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

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

(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.

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.

New teachers can use well-prepared notes to ensure their classes run smoothly

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?”

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.

Being nervous in your first class is a common challenge for new English teachers

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.”

There is always room for improvements in the classroom, new teachers will get better they have more experience
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!

A teacher's first-ever English class will always be memorable
John Harrop (front and center in striped shirt) with his first-ever English class. Can you guess the year by the hair?

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