AATSEEL: What makes a good language teacher?
MILLER: A good language teacher makes language learning pertinent to the real world. Good language teachers are attentive to the needs of their students, have near-native proficiency in the target language, and have a good background in language-teaching methodology. This should be combined with patience, organization, and enthusiasm. No one can remember everything, so students need to realize that there are no “stupid” questions and that it’s only natural for mistakes to occur while learning to communicate in another language. Error correction is necessary, but encouragement and subtle, yet effective, error correction yield better results than sarcasm or criticism. Classes should be well planned, well paced, and challenging. It is important to set definite goals for each class and to make up detailed lesson plans that include activities in all four language skills. Good language teachers are enthusiastic about their subject and convey this enthusiasm to their students. This is important for teaching the “fifth” language skill – sensitivity to the culture and history of the people who speak the language. Language learning should be an exhilarating experience for the student. Each class should give students a sense of accomplishment and the feeling that this is the best class of the day.
AATSEEL: How did you enter the profession? Why did you decide to become a professor of Russian language (as opposed to being a professor of literature or linguistics)?
MILLER: I actually began my career by teaching advanced Russian, in Russian, and by making up teaching materials at the same time in the Indiana University Russian Workshop. One of the first programs to offer language study in the USSR was the IU Russian Language Study Tour – a ten-week program with five weeks of intensive language study on the IU campus and five weeks of language study during a tour of the Soviet Union. The main focus of this program was teaching students the language skills they would need to talk about themselves and the USA and to deal with various aspects of life in the Soviet Union. This type of teaching was very different from the way I had originally learned Russian. I found this type of teaching very rewarding and taught in the summer program for several years. During my years as a graduate student at Indiana University I also had the opportunity to be in charge of the first- and second-year Russian courses and to make up supplementary materials for these courses. In 1972 I began teaching in the summer Russian School at Middlebury College, where I taught until 1986. By the time I received my Ph.D. in Russian literature in 1976 I had amassed a great deal of experience in teaching Russian at all levels, so it was only natural that I continue to devote the greater part of my energy to language teaching
AATSEEL: Are there fewer or more opportunities for American speakers of Russian and other Slavic languages than when you began your career?
MILLER: Government jobs have always been available for speakers of Russian and other Slavic languages. When I began my career, few American companies did business with the USSR and Eastern Europe, so there were almost no jobs available in this area. This of course has changed, and those who look hard do find jobs in business.
The number of academic positions available each year has remained quite small over the past 20 years, but this past year the situation changed dramatically – evidently my generation of Slavists is beginning to retire. In the late 1960s there were numerous job opportunities in Russian and the other Slavic languages, but in the early 1970s the job market dried up. There were years when there were so few jobs available that many graduate students were in no hurry to finish their dissertations. The job market will probably remain good for the next three or four years, and graduate students who are working on their dissertations should finish them as quickly as possible in order to take advantage of this situation.
AATSEEL: Have your teaching methods changed over the past 20 years?
MILLER: My methods have, of course, changed, but my main goal of getting students out of the textbook and using the language in realistic everyday situations has remained the same. When I first began teaching, the ALM approach to teaching language was popular. Since then other methodologies have come and gone, and we’ve derived benefit from all of them. Most important, I think, has been the transition from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom. Newer “smart classrooms” and the Internet enable us to bring the real world into the classroom, and newer technologies like Wimba (www.horizonwimba.com) give students the opportunity to develop their speaking skills and to submit oral assignments as email attachments.
AATSEEL: What should someone starting out in the profession focus on?
MILLER: Professional development. Most new Ph.D.’s do teach language, and all good language teachers continually try to improve their skills and keep abreast of the latest technology. Good teachers learn from each other, and one can learn a great deal by observing good teachers of any language. Most good teachers welcome observers in their classrooms; new teachers should find out who they are and ask to observe them. One should take advantage of opportunities to attend workshops on technology and learn to use “smart classrooms” for language instruction.
One should also be aware of the ACTFL proficiency guidelines and try to attend an OPI workshop and become a qualified ACTFL tester. It is most important for one to be active in professional organizations such as AATSEEL, ACTFL, and the MLA. The worst thing one can do is not to keep aware of what’s going on in the profession.
AATSEEL: What should one look for in a graduate program or a study-abroad program?
MILLER: I have often heard graduate students comment that their language proficiency actually declines during graduate study. This is because most or all of their courses and readings are in English and little or no attention is paid to the development of their language skills. It is therefore important to look for a graduate program that offers courses and opportunities for language maintenance. One should also look for a program that trains its students to teach and prepares them adequately for the job market.
Students who are interested in study-abroad programs should speak with other students who have participated in these programs and then decide which program is for them. Many study-abroad offices keep a file of student evaluations and comments and, if available, these should also be consulted.
Frank Miller is Professor of Slavic Languages at Columbia University. He has chaired the Department and has been the Russian Language Coordinator for Columbia University and Barnard College since 1985. He received the Ph.D. degree in 1975 from Indiana University where he began teaching Russian in 1964. He is the author of several books and co-author, with Olga Kagan and Anna Kudyma, of В пути (2nd. ed. Pearson-Prentice Hall 2006). He received the AATSEEL Award for Excellence in Teaching at the Postsecondary Level in 1996 and was AATSEEL President in 1999–2000.