What if I don’t have time to plan?

copy-of-what-if-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

untitled-design-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

copy-of-what-if

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

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

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

Don’t:

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

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

81b2977a7ffb612247894c575c0fa265
Photo: Adam Klimowski
  • Ask the students to work it out for themselves. That’s what guided discovery is, right? The big ‘but’ here is that when we ask students questions in a bid to get them to figure out the answers for themselves, we need to know the right answers as well. There’s no guarantee that whatever the students will come up with will be correct (particularly if it comes to pesky grammar rules or exceptions to them) – and if you’re not sure what the right answer is yourself you’re on dangerous territory. The same goes for asking a stronger student to explain it to their classmates – unless you’re certain that their explanation is right, be wary of going with the flow simply for the sake of getting an answer.
  • Send the students away with an extra ‘homework’ task – to find out the answer. This can work well, and I have used this technique, particularly with students who like to interrupt every single lesson with an off-topic question! However it does require following up next lesson, which means that you’ll need to go away and find out the answer too! This technique also works well if the tricky question comes at the end of the class and you simply don’t have time to devote to the answer.
  • Buy yourself some time. It’s ok to tell the students that you’ll come back to their question later, or that you’d like to take a few minutes to think about the answer. Just don’t say this and then hope they forget all about it! If you promise an answer, you need to give one.

And lastly, the dos:

  • Acknowledge the question. Even if you are totally stuck for an answer, do acknowledge the question – chances are that if you don’t know the answer, it’s potentially a good one!
  • Admit that you don’t know. This takes courage to do, especially as it can feel like you’re admitting a weakness as a teacher. Think of it this way though: we’d like our students to say that they don’t know rather than either sitting there blankly or making up an incorrect answer. What better model for that than for them to have a teacher who also admits that they don’t know everything?
  • Tell them that you’ll find out. It’s fine to admit to your class that you don’t know the answer to their question – but it’s not ok to just leave it there. Admit that you don’t know, but then assure them that you will find out the answer and get back to them next lesson.
  • Follow through! You’ve said that you’ll get back to them with the answer, so make sure you do so. Ask a colleague, phone a friend, look in a grammar book or a dictionary, ask Google – and then make sure you follow it up at the beginning of the next lesson.
83c47527bb237a31bc5e350dfb20ad34
Photo: Maciek Zlachta

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

What if… I can’t control my class?

copy-of-what-if

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. 

Everything but the Kitchen Sink

what to pack

I headed abroad to start my first teaching job five years ago, but in many ways it seems like it was only yesterday. Everything was rather a last-minute decision, which resulted in applying for and receiving my visa, purchasing my plane tickets and boarding my first ever flight all in the space of a week. I spent much of that week frantically searching the internet for packing lists, looking to both procrastinate and bolster my own ignorance with someone else’s know-how. After all, how do you pack everything you will need for 9 months of your life into a grand total of two suitcases?

Clothes

Many language schools will have a dress code for teachers, and it’s wise to check this out before you leave. If it isn’t included in your contract or any teachers’ handbook materials you may have been sent, email and ask. First thing’s first, when it comes to packing clothes, think variety. Some more formal things, some more casual things, clothes for a variety of different weathers. Always take one outfit of smart clothing – most language schools will have some in-company classes, where you will go to a business and teach the students while they are at work. For these classes, standard office wear applies, including for the teacher!

Layers are also the way to go. Certainly in Russia and the Czech Republic buildings tend to be hugely overheated (at least by UK standards) and it’s not uncommon to be teaching in short sleeves, even when the outside temperature is in the minuses. If you only take thick warm clothes, you will boil.

Lastly, if you are travelling somewhere with a very different climate to your home country (particularly if you are unfamiliar with it), err on the side of caution. The same applies to different cultures. During my first year in Russia I ended up with an almost completely new wardrobe – and not just because I like shopping! A combination of the different climate and culture meant that most of my British clothes were either inappropriate or simply just stood out like a sore thumb.

Stuff

One of the most valuable things I have in my teaching toolkit is my actual physical toolkit – the collection of ‘stuff’ that I’ve built up over the last few years. Some of the things I use most frequently are: a cuddly toy, several dice (take extra as they will go missing), story cubes (see here to find out what they are and for some ideas on how to use them in class), and a small collection of realia – things like leaflets, takeaway menus, or postcards from your home country.

E-reader

Before teaching abroad I was well and truly in the ‘books are superior’ camp. However, I caved and bought a kindle in the week before starting my TEFL adventure, and I can honestly say it’s been some of the best money I’ve ever spent. How easy it is to get English-language books varies greatly from country to country, and city to city. It’s also something that’s relatively tricky to find out before you go, as one person’s idea of ‘a good selection of English language books’ might be very different to yours! Whatever your sentiments about kindles and the like, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend one to TEFL teachers, as they mean you have a guaranteed way of purchasing English language books wherever you are in the world. An e-reader also takes up minimal space in your luggage, meaning that you are neither weighed down by books, nor are going to have to face waving goodbye to a carefully amassed collection at the end of your contract should you choose to head to another country or even back home. They’re also far cheaper than they used to be, which gives you no excuse!

Stationery

I have to admit that I tend to forget this one. However, as soon as you sit down to start lesson planning in preparation for your first day’s teaching, it can be a bit of a problem if you realise that you don’t have a pen, pencil, or any paper! Most language schools will provide their teachers with board markers, so don’t worry about those, but I’d recommend taking at least a couple of pens, a small notebook, and maybe a pack of felt-tips if you’re likely to be teaching young learners. (If you’re unsure if you will be teaching young learners or not, assume you will be and take them anyway). Language schools often don’t pay until mid-way through the second month of the academic year, so if you don’t have to spend your precious money on stationery in September, your bank balance will thank you.

EDIT: I have had several people remind me that blutack is a must – for whatever reason it seems to be hard/impossible to come by abroad. Leaving it off this list was a grave oversight: the same grave oversight I make every time I pack my bags!

Credit on your phone

Some schools are fantastic and will ensure you have an internet connection up and running in your flat for when you arrive (shout-out to AKCENT IH Prague). Others might be a bit less helpful! You’ll almost certainly acquire a sim card within the first couple of days of being abroad – but chances are that you will be using your home mobile number to tide you over until then. Having credit (and knowing how to top it up from abroad) will save you a lot of hassle.

Plug Adaptors

Adaptors, adaptors, adaptors. I can’t stress enough how vital these are. I honestly can’t imagine anything worse than arriving to start a new job, only to realise that you have no way of plugging in or charging any electronic devices! In the UK it’s pretty easy to find an adaptor to allow you to plug any kind of plug into a UK socket – in other countries, at least in my experience, it’s pretty tough! My personal prefered option is to take a couple of adaptors, but also to take a surge protector power strip. It’ll mean that you only need one adaptor and access to one socket, but that you can then plug in multiple devices at the same time – and you won’t need to worry about putting adaptors onto every charger you own.

Home Comforts

As I mentioned earlier, it’s standard practice to start teaching at the beginning of September – but to not receive your first paycheck until mid-October. That means that money tends to be pretty tight for that first month, especially if you need to buy a new mobile or sim card, set up an internet connection etc. In my experience, during that first month there are always unexpected costs. If at all possible, budget a little more than you think you are likely to need – but it can also make life that little more pleasant if you take a few home comforts with you (and then you won’t be tempted to buy them!) They’ll be different for everyone, but personally I always take a big bar of Galaxy chocolate, some cute socks, and some Twinings herbal teabags.

…and what not to take…

Coursebooks

Unless you know that you will be teaching in a remote school in the middle of a jungle, the chances are that your school will have resources. They will have a copy of ‘Practical English Usage’ by Michael Swan, ‘How to Teach English’ by Jeremy Harmer, and ‘English Grammar in Use’ by Raymond Murphy (aka the three CELTA/Trinity Bibles). Speaking as someone who carefully took Murphy 1,500 miles only to never use her own copy – books are heavy, bulky, and take up space in your suitcase. You do not need to take coursebooks/grammar reference books with you.

Shoes

I know that this is likely to be extremely unpopular with many of my female readers, and I freely admit that I am perhaps atypical in my disdain for shoes and shoe shopping. However, shoes are bulky. They are heavy. Wear your heaviest/bulkiest pair on the plane, and seriously consider how many pairs you need to take with you. There will be shoe shops in your new country.

Excessively bulky anything

Winter coats, shoes, big winter jumpers – they all take up valuable space and you’re likely to have received a couple of paychecks before you even need them. Likewise, tennis rackets, guitars, yoga mats… take them if they are an integral part of your identity and you will genuinely feel their absence if you don’t have them for a month or so. If it’s just a fleeting interest and you are tempted to pack it ‘just in case’, don’t. If you want something badly enough, the chances are that you will be able to buy it there – probably from a sheepish English teacher who packed it, paid the excess baggage allowance, and then either never used it or didn’t want to pay to take it home again.

Are you just about to head abroad to start a new TEFL adventure? I’d love to hear from you, and am happy to help in any way that I can.