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5 and a Half Tips for Surviving Your First Day of Teaching

5 and a Half Tips for Surviving Your First Day of Teaching

By | On 21 Feb, 2014

(Lessons Learned from My Post-Diplomatic Incident)

Tuesday morning came around far too quickly. I’d had yet another fitful night’s sleep, partly plagued by nightmares about being thrown off a moving bus by rowdy French teenagers. But it was mainly down to the fact that it was the BIG DAY. My first day teaching English!

I’d woken up with that nervous-sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, like you get before a major exam, but even worse. I knew that after my disastrous coach tour, I had to pull something good out of the bag.Books-with-post-it-notes-001

So I got to the classroom bright and early, before anyone else was about, I wrote my name on the board (I’d seen teachers do that in the movies), plus a short list of what we were going to cover that morning. Then I put my lesson plan on the teacher’s desk and read through it for about the 100th time.

My notes were all beautifully laid out, with the instructions I was going to give my class highlighted in orange, and the vocabulary I was going to pre-teach in fluorescent yellow. Peeking out of the coursebook were post-it notes to make sure I wouldn’t be fumbling around, looking for the page I needed, as I ran through my lesson.

Tip #1: Post-it notes keep you organized when you’re too nervous to remember what you’re doing.

An experienced teacher I met on my training day mentioned how important first impressions were – how the group quickly decides how good a teacher you are (or, in my case, how crap you are) in the first two minutes.

So as the students began to arrive in dribs and drabs (some got lost in the maze of school corridors, while those who had something other than English grammar on their minds were in the bathroom making sure that their hair and makeup was perfect for their grand entrance), I greeted them all as they came in.

Smiling like a Cheshire cat, I asked their names and where they were from and introduced them to each other. Since I couldn’t fall back on any knowledge of grammar or teaching methodology, I figured I’d have to rely on the rather thin veneer of being friendly and professional and, surprisingly, it seemed to be working.

Tip #2: Smile and chat with students as they enter class. You’ll appear friendly and confident and it will calm your nerves.

I was starting to feel quite confident until two 15-year-old Dutch giants arrived and I heard one of them say, “He’s the guy who gave the crappy bus tour yesterday.” (Well, I imagine that’s what he said, since all I heard was his laughter as he pointed at me and the word “bus.”) I cringed just thinking about it and I realized teaching is not a job for those with a delicate ego.

Eventually the students all filed in and settled down, eagerly awaiting the start of the lesson (I could sense another massive disappointment in the offing). The keener ones had brand-new notebooks and an array of fluorescent marker pens and sharpened pencils, while the others just sat there grinning in anticipation, as if they were at the circus and I was the next act.

There they sat – an international mix of Austrian, Belgian, Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish and Swedish students, plus one solitary Algerian. Apart from where to find them on a map, I knew very little about any of these countries. But I proceeded to read out the class register, tripping over names like Marco König and Dominique Bosch, covering the list with spittle as I tried to get my mouth around the likes of Thijmen Poepjes and Uwe Leschnik.

Once I’d gotten the attendance out of the way, it was time to get down to business.

The ‘getting-to-know-you’ activities went well, but it didn’t take long for the ‘questions-I-couldn’t-answer’ to come in thick and fast:

“What’s the difference between ‘to flower’ and ‘to blossom’?”

“When do you use ‘whom’?”

“What’s the difference between continual and continuous?”

I felt like a TEFL boxer who was getting punched without the ability to hit back.

“Hey John, is the past of ‘drink’ drank or drunk?”tips for surviving your first day of teaching

With all eyes on me, I was struggling to answer even the easiest of questions, and I was starting to regret my choice of clothing that day. Even though it wasn’t that warm, I could feel myself sweating in places I hadn’t even known one could sweat.

Tip #3: Wear light clothing and/or layers. Sweat stains are embarrassing.

“Hey, it’s break time!” Someone shouted.

At last! I ran frantically into the staff room with my list of questions, desperate to find my trusted ‘Swan Grammar’ book. (Tip #3 ½ – Keep Michael Swan’s grammar book Practical English Usage handy at all times. It’s a lifesaver!)

“Why the panic?” asked one of the teachers.

I garbled an explanation and received one of the best bits of advice a green teacher could ever hope for, which is:

Tip #4: “If you haven’t a clue what to say, tell the student what an interesting question they’ve asked, and that you’ll deal with it after the break. Resist the temptation to just make something up.”

role play tips for surviving your first day of teaching

Once my students warmed up, they were hysterical! Here they are doing a role play.


So, what did I learn from my first day? Well, the meeting and greeting went well – I might have looked liked a nutter with the continual (or was it continuous?!) eye-contact, but I certainly didn’t come across as stand-offish. And I’d begun to build up a good rapport with my students.

I also realized that it was okay not to know everything – there’s always room for improvement. Speaking of which, I’d have to tidy up my board work – it was atrocious! My writing slanted down towards the floor as if a small insect dipped in ink had tottered drunkenly across the whiteboard. After that first day, I decided to invest in a good set of colored dry-erase markers and get some practice in during break-times. Which leads me to…

Tip #5: Practice writing neatly on the board. It’s not as easy as it looks.

After three more experience-packed weeks, the course ended in tears (of relief on my part, for getting through it without having a nervous breakdown). I’d never seen such an outpouring of emotion. The farewells between the students were genuinely moving: promises of undying love, friendships made, hearts broken and girls sobbing and writing ‘I heart you’ on the steamed-up windows as the coaches pulled out of the drive to take students off to the airport.

I have to admit, I was almost sorry to see them go myself. I felt shattered, but happy, and I felt a real sense of accomplishment. I was hooked – TEFL was definitely for me! The question is, is TEFL for you?

Try out these tips and tell me how it went in the comments below! I’d love to hear your first day of teaching stories!

john harrop tips for surviving your first day of teaching

John Harrop (front and center in striped shirt) with his first-ever English class. Can you guess the year by the hair?


Stay tuned for John’s next post, “10 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started Teaching.”

John Harrop

John Harrop

A small, freckled traveler from Liverpool, John never imagined he’d end up working in education. Then, one night in a British pub, he met some Spanish students, ended up moving to Spain and the rest, as they say, is history. Based in Seville, he now spends his time teacher-training, teaching, writing and performing interactive puppet shows with Bat-i-Burrillo Teatro de Títeres.
John Harrop


  1. April

    Hahaha, it sounds like we are kindred spirits… I’ll make sure to keep your advice in mind as I’m a new teacher at the moment who is prone to anxiety. Also, your writing is really entertaining; I found myself grinning and giggling throughout your post. Looking forward to more!

  2. Hi there April, thanks a lot for taking the time to write, really appreciate it. As for being prone to anxiety, that’s quite normal, mine has never gone away (but it’s nowhere near as bad as it was) A couple more things I didn’t mention, take a few really deep breaths before you walk into the class as this lowers your heart rate. Also, have some water with you in case you get a frog in your throat…and to combat dehydration through sweating!

  3. Bosch Dominique

    I was one of the students….Sooooooooo long ago! I really had a great time.. and I learned a lot of new words…..

    • Even though it was soooooo long ago Dominique you look exactly the same!

  4. MC

    Another great post. And the last photo is a keeper.

  5. Marco

    Brilliant story John! I read my own first days of teaching through your words! Still, another funny conclusion pops to my mind: the most inexperienced teacher I ever had (and that was you), showed me how great fun teaching is!

    • Hi Marco…thanks a lot for leaving the comment and I’m really happy that you enjoyed reading the post.

  6. Thanks for the comment MC – glad you liked the photo…

  7. Sandra

    John, great to stumble across you on this website and to see you sharing your zillions of ideas and boundless enthusiasm with new teachers. (John and I are old friends and colleagues but I don’t go as far back as knowing him when he first started teaching. Certainly today, you’d never have suspected nerves – he’s a born natural communicator!) Anyway, your teaching tips reminded me of my early days so maybe you won’t mind me adding a couple more to the list, John? I spent about the first six months of teaching with severe diarrhoea with nerves!! So Tip 6 – build in extra time before class to allow for emergency toilet trips!! (The nerves, believe me, DO gradually go.) My alternative to Tip 4 (Tip 4 ½ or 7?) is to start the same way, ‘That’s a very interesting question. Can you all research into it and bring your answers to class next lesson?’ At the same time, I believe in owning up honestly so why not, ‘I don’t think I’m certain enough of the answer to tell you so give me till next class and I’ll come back to you.’ I’ve always needed those tactics a lot, as students tend to confuse EFL/ESL teacher with ‘font of all general knowledge’. Can you answer quickly and clearly ‘How many people live in London/England/the UK?’ or ‘What’s the difference between the UK and Great Britain?’ But all new TEFLers shouldn’t be discouraged – it’s the best fun and rewarding teaching of all and it’s brilliant training for life skills of communicating, empathising and inter-relating with others.

    • Hi Sandra

      Thanks a lot for taking the time to write and for sharing the tips – and if anyone else has got any and wants to share, that’d be great, that’s the whole point of the blog! I’m sure that newly qualified teachers will find them really useful.

  8. Tania

    Wow, that reminded me of several first days teaching diferent groups.
    As a student, I would be the one trying to make the teacher feel comfortable and glad to be there, but as a teacher, I learned some lessons from those kids frowning at me too. Wonderful text, when’s next?

    • Hi Tania, thanks a lot for the comment. My posts will be going up once every month – but in the meantime, there will be things from the other bloggers posted later this week.

  9. Eliza

    I’ll never forget when I wore a grey colored shirt on a hot Korean day. Never again. It was….the pits.
    *Is thrown from the stage*

  10. Sandra

    Further to my posting earlier, did you spot my deliberate mistake?
    (That’s another great ‘get out of jail/gaol card’ tactic, by the way.) I’ve had sleepless nights over the ‘font/fount’ debate and there’s a 50-50 split on this online but going with Cambridge Dictionaries(what else??), I should have written ‘fount of all knowledge’. Unless of course you think differently….

    • Sandra – I think this is going to be a case of grammatical survival of the fittest!!

  11. Andrew

    Hi John,

    Those seem like great tips. Would you recommend Seville as a good city for TESOL?


  12. I totally agree with the suggestions, experienced myself and they work!

    • Hi Flavia

      Thanks for the comment – by the way, a beautiful part of the world you live in.

  13. saima

    hi JOHN,
    it is really an interesting and helpful experience you have shared with all upcoming teachers.honestly you have reminded me the very first day of my teaching in a class.waiting for your next article.

  14. Hi Saima

    I’m glad that you enjoyed reading the post and thanks a lot for taking time to leave a comment!

  15. Tia

    Dear John,
    I stumbled upon your page and I am so glad I did! Not only was I laughing quite heartily at every point you made for a good 5 mins, I could actually feel your anxiety through the screen lol. Well I will be starting my first esl teaching (to adults) pretty soon and I am so nervous, but your experience has given me some hope of surviving (we shall see). Thank you for sharing your story with us, it was quite funny and insightful.

    • Hi Tia Thanks for taking the trouble to write and I’m really glad you enjoyed the piece. I remember my first day as if it were yesterday…it was baptism by fire with the older teenagers – though I think you’re going to be fine with adults, they’re usually a lot more forgiving!
      Just so you know, the feeling of being nervous never goes away, I still get it now when I have a new class – though I spend more time with teachers than students (who are even more critical)

      Anyway, good luck with your classes fingers crossed it all goes swimmingly well!

  16. Dave Wenham

    Standing up in front of class in my CELTA course remains one of the most nerve-wracking things I have ever done – it all comes flooding back reading this. Great photo too!

  17. Dave Wenham

    PS It does get easier and these tips will certainly put you on the right track:)

  18. You’re right Dave – it does get easier (though I still get a bit apprehensive when I’ve got a new class)

    I was lucky that during my CELTA interview, my course tutor advised me to get a job in a summer school (it didn’t turn out quite as planned – see previous post but at least by the time I did my CELTA, I’d had some practice speaking to groups of non-native speakers and had learnt how to grade my language which was a great confidence booster.

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