Interview with an EFL Teacher: Allison

One of my many plans for The Best Ticher this year is to showcase some other voices, not just my own. After all, I’m not the only EFL teacher out there! To kick off my new series of ‘Interview with an EFL Teacher’ posts, I’d like to introduce my friend (and former colleague) Allison. 

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Allison is an EFL teacher from Long Island, New York. She did her CELTA in Wroclaw, Poland and currently works in Prague, Czech Republic. In her free time, Allison likes to read, draw, do arts and craft projects and play on her ukulele.

Hi Allison, thanks for agreeing to answer some questions for my site!

So, first thing’s first, the big question: why TEFL?

One of the big reasons I chose TEFL was because I knew someone who had done it; my sister! She taught in Prague and in Japan. She really loved the experience and culture in the countries she was in and inspired me to travel and teach!


Did you have any teaching experience before taking your CELTA?

Yes, actually I did! Before I did CELTA, I received a Master’s in Science in Elementary Education (aka: Teaching Primary School Children). I looked for some jobs after I graduated, but I was a little nervous. I kept asking myself if teaching in one place was what I wanted to do. Before settling down, I wanted to travel. Teaching and travelling seemed like the best option for me. It made me excited to think about the possibilities of living and teaching in another country.

What was your next step after receiving your certificate?

After I got my CELTA, I stayed in Poland for at least a month in order to find a job as soon as possible. While I applied to jobs, it gave me the opportunity to travel around central Europe. 

What’s been your favorite teaching moment?

My favorite teaching moment was when I taught in pre-school in Prague. One day, I arrived to class and a little girl came up to me, grabbed me by the hand and showed me a picture she drew. She pointed out the colors that we learned the week before and said them in English. I gave her a high five and she grinned.

I also love singing songs to my pre-school and primary school children. It’s wonderful to hear them hum the songs that we learned and then they sing it for you. ^_^


What’s the most useful thing you’ve learned?

The most useful thing I learned was that experience is valuable. The more practice, support and resources I got, the more I grew in my teaching skills.

Is there anything you wish you’d changed or done differently?

No, not really. I don’t regret anything and I think everything I learned helped me to become a better teacher.

If you could give one piece of advice to a new teacher, what would it be?

Be patient. The art of teaching is not mastered overnight.

Complete this sentence: “Teaching English abroad is…”

Teaching English abroad is life changing, yet rewarding. 

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions Allison! 

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How to Beat Observation Nerves

 

I remember my TP during my teacher training quite vividly – not least because I was so nervous before every lesson I taught that I would feel physically sick. If you lose sleep before observations, your palms start to sweat and your stomach just won’t settle, you’re not alone. This is what I wish I’d known about observation nerves, and how not to let them win. 

Before your observation:

Look after yourself.

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When you’re really strung out on something, it’s only natural to feel as if it’s absorbing all your time and mental energy. It’s important in the lead up to your observation to make sure you’re looking after yourself.

  • Eat properly – maybe even treat yourself to a meal out or take the trouble to cook yourself something more special than you would normally make.
  • Don’t spend your whole time rehashing your lesson plan and thinking about teaching – do something completely different, and again, make it something you enjoy. Maybe get the things together that you’ll need for your lesson (especially if you’ve got lots of photocopies prepared or are taking in realia), maybe decide what you’re going to wear (choose something professional, but most importantly that you’re comfortable in!), but then put everything aside and think about something else as best you can.
  • Finally, get to sleep at a decent time! Don’t go to bed far earlier than usual for the sake of it (lying there tossing and turning won’t help anyone), but equally don’t stay up really late either.

Visualise/rehearse.

It sounds a little kooky, but this is one of the most helpful things I’ve found for reducing my observation nerves. Before teaching your observed lesson, practise! You don’t need to teach the whole lesson you’ve got planned to the same (or a different class), simply teaching the lesson to a chair/a collection of inanimate objects/a willing flatmate works just as well. If you don’t want to get up and actually run through the whole thing you could equally just visualise yourself teaching the lesson. This gives you the opportunity to see if there are any obvious flaws in your plan (for example an explanation that doesn’t quite make sense), and allows you to anticipate any problems that might occur – and think how you will deal with them.

Think positively!

One of the problems with observation nerves is that they tend to lead you down the path of envisaging everything that could possibly go wrong, which then makes you worry about how you’ll respond to those problems, which then makes you worry about what will happen if you respond to them badly, which then makes you worry… you can see where this is going. The only way to break this cycle is to think positively. Yes, things might go wrong during your observation, but you’ve doubtless dealt with things going wrong in your lessons before, and you know what – you’ve survived.

You know what you’re doing, you’ve prepared well, so believe in yourself.

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During your Observation:

Remember that it’s not all about pass or fail.

The most helpful thing I’ve found in beating my own observation nerves has been working as a senior teacher and observing other teachers myself. Obviously this isn’t necessarily something you can easily put into practice, especially if you’ve only just started teaching and this is your first observation in a new job. However, I can pass on what I’ve learnt from observing other people:

  • Your observer is not looking to fail you. Overall, they are looking for two things – things you’re already doing that are good, and things that you could improve on. Even if you taught the worst lesson ever seen, whoever is observing you is still required to say something positive. They will be looking out for positive things, not only focusing on the negatives.
  • Even if you will be given a grade (above standard/to standard/below standard), observations are intended to help the teacher. Although the actual observation part is the most nerve-wracking, the most important part of the observation process is feedback. What the observer tells you is designed to help you improve. I’ve said it already, but I’ll say it again: notice the phrasing there. things you could improve on does not mean ‘things that are terrible, you’re a terrible teacher and by the way you’re in the wrong career’, they are suggestions for how you can become a better teacher. If you care about your students and you care about doing your job, then becoming a better teacher can only be a positive thing. Observations are there to help you do that.
  • The chances are that your observer may well be learning something from youMost experienced teachers are aware (but most new teachers aren’t) that over time, you do ‘forget’ how to teach properly. Bad habits become ingrained – and often it’s really interesting to observe someone else (especially someone recently qualified) as it reminds you of all the things you’ve forgotten! Even observing experienced teachers it’s interesting to see approaches that they try that you may not have thought of, or techniques, that they use that you also favour.

Connect with your students.

Remember that first and foremost, you are teaching your students – not an observer who may be sitting in the back of the room. Being observed doesn’t mean that you need to act like a robot. Smile at your students, ask them how they are, don’t be afraid to have a laugh with them. It’ll do wonders for your rapport with the students (which your observer will be looking out for), but it’ll also put your mind at ease slightly if you remember that you’re just doing what you normally do.

Expect your students to act differently.

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Students freak out about observations too! It’s a matter of personal preference how you approach telling (or not telling) your students about the observation. I’ve worked with colleagues who have attempted to bribe their class into being well-behaved, and this is something I’d caution against (especially as your teens idea of “well-behaved” might be quite different to yours), but it can be a good idea to let the students know that the observer is watching you, not them, and that it’s ok for them to behave as they would do normally. I’ve had normally really talkative classes completely clam up during an observation, and equally quite boisterous classes suddenly become impeccably behaved – so don’t be too alarmed if your students all seem to have suddenly had a personality transplant. Your observer knows that students sometimes have observation nerves as well!

Ignore the observer.

I know this is far easier said than done, but as much as possible, try to forget that the observer is there. If you’re constantly glancing at them to try to judge their facial expressions/see if they’re taking notes, you’re only going to add to how nervous you feel. The more attention you pay to the observer, the less attention you’re going to pay to your students – and they are still the most important people in the room.

Don’t feel like you have to teach from your plan.

In my first few observations, I always took my multiple page, CELTA-style lesson plan into the classroom with me, and then tried to teach the lesson from it. It didn’t work. Although you generally need a detailed plan for an observed lesson, having all of that information to hand during the lesson itself isn’t likely to help. Firstly, it’s going to stand out as something very different to what you normally do, which won’t help your nerves. Secondly, CELTA-style lesson plans are terrible if you want to simply glance at it quickly and check what you’re intending to do next.

Although you in all probability need to write the plan, and give a copy of it to your observer (check first as different schools have different policies), there’s nothing to say that you can’t submit the plan – then transfer the main points of it to your notebook or wherever you normally write your lesson plans. Then take that notebook into the classroom and use it to teach from.

Be prepared to alter your plan if necessary.

I’ve had a couple of observation near disasters – we all have. However I can identify one consistent feature in all of them: they have all been occasions where something didn’t work as intended, and I moved onto the next stage anyway. If your students don’t understand something, or struggle to complete an activity correctly, it’s ok to take a step back and re-explain, or to spend some more time on that area. This is particularly important if that knowledge or the result of that activity will be necessary to then complete subsequent stages of the lesson. You won’t be penalised for altering your plan, provided you can justify why you made that decision.

Post observation:

Make some brief notes.

During your observation feedback, you’re almost guaranteed to be asked how you felt the lesson went, and about any changes you made to your plan. If you’re able to have your observation feedback immediately after the lesson, then no need to do this – but it’s not unlikely that you might need to wait a day or two until there’s a convenient gap in both your timetable and that of whoever observed you. Rather than sitting there umming and aahing (because by the time you’ve taught a couple more lessons, your observed one is likely to have become a distant memory) it’s helpful if you just make a few quick notes you can then refer to.

And then… forget about it!

Once you’ve taught your lesson, there is absolutely nothing that worrying about it will do – expect make you stressed out. You can’t change anything that either you or your students did, you can’t change any of the observer’s thoughts or opinions: so until you have your feedback, try to put it to the back of your mind completely. Resist the temptation to hash over how it went with colleagues (that won’t help), focus on your next classes, and when you’ve finished teaching, go and do something completely different. As with pre-observation, the time post-observation is a time to treat yourself. You survived! Go and celebrate it.

What if I don’t have time to plan?

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One of the most common problems new teachers face is not having enough time to plan. It’s one thing to be able to spend several hours planning a class for one of your CELTA/Trinity teaching practices, and quite another to realise that you’ve got four or five classes to plan for tomorrow. There simply isn’t enough time to spend hours planning each class you teach.

I know exactly how you feel. Add to that more experienced colleagues telling you ‘it gets quicker’ and those who proudly tell you that they don’t bother to plan at all, and it’s enough to make you want to quit before you’ve even started.

My first piece of advice is not to skip planning – however tempting it may be, and no matter how confident you are that you can ‘just wing it’, your lesson will be worse as a result.

Planning isn’t just something to do ‘because you have to’, it will genuinely allow you to anticipate problems, explain things better, and teach a more interesting and better organised lesson.

The colleagues telling you are quite right – planning does get quicker. Here’s how.

Your standard lesson plan that you use every day doesn’t need to have a CELTA-type level of detail.

Yes, you can think about anticipated problems, you can think about how long each activity will last, and you can think about interaction patterns, but you don’t need to write them all down! To give you an idea of the difference, a CELTA-style lesson plan may run to four or five A4 pages. My average lesson plan on a daily basis is around half an A5 sheet. You can already start to see the difference in time this requires.

Your lesson plan does not need to be 100% perfect.

Many teachers are perfectionists – it seems to go with the territory, and if you’ve just started a new job it’s only natural to want to do well. However, teaching itself requires you to be flexible, and things will very rarely go exactly as you intend them. I’m not advocating taking a completely laissez-faire approach and abandoning planning completely, but know that there is a limit to how much you can plan everything.

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There are also some questions questions you can ask yourself which will help you to plan efficiently.

  1. What do I want the end result to be?

    I always struggled with writing lesson aims until I read ‘How to be an Outstanding Primary School Teacher’ by David DunnAlthough aimed at primary school teachers, some of the advice can be easily applied to any kind of teaching, including EFL. At the start of every lesson plan, sit down and ask yourself what you want your students to be able to do by the end of the lesson (something they won’t be able to do at the start!). This could be completing an activity in the coursebook, or carrying out a communicative task, or producing something, like a presentation or a piece of writing. What you do in your lesson should lead up to your students being able to achieve the end result.

    For example: if you want your young learners to write a horror story using past simple, your lesson plan might need to include: a model example of a horror story (this could be a reading or listening activity), an activity to review the past simple, an activity to teach some ‘horror’ vocabulary, and perhaps an activity to review story structure/using paragraphs etc. With those elements, even quite weak students should be able to produce the end product.

  2. Can I use the coursebook, or do I need to adapt it or supplement it in some way?

    Once you’ve figured out what elements you need to include in your lesson, it’s time to relate that to the coursebook. Are those pages you’re meant to be covering a relevant/interesting topic? Is it appropriate for your class (in terms of both level and topic)? Can you use the coursebook as is, or do you need to adapt or supplement it in some way?

    No coursebook is perfect, so it’s far more likely to be the latter. See my post on adapting the coursebook for more hints and tips here.

    3. Can I use something I’ve already used/can I reuse this in the future?

    If you’re going to supplement or create anything, it’s worth pausing to think for a moment here. As we discussed in my teacher toolkit post, it’s always helpful to have a selection of resources you can turn to in a hurry. If there’s potential to reuse something, make an extra copy, depending on what it is laminate it, and then save it for the future.

4. What do I need to plan more/less?

One of the reasons why CELTA lesson plans are so damn long is that they require pretty much the same level of detail, regardless of what the activity is – what the students will be doing, what the teacher will be doing, instructions, interaction patterns, etc. When you’re writing a functional lesson plan for your normal classes, you don’t need to.

Some things – such as presenting a new grammatical structure – will require more planning, and it’s still worth writing down how you want your boardwork to look, grammar rules and examples. When it comes to a listening activity, however, you might just want to write down ‘Exercise 2b’.

5. What is the minimum level of detail I am comfortable working with?

When teaching a full 20-30 hour timetable, there is a limit to how much time you’re going to be able to spend planning if you value your sanity and/or social life. The reason all those experienced teachers tell you that planning gets quicker? A lot of the time it’s down to this: that they’ve figured out the minimum level of detail they are comfortable working with.

Over time, as you become more confident with your teaching, your plan becomes a way of organising your thoughts pre-lesson more than a document you refer to whilst teaching. This means that most of the meat of the plan will eventually be in your head. If you understand whatever abbreviations, shorthand, diagrams or whatever else you want to use, the only person you have to answer to is yourself.

I hope these tips help you to feel more comfortable with lesson planning. For some more planning advice check out my post Lesson Planning 101, which is aimed specifically at summer school teachers (but works for other new teachers as well!).

I don’t know: What if my students ask me a question and I don’t know the answer?

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I’ll let you into a secret: this happens to us all. It happened to me last week. The longer you teach, the less frequent it hopefully becomes, but no one (no matter how experienced) is completely safe from the dreaded unexpected question.

Not knowing the answer to a student’s question doesn’t make you a bad teacher. It doesn’t even (necessarily) mean you’re under-prepared for the lesson – sometimes students can throw you a massive curveball which has nothing to do with the vocabulary or grammar point being studied.

The truth of the matter is this: not knowing the answer doesn’t matter, it’s what you do when you don’t know that’s important.

Don’t:

  • 881a9f12714aea82807274b56bb761f7Panic! Not knowing the answer doesn’t make you a terrible teacher. It doesn’t mean that your students will all think you’re incompetent, and it definitely doesn’t mean that you’re about to get fired. In fact, panicking is the very worst thing you can do, as it kills your ability to think clearly and means you’re pretty much guaranteed to not be able to come up with an answer.
  • Change the subject and pretend that they never asked. Although it sounds flippant saying it here, it can be surprisingly tempting when you’re in the heat of the moment. However, sidestepping or ignoring students’ questions is a pretty good way to ensure that they are dissatisfied with their teacher. No matter how ill-timed, tricky or frustrating a question is, the fact is that if a student has asked, it at least deserves to be acknowledged.
  • Make up an answer on the spot. Again, it’s another option that can seem tempting – at least then you’ve given an answer, right?!. However, coming up with something on the spot can easily come back to bite you. A quick, not necessarily accurate answer is only likely to lead to further questions (and you becoming less and less sure of the answers) or your students memorising everything you say only for you to have to sort out any errors at a later date. Trust me: it’s not worth it.

There are a couple of maybes, although these come with disclaimers:

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  • Ask the students to work it out for themselves. That’s what guided discovery is, right? The big ‘but’ here is that when we ask students questions in a bid to get them to figure out the answers for themselves, we need to know the right answers as well. There’s no guarantee that whatever the students will come up with will be correct (particularly if it comes to pesky grammar rules or exceptions to them) – and if you’re not sure what the right answer is yourself you’re on dangerous territory. The same goes for asking a stronger student to explain it to their classmates – unless you’re certain that their explanation is right, be wary of going with the flow simply for the sake of getting an answer.
  • Send the students away with an extra ‘homework’ task – to find out the answer. This can work well, and I have used this technique, particularly with students who like to interrupt every single lesson with an off-topic question! However it does require following up next lesson, which means that you’ll need to go away and find out the answer too! This technique also works well if the tricky question comes at the end of the class and you simply don’t have time to devote to the answer.
  • Buy yourself some time. It’s ok to tell the students that you’ll come back to their question later, or that you’d like to take a few minutes to think about the answer. Just don’t say this and then hope they forget all about it! If you promise an answer, you need to give one.

And lastly, the dos:

  • Acknowledge the question. Even if you are totally stuck for an answer, do acknowledge the question – chances are that if you don’t know the answer, it’s potentially a good one!
  • Admit that you don’t know. This takes courage to do, especially as it can feel like you’re admitting a weakness as a teacher. Think of it this way though: we’d like our students to say that they don’t know rather than either sitting there blankly or making up an incorrect answer. What better model for that than for them to have a teacher who also admits that they don’t know everything?
  • Tell them that you’ll find out. It’s fine to admit to your class that you don’t know the answer to their question – but it’s not ok to just leave it there. Admit that you don’t know, but then assure them that you will find out the answer and get back to them next lesson.
  • Follow through! You’ve said that you’ll get back to them with the answer, so make sure you do so. Ask a colleague, phone a friend, look in a grammar book or a dictionary, ask Google – and then make sure you follow it up at the beginning of the next lesson.
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Photo: Maciek Zlachta

Are you worried you won’t be able to answer your students’ questions? Don’t be. Stop, breathe, don’t panic, and relax – it’s ok to admit you don’t know. 

What if… I’m not a ‘real’ teacher?

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After four difficult weeks (and umpteen amounts of weeks waiting for your certificate in the post!) you finally have that piece of paper in your hand – you are a CELTA/Trinity qualified teacher!

…wait, what? Whether it stems from your own fears or from the comments of other (possibly well-meaning, certainly annoying) individuals, the idea that you can train to become a teacher in the space of four weeks can seem, well, far-fetched. Walking into a classroom and realising that the students in front of you have paid to be taught by you is pretty daunting. So what if you aren’t quite sure if you’re a ‘real’ teacher?

Although during my training it never crossed my mind that I might not be considered a ‘real’ teacher, I certainly got a bit of a shock when I started working abroad. Being a teacher in many countries entails taking a specialist masters degree in education. Teachers are trained in child development and psychology, which explained why I was faced with at least a few parents who wanted detailed pointers on how to deal with their child’s challenging behaviour – and viewed me as the resident expert. As a TEFL teacher (even one with substantial experience of working with kids) I simply didn’t feel comfortable with providing that kind of advice, and at least initially found it undermining my confidence. It’s true, also, that we spend far less time completing paperwork than state school teachers in the UK and US, and we are subject to far fewer rules, regulations, and requirements.

Do I think this means that we as TEFL teachers rescind our right to be considered ‘real’ teachers? Not at all, and here’s why:

Training to be a TEFL teacher is pretty unique in that it doesn’t require a specialist degree in a subject relevant to your subject matter. My own degree is in languages, but I’ve worked with teachers who have studied subjects from art to chemistry, from accounting to computer sciences. Far from being a disadvantage, that extra subject knowledge can become a unique ‘selling-point’ for you as a teacher. One of my colleagues has created a specialism for herself in teaching students business English, based on her accounting qualifications and her experience in business prior to training as an English language teacher. Another former colleague has used her Marine Biology degree to teach students biology at the summer school she worked at.

We are trained to teach in a different way. One of my favourite mantras is ‘Different is different’. Just because something is different, that doesn’t tell us that it is superior or inferior, simply that it’s different. I’ve spoken to several teachers working in mainstream education who have been completely thrown by having an ESL student join one of their classes. ‘But how can you explain anything to them when they can’t speak English?!’ …that’s our job. All the time. Smaller class sizes or less assessment doesn’t necessarily make our job easier, it just makes it different.

We learn on the job. Much as you learn to drive only after passing your driving test (when you are exposed to a far wider range of conditions, situations etc and are driving ‘properly’ rather than simply with the ultimate aim of passing your test), TEFL teachers truly learn to teach after taking their initial teaching qualification. Granted, there will always be those for whom teaching is simply a means to travel, and far from a career. But for anyone who takes teaching seriously, you don’t stop learning how to teach as soon as you receive your certificate. TEFL certificates are beyond intense, as anyone who has taken one will know. However, their shortness means that no one really starts out teaching thinking of themselves as an expert. Feeling underprepared can foster an enthusiasm for professional development – which is never a bad thing.

Great knowledge doesn’t necessarily equal great teaching. Being a good teacher is about far more than simply ‘knowing stuff’, it’s about engaging with your students, creating a good rapport, and knowing how to explain often complex ideas in a way that can be easily understood.

Are you disappointed with how you did during your TEFL certificate? At school and at university I was always something of a perfectionist, and it really pained me that I didn’t achieve an A or B grade, simply a ‘pass’, and a not particularly high one at that. But I’ll let you into a secret – it doesn’t matter. Much in the same way that exams that you take at 16 don’t have much impact on your future career, what grade you get in your TEFL certificate isn’t the final word on whether or not you are a good teacher. If you do have a lettered pass, well done! Everyone else (the majority of people!) don’t write yourself off just yet. I’ve worked with those with CELTA A passes who are no longer in teaching, and many, many others with a simple ‘Pass’ who are still doing great things in the business years later.

For anyone who’s worried about not being a ‘real’ teacher, know this: you become a teacher by teaching. 

If you want to be a ‘real’ teacher, take responsibility for your own professional development. Many schools offer a programme of training seminars for their teachers – if yours doesn’t, there are plenty of opportunities for development online. Look into taking a free or paid course in an area that interests you (or one which you think you need to improve in) or simply find a book or do some research online.

If you want to be a ‘real’ teacher, take your job seriously. Everyone has their off days where they stay up too late, or are feeling under the weather, or have something going on in their personal life which negatively impacts their teaching. However you have the ability to determine whether or not this is a one off, or if it’s the norm. If you care about your students, the chances are that you will care about doing a good job. That means planning your lessons. That means doing your best to ensure that your students are happy, but also that they are learning – which, afterall, is what they’re paying for. That sometimes means going to extra mile to research something they’ve asked which you’re not quite sure about. But all of those things? They mean being a real teacher.

My final words on the matter are these: if you care about whether or not people see you as a ‘real’ teacher – the chances are that you are a real teacher. Keep at it.

What if… I can’t control my class?

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You start to sweat, and you’re sure the redness starting at your hairline is beginning to creep up over the rest of your face. Your stomach feels like a whole flight of butterflies are on the loose in there, and you’re not quite sure if you’re going to spend the class twitching with nervous energy, or simply be pinned to the spot in fear. Five years on I don’t remember much of the minutiae of my TEFL course, but I do remember just how terrified I was of actually teaching – my biggest fear being that my students wouldn’t listen to a word I said and the entire lesson would just end up veering off out of control.

I look back now, and all of that seems, well, laughable. But it’s been a long journey, and there have been some hard-won lessons along the way (for me, as well as for my students!). Are you worried you won’t be able to control your class? This is what I wish I’d known starting out.

First thing’s first, let’s dispel some common myths.

You don’t need to speak L1 to be able to control your class. Bellowing ‘Be Quiet!’ at them in their own language isn’t likely to have any better effect than doing it in English, and if anything may even have the opposite to the desired effect – on the couple of occasions I’ve tried to use ‘Quiet!’ or ‘Sit down!’ in L1 my pronunciation has normally ended up reducing my class to howls of laughter.

You don’t need to have a really loud voice to be able to control your class. Although at times shouting over any noise your students make can seem like a good idea, loud often isn’t better – in fact raising your voice can lead your students to raise their voices too, turning the whole thing into a shouting match and turning an otherwise positive atmosphere into something negative. If you’re tempted to raise your voice for any longer than a few seconds, stop, breathe, and consider whether or not the same result could be achieved in a different way.

You don’t need to be a really strict disciplinarian to be able to control your class. There’s a time and a place to be strict (more on that later!), but you don’t need to resemble a Sargent Major to get your students to pay attention and listen to you.

What things will help you to stay in control of your class? Well…

Prepare well.

If you’re worried you’ll completely dry up and forget what you were planning to do next, if you have the kind of students who ask hundreds of questions (most of which are off topic) and you struggle to deal with their queries whilst maintaining the logical flow of your lesson, or if you lack confidence in what you’re saying or in yourself as a teacher, preparation is your best friend.

You don’t need to write a full CELTA style lesson plan every time you teach (you won’t have time anyway and will likely go insane if you try) but having some kind of written plan can really work wonders when it comes to keeping you on track. A hasty glance at your plan can be the difference between a minor blip in an otherwise good lesson, and a complete confidence-shattering dry. Planning grammar presentations means that you can check any uncertainties you have beforehand, and can anticipate potential problems before they occur. If you keep your plans together (for example using an exercise book, with one page per lesson) it also gives you something helpful to refer back to: you can make a note of if students need extra practice, if a particular activity worked well (or the opposite!), and if students asked any questions that you said you’d get back to them on.

TOP TIP: Even if I’m really pushed for time, I always try to make sure that I have a well-planned starter activity. Not only does it start the lesson off on the right foot, but having a clear starter activity in mind gives me the confidence to walk into the classroom knowing exactly what I’m doing (and feeling confident in myself and in my teaching!) even with a new or difficult class.

Find out what your school’s policies are regarding student behaviour/discipline.

Another thing you can do before you even set foot in the classroom (and yet which will really help ease your worries) is to find out exactly how to deal with an uncontrollable student. This information is more likely to apply to young learner classes, however these are also the students you are most likely to need to discipline! Every school is different here, so it’s wise to check with your senior teacher or DOS before making any assumptions. Hopefully you’ll never need to use any ‘last resort’ sanctions, but it’s helpful to know what you can do in the worst case scenario!

To focus briefly on the positives as well, it’s helpful to know if there are any suggested rewards for good work/good behaviour, and if there are opportunities to give parents positive feedback on their child’s progress – often parents only hear if there’s a problem, but it’s lovely for them to find out the positives about their offspring as well!

Make your expectations clear early on.

Just to make it clear, this doesn’t mean that you need to stride into the classroom with a list of demands and lay down the law during your first lesson. However, your students aren’t psychic, and although (with the exception of very young learners) they are likely to have some idea of how to behave in a classroom, they’ve never been in your classroom before. If you don’t want them to speak in L1, or you’d like them to put their hands up before answering a question, tell them!

As with many things in life, in classroom management prevention is generally better than cure. If there’s a problem, don’t let things slide and hope that it won’t happen again.

Be proactive: If you let students know that problem behaviour is unacceptable the first time it happens, you’re one step closer to it not happening again.

Use appropriate strategies for the age group you’re teaching.

Not all EFL classrooms are equal. Treating your class of five-year-olds in the same way as a class of adults is a recipe for disaster (as, indeed, is vice versa).

In the case of adult students interrupting, not paying attention or otherwise disrupting the lesson, a quiet word with the individual at the end of the class might be the order of the day. Remember, although it’s likely that you’ll face more discipline issues when teaching young learners, it’s not unheard of for adult students to be difficult as well (being reluctant to listen to their peers,refusing to speak in English or arguing with the teacher are not uncommon!). With younger classes, using a behaviour chart system might be more appropriate. To help establish discipline with teens or older children, it can be helpful to use one of your early lessons to create a ‘classroom contract’, where the students suggest (and perhaps vote on) their own rules for the class. This could be extended to include potential sanctions for unacceptable behaviour, and could include expectations for the teacher’s behaviour as well!

If you’re uncertain how best to deal with a particular age group, do some research! Ask other teachers, or search online. If you’re teaching kids or teens for the first time, check out my helpful short guides here.

Be firm, be fair, be consistent.

This old adage has stood the test of time when it comes to teaching, largely because it’s true! If a student is behaving unacceptably in the classroom, don’t be afraid to be firm and do something about it! I’ve sometimes found that channeling a really confident person here helps (especially if it’s an adult student who’s being difficult and you’re nervous about ‘telling off’ someone who’s the same age as or older than you!)

Be fair – sometimes cultural differences can influence how students behave in the classroom. Punctuality is a big one here! Bad language is also quite common: students (even quite young ones!) pick up English swear words from TV, film or music, but often have no idea of the relative severity of them, or whether or not they’re at all appropriate to use in the classroom. If a student’s unacceptable behaviour is likely to be culturally linked in some way (as in above examples, or racist comments in some cultures) treat a first offence as an opportunity to educate the whole class as to what you do/do not consider acceptable in your classroom.

Lastly, and most importantly when it comes to any aspect of classroom management, be consistent. It’s fine to shake things up a bit and try something new, but things like rules and classroom routines only work effectively when used regularly and consistently. If something genuinely doesn’t work with your class, don’t be afraid to change it – but also be prepared to give it some time. Using routines and establishing some expectations (for both the students and the teacher!) can make a real difference in your classroom (and can make you feel far more in control), but don’t expect them to work miracles and improve everything overnight.

I know it’s far easier said than done, but even if you’re really struggling with a class, remember that tomorrow is another day. Yes, it can be easier to establish control of the class if you do it right at the very start of the year (or when you first start teaching them), but that doesn’t mean that today (whenever today is) is too late. It’s never too late to start over. 

Teaching English Abroad: What if I hate it?

what-if

When I first started teaching abroad, I clung onto my 9 week trial period as if it were a lifebelt. Leaving the UK for Russia at the beginning of October, I figured that in all likelihood I would be home by Christmas. I honestly think that if I’d been told that I’d still be there (happily!) teaching six months later – let alone four years later, I’d have laughed in your face. Looking back, I made my first few weeks as an EFL teacher (and the days leading up to them), far more stressful than they needed to be.

But what if I die?

Let’s start with the biggie – before going abroad, I wish I’d spent less time worrying about ifs and buts – I honestly didn’t need to! Although there are of course horror stories out there (EFL teachers dying in Korea seem to be a common theme), you can also find stories about people killed by tables or pencil sharpeners if you try hard enough. Going abroad to teach is not akin to signing your own death sentence. It’s extremely unlikely that you will be the first teacher ever to go abroad and teach at your school – you will be meeting people who have done exactly the same thing (and survived!) and your school is likely to be used to supporting new teachers and helping them find their feet. Make sure you pack some things from home that will make you feel better, make sure you have some credit on your home mobile phone (and ideally find out how to top up your credit from abroad), and make sure that you have some money with you (if possible in the currency of the country you are going to). A credit card is also a good idea. Know that if you absolutely, completely, 100% hate it, coming home is always an option (but try to make a bargain with yourself that you’ll stick it out for at least x amount of time. Even if the first few hours/days are horrible, it’s unlikely to stay that way).

What if I’m homesick?

Being homesick is completely normal – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I’ve always found that one of the best ways to deal with homesickness is to create some elements of ‘home’ in your new country, whilst acknowledging and respecting the differences too.

Just because you’ve gone to a different country, it doesn’t make you a completely different person. Take photos of friends, family and pets with you. Take some treats from your home country (particularly if you’re unsure how easy they will be to buy in your new home). If you have an interest or a hobby that you love, try to find a way of pursuing it in your new country. Whether it’s finding yoga/dance classes in English (often surprisingly easy, particularly in cities where there are lots of expats) or using websites like Couchsurfing or Facebook to find people with similar interests, find your thing! I took ballroom dancing classes and joined an expat church in Russia, and found a Stitch and Bitch group in Prague.

Equally, try not to expect your new country to be exactly like home in every way. There may well be a different climate, different foods, or an altogether different lifestyle. Remember (and if necessary write it somewhere that you can see it every day), all different means is different. Not good, or bad, just different.

What if I miss people from home?

sad-girl

Unless you start your new job with a friend/partner in tow, one of the scariest things about moving abroad is the simple fact of going somewhere where you don’t know anyone. It’s a bit like starting school all over again, with the added worry-factor that the people you meet won’t necessarily speak English. In my first year abroad I spent a lot of time staying up far too late (3am-4am most nights) just to get to chat on Skype with friends back at home. Keeping in contact with people is no bad thing, you’re sure to go back to your home country at some point (even if you become a TEFL lifer!), and you certainly shouldn’t cut yourself from everyone just because you’re in a new country.

However, if you find (as I did) that you’re investing more time in energy in people back at home than you are where you are, you might want to redress that balance. Self-impose an internet curfew, set aside time (for example one weekend day) to be where you are (and go out/spend time with colleagues or new-found friends rather than staying in on your computer). Facebook groups/Couchsurfing/Meet up groups can also come into play here, as they can all help you to meet people and make new friends without staying completely in a TEFL teacher bubble. Just make sure that then you disconnect from the internet for a while and connect with where you actually are.

What if I get sick?

Unfortunately getting sick is a fairly inevitable part of teaching (especially if you’re working with kids, aka tiny germ factories). However, we’re talking little sick, not big sick. When it comes to getting big sick, put your mind at ease before you go by checking out what your school is willing to provide in terms of health insurance (and purchasing your own additional insurance if it’ll reassure you – I always did, although thankfully never needed to use it). Also make sure you get any vaccinations needed before you go if you’re headed anywhere exotic (UK travellers can find out what vaccinations are recommended here).rat

Getting little sick sucks. Stock up on multivitamins (whatever Google may say I’ve always found that they help, even as a placebo!). Look after yourself. Get enough sleep. Eat [relatively] healthily. Do some exercise. Keep an eye on your alcohol consumption (especially if you’re  working in a country where it’s cheap and easily available!)

Importantly: don’t be afraid to take a day off work/go to the doctor if you need it. In Russia, my school was happy to arrange doctor’s appointments for us and accompany us to act as interpreters, in Prague my school registered all their teachers as patients with an English-speaking doctor.

What if I really can’t cope?

I really can’t say this enough, but before you throw in the towel and book your flights home, please talk to someone. If you’re finding teaching tough, if you’re homesick or if there’s some other problem that you’re finding simply unbearable, please find someone to talk to – and ideally find someone on the ground (a work colleague, a mentor if you have one, your senior teacher/DOS) to talk to as well as people back home. I can guarantee that they want to help you, but if you’re suffering in silence no one has the power to do so!

What if I quit and come home?

sea-view
Whilst I can’t promise views as nice as this, things will get brighter. Promise.

Firstly, know that quitting and coming home does not make you a failure. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not cut out for teaching, or even that you’re not cut out for teaching abroad.

If you managed to get through CELTA, it’s unlikely that you’re the world’s worst teacher, and equally it’s unlikely that you haven’t figured out if you hate teaching. A different context (teaching adults as opposed to kids, for example, or teaching 1-1) could be what you need, a different country (perhaps one closer to home) or a more supportive school could be the answer to your woes (try one of the big franchises such as International House which offer lots of support and training for new teachers).

You, and you alone can decide if teaching abroad is right for you or not, and there should be no shame involved either way.

Are you just starting out on your TEFL adventure? I’d love to hear about your experiences, hopes and worries. Comment on here or drop me an email at thebestticher@gmail.com.