Putting Away Childish Things: A reflection on teaching adults

teaching children adults

For my first few years in EFL teaching, I taught the inevitable mixed bag of kids, teens and adults. This year, however, I am officially a teacher of ‘Young Learners’, and the opportunity to take that step in my development was one of my reasons for moving to IH Prague. This week, however, the elementary school where I normally work has been on spring break, meaning adult subs. Lots of adult subs.

My fears that I am no longer cut out to be a teacher of adults were confirmed in my first cover class, when I accidentally referred to my assembled students as ‘boys and girls’; thankfully it did get easier during the course of the week! Here are my thoughts on the differences between teaching adults and young learners.

  • Sometimes kids are just better at learning! 

It may well be simply because of what they are used to, but I find that my kids come to their English lessons ready to learn, expecting to learn, and knowing that for that to happen they need to be involved in the process. Some of the adults I’ve taught this week have pretty much just shown up in the classroom, expecting teaching to be ‘done to them’.

  • Kids are spectacular time-wasters.

After about three adult lessons I realised why however much I’d planned, we always seemed to finish 5-10 minutes early. Those extra minutes are spread across my YL lessons, as it takes everyone longer than expected to sit down, or one student can’t find a pen, or someone has to eagerly tell us about their new toy or upcoming birthday party. I tend to take those little moments of chatter, or where classroom management becomes the focus rather than language teaching, for granted – but when they’re not there I realise I miss them.

  • In teaching kids, you’re not just teaching a language, you’re teaching about being a person. 

In my one lone YL class this week we had to pause our lesson for a discussion on why ‘We don’t laugh at people when they get things wrong’. In teaching YLs I am priviledged to teach not only English, but also how to interact with others, how to share, how to deal with success and disappointment… the list goes on. My adult students are already fundamentally who they are. Hopefully my teaching will enable them to be more educated about different cultures (and in the process hopefully we all become more tolerant and open-minded as a result), but it isn’t going to make them a different, better or nicer person. At times I question whether or not my kids will actually learn how to treat each other in the way that they would like to be treated – but then I remember that every little lesson adds up, and I don’t have to do it all myself.

  • Adults realise their teacher exists outside of the classroom.

One of the most enjoyable littlies I’ve ever taught informed me solemnly, one lesson, that I lived under the table in my classroom. I find that it tends to be only as teens that YLs develop any kind of interest in, or understanding of their teacher being a person, as opposed to a teacher. The adults I’ve taught this week, on the other hand, have all quizzed me at great length about my career, my experiences of living in Prague, and my experiences of teaching Czech vs. Russian students.

  • Some adults can be downright rude!

In my lessons I expect a certain degree of respect and classroom-appropriate behaviour. This week I have had students play on their mobile phones, openly text during class, completely ignore my instructions to stop an activity/stop talking, and start packing up five minutes before the end of the lesson. My kids can behave better than that, so why does it seem quite so difficult for adults?!

I thought I was going to hate teaching adults this week, and am pleasantly surprised that instead I found it an enjoyable experience. I haven’t forgotten how to teach them, and teaching them is more ‘different’ than it is ‘better’ or ‘worse’. Saying that, I’ll be glad to get back to my kids classes next week…

Do you have a favourite age group to teach? I’d love to hear your thoughts, either in an email or in the comments. 

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