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When the teacher becomes a student

Photo credit: Thierry Raimbault

I’ve taught French and English on Italki for 1.5 years and I’ve noticed how much progress I made as a teacher. I came up with creative illustrations, grammar exercises and learned to correct one’s accent. The best part: I’ve designed all my classes and found solutions on my own. One day, a friend of mine asked whether I had tried taking classes from another tutor.

Why on Earth would I do this? I’ve gone to school in 3 different countries, both online and in person. I’ve suffered enough from being a student that this idea was shocking to me. Well, it turns out that he was right. If I wanted to become a better tutor, I had to be on the other side of the fence and see for myself what it’s like to be taught on this platform.

I always pictured Italki as a chill platform for friendly and joyful conversations. The flat hierarchy between the students and the tutors was really attractive to me. It wasn’t as stress-inducing as going to school because students were motivated, and they actually paid for this hobby. They weren’t here to compete or backstab for better grades. Learning a language also meant that these people were used to travel and seeing different cultures, thus being more open-minded.

Yesterday, I decided to book a class so I could play being a student, perhaps a difficult one. This way, I’d learn how the tutor would manage hard and tricky questions. As a kid, I went through 10 years of English, 8 years of German and 4 years of Italian. The French school system spoiled us with language options and didn’t really care for the practice. They were plenty of tutors in all these languages on Italki, but I wanted to take a class in Khmer (Cambodian). I secretly wanted to see how much I remembered from my family’s epic fail to teach me Khmer. Plus, there were only 4 Khmer tutors, so I didn’t have to analyze too many profiles.

My Khmer tutor was presentable, professional, and on time. He greeted me in Khmer, as if I knew the language. Although I could understand what he was saying, my brain wasn’t able to answer anything back. We mostly spoke in English because my level wasn’t good enough. He even complimented my English accent, until he learned that I was American.

Overall, we had the same techniques for our beginner’s class. Yes, I couldn’t help but compare our teaching styles. He started with common expressions and salutations. He was patient with me, so we repeated multiple times. I asked him to correct my accent and teach me how to use certain part of my throat/mouth area. He said to not worry about it.

I don’t think I would have given this answer “don’t worry about it.” For someone who’s meticulous, it can be frustrating to be denied a correction. I knew the salutations because I had prepared for the class, but I wanted him to tell me how to improve my accent from the start, so I don’t continue speaking Khmer with a horrendous bizarre accent.

We joked about few things, food references, family questions. It went really well. 30 minutes flew by and it was satisfying to connect with the language, and surprisingly happy to reconnect with part of my childhood. At the end, he sent me a pdf and an audio recording of the few words and expressions that we learned. It’s a nice gesture. I personally provide pdf for my vocabulary sheets, but I only sent audio files upon requests. I thought it was nice he sent it anyways.

I told my family about this experimental class. Deep inside, I wanted it to make me want to take more regular classes to become fluent in Khmer. The truth is, I balanced out the investment in time and money versus how much I’ll get out of it. It seems like I’m not totally ready to get too close to my past. Perhaps, more healing has to come first?

My Khmer tutor was a real professional, he owns his own website and language company outside of this platform. He graduated with a diploma in linguistics and he’s ambitious. I wanted to help him out, so I suggested for him to come talk about the Cambodian culture on my podcast. He said he’ll think about it, and I hope he’ll contact me for it! The door still remains open for now.

When a teacher becomes a student, few important things happen:

We get down from our high horses and get a humility slap in the face

I actually enjoyed being on the other side because I was relieved from the responsibility of passing on knowledge. Receiving knowledge is a humbling experience. Few times, I refrain from giving advice on his pace, gestures etc. because I had to remind myself that I was the student for HIS lesson. Yes, humility is a damn virtue (Hare, 1992)!

Learning is as demanding as teaching

When I was in school, I remembered learning being a passive activity. I saw down in class and opened my notebook or laptop, then typed down what I heard. Sometimes, I felt like I was forced to learn things I didn’t care about, so I put my brain on autopilot. This time around, decided to learn actively because it’s the most optimal way of learning (Kruschke, 2008). I was as focused as my teacher because I was determined to learn how to teach better. Learning should stimulate the mind and consume calories, if not, then we are doing something wrong.

Let’s not compare to compete, but to learn from each other

Few times in my teaching experience, a student would reveal that s/he is also a teacher on Italki and I would pressure myself to perform better than usual. This time, I didn’t want to tell my Khmer tutor that I was also teaching on the same platform because I didn’t want his teaching style to change because of me. I told him at the end, and nothing could have stopped him from looking at my profile before starting the class, but it was important that I kept my role as a student. Overall, even if we know we’re dealing with peers, let it be an advantageous collaboration rather than a competition.

Culture is a social bond

When my tutor started speaking to me in Khmer, he saw in my eyes that I understood him although my lips were paralyzed. I don’t know if it’s an educated guess or a random chance but knowing that I had some Cambodian in me made him go for the cultural references. He asked me about my parents, the cooking we did at home and where everyone was living after the civil war. He wasn’t shy about sharing his background either. Learning a language is much more than learning the syntax, the pronunciation and the vocab, it’s also about caring for the culture and the history of our ancestors. I realized that I may not have had the same “welcome” treatment if I had picked a tutor from a different background.

What would make me go back to this tutor?

Surprisingly, it’s only been one class, but I could already feel some chemistry between us. His pdf sheet wasn’t the prettiest, his audio file wasn’t the best quality sound, and his pace was a little slow to me. As an experienced teacher, I know he’s taught the same words over and over again, with the same smile and the same professional enthusiasm. I know his jokes were prepared the same way I had mine prepared. It was nice to see patience and kindness on his face though, and that’s what made the difference. Somehow, he managed to create a friendly connection. A research study led by a nurse educator emphasize that the student-educator bond is a place for possibilities (Gillespie, 2005). She writes in her article:

The qualities inherent in the essence of connection – knowing, trust, respect and mutuality – create a transformative space in which students are affirmed, gain insight into their potential, and grow toward fulfilling personal and professional capacities: student–teacher connection emerges as a place of possibility.”

The experience of learning absolutely changes when students and tutors develop a relationship to get to know each other. This place of possibility is where growth happens. When my tutor built his connection, I built mine in return. When he shared a personal story, I opened up a little more. Our bridge got stronger and stronger as vulnerability settled. After a while, I knew I could make mistakes and not feel judged. I could get over my embarrassment because he made me feel comfortable with my mistakes. It’s absurd but a part of me would feel like I would be cheating on him if I booked a class with another tutor because I enjoyed how he explained everything to me as if I was family.

How can I improve my classes now?

It’s funny how my tutor told me to not worry about the pronunciation and the accent, but he sent me an audio recording about the words we learned. It must not be so unimportant after all. I’ve been a podcast host for 6 months and never thought about sending audio recordings to my students, although I emphasize learning how to roll the Rs correctly in French. The audio recording is a nice touch.

Now that everyone has to deal with Zoom or Skype during the pandemic, we couldn’t be more thankful for technology when it comes to teaching. I personally love to use visual material, such as illustrations on Canva or Youtube videos, but it’s true that I was missing out on the audio experience. Research has shown that the audio-lingual practice, including dialogues and pattern drills improve efficient learning of a foreign language (Mart, 2013). So, my tutor inspired me to broaden my teaching methods.

In conclusion, after being a tutor for a while, I realized I have so much to learn. Nobody has a perfect teaching style because it depends on the students’ expectations and we can’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I appreciated the good mood, the professional smile and all the preparation for this Khmer lesson. I am so happy I also got to dip my brain into my family’s language for 30 min, it was enough for me to miss home. Home being Paris, where my family resides. In the meantime, I’m motivated to book more lessons on Italki. I hope this article inspired teachers to become students to improve their teaching styles as well. Let’s never stop the learning cycle, as we never know where it will lead us.


Gillespie, M. (2005). Student-teacher connection: a place of possibility. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 52(2), 211–219.

Hare, W. (1992). Humility as a Virtue in Teaching. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 26(2), 227–236.

Kruschke, J. K. (2008). Bayesian approaches to associative learning: From passive to active learning. Learning & Behavior, 36(3), 210–226.

Mart, C. T. (2013). The Audio-Lingual Method: An Easy way of Achieving Speech. International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences, 3(12).


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