can easily observe, teachers have their hands full. Apart from the actual roles that a teacher assumes in the English class (controller, organiser, assessor, etc.- see Harmer), all the sub-roles that we, as teachers, perform daily or monthly, if performed well, will also lead to successful learning, which is the ultimate goal of our teaching.

All these sub-roles have cognitive and socio-affective components, although the cognitive aspect can be more dominant in some while the socio-affective aspect can dominate others.

Here is a list of sub-roles that have a more dominant cognitive aspect:

1. Teachers as planners

Good, effective planning lies at the heart of effective English teaching and learning.
Although it is quite an inevitable part of the job, it can become visible when lack of proper planning leads to not so proper curriculum coverage because “failing to plan … is planning to fail.” (Ceranic 2009) There is a difference between risk-taking and wasting learning time on the one hand, and flexible teaching, on the other hand.

2. Teachers as selectors of learning materials

Teachers find themselves swimming in an ocean of learning materials, starting from alternative textbooks and ending with digital resources. It is part of their job to select, adapt and use these teaching materials in the classroom. The most important principle to follow in choosing the materials is authenticity. Then we have to consider the level of language understanding of our students. Another important issue is their relevance and the impact they have on learners and their motivation. Proper learning materials should be rich in linguistic and cultural information about the target language.

2. Teachers as teaching aids

We, as teachers, are “a piece of teaching equipment in our own right” (Harmer 2001). We use mime, gesture and expression to convey meaning. When exaggerated, mime and expression bring explicit meaning. We can, also, model language when reading aloud in an interested and committed way. In addition, we are providers of comprehensible input (language which students understand, but which is slightly above their production level). Of course, students will become bored if they have to listen to us all the time, so they will need exposure to the target language through other means, too: reading, listening, watching movies. Here we can see the teacher acting as a tutor when promoting extensive reading, pointing out its benefits and helping each student make appropriate level choices.

3. Teachers as organisers of extracurricular opportunities

Outdoor activities, such as walks, visits and trips can be beneficial and rewarding for students when it comes to better group bonding and, also, building rapport. Needless to say, this sort of activities must be organised having some objectives in mind, as part of informal education. Teachers can also organise extracurricular activities within the school’s walls: reading groups, debating clubs, a student magazine, competitions. The problem with these extracurricular activities that teachers complain about is lack of time and of financial resources.

4. Teachers as “action” researchers

Action research aims at a particular situation, at solving an immediate problem. Teachers can and should be involved in researching their own professional practice, as part of their own development as teachers. Action research bridges the gap between theory and practice, merging the role of researcher and that of practitioner. It provides teachers with better information than they already have about what is actually happening in the classroom and why.

5. Teachers as learners

Once we embarked on the teaching career, we knew it would involve a lifelong learning. Language, as well as language teaching and learning, are very much alive and undergo a continuous process of change and development and we need to keep up with these changes. Curiosity and passion for knowledge should be a teacher’s “middle name”. We learn from our own experience, from individual research or study, or from participating in professional development courses. We are not perfect teachers but if we want to always improve our teaching, here is the key: Keep Educating Yourself!

The socio-affective component of our job can be identified in the following sub-roles:

1. Teachers as motivators

Motivation is a critical factor in successful learning. Harmer defines motivation as “some kind of internal drive which pushes someone to do things in order to achieve something.” (Harmer 2001) Teachers are responsible for increasing and directing student motivation by means of goal setting, appropriate learning environment, interesting classes, but, in the end, it is up to the students to detect and make use of that “internal drive”. Intrinsic motivation includes fascination with the subject and a sense of accomplishment in mastering it, so we need to use a variety of engaging activities and to set realistic performance goals, helping students to achieve them by encouraging them.

2. Teachers as promoters of learner autonomy

Learner autonomy is a relatively new concept in our educational system, therefore both student and teacher are sometimes reluctant to share or assume responsibility when it comes to what or how the students should learn. We cannot talk about learner autonomy without teacher autonomy. The “how” is open for discussion, teachers being allowed to use whatever method they want, but the “what” is provided by the curriculum. Still, we can talk about ways of increasing learner autonomy: engaging students in writing a journal, role-plays, drama and creative writing, project work. The teacher’s role here is to encourage and support any effort that comes from the student.

3. Teachers as rapport builders

We have already talked about the importance of teacher-student relationships. It is vital that we get to know our students and allow them to know us. We need to make time to speak to students individually on a one-to-one basis and show real interest in what they say. The use of humour can help create a relaxed and familiar atmosphere. It should not be mistaken for sarcasm because this would undermine rather than strengthen the learning relationship within the classroom.

4. Teachers as actors or performers

Teachers become actors when they bring to life teaching texts written by others, using their talent as good communicators, and acting techniques such as voice, tone and bodily gestures. This is an example of edutainment, term defined as “entertainment (as by games, films, or shows) that is designed to be educational” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 2003). Teachers perform their roles in different manners (energetically, encouragingly, retiringly, commandingly), depending on the activity. At some point, when the activity gets going, they need to make sure that their performance does not overwhelm the students’ performance.

5. Teachers as interior designers

This role also has to do with the artistic side of being a teacher. When creating a learning environment, we have to consider the physical aspect of a classroom as well. The purpose of decorating a classroom is to make it a functional place to learn. However, it is also important to create a calm and pleasant working environment. Therefore, apart from the functional devices that we need to find in a classroom, we could add some things solely for aesthetic purposes (pictures on the walls, flowers).

6. Teachers as partners

At the beginning of the school year, teachers and parents sign an educational contract that stipulates the rights and duties of both parties. Teachers and parents are partners in education, sharing responsibility for educating the learner. The lack of co-operation between partners naturally leads to faulty education, the learner being the one to suffer the most serious consequences.

7. Teachers as persons

Last, but not least, comes the role of the teacher as a person. “A good teacher knows and does but, most importantly, is.” (Arnold 2011) If our aim is to have “real teachers” in the classroom, affective aspects such as facilitation, group dynamics, teacher autonomy and active listening should be a part of teacher training. Attention to affect can improve language learning in many ways.

Taking into account the enumeration of teachers’ sub-roles above, we can give another answer to the question: “What is a teacher?” A teacher is a planner, a selector, a teaching aid, an organizer, an action researcher, a learner, a motivator, a promoter, a rapport builder, an actor, an interior designer, a partner, but, above all, a person.

*** (2014): Cambridge English Teaching Framework- Competency Statements,UCLES, pp. 2-11, accessible at June, 13, 2016.
*** (2003): Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, Springfield, Massachusetts, s.v. edutainment.
Arnold, J. (2011):  “Attention to Affect in Language Learning” in Anglistik. International Journal of English Studies, 22/1, 11-22, p. 9.
Ceranic, H. (2009): The English Teacher’s Handbook, New York, Continuum International Publishing Group, p.5.
Harmer, J. (2001): The Practice of English Language Teaching, Third Edition, Harlow, Longman, p. 64.


prof. Alina-Paraschiva Iorga

Liceul cu Program Sportiv Nadia Comăneci, Onești (Bacău) , România
Profil iTeach:

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