It’s the small things that count (by David Deubelbeiss)

Everyone seems to know what teaching is. We organize, we write on the board, we give out handouts and homework, we ask questions, we mark and get ready for the next day. Is it so simple?

I believe it isn’t – the devil is in the details. So many teachers believe that their teaching would be better if they had a better book or they had fewer students or the administration were better or if the classroom were arranged differently or if ……… I’m skeptical. Maybe some of these “larger” things do affect instruction but just as important are the details, the micro teaching skills.

Malcolm Gladwell in a recent New Yorker article, wrote adroitly about the “quarterback” problem in teaching. How so many teachers, like so many quarterbacks, don’t make the cut in the big leagues – despite credentials, awards, accomplishments. My belief and those researchers he mentions, is that teaching isn’t about those things. It is about what you do on your feet and HOW you do it. The small skills make great teachers, especially great language teachers. Like quarterbacks, we can’t predict with certainty a teacher will be good. However, once on the job, there are many things we can see that give us an idea, a hint, assurance.

It is the small things that seem to multiply and cause a lot of the poor teaching outcomes we witness in our classrooms and others. I’m a firm believer of this — that quality of instruction counts and even more so, the quality of the small things we do in our classroom. I’ve seen a teacher with the mere twinkle of an eye transform a classroom. I have. I have seen a teacher merely by looking students a little longer in the eye, holding their gaze, get better results from students. Micro skills count big time in our people-driven profession of language teaching.

Teaching is an art but an art we can learn. Experience counts but we can climb up that steep hill so much quicker if we learn about the small tricks that good educators do so naturally.

I’ve been fortunate this last year. I’ve been a guest in many, many classrooms. (but unfortunately as part of a formal evaluation system – that’s another story, ugh…). A lot of what I saw confirmed my faith in the small things counting. I’d like to share some of them with you here.

These more micro teaching skills/acts are all things we could focus on for a week or two, or three (myself included!), one at a time. Choose one you think would benefit you and make it a goal to improve on that one. Further, make the goal “SMART” (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time bound). Maybe even keep a reflective journal about it and/or get feedback from colleagues. If daring, video tape yourself and measure your change. It will make a big difference in your teaching.

a) Have a signal, including an audio signal. I use a bell and have the students freeze on the first ring. Then lightly tap and the students can relax and focus on the front.

b) Personalize instruction. Use students’ names as much as possible. The brain lights up when we hear our name! Have regard for their perspective. Learn the art of listening, with all your face/body! Create a space where they feel they can be who they are. Go from the general to the particular – especially guiding instruction towards the student’s world. I once watched a great lesson on learning how to tell the time. Everything was letter perfect yet not once did the teacher ask the students during the lesson, what time it really was. Good teachers bring the curriculum down to the student’s world and let them personalize and connect to it.

C) Use personal space wisely. Bend down to the student’s level as much as possible, even when giving direct instruction. Speak to students eye to eye. Get a chair and don’t be afraid to sit in it and speak from there. Power can destroy a student’s ability to focus and take in language. Further, many pragmatic signals are lost when a teacher stands at the front, reigning over the students. When instructing make eye contact with students, one at a time. When making a point – hold eye contact for a longer time. Rapport is such a major factor in instruction – the twinkle in the eye as Benjamin Zander calls it. In about 1-2 min. in a classroom, all else equal, I can tell if a teacher is “great”, just by the rapport that is there with students.

D) Use the whole classroom. It is your home and field, use it all. Students need that variety. Inexperienced teachers stay too much within the “hot zone” around the front and teacher’s desk. This leads to ineffective instruction. Sometimes when evaluating teachers I’d secretly mark the floor and count how long the instructor spent outside the “hot zone”. Invariably, it was the better instructors who always did. Yet, when delivering a message and content, “don’t move!” Let the students focus on your message/meaning and not your movement.

E) Know when to step back. Learn how to “disappear.” This is a must for a language teacher. Give the chalk to the students. I know it can make you feel powerless but it will lead to some amazing results. Conversely, know when you need to be there and be present. The researchers in the article call this quality, “wherewithall” – an ability to understand the dynamics of the classroom and your own effect on that. I spent a year teaching a grade 8 ESL class in Toronto. I think I did a good job but when it came to math I was struggling. Especially with algebra. But one day I handed the chalk over to Jasmine to “take control” and solve the problems while I discussed something with another teacher. Wow! The whole class had changed – I could almost taste the learning happening. From that moment on , Jasmine was “the math teacher” and I was just the helped at the side.

F) Modify and aid understanding. Underline words, use a laser pointer, use a microphone (this actually helps learning, even in tiny classrooms). Use your voice as a tool to emphasize words/content. Gesture in a controlled fashion. Monitor student understanding and modify the feedback appropriately. Expert teachers do this saliently and find the right phrase, the right feedback to scaffold the learner and make learning happen.

G) Pause more. This point needs to be emphasized more and is a major factor in a lot of student “bewilderment” (a word I borrow from Frank Smith who uses it in reference to the receptive realm and students learning to read texts with too difficult vocabulary). Don’t slow your speech but modify it by pausing. Count to 3 if you have to, between sentences. Count to 5 after asking a question. Students need time to process a second language; the cognitive demands are huge.

H) H is for happiness. Not really a “micro” skill but something I want to mention. I’ve learned to end all lessons by asking students if they are happy. They might not be but invariably, just by getting them to say, “Yes, we’re happy!”, they become happy. Great teachers give students a feeling of success and from that success – happiness.

You can view many of my other blog posts outlining these principles HERE. We do make a difference! This research based article highlights this and many more of the qualities I’ve outlined.

For an overview of many of these ideas GO HERE.

Note: This article by David Deubelbeiss originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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17 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Thanks, David, for getting this series off to such a great start. Excellent advice for us all!

    When I first started with junior and senior high school students, I used to think of “D” as “be a moving target.” Your “use the whole classroom” sounds so much better 🙂

  2. Wow! David, what a great post. I haven’t been by Barbara’s blog for a couple of weeks and to come back and find this post is, well… fantastic.

    I love your focus on small things and details. Everything you wrote could fall into the overall category known as classroom interaction. Dick Allright has written so much on this subject and I believe it is as pertinent now as it was when he started writing about it back in the 1980’s.

    One of my favorite lines of his is something like, “A lesson is a co-production between learners and the teacher – the only problem is that the learners have no idea about the script.”

    The teacher who has enough classroom management technique under their belts, and has enough understanding of the point of the day’s lesson, can then be free to focus almost entirely on classroom interaction – what’s actually happening from moment to moment in the lesson. That is when the magic can happen.

    I’ve come to the stage that it doesn’t really matter WHAT I teach anymore. It only matters HOW I teach. Connecting, challenging, expecting and being meaningful are the keys to succeeding both in the classroom and with my students.

    Your post brought up many wonderful, inspirational feelings on a quiet Sunday evening. Thank you for that.


    Steven Herder

    • David says:


      You are so right — it is that “HOW” that really makes magic and a difference. It is kind of getting past the content and into “flow”. Your comment reminded me of why we do call master teachers those who’ve taught over 10 years. That experience becomes ingrained and is seen in the “how” they teach. Still , all teachers can speed up that learning curve.

      I liked your comment about it being a “co-production”. I should have included something about that and how it is “interaction” and students too have responsibilities and a part in making the classroom a magical place.

      But it is special when you get to that point in your teaching when you are constantly motivated by the moment by moment interaction that happens in that wonderful place we can call a classroom.

      Thanks for the nice comments and giving me the inspiration to look into Allwright again (I’m guilty, but was very much influenced by his clear headed writing about what is “essential” in the classroom)


  3. This is very useful. I want to share it with the other teachers I work with.

    Thanks for sharing these ideas.


    Marc Helgesen

    • David says:


      You’re welcome and thanks for commenting, please share! Also thanks to Barbara for prompting me to write this up based on an older slideshow of mine.


  4. Melania says:

    Great post, David! Thank you! Both teachers and trainers have a lot to learn from this, they make excellent guidelines for the betterment of the teachers’ activity in class and for the those evaluating educators!


  5. Thanks David. An excellent post with great reminders of what we should all reflect upon when we are teaching. I love your slideshow presentation. Very effective and clear.

  6. David says:


    Thanks for the comment about the presentation, glad you found it. I see so many “new” teachers without formal backgrounds in education, so I make these presentations so they can learn on their own. Many will engage with this type of content but not a large “how to teach” textbook. I can only say so much in short sessions. 🙂


  7. Jane Kiel says:

    It took me many years of teaching before I had the confidence to let myself become ‘powerless’ as you say and let my students become the guides. It was invaluable. And every year, I have different guides and we go different places – or at least take a different route each year!

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