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3 Things I Wish I’d Done When I Started Teaching Abroad
1. Collaborated more with peers
As a new teacher it’s impossible to overestimate the value of your co-teachers, especially those who have been living and working in the country for a while. Most established schools will have a teachers’ room where staff can convene before and between classes to utilize materials, make photocopies, and complete their administrative work. It can be intimidating at first, but the best thing you can do while everybody is working together is to ask questions and share resources.
“Resources” includes more than just worksheets for freer practice of the present perfect – I’m talking about advice for negotiating cultural differences in the classroom, information about your students’ native language(s), and general tips on managing the transition into your new home and lifestyle.
Peer observations can be an excellent way for new teachers to continue developing the toolkit they started assembling during their CELTA course. Even if your school doesn’t formally offer a peer observation program, just ask a friendly teacher if you can sit in on their lesson, even if it’s only for 15 minutes. Even better, they might be willing to sit in on yours and offer a few pointers.
Collaborating with peers early on also helps you build a network and get a better sense of a career plan. The world of English language teaching is a fantastic, diverse industry, but if you don’t know where to look you can miss out on really great opportunities for development and promotion. The quirks of the industry can also be confusing at times, so having a solid support network of people who can help guide you is invaluable.
2. Been more flexible and responsive to students’ needs
Coming out of the CELTA course with an understanding of classroom best practices, lesson planning guidelines, and foundational language awareness will prepare you to be a competent and employable teacher. However, it’s important to remember to teach the lesson, not the plan. In the “real world” with your long `term students you are not being observed and assessed every lesson (thank goodness!), and your lesson plans are not written in stone. The highly structured lessons you execute during your CELTA course give you an opportunity to show your trainers you understand the basic principles of teaching and to develop an understanding of lesson staging and materials selection. Once you have your own classes there is a great deal of flexibility within those frameworks.
There are many factors that might require you to be more flexible during a lesson. A student might ask an interesting question about language that you can explore, even if it means diverging from your aims. Or, maybe it’s taking your students a little longer than you’d thought for them to acquire recently taught vocabulary, and you decide to play a few review games that you hadn’t planned before moving on to new language. Keeping your students engaged and being responsive to their emerging needs builds rapport and prevents frustration. Sometimes students are simply not in the mood for your killer grammar lesson. Maybe the weather has been terrible or the national soccer team lost a big game and — barring any institutional constraints — you might decide to have a more relaxed lesson than you’d planned. In the bigger picture that is much more productive than barging ahead with what is on your agenda.
3. Had more fun
A lot of new teachers who move abroad, especially if it is their first time leaving their home country for an extended period, put a lot of pressure on themselves to make their experience the most meaningful, exciting, worthwhile, memorable time ever. This pressure can backfire and lead to culture shock, homesickness, and depression. Don’t be afraid that you are doing everything wrong in the classroom or that your students don’t like you. Chances are you are doing a fantastic job. Trust that your CELTA course has prepared you for your experience. You would not have passed the course and been given a job offer if you were not capable. It’s also important to remember that accurate language production is not the end-all be-all of your shared time with your students. Engaging in genuine communication with your students not only helps their learning by being more memorable and personal, but it will also make your time abroad that much richer for the stories you hear and the relationships you build.
Outside the classroom, don’t forget to enjoy and explore your temporary new home. Resist the temptation to only socialize with other English teachers. Join clubs or organizations, make local friends, learn the language, and get out of town every few weeks. You may not be able to find people to go with you, and that’s OK. Solo travel is one of the most empowering and educational experiences you can have. You don’t want to look back at your first teaching experience abroad and only remember too-long nights out drinking beer with your co-workers!
Erica Lederman is an ESL teacher and teacher trainer who has had classroom experience on four continents in addition to online tutoring. She is currently focused on teaching academic English to university students in Chicago and also running intensive CELTA courses with Teaching House as a freelancer.
Latest posts by Erica Lederman (see all)
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