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!

 

 

A-Z of Self Care for Teachers

Yesterday in the UK (2nd February) was Time To Talk Day, which encourages people to break the silence and talk about mental health problems. I’ve already come across a couple of helpful ELT related posts – Phil Longwell’s brave and honest interview on the Teachers as Workers blog and Sandy Millin’s list of useful links on mental health in ELT, but couldn’t help but feel that this should give me the impetus to write a post I’ve been meaning to write for ages.

One in four people are estimated to suffer from mental health problems every year, which means that it’s far more common than a lot of people think. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety on and off since my early teens, and although my mental health has thankfully never prevented me from teaching (if anything it’s been helped by it) it has certainly negatively affected my life outside of work.

That brings me to this post.

What is self care? Well, it’s about taking proper care of yourself, identifying your own needs and taking steps to make sure that they are met.

Why is self-care important? English language teaching is far from the easiest of professions – low wages, variable (and often not great) work conditions, added to the stress and uncertainty for many people of moving to a new country. Adapting to a new culture can be really challenging, especially if you don’t necessarily speak the language. It’s also a job which means you’re constantly dealing with people, yet the need to maintain professionalism means that you can end up feeling quite isolated if you’ve got any personal problems going on.

I love teaching, but let’s face it, it can be difficult, stressful, and downright disheartening at times. Whether you suffer from mental health problems or not, there’s no harm to be done by taking a little more care of yourself.

So, here’s my A-Z of Self Care for Teachers. These are all things I’ve tried, or that I routinely use personally, which have helped me feel a little more sane when the anxiety gremlin is knocking at my door. I hope they help you – and if you have any other resources or suggestions I’d love to hear them.

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Awareness – Teaching is not an easy job, and EFL teaching, whilst in a different context and with different challenges to teaching in a mainstream school classroom, is still teaching. It’s important to be aware of some of the stresses and strains of working in this profession, as well as where you can get help and support if need be. Organisations like TEA and Teachers as Workers are there to support and offer advice, and don’t overlook your own colleagues, friends and management team. Be aware of the difficulties and challenges that come with teaching (and moving and living abroad if you aren’t working in your home country), and remember that if you’re feeling stressed, anxious, lonely or down, you aren’t alone and it isn’t your fault.

Breathe – If, like me, you’re prone to anxiety, your breathing is one of the first things to go out of the window if you’re stressed or worried. It’s worth taking a few minutes to slow down and breathe, whether it’s first thing in the morning, in the evening after you’ve got home, or even in the middle of a class that’s going wrong. This PDF offers some good tips on how to calm and slow down your breathing, or you can find a similar audio version here. Another helpful technique can be using a simple mindfulness technique to help you focus on your breathing. I often use this before I go to sleep, particularly if I’ve had a difficult day, and find it really helps.

Compassion – I’ve written about self-criticism before, but I really do think it’s important to be kind to yourself. Even if you’ve had a terrible day at work, you’re really struggling with your classes and you’re starting to wonder if you even made the right decision to be a teacher (trust me, we’ve all been there!)… if your best friend came to you with similar problems, would you listen to them and be understanding, or would you spend the whole conversation judging them and being critical? Why not afford the same compassion to yourself? Think I’m just being a hippie? Well, research has shown that people who practise self-compassion are happier, have better relationships with others, bounce back more easily from set-backs, are more resilient, and are less likely to be stressed, anxious or depressed. self_compassion_infographic

Daydream – I think, as teachers, we often have rather a negative view of daydreaming – we often associate it with that student who never pays attention in class, preferring instead to gaze out of the window! It’s been proven, however, that daydreaming can make you happier, more creative, boost your memory, and even consolidate learning. Next time you’re feeling stressed out or low, why not allow yourself a little daydream break??

Exercise – We all know we need to exercise… and it’s true, if you’re working with young learners teaching alone tends to keep you active. Outside of work, though, it’s quite easy to get into couch potato habits: talking to friends and family on Skype, watching things on Netflix, using social media and so on. Getting regular exercise doesn’t just have physical benefits,  it also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts overall mood. So whether it’s taking the stairs instead of the lift, getting off the bus/metro a stop early, joining a local sports club or simply taking the time to go for a walk before or after work, find a way to work some exercise into your weekly (if not daily) routine.

Food – Let’s face it, after a long day in the classroom, the last thing you probably want to do is cook a meal. It’s far easier to grab a ready meal or stop at McDonalds on your way home from work. The same can go for lunch – one of the schools I worked at often used to order a takeaway around lunchtime and it’s pretty hard to resist temptation and go for the healthy option! I’ve always found that the key to eating more healthily is preparation – taking snacks or a packed meal with me makes it far easier to eat a balanced diet rather than immediately going for junk food. If you’re short of ideas (or if packed lunches just remind you of what you used to take to school) this website has lots of great ideas. If you’ve got a microwave available to you why not cook extra at dinner and then take in leftovers the following day? My current personal favourite is homemade miso soup – pack veggies, rice noodles and seasoning in a jam jar, then simply add boiling water when you want to eat.

When it comes to dinner, the problem most EFL teachers face is that many of us don’t finish work until 9 or 10pm. By the time we get home, cooking is the last thing we want to do! As someone who spent four years working on this schedule, it seems to me that there are 3 main options (that aren’t simply getting a takeaway every night!).

  1. Change your schedule so that you’re eating a larger, main meal at lunchtime, then have something smaller, lighter, and quicker to prepare as your evening meal – either at work, pre-evening class, or after you get home.
  2. Prepare your meals in advance as much as possible – I can see ‘meal prep’ (where you prepare and store all your meals for the coming week on the weekend, leaving only minimal cooking time on the day) working really well for some teachers. (See here or here for some ideas, if you’re curious).
  3. Find a selection of quick recipes you really like: for example, these under 20 minute recipes.

I tended to do a combination of all three, depending on my mood, the time of year, and my timetable. It’s also worth bearing in mind that it’s not just what you eat, but how often (which can be tricky to fit around a busy teaching timetable). Low blood sugar can make you ‘hangry’ (hungry+angry), so if you find yourself lacking energy and snapping at your students mid afternoon, this could be why. Another reason to take snacks with you to work!

self-care-quoteGratitude – The more we dwell on negative thoughts and the bad things that have happened to us, the worse we are likely to perceive things are. Don’t believe me? See here. One way to conquer this is gratitude. Try to take a few minutes out every day just to think about the things you’re grateful for – write them down if that helps. Personally, my best friend and I have an arrangement where we email each other a short list of positive things (or things we’re grateful for) every morning. I find the accountability helps! Keeping a list of things you’re grateful for can feel silly at first, but I promise that once you’ve started, you’ll find there’s more to be grateful for than you first think. Want to find more about the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal? You can find reasons why you should, as well as helpful tips for getting into the habit, here.

Hobbies – It can seem like teaching takes up all your time, especially if you’re new to the job and find you’re spending much of your weekends and evenings planning. Remember that it’s important to have a life too! Either look into continuing (or restarting) an old hobby, or see if you can take up something new.

Imagine –  When you’re faced with a problem (even one that seems insurmountable), rather than focusing on all the ways things could go wrong, why not try imagining what could go right? I find that often a simple change of perspective can help me to find solutions or even simply steps forwards that I hadn’t previously considered.

Judgement – In a previous blog post I discussed ways of dealing with the ‘inner critic’ – that nasty little voice in your head that tells you you’re a failure and everything’s headed for disaster. I think it’s worth reiterating here: one of the most important things you can do to look after yourself is not to judge yourself. Everyone has difficult classes, everyone teaches less than perfect lessons, and everyone feels low or isolated or homesick occasionally. Don’t beat yourself up for how you feel!

Kindness –  Doing something to help others has a positive effect on our own happiness too. If it’s not possible for you to volunteer with or donate to a charity (volunteering can be harder to organise when you’re not in your own country, especially if you’re in a bit of a TEFL teacher bubble, and different people have different financial situations), why not look a bit closer to home? Write a note to a colleague telling them you appreciate them, buy a friend a bar of chocolate, offer to do your flatmate’s chores or call or email someone you haven’t spoken to in a while.

Laugh – Laughter therapy is a thing. When we laugh, our body relaxes and endorphins (natural painkillers) are released into the blood stream. This is a great natural stress-buster! If everything’s getting on top of you, watch a couple of episodes of your favourite sitcom, see a film, or even just look up jokes online. I also like to keep a little record of funny things my students have said in class – never fails to make me smile!

Mindfulness – Paying more attention to the present moment – to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you – can improve your mental wellbeing. Personally I’ve found this to be one of the most helpful things in dealing with my own depression and anxiety. You can find some tips on exploring mindfulness here, if it’s something you’d like to try.

Negative thoughts (learning to deal with them) – It’s completely normal to have negative thoughts, everyone does! Stopping having negative thoughts should never be a goal; it’s far more important to learn to deal with them when they do appear. As with dealing with the inner critic, the first step to overcoming negative thoughts is to recognise them. Once you’ve identified a negative thought, you can then look for evidence to support it (often there won’t be any!), evidence against it, and potentially reframe it (think ‘how can I look at this in a different way?’).

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Organise – This might be more of a personal one, but I often find that when things are starting to get too much, organisation and tidiness go out of the window…and the ensuing mess only makes me feel worse. Put on some of your favourite music, open some windows, and have a proper clean and tidy. If everything’s too overwhelming, tackle it bit by bit – say only your desk, or your wardrobe. You don’t have to do everything today.

Play – All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy… and the same goes for teachers too! No matter how many other things you have going on, try to take the time to do something for you, every day. If you’re stuck for ideas, try some of these 50 ways to take a break! Sandy Millin also has a selection of bookmarks  on how to maintain work/life balance.

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Quiet – With social media, smart phones and easily available wifi it can seem like we’re almost constantly surrounded by noise, information, and people wanting our attention. Choose a short period every so often to disconnect and be in the silence.

Read – I’ve put this one in as I always find reading helps me to relax, but it’s often something I don’t consider to be a priority and so struggle to find the time to do. If you think you don’t have time to read, how about reading on public transport on your way to and/or from school? If that still doesn’t sound like something that would work for you, I love audio books as you can then listen while walking, running, cooking or doing the ironing.

Socialise – Spending time with friends can make you feel much better about things! If you’ve just moved to a new country to start your TEFL adventure it can be tricky to meet new people, especially if you want to build a network of friends outside of English language teaching. Meetup.com can be a great place to start if you want to meet new people – it’s free to join and there are thousands of different groups based around different hobbies and activities. From what I can tell it’s pretty much international – I first joined while living in Prague, and made some great friends.

Talk – It’s important to talk to someone if you are finding things difficult, be that a friend, a colleague, your DOS or a family member. The Time to Talk website shares some conversation starters if you simply don’t know where to start. If you want to talk to someone from a detached perspective, I’m always happy to respond to emails or facebook messages (you can find my email address on the ‘about’ tab at the top of the page).

Understand (you’re not alone) – I’m grateful that more and more people are now talking about mental health – because it is important. If you’re struggling with depression, stress or anxiety (or indeed other mental health issues) please remember that you are not the only one in this situation. Phil Longwell talks openly about mental health and the effects anxiety has had on his life and teaching career in this interview, and Rebecca Cope writes about her experiences here. If you’re looking for more personal stories (not specific to ELT), Time to Talk has quite a collection!

Visit – Whenever I’m completely caught up in whatever’s going on in my head, I find getting a change of scenery really helps. Whether it’s visiting a tourist attraction, taking a mini break and seeing a new town or city, going to a cafe or restaurant or even simply stepping outside your apartment and getting some fresh air, going somewhere different can be a good idea. Why not go with a friend?

Water – We’ve talked already about food, but equally important is water. Dependent on the climate you’re in, aim to drink 6-8 glasses of water a day (around 1.2 litres, more if you’re in a hot climate). If you’re in a country where it isn’t safe to drink the tap water, consider investing in a water filter – it’ll save you loads on bottled water in the long-run.

eXhale – The way we breathe affects our nervous system. If we’re under pressure or stressed, we tend to emphasise the ‘inhale’ section of our breathing, our heart rate rises selfcareand our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism is stimulated. By consciously paying attention to our breathing, and exhaling for longer than we inhale, we can calm our body and our nervous system.

Yield – Be it anger, resentment, or past memories, there’s something in our minds that likes to cling on to the bad things that have happened to us – and in the long-term that doesn’t do us any good. If you’ve had a bad class, a disagreement with a friend or colleague, or a bad observation, now is always the time to let go. Talk to someone, write a letter, punch your pillow, exercise, or do what ever you need to let your emotions out. Then, make a conscious decision to let it go, and move on.

Zzzz – I struggled with low mood quite a bit in my first year of living and teaching abroad, and this was largely due to sleep – or lack thereof. I finished teaching at 9-9:30pm, came home, ate dinner, and then stayed up until 2 or 3am talking to friends back at home on Skype – not helped by the 4 hour time difference. The amount of sleep we need varies from person to person (I’ve always needed more than the average to feel well-rested), but it’s generally advised that we need between 7 and 9 hours’ sleep a night. Many of us don’t get anywhere near that, and sleep deprivation can lead to moodiness, irritability, depression and a weakened immune system, as well as more serious health issues. Getting enough sleep (and aiming to make it good quality sleep too!) is an easy way to look after yourself just a little bit more.

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! 

What to do when you can’t stop criticising yourself

Do you remember the first time you thought ‘I can’t do this?’ about teaching? Maybe it was when you were faced with a particularly rambunctious group of kids, or moody teenagers who didn’t want to talk. Maybe it was when your class asked you questions you didn’t know the answer to. Maybe it was your first time teaching pre-schoolers, or an in-company class, and your ‘I can’t do this’ moment happened before you even set foot inside the classroom.

I certainly do. Part way through my first year of teaching, I took over another teacher’s adult upper-intermediate class. In the first week I taught them my lessons seemed to consist of never-ending grammar questions that I couldn’t quite answer convincingly, and I found myself constantly wondering if my class were all afflicted with Resting Bitch Face, or if they actually just hated me. In the second week I taught them I was called into my director’s office, where she gently explained that I would no longer be teaching that group. They had requested a different teacher – any teacher, it would seem, except me.

I didn’t think too much about this at the time. I was 23, had just started teaching, and was pretty willing to just go along with whatever the director of my school said. But several months later when I was given another upper-intermediate class, a snipy, critical voice popped up in my head. ‘You can’t teach upper-intermediate… remember what happened last time? They’re going to ask you questions that you can’t answer. They’ll complain about you if you hesitate too much or you get something wrong. Maybe you shouldn’t have thought you could teach. Maybe you shouldn’t have come here in the first place…’

Sound familiar in any way? Many teachers I know (myself included!) are their own worst critics. It’s easy to say that – flippant-sounding even, but criticising yourself can have a huge impact on your confidence, how willing you are to put yourself out there and say ‘yes’ to new things, and how happy you are on a day-to-day basis.

The good news is that there is something you can do about it. The bad news is that it might not be what you expect.

I was a shy child, and as a teenager, I lacked self-confidence in pretty much every way, shape and form imaginable. Looking back on myself then, I still find it a little surprising that I can now happily stand and talk in front of a class of students! Why do I tell you this? Because I didn’t stop being shy because people told me not to be. 

One common mistake that teachers, teacher trainers and managers make when they’re trying to encourage others to be more confident is to compliment, encourage and try to build up. I’m guilty of this too. A new teacher says they don’t think they can teach kids… Yes you can! You’ll be fine! I believe in you! Does it work? Well, maybe a little. But it’s not the most effective way of helping someone to overcome the inner critic.

Arguing with the inner critic, whether it’s you or someone else doing it, doesn’t helpYour nasty, inner backchat is NOT based on fact or reality (even if you think it is), and logic and facts can’t reason with what is fundamentally an instinctive fear. You can spend hours arguing with your inner critic:

‘You can’t teach this class. It’ll go wrong.’

‘Yes, I can. I’ve planned it carefully, it’ll be fine.’

‘You’ve probably forgotten something.’

‘No, I haven’t. It’ll be fine.’

‘But what about the kids? What if they’re badly behaved? What if you lose control of the class?’

This is an argument with yourself that you are never going to win.

What about looking to someone else for support? A teaching colleague, a mentor, or a manager? This is no bad thing – everyone needs support and having someone to bounce ideas off can really help. However, when it comes to the inner critic, many of its sarcastic, negative thoughts arise in the heat of the moment, and that’s when we make snap decisions without talking to anyone. Also, let’s face it, we don’t tell anyone what’s going on in our heads most of the time (especially the negative, lacking confidence stuff) – it’s human nature to try to act as though we have it together as much as possible.

So, ‘just deciding’ to be confident isn’t going to work. Arguing with ourselves isn’t going to work. And listening to our inner critic is just going to make us stressed out, unhappy, and not doing what we want to do. Don’t worry, we’re now getting to the bit where we talk about the alternative.

#1 Get your head around the idea of the ‘inner critic’.

Part of me always wants to dismiss this idea as being pop psychology ‘woo woo’. But let’s face it, we do all have a voice in our heads that anxiously criticises and undermines our thoughts and attempts to step outside of our comfort zone.

This chart shows some of the differences between realistic, rational thinking… and when it’s the inner critic showing up in our thoughts.

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Image from Harvard Business Review

Step one towards beating the inner critic: recognise and notice when it’s the inner critic piping up. This can be as simple as saying to yourself ‘I’m hearing the inner critics worries about this again’ – or even just simply ‘inner critic’.

#2 Look for the motives in what the critic says.

Although it’s not necessarily easy for us to see, our fears and instincts are designed to protect us from harm. The inner critic is no different: it’s usually our mind’s way of trying to keep us safe. Why did my inner critic kick off so badly when I was asked to teach an upper-intermediate class again? Well, although it’s no sabre-toothed tiger, the fear of having the director of my school lose confidence in me is still a threat. My inner critic’s attempts to get me not to teach the class were ultimately attempts to keep me safe.

#3 Visualise getting rid of the critic.

*There are lots of different ways to visualise getting rid of the inner critic, but the one I’ve found most helpful for me is simply to get up and move into a different room or physical space, envisaging that I’ve left the critic behind. Obviously this isn’t possible all the time (it wouldn’t work in the middle of a class, for example), but it certainly does work if, for example, you’re at home planning lessons or preparing for an observation.

#4 Remember that this is a process.

Overcoming the inner critic isn’t about suddenly developing boundless reserves of confidence. Rather, it’s about developing the tools to recognise and then deal with its voice.

This is going to be a process – and one that won’t ever finish. It’s perfectly normal to stop criticising yourself for one thing… only to then hear the inner critic pipe up about something else.

You won’t ever silence the inner critic, but you will get better at dealing with it – and be able to stop taking direction from fear. 

 

*I’ve encountered and read about ‘the inner critic’ in many different places, but much of my understanding (and some of these ways of dealing with the inner critic) come from a fantastic book called ‘Playing Big’ by Tara Mohr. This book is about confidence, growth, and empowerment – and I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s written for women, but in all honesty I don’t see why men (especially those who are introverted or lacking confidence) wouldn’t benefit from it too. Read it if you want to find out more about the inner critic and how to learn to live better with his or her voice!

 

Native Speakers Aren’t Better – So Don’t Believe It.

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When I started this blog, I foolishly assumed that I was writing for an audience like my younger self: British (or perhaps American), relatively young (maybe one or two years out of university) who’d taken a TEFL course at least in part because it seemed like a good idea… and then who headed abroad to teach reluctant and terrified. I’ve realised however as my readership has grown that this is only a small part of my audience; there are lots of you out there who are non-native English speakers, working in your home country or trying to navigate the tricky world of visa applications  and not having ‘the right’ passport.

A couple of weeks ago, a teacher emailed me asking for advice (you can do that by the way – my email is on the ‘About’ page). As I highly doubt she’s the only one in this position, my answer evolved into this blog post. So how can a non-native speaker teacher feel more confident speaking English in the classroom?

Students want native-speaker teachers, don’t they?

copy-of-reflection-for-the-week-blankThe honest answer here is ‘not necessarily’. It’s become almost standard practice for language schools to advertise their native speaker teachers as a selling point, and this has a knock-on effect. Schools tell their students that they should want to learn from native-speakers, that native-speakers are better, online teachers sell themselves first and foremost as being native speakers… and so it’s hardly surprising that students have taken this on board. ‘Native English speaker’ has become just another marketing buzzword (as highlighted by the online advert I saw earlier this week: a ‘native English speaker’ advertising their services as an English teacher, written in what was, at best, intermediate level English). To some extent, yes, students want native-speaker teachers… but this is because they’ve been told to, rather than down to any kind of factual research.

Let’s not forget that in many countries, the profile of the ideal ‘English teacher’ extends to cover far more than native language. A friend of mine (white, native English speaker, South African) was asked to lie to students about her nationality and tell them that she was British. Fantastic teachers I’ve worked with who happen to not fit the ‘fair-skinned’ ideal have had their expertise as teachers questioned and been rejected by students on account of the colour of their skin. The world of TEFL (and TEFL recruitment) is unfortunately unethical and discriminatory… and it’s only slowly that this is starting to change.

All of this paints a pretty damning picture – but as mentioned, the situation is changing. In 2011, International House stated that their schools would no longer specifically recruit native-speaker teachers, and more and more jobs boards (and recruiters) are starting to reject the principle that native speaker equals more desirable teacher.

If you’re interested in some more in-depth reading (and what to see for yourself exactly what students thing, Ahmar Mahoob’s paper offers some real food for thought, including lots of direct quotes from students. You’ll see that in some cases students regard non-native speaker teachers as better than native speakers!

In my experience, students’ first priority is to learn. As long as you’re a good teacher, who cares what your native language is?

For a more detailed analysis of the ‘native speaker preference’ check out Andrew Woodbury’s excellent article.

Don’t native speakers make better teachers?

Think of a renowned scientist or academic. Are they necessarily equipped to go into a school and teach their subject? The same holds true for English teaching. Teaching encompasses a whole range of skills aside from just ‘knowing the language’ – if you’re ever in any doubt of that please watch this comedy sketch by Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington. Would any lesson you teach be more appropriately graded, better structured, and have better explanations than what these guys come up with? Then you already have proof that you’re a better English teacher than someone whose sole qualification is to be a native speaker.

I’ve spoken English my whole life – but had to work hard throughout my first couple of years of teaching to understand grammar in such a way that I could present it and explain it to my students. It’s all very well to be able to say ‘this is correct, and this isn’t’, but in order to teach a language you need to understand the nuts and bolts of it. Here, being a non-native speaker can actually be a huge advantage, as you’ve likely had to learn the language in a similar way to your students! As a non-native speaker of English, you’re automatically going to have a greater insight into what students are going to find challenging, what they’ll be confused by and what’s actually pretty straightforward. A native speaker will have to research all of those things – or find them out through trial and error.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some excellent non-native speaker teachers throughout my career, and one thing that’s always struck me is how inspiring they can be for their students. At my first school, our Director of Studies was a non-native speaker – who had started her English studies as a child at the very school we worked at. How encouraging is that?! As a non-native speaker, you have the ability to show your students just what they can achieve – because you practise what you preach every day.

As a final note, if you still needed some more evidence that being a native speaker makes you a better teacher, check out what my students said. From time-to-time I always like to ask my students what they think makes a good teacher (I repeated a version of this activity recently with my adult elementary class) – and whilst they have said ‘you must speak English’, no student has ever specified that a good teacher must be British, or American, or even a native-English speaker.

How can I feel more confident?

Hopefully realising that your students don’t necessarily want native-speaker teachers, reflection-for-the-week-blank-1and that being a native-speaker doesn’t automatically qualify you to be a better teacher is already making you feel more confident. But what can you do to give yourself an extra boost?

  • Fake it til you make it. There’s a lot to be said for acting confident, even if you don’t always feel it. Using positive body language, rehearsing what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it, and even simply going into the classroom with a positive outlook can make a real difference in how confident you appear – and ultimately how confident you feel.
  • Build your confidence in the language. It should hopefully go without saying that as teachers, we should never stop learning. Consider studying for an exam (maybe IELTS or CAE/CPE), and above all, practise, practise, practise. As you grow more confident in using the language in general, it follows that you’ll grow more confident in using it in the classroom too.
  • Experiment, be yourself, and have some fun. Being able to laugh at your own mistakes helps! I asked non-native speaker friends and colleagues for advice while writing this post, and this was some of the best advice I was given. Remember that being a teacher is so much more than simply your knowledge of the language, and your students will appreciate your being yourself.

You can find some more tips on how to be a more confident teacher here.

Butconfidence-comes-not-from-always-being-right-but-from-not-fearing-to-be-wrong what if I make mistakes?

I’ll let you into a secret: I make mistakes too! From my early attempts at grading language where I realised I was missing out articles and actually saying things that were grammatically incorrect, to the sleepy coffee-free Monday morning not so long ago where I spectacularly stuffed up a grammar explanation… we all make mistakes from time to time.

If you do make a mistake, be honest about it – much of this advice also holds true here. Then take a deep breath and move on; the absolute worst thing you can do is to beat yourself up over it.

What can I do to improve my English?

First of all, think about what you’d recommend for your students! Teaching gives you a real advantage here, as it means you have a much clearer idea of what works and what doesn’t. If you’re still looking for some advice, here’s what I’d recommend:

  • Practise! It probably goes without saying, but to confidently use English in the classroom, the key is practise, practise, practise. Although reading and writing in English will doubtless be helpful, I’d recommend focusing slightly more on speaking and listening, as these skills are what you’re going to be using in class on a daily basis.
  • Watch films/TV/listen to the radio or podcasts. Depending on your work context, it might be difficult to get lots of exposure to fluent spoken English. The internet is your friend! I recommend to almost all of my students that they find films or a TV series they like, and regularly watch them in English. If TV isn’t your thing, how about listening to the radio or English-language podcasts – you can even do it while you’re at the gym, on public transport, or doing the housework.
  • Use English as much as possible. Put all your electronic devices into English, write shopping lists/to-do lists in English, even switch your ‘internal monologue’ into English and talk to yourself (either in your head or out loud) – exposing yourself to the language as much as possible will make you feel far more confident in using it.
  • Teach ‘mock’ lessons. This might be a bit of a weird one, but hear me out. In teaching, some of the language we use can be quite different to what we encounter in every day life, and the only real way to practice it is by teaching. This can help you to rehearse parts of explanations or giving instructions for a task. If you don’t have a willing friend or family member that you can teach a small section of something to, I find both pets and teddy bears to be helpful substitutes (with the added advantage that they don’t answer back!).
  • Take a course. If you’ve got time and money available to you (let’s face it, no one went into EFL teaching in order to get rich), you might want to take a course. If you want to take something that’s specifically aimed at English language teachers, here are some offered by TEFL Equity Advocates, as well as this one by Future Learn. There’s also a recording of a great webinar on language development for teachers here.

How do I get a job with the ‘wrong’ passport?

As a Brit I’m all too aware that I’m not in the best position to offer advice – but I can point you in the direction of people who can.

TEFL Equity Advocates – this is an absolutely fantastic website, full of advice, articles, and resources. This site has been the source of several of the articles I’ve linked to in this post, and I wish I’d been able to link to even more of them! For your sanity I won’t, but please, if you do one thing, check out this site.

If you’re a regular user of Facebook, you might want to check out their official facebook group, or this group for non-native speaker teachers.

Although it might seem like you’re fighting a losing battle, please don’t give up – keep fighting. Hopefully one day in the not too distant future the TEFL world will become one of equal opportunity for everyone. 

 

If you enjoyed what you read here, please consider signing up for my newsletter mailing-list: I’ll send you a monthly round-up of resources and ideas I’ve loved each month, and the occasional extra freebie too! If you’re a new (or newish, or new-at-heart) teacher who’d like a bit of extra support, check out my ELT support group on Facebook – TEFLing Together

 

EFL Advent Calendar – 19th December

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Christmas: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – 19th December

For: Adults

Level: Intermediate

Don’t worry – I haven’t turned into Scrooge and lost all Christmas spirit. I have noticed, however, that a great way to engage adult students and get them talking (particularly those who are often reluctant participants in the lesson) is to let them have a bit of a moan.

Today I bring you a resource that’s going to give your students the opportunity to do just that: Keith Sand’s ‘Christmas – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, (courtesy of the British Council) in which he bemoans the commercialisation of Christmas. There’s an audio version as well as a downloadable PDF so you can choose whether or not to use this as a listening or a reading activity, as well as a follow-up True/False reading activity.

It’d be easy to create a whole lesson around this article: ideas include discussing how this compares to the celebration of Christmas (or other main holidays) in students’ own countries, a class debate (Should Christmas be banned?), or a Room 101 type activity, where students create their own list of pet hates surrounding a particular theme and then vote whether or not they should be placed in ‘Room 101’ and removed forever.

If you’d like to explore these ideas further with your class, the British Council has a similar article (and associated activities) about Consumerism.

EFL Advent Calendar – 14th December

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Christmas Conversation Questions – 14th December

For: Teens/Adults

Level: pre-intermediate + (use the questions appropriate for your class and level)

Time: Depends on the activity!

I often find that I’m talking to my students repeatedly about Christmas during December… but if they’ve been having English lessons for a few years or they also have lessons with a different teacher, the same old questions are going to get boring pretty quickly. Having a larger variety of questions also makes it more interesting for you as the teacher!

Here are questions on a variety of different (but related) topics:

Christmas, if your students live in a country where it is celebrated or are interested in how we celebrate it in the UK/US.

New Year, if your students live in a country where New Year is regarded as the main celebration or Christmas isn’t celebrated (when I taught in Russia I used to use a variety of Christmas and New Year related questions).

Holidays: if your students don’t celebrate or aren’t interested in Christmas or New Year, these questions give them the opportunity to discuss the celebration of a festival/holiday of their choice.

You might also want to file away some of the ‘first lesson back’ questions to use at the beginning of next term!

How to use these conversation questions? Well, there’s no right or wrong answer. Obviously don’t try to use all the questions in one lesson – choose the ones that are most appropriate for your students’ background and level, and that you think they’ll find the most interesting. As a few quick ideas, you could:

  • Focus on sentence structure/question construction with lower level students. Get them to put the words in the right order or build the questions themselves from prompts. They can complete the discussion activity after the exercise.
  • Type up/copy and paste some of the questions and then use them as a traditional pair discussion activity.
  • Use the questions as part of an existing boardgame, or get the students to create their own.
  • Use a few questions as a warmer at the beginning of a lesson.
  • Use the questions as a prompt for a longer writing or presentation task.
  • Have a ‘hot seat’ type activity, where one student answers the others’ questions for a limited time period. You can decide if they answer the questions as themselves, or as a famous person/fictional character, or even as a person from a different country/as another member of the class.