3 Things I Wish I’d Done When I Started Teaching

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

Following my first story, My First Day of Teaching (How I Almost Caused a Diplomatic Incident), about the toughest year of teaching I had following my CELTA, I thought it might be useful to give some tips to ease the pain! This list is unashamedly personal and far from exhaustive, but hopefully it will be useful for those of you embarking on your first adventure in teaching.

1. Do a First Aid course.

There was an almighty crash behind me. I turned round to see Annisa, a usually exuberant student, slumped on the floor. As she collapsed she’d managed to grab a table for support – pulling it over with her as she fell. The floor was awash with Pringles and Cheetos floating in a cocktail of spilled drinks.

Moments earlier, Annisa had been dancing enthusiastically to Madonna at the end-of-course party organized by my school. Gazing down at her sprawled out in front of me, I felt physically sick. My knowledge of First Aid wasn’t just basic, it was non-existent – anything other than putting on a Band-Aid was beyond me. Thoughts of litigation, court cases for negligence and even prison flashed through my head, but only for a second.

A circle of students had quickly formed around me. There was an unspoken assumption that being an expert in the mysterious workings of English grammar would automatically mean that I was also an expert in First Aid – possibly even a part-time paramedic. The fact that I stood there clearly unsure of what to do seemed to send a signal for them to pool their medical advice en masse.

Taking a first-aid course can prepare teachers with the right knowledge in case injury happens

“Lift her legs up,” suggested someone helpfully.

“No, sit her on a chair with her head between her knees,” said somebody else.

“Hit her! Hit her!” Shouted Mario. (I think he meant, “Slap her! Slap her!” Possibly gleaned from black-and-white films where gentlemen still wore tuxedos and held doors open for ladies with impossibly high cheekbones.)

“Take off her clothes!” Screamed someone else trying to make himself heard over all the shouting and the deafening thump of Eurobeat – the DJ next door was blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding in my classroom.

It took me a while to figure out how removing Annisa’s clothes would have helped (more thoughts of litigation). I then realized he probably wanted to say “Loosen the top two buttons on her blouse!” But clearly this hadn’t been covered yet in these students’ beginner’s course book.

Luckily, my student had only fainted. It was the mix of energetic dancing, dehydration and stuffiness of the classroom — a converted Victorian house wasn’t really designed to ventilate 120 partying international students.

It was a sobering and pretty scary lesson, which prompted me to get more informed. In these situations, unless you happen to have a real doctor or nurse in your class, you’re automatically promoted to ‘responsible’ person — the alpha male or female the group looks to when something goes wrong.

Since that fainting incident, I’ve dealt with lots of minor injuries, cuts and grazes, bruises, bumps on heads, sprains, cramps, various broken bones, sunstroke, food poisoning, bee and wasp stings and even removed a sheep tick (a small blood-sucking arthropod which, despite its name, will also feed on unaware international students when hungry). Though the one to take the cake was the Italian student who had a swollen testicle (a rather disturbing image that’s still with me today), and I took him straight to hospital!

So for peace of mind, my first “top tip” is to do a first aid course.

If you’re in the US, the American Red Cross offers courses all over the country.

In the UK, check out the excellent St John’s Ambulance — I’ve done two workshops with them.

You never know, you might end up saving someone’s life!

2. Observe as many experienced teachers in the classroom as possible.

“So, John, what did you think of Jane’s lesson this morning?” asked my CELTA Trainer.

“Very interesting,” I replied, nodding sagely with my fingers crossed, desperately hoping he wasn’t going to quiz me too closely on what I’d seen. The truth was, while I was supposed to be observing Jane, I was busy making last-minute changes to my lesson plan and dreaming up an engaging way to introduce my own observed lesson later that day. This was a pattern that would repeat itself all the way through the early part of my CELTA course.

“Teaching isn’t a science,” said a former colleague of mine. “It’s all about human interaction.”

Newer, aspiring teachers can learn from more experienced teachers by observing the ways they teach English

Being so focused on my own lessons, though, I’d failed to realize how much could be learned from watching experienced teachers – or peer observation, as it’s called. It’s not only about watching what experienced teachers in the classroom do, but also how teachers interact with students outside the classroom, too.

These observations are especially useful if you haven’t had much experience with very young learners. Some of my most terrifying teaching experiences have been trying to control groups of overexcited 5-year-olds racing round the classroom high on sugar and preservatives. What do you do with kids whose knowledge of English consists of colors, numbers and a limited number of farm animals? Where the hell do you start? Watching another teacher will give you tons of ideas.

It’s also a great way of seeing different teaching styles and approaches as well as picking up new ideas. It’s easy to do what you’ve always done. As one EFL guru rightly points out, “There are two types of teachers with 20 years’ experience: Those with 20 years’ experience and those with one year’s experience repeated twenty times!” (Penny Ur)

3. Lay down the ground rules early.

“Remember to lay down the law when you get a new group” said Jonesy, a colleague of mine. “You’re there to teach them, not be their buddy.”

He’d been half-joking when he said this and I’d scoffed at his advice, thinking to myself that I didn’t want to be that teacher. But now, as I stood in front of my class from hell, I knew exactly what Jonesy had meant.

ESL teachers should lay out the necessary ground rules from the start of the class

I remember all too clearly my first day with them. I’d walked into the classroom and it was deathly quiet, which was memorable in itself as usually there’s an air of expectation and a bit of a buzz on the first day. Strangely, my getting-to-know-you activities fell flat, with the students going through the motions rather than throwing themselves into the activity or going that extra mile.

“Oh well, I’m sure the group will warm up when they get to know each other,” I thought to myself.

The next day was even worse. “Please don’t leave anything of value in the classroom, as a mobile phone has already gone missing,” I found myself announcing.

This wasn’t how I wanted to start the second day – plus I had the sneaking suspicion that the phone had been lost rather than stolen, but to admit that would probably have invalidated the owner’s insurance.

There was an immediate atmosphere of distrust. Racism and national stereotypes were starting to rear their ugly heads. Students were choosing to sit only with their compatriots, which didn’t exactly make for a United Nations feel. And to top it off, it had been a much wetter autumn than usual, with students arriving to class drenched. Sitting around in damp clothes, listening to me drone on about the difference between defining and non-defining relative clauses can’t have been much fun, but it was a 12-week exam course and I had a syllabus to follow.

By the second week, almost everybody had a cold. Then the “sniffing wars” started. I hadn’t realized how different cultures deal with the common cold. For the Japanese, blowing your nose in public is the height of bad manners (in fact the word for bogies is hanakuso, which loosely translates to “nose shit”), so they just sat and sniffed, which irritated the hell out of the northern Europeans. The Swiss and Germans spent their time trumpeting like baby elephants into paper hankies, which disgusted the Japanese beyond belief. I bleated on about how interesting it was to learn about different customs and etiquette, but it fell on deaf ears.

I’d like to say that I had a Dead-Poet’s-Society moment where I ripped up the course book and gave an inspiring life-changing talk, after which the students carried me around the school chanting my name. But, no. The course continued in the same depressing, unrelenting way — as did the rain.

After what seemed like a lifetime, the course finished and the students went back to their respective lives, without the slightest mention of an end-of-course party.

Crying into my drink that night in the pub, I recounted the story to Jonesy, who suggested that next time I set up a “class contract.” Here were his sage instructions, for those of you looking to create your own class contract:

1. Put the class into small groups and ask focused questions that will give you responses to craft the contract with. This will depend on the age and level of your class, but should start with something along the lines of “What does a productive classroom look like?”

2. Write on the board “As a class we should…” Then let students discuss their own ideas to finish the “rules.”

3. Go round the class monitoring and suggesting ideas: “We should respect the other members of the class, we should help each other, we should do our homework…”

4. Brainstorm all the students’ ideas and discuss them. Remember to add your thoughts, too — you’re also a member of the class!

5. Copy the notes from the board, type up the class contract, print it out and get everyone to sign it and put it on the wall. It could be handwritten, but typing it out gives it more weight, almost like an official document.

6. If there is any bad behavior, just point to the contract. You’ll find students tend to take more responsibility for their actions from then on. Especially since they wrote the rules themselves.

As you can see, my first year of teaching wasn’t plain sailing. It was more like sailing through a hurricane…blind-folded. But it doesn’t have to be that way for you. Learn from those you admire, the experienced teachers who get rave reviews from students and colleagues, and find out what you can learn from them.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years of teaching, it’s that a good teacher never stops learning.

Any more advice to add? Any questions? Leave a comment below! We love hearing from you!

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