Interview with an EFL Teacher: Charlotte

When I first started teaching English abroad, I had no idea that it would turn into my career, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Much as I know many ‘lifers’, I’ve also lived, worked and played alongside teachers who’ve decided that working in ELT  isn’t for them.  Many people take their CELTA or a Trinity with a view to living, teaching and travelling abroad for a year or so, but don’t see a career in the classroom as a long-term goal – and that’s perfectly ok!

If you’ve started teaching but aren’t sure if it’s for you, or can’t decide if TEFL is worth it if you’re only going to be doing it for a year, please read my interview with Charlotte, who shares how her TEFL experience led her to start her own business. 

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Charlotte grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is an International Business graduate. She completed the CELTA after finishing university and accepted a teaching position in Prague. She enjoyed the experience but decided she wasn’t suited to the job long-term. She returned to the UK and has since started her own travel consultancy business, which you can find out more about here

 

Hi Charlotte, and thanks for agreeing to answer some questions for me! First thing’s first, why TEFL? 

I first became interested in TEFL after a friend of mine completed a TEFL course and moved to Argentina to teach. I love travel and had always fancied giving teaching a try. While I was reading about the industry online it became clear that a TEFL certificate could help me find work all over the world. I’d gathered that CELTA was a tough course rather than something to be taken lightly. About a year after graduating from university I was in need of a challenge so I decided to give it a bash!

What was your favourite thing about teaching English abroad?

I’m sure this is what everybody says, but honestly my favourite thing was simply the opportunity to live in a different county and get to know the people by teaching and working with them. I also loved working with little kids (for about the first 5 minutes of each class!)

Is there anything you’d do differently now?

I don’t think I’d do anything differently to be honest! It was a good experience just the way it was.

Why did you decide teaching wasn’t right for you long-term?

I decided it wasn’t for me long-term because although I found the job interesting, to be brutally honest the passion just wasn’t there! I’ve always dreamed of having a career that I would never, ever get bored of, and I knew that teaching wasn’t that.

So what did you do next? How has teaching and living abroad helped prepare you for what you’re doing now?

I realised after I left teaching that I really needed to go after a career related to a passion in my life – one of those passions is travel! I ended up starting my own travel consultancy business and although it may seem unlikely, my teaching experience has really helped me out! I have to speak publicly quite a bit in order to promote my business, and teaching has made me comfortable with this. I also find that people take me more seriously as a travel consultant when I talk about my stints living abroad, rather than just holidays I’ve been on. Most importantly, teaching and living abroad makes you adaptable – this is essential for me being self-employed!

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

Get to know your students and try to make lessons as relevant to them as individuals as possible. In my opinion, a CELTA style lesson that you are taught to run during your training isn’t always what they want or need.

Complete this sentence: “Teaching English abroad is…”

…not easy! People have this idea that if you can speak English you can teach it…no. Think about it…if a person joined your class and all they could say is “hello”, where would you start? It is really very difficult at times! I find it very sad that a lot of people think TEFL is “not a real job” and simply a fun gap year for everybody involved. Even though I haven’t stayed in the industry I have nothing but admiration for those who have made this their career. Teaching English abroad is a profession that deserves a lot more respect.

 

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us Charlotte, and I wish you and your business all the best of luck!

 

 

5 Games for Advanced Students

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We’re all familiar with the games teachers habitually play in the EFL classroom: hangman, 20 questions and so-on. When your students have a high level of English, though, it gets a bit tricky – those games may be fun, but they present little to no linguistic challenge for your students and as such don’t have much value.

Just because your students are upper-intermediate or advanced, it doesn’t mean they don’t want some fun every now and then (especially if they’re kids or teens!). So, what can they play?

1. Challenge

Also known as Stop the Bus (although I’ve never figured out why!). The aim of this game is to be the last player remaining by correctly spelling words under pressure.

Nominate a student to begin the game. The student must say a letter. The turn then passes around the classroom, with each student saying a letter to continue spelling a word.

For example:

Student 1: C

Student 2: A

Student 3: T

The student who completes a word then begins a new word. However, if a student thinks that the person before them has made a mistake, or has given an impossible letter combination (eg. C-A-L-T) they must question the student by saying ‘Challenge!’. If the challenged student fails to produce a correct word, they are out. If they can answer correctly, then the challenging student is out (and the subsequent rounds skip that player). The last player remaining in the game wins. The teacher monitors, provides a countdown time limit if students hesitate too much before providing an answer, and optionally can provide additional support by writing the letters on the board (if desired).

2. Word Squares

Put the students in pairs, or ask them to play on their own if you think they fancy a challenge!

blank_grid-2ewi9kvDraw a grid on the board, 3×3, and ask the students to copy it down (one grid per pair).

 

Then elicit a 3 letter word from the students, and write it diagonally in the grid, one letter per square, starting from the top left hand corner and finishing in the bottom right hand corner. Explain to the students that they must race to complete the square with words that read left to right.

If for example you start off with:

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The students’ end result might be:

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When the first group finishes, stop all the pairs and collect feedback. I normally play three rounds of this game (the fastest pair to complete the square correctly getting a point each time), using a different variant for each round.

Possible variants include:

Using a bigger square – 4×4, 5×5 and 6×6 all work

Students may only write verbs (although any form is acceptable)

Students may not use the letter ‘e’ (or another commonly used letter)

3. Word Tennis

This can be played as a team game, or with each student playing individually. The teacher selects a topic (eg. vegetables, sports, the environment). The turn moves around the class (or alternates between the two teams) with each student (or team) saying a word connected to the topic. The last student (team) to be able to say a word each time wins a point.

4. Scattergories

I’ve played this game with students at pre-intermediate level or above, but it still works well for upper-intermediate or advanced levels – just make the categories harder (and perhaps include things more relevant to topics they have studied).

Teacher (and students!) select 4 or 5 categories and writes them on the board.

Eg. Place         Food         Personality Adjective         Outdoor Hobby            Job

Put the students into pairs or small groups. Each group needs a piece of paper and a pen or pencil.

The teacher says the alphabet in their head/randomly draws a scrabble tile/any other way of choosing a random letter. The students must then think of (and write down) one word for each category beginning with that letter. When they have one word for each category they must shout ‘stop!’ and the scoring for that round begins.

There are plenty of different ways to score this, but usually I award:

0 points for no word/ a word that does not begin with the correct letter

5 points for a correct word that is the same as another team’s word

10 points for a correct word that is different to other team’s words

20 points for a correct word if no other team has a correct word

Repeat for  3/4 rounds and tally up the scores at the end.

5. Hangmanagrams

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No, that isn’t a typo. For students who love hangman (but who honestly find it too easy) here is an extra challenge (which also gets them thinking about letter patterns). Hangmanagrams is played in almost the same way as hangman – a word is chosen, dashes drawn for each letter, students guess the letters, a new part of the drawing is added for each incorrect answer etc (less bloodthirsty versions can be substituted). Why almost? Well, that’s where the ‘anagrams’ part comes in.

Correct letters are written up on the board – but they can be written in any order. For example, if the chosen word is ‘APPLE’, and ‘P’ and ‘E’ have been guessed, the student/teacher writing the word may choose to write ‘P P E _ _ ‘, ‘_ P _ E P’ or any other variant. As well as guessing the letters correctly, the students must guess the (unscrambled) word – even if they’ve guessed all the letters, each incorrect word guess counts as another life.

What games do you play with your high level students? 

 

 

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?

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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?

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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?

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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.

The essentials every teacher needs…

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In my post on what to/what not to pack for your first TEFL job abroad, I mentioned my collection of ‘stuff’, aka my ‘teacher toolkit’. When I first started teaching, the idea of having ‘tools’, much less a ‘toolkit’ was pretty much a mystery to me. It’s something I’ve built up over time, slowly adding and removing things as I find them more or less useful for my teaching context. After five years of teaching, it’s become an invaluable resource (or should that be set of resources). If you’re soon to head abroad for a TEFL job, or an established teacher simply trying to decide what’s worth keeping and what’s worth throwing away, these are ten of the things I’ve found most useful – and having them available to use has got me out of many a mid-lesson challenge.

1. Cuddly toy

This seems like a no-brainer if you’re teaching kids classes, but I’ve found having a cuddly toy to hand can be pretty useful when teaching teens or adults too. A cuddly toy can be thrown around the room (without risking damage to either property or students!) and as such can be used to nominate students, or be used in a variety of different games. The human (but not always professional) side of me also advises aiming them at students who appear to be nodding off to sleep/otherwise not paying attention. It’s true, you could use a ball – but a cuddly toy has the advantage of also being able to be used as an extra ‘person’ in grammar presentations/practice. Bonus points if it’s an interesting/unusual animal or character.

2. Post-it notes

I love post-it notes. Great for leaving yourself little reminders, great for writing to-do lists, great for leaving notes for flatmates, and great for teaching. I often use them to play the ‘Sticky Foreheads’ game (also known as the Rizla game), but also have a nice warmer I picked up at IH Moscow in which students write questions on post-it notes stuck on each other’s backs, then ask each other the questions. They’re also great for labelling classroom objects with beginners, or for adding vocabulary to flashcards which can then easily be removed.

3. Paperclips

I rarely use these for attaching papers together (although I suppose they could always be used for this purpose!) Rather, I often use paperclips as some kind of token or counter, as in my ‘I have never’ game, or at a push for boardgame counters. More on that later, though!

4. Blu-tack

I foolishly left this off my list when writing my post about packing, and have had it pointed out to me by several friends and colleagues. No prizes for guessing what I always forget when I’m doing my actual packing. Great for sticking up students’ work, great for attaching flashcards/other objects to the board, could probably be used in lieu of plasticine for some kind of ‘Taboo’ type modelling game – if you’re prepared to part with it, that is. I have yet to find an equivalent that is actually as good as the proper ‘brand name’ stuff, so if in doubt, take it with you. Also potentially useful as a bartering tool in some kind of desperate EFL teacher black market.

5. Felt tips

I always think I will never need felt tips. I always end up caving and buying them within the first week of the academic year. If you’re teaching littlies you’ll want them for colouring flashcards, with older students you might want to risk letting them use them themselves for project work, and if nothing else they’re helpful for highlighting information on handouts or photocopies (and come in a far wider range of colours than actual highlighters). And let’s face it, sometimes they’re just more fun to write with than a normal ballpoint pen or pencil.

6. Games

I’m keeping this one pretty general, simply so I can include more than one item. I’m a huge fan of Rory’s story cubes (at some point I’ll doubtless write a post on how I’ve used them in class, but at present ELT planning has a great post here. I also like to have at least one deck of cards to hand – not only can you use them to wind down with colleagues, but they’re pretty useful in the classroom too. This post has some nice ideas for games which will practice your students’ English as well as simply being fun, but I’ve also had some nice lessons (ostensibly to practice must/mustn’t/have to/don’t have to) where my students have taught me (1-1) or each other (in a group class) how to play a card game from their country.

7. Dice

Small, portable and versatile, dice can be used for a wide variety of different activities in the EFL/ESOL classroom. Although I have to admit that I don’t agree with his opinion about ‘classic’ TEFL boardgames (for me, part of the appeal is that weaker students still stand an equal chance of winning!), Alex Case has a nice list of EFL games at a variety of different levels that can be played with dice.

If I may suggest adding a skill to your toolkit as well as just ‘stuff’, it would be this: how to make an origami cube. This will give you access to an endless supply of dice – all you need is 6 sheets of paper and a pen to draw the spots on. You can also make dice in a variety of different sizes, and the best thing is that it’s not the end of the world if they get lost!

8. Kinder Egg Toys

This might be a Euro-centric one (I seem to recall reading that they are banned in the States?) but I have a box containing quite a collection of Kinder Egg toys. Stemming back to when my lovely flatmate and I would buy each other Kinder Eggs during my first year of teaching in Moscow (there’s nothing like chocolate to make a rough day seem less bad), I love using them as boardgame counters (they make life just a little bit more interesting and classroom games a little bit more fun!). I’ve also used them as rather unorthodox cuisinaire rods, and, as with the cuddly toy, an extra ‘person’ during grammar presentations (particularly when teaching very small groups or 1-1 students. I’ve had quite a few fellow teachers say it’s a great idea (and have loaned them out to colleagues before!) and they never fail to raise a smile from even the most serious of students. I’d say they’re a success all round.

9. Leaflets

Least you think this list solely consists of children’s toys and stationery, there are also a couple of ‘paper-based’ things I’d recommend collecting. If you’re in a native English-speaking country, going to a supermarket or tourist information centre (or even a hotel if you’re staying in one!) and picking up some leaflets is one of the easiest things you can do to enhance and supplement the material used in your lessons. Many coursebooks have some kind of leaflet-based project work at some point, and it’s great to be able to show your students some genuine English language leaflets rather than simply the coursebook example. You can also use the content to provide students with extra material – a reading lesson based on some of the texts, a discussion task where students must plan a weekend or holiday for themselves (or someone else!), or a restaurant roleplay activity using a genuine takeaway menu.

10. Resources

This is one to be built up and added to as you’re teaching, rather than something to be prepared in advance. Start a physical folder, start a bookmark folder on your internet browser. If you have an activity that works really well (be it one you’ve created yourself or one you found in a resource book, save it, or if necessary make an extra copy. Be selective – think about activities that you could easily adapt to use with students of different ages or different levels, otherwise you’ll end up swamped with mountains of paper. Even better, save PDF activites/worksheets found online as bookmarks on your computer, or create a dedicated folder in your email account and then email the links to yourself. Resources saved in this way take up no physical space, can be accessed from anywhere, and mean that you can delve into that selection of things that you know really work, no matter who you’re teaching and wherever you are.

Do you have a ‘teacher toolkit’? What else would you put in yours?

New (academic) Year’s Resolutions

New Year's Resolutions

Today, Monday 5th September, marks the start of the new academic year for primary and secondary schools in the UK. It’s also the start of the academic year for the language school where I work, although here, plus ça change. We remained open (and I was teaching) throughout the summer, and so although it’s nominally a new year, all it means is new registers and coursebooks – many of the students are now familiar faces.

I’ve always rather liked the start of the academic year, and all the hopes of new beginnings it affords. I also have a habit of challenging myself with new year’s resolutions – more at the start of the academic year than at the start of the calendar one. I always find that professional resolutions seem more appropriate in September than in January, even if I’m returning to an old job rather than starting a new one.

So, my resolutions for the academic year 2016/2017?

Learn and really get to grips with IPA.

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The dreaded phonemic chart

At times I feel slightly ashamed to admit that despite being an experienced teacher, I often shy away from this collection of strange hieroglyphs – but I’m sure I can’t be the only one. This year, however, I’m calling myself out on it, and my first resolution is to really get to grips with those pesky symbols. To help me on my way I’m now teaching a weekly pronunciation class, meaning that ignoring IPA is no longer an option. Any tips on how best to memorise/use it accurately are more than welcome!

Remember what it’s like to be a beginner.

Untitled design (1)Some weeks ago I signed up for Future Learn’s ‘Italian for Beginners’ course – more on that later this week. I’ve wanted to learn Italian for almost as long as I can remember, and am really looking forward to finally getting the chance! As of tomorrow, I also start teaching a daily beginner’s class. I love teaching beginner students as they make such rapid, tangible progress, and I hope that starting from scratch in a new language will also remind me of the frustrations and challenges that come with language learning.

Write more.

My final resolution for this new academic year goes hand-in-hand with this blog. In addition to sharing thoughts and ideas and training myself to become a more reflective teacher, I also started The Best Ticher in a bid to remind myself that writing is something I love, and to motivate myself to write more.

I’m working on an exciting new project at the moment – so watch this space!

Untitled design

Do you have any resolutions for this new academic year?