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  Home > TEFL Clinic > Teaching Advice

Tips for Teachers

Not for Newly Qualified Teachers Only

Perhaps the best way to welcome new teachers to Language Link is by offering them some practical advice concerning the actual teaching of English to Russians. Presented in 'tip' form, it has been divided into two sections. The first section, referred to as 'Tips for New Teachers to Russia' and as its title would imply, is not just for newly qualified teachers to Russia. Anyone thinking about teaching English would do well to read over these words and heed the advice given.

The second section is, however, meant as practical advice for newly qualified teachers. All too often, newly qualified teachers start out their TEFL career on the wrong foot. They believe, and erroneously so, that being 'new' can serve as an excuse for bad teaching. This simply is not true. Being a newly qualified teacher can serve as an excuse for lack of experience, but never for 'bad teaching'.

There is an old saying, 'Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment'. I, for one, believe that this is so. Therefore, no one expects TEFL teachers to be perfect, that is, no one except students. So in an effort to help teachers avoid the pitfalls of their profession, the following 'tips' have been amassed. And though many of them may appear self-evident, you'd be surprised how many experienced and first-time teachers fall victim to such 'self-evidency'.

A. Tips for New Teachers to Russia

Tip . 1 Honesty is not always the best policy

This tip has been placed first and with good reason. Therefore, its importance should not in any way be underestimated. Believe me when I say, "Honesty is not always the best policy." This should not, however, be interpreted as saying, "Lying is OK." To begin with, there is a certain psychological expression referred to as 'disarming yourself'. The implication of this expression is that you are giving up something that can or may be used against you at some future time. With regard to TEFL, a new teacher should consider two issues that are likely to crop up during their first term of teaching. These are 'training' and 'experience'.

It is important that you realize in Russia, English teachers have spent 5 years at university in order to become English teachers, whereas the average EFL teacher is just fresh off a 4-week course. Understanding this, there are a number of implications.

  1. Foremost amongst them is the almost ubiquitous belief that you have spent a similar amount of time preparing for your EFL qualification. Thus, you represent 'the ideal' English language teacher. Not only are you a specialist with regard to the English language understanding the finer points of phonetics, vocabulary, morphology, grammar and discourse, but also being a native speaker, you are capable of providing an element of cultural appropriacy to a lesson. In other words, you are better able to teach pronunciation (sounds, stress and intonation); register (formal and informal speech); phrasal verbs and idioms; etc.
  2. It is likewise believed that you are also an expert on modern TEFL methodology. Thus, you know better how to teach all the above using games, music, role-play, drama, pair and group work, projects or any one of a number of other new techniques.

Understanding this, it should be easy for you to imagine how your students will feel when, or should I say if, you reveal the exact nature of your training or lack of it. Your students pay money to attend your lessons. Therefore, they expect perfection. They want to leave your class saying, "Now that's an English teacher!" Likewise, I guarantee that you do not want your students saying that their former Russian, English teacher was a better teacher. So how do you avoid all this without lying?

Tip . 2. Be all that you are

First of all, you are a specialist with regard to the English language. You just don't know it. Your major advantage is that you are a native English speaker; therefore your ability to correctly pronounce words, phrases and sentences goes without saying. Unfortunately, most new teachers do not spend enough time doing pronunciation work. This point will be made over and over again. Likewise, doing pronunciation work implies error correction, which again most new teachers do not do enough of. Of course, don't get involved in overkill. Though your students will have tons of confidence in your ability to teach English, they will have absolutely none with regard to their own ability to learn it. Therefore a tablespoon of pronunciation work and a teaspoon of error correction will go a long way.

Tip . 3. Pull over, buddy, where's the fire?

Third, speak plainly and s l o w l y. I have never subscribed to the belief that students should be forced from the very start of a course to understand the teacher's own dialect, speech patterns, rhythm and pace. The truth is that new teachers are rarely successful at grading their own language to a level appropriate to that of the class that they are teaching. This is especially true at the lower levels. The ability to grade language appropriately is a skill acquired with experience. Additionally, the new TEFL teacher should be aware that most of their students will have previously studied English. If, during the lesson, you fail to speak plainly or you speak too quickly, your students will have the impression of having been better able to understand their former Russian, English teacher. This, by the way, is not entirely untrue, as their former teacher will undoubtedly have spent the majority of his or her time speaking in Russian.

Tip . 4. Speaking of speaking . . .

Fourth, avoid the trap of speaking only to and for those students who are capable of understanding you. All too often, new teachers ignore the less capable students, finding a false sense of security among the better students. I say 'false' because the less capable students will eventually leave class either complaining bitterly with regard to this or professing their own ignorance and inability to learn English. Either way, you've failed your students, and deep down, you'll know it.

Encourage your students to speak by planning student-centred classes. This may sound obvious, however, the honest truth is that most new TEFL teachers feel obligated to speak and speak and speak, thus leaving their students to listen, and listen and listen. Too much TTT (Teacher Talking Time) has provided far too many new TEFL teachers with the proverbial shovel with which they have dug their own graves. The simple fact is no student has ever learned to speak English by listening to it, though Russian English teaching methodology professes this to be an undeniable truth. Believe me when I say, "It isn't."

Tip . 5. How very interesting . . .

Fifth, take a professional interest in your students. Know more about them that just their names. As a group, what kinds of problems are they likely to experience in class? For instance, being Russians they do not use articles, the verb 'to be' or the present perfect in their own everyday speech. Discover other differences that exist between Russian and English and then use this knowledge when preparing your lessons (see The Trials and Tribulations of Teaching Russians English). Similarly, know what kinds of jobs they do or what they are studying at university and what they like/ dislike doing inside/ outside of class. Once this is known, you will be able to build some of your lessons around their likes (i.e., their interests and not just your own) incorporating the kinds of classroom activities which they find stimulating, challenging and/ or fun (i.e., songs, games, role-plays, etc.).

Likewise, take an interest in and responsibility for all your students. Having favourites is both natural and normal. You must, however, avoid showing this in class, or at least too overtly. Therefore, find reason to praise all students.

Finally, try to understand why your students are learning English. Understanding this will better able you to keep your students coming to class. Likewise, it will help you to develop the necessary intrinsic motivation, especially needed in classes composed of individuals who do not necessarily want to be there, such as very young or adolescent learners. Remember, children anywhere between the ages of 5 and 15 may only be coming to class because their parents want them to. Therefore, avoid complicating a lack of extrinsic motivation with lackluster teaching. This is failure for the taking. Likewise, keep parents informed. Don't be afraid to schedule appointments with parents or to have an open house. It's better for you to find fault, bringing it to someone else's attention first than for parents to do so. Believe me when I say, parents can be both supportive and understanding given half a chance.

Tip . 6. YEECH!!! . . . is more than just onomatopoeia

Sixth, be your own worse critic. There is no room for complacency in teaching. Self-evaluate every lesson, asking yourself, how it could have been better. Likewise, don't be afraid to ask your peers to sit in on your lessons asking them for both constructive criticism and advice. You are, after all, a new teacher, and though you should try and avoid showing this in front of your students, your fellow teachers already know the truth and out of professional courtesy should be willing to help you, if requested.

Tip . 7. Take responsibility for your teaching

Along this line of thinking, avoid making excuses for your failures. Admit the truth, try to discover the reason for failure then improve your style, technique and/ or method. If this all seems too rigorous an undertaking for you, then it helps to remember, that each and every day that you enter the classroom, your students are evaluating your performance. Sooner or later, the truth will be revealed, if your teaching is good, fine; if not, don't wait for cold reality to come knocking at your door.

Tip . 8. File it under 'J' for Jesus

Eighth, never tell students your problems. This is true for many reasons. First and foremost, it's not professional. Regardless of what you may believe, your students are not your friends. Though they may like you, they are not interested in hearing about the difficulties that you are experiencing in either your personal or professional life, at least not during class time. Second, they pay money to learn English. Therefore, they have a right to expect 'quality time' while in the classroom. Third and of no less importance, you wouldn't like it if, each time you came to class, your students started discussing something entirely unrelated to English. Therefore, to sum up, if you have a problem, tell it to your colleagues, your DOS, your Administrative Director or even to God but never to your students.

Tip . 9. A butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker

And finally, ninth, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER reveal to students what you did prior to becoming a teacher, unless of course, you were a teacher. This is Russia, and though things are changing rapidly in the former Soviet Union, education is still a conservative issue. That being the case, Russians are use to their teachers having always been teachers. They can accept the idea of inexperienced teachers, but former cab drivers, artist, computer programmers, construction workers and the like turned teacher are beyond their ability to comprehend and for many to accept. Once again, I strongly suggest that you avoid lying, as any claim to career teaching will have to be backed up by the highest quality teaching. Therefore, I strongly suggest that you avoid the issue. They'll just assume 'a best case scenario'.

B. Tips for newly qualified English Teachers

Having come straight off a TEFL course, you may still be under the false impression that you've paid several hundred pounds for nothing … nothing that is except 30 days of stress, a lot of unwanted criticism, two eyes that a zombie would have given his or her eyeteeth to possess and a hamper full of laundry which only the absence of a 'ten foot pole' prevents you from washing. Likewise, you are probably also struggling with the fact that you still don't know 1) the difference between a 'method', an 'approach', a'strategy' and a 'technique'; 2) the meaning of the word 'eclectic' or how it applies to TEFL methodology; 3) the difference between a gerund and an infinitive; and if this weren't enough, 4) the whereabouts of all that self-confidence which you were promised.

Fight Disillusionment: If, indeed, the former section accurately describes your feelings, don't get disheartened; it's par for the course. The difficulty, however, is fighting the disillusionment that this kind of thinking can engender. First of all, fight the idea of giving up and leaving. If you do, I can guarantee that eventually you'll regret it and feel worse. Besides, it's not necessary. We were all new at one time or another, and every one of us knows these feelings all too well. The difference is that we've already made it over the hump, and you will too.

Take time to empathize . . . with yourself: Though teaching English as a foreign language may be a new experience for you, it's basically no different from any other new experience that you've ever had to embark upon. Therefore, prior to starting your very first lesson as a new EFL teacher, take a moment to think back to a time when you first undertook a new activity. Did you succeed the first time? Probably not, but if so, are you sure it just wasn't a case of beginner's luck (if it was, then think of beginner's luck like lightning- it rarely strikes twice in the same place)? Instead, think of a time when your palms were sweaty, your heart was pounding, your stomach was full of butterflies and the heel of your right foot was tapping a mile a minute. If, indeed, such a moment has ever occurred in your lifetime, then I can guarantee you that teaching English for the first time will not be another one of these experiences. This does not mean, however, that you shouldn't worry. In fact, you should worry, but not to the point of becoming ill, only enough to make you want to do the best possible job of teaching English.

Get started by rethinking your TEFL course: Obviously, the best way to get started is by 1) remembering the basics, (this is what you really paid several hundred pounds for) and 2) forgetting the unnecessary (this is what gave you those red eyes). Should the difference between the two not be apparent, I qualify as the latter, and at the grave risk of being ostracized by the TEFL community, the following: the foreign language study and journal, the student profile, the study of phonetics (though admittedly with some hesitation on my part), game development (or at least the one for which you received a separate grade), your presentation on 'new' methodologies and finally the linguistics paper (though rumor has it that this has already gone the way of the dinosaur).

As long as I've set out on this hazardous course, I might as well continue and 'insert my foot' even further by stating what I believe to be lacking in most TEFL courses on the market today (in other words, what most first-time teachers are ill-equipped to handle). To begin with, most training schools don't spend enough time or in many cases any time on the following: teaching mixed ability classes; teaching children; teaching without the 'essentials' like blackboards or books; teaching without the luxuries like photocopiers, OHP's, resource libraries and the like and finally-- teaching (only because so much time is spent on the unnecessary).

Likewise, because most training schools are so well equipped, they give teacher trainees the false impression that all English schools are similarly equipped. This simply is not true. Teaching English as a foreign language is neither an idyllic experience nor a Utopian endeavour. It is, and make no mistake about it, hard work, and though it can be good and enjoyable work, it is nonetheless hard work, especially if you're trying to do it right.

Second, it's not the best-paid job around considering the amount of work you should be putting into your lessons. In fact, the pay can seem downright disappointing. To give credit where credit is due, I do not believe that training schools give EFL teachers any illusions to the contrary. Unfortunately, though this fact was probably repeated numerous times, psychologically you tended to believe that after so much hard work and energy expenditure, dozens of well-paid job offers would be, without doubt, queuing up outside your very doors awaiting completion of your TEFL course. All you would have to do would be to sit back and wait until opportunity knocked. Unfortunately if you're reading this, that knock never came. The sad truth is that the better paying the school, the more they demand by way of education, training and experience. This should be obvious by now. This should not, however, be interpreted as meaning "good schools pay better." Most language schools pay scale in accordance with local living and operating costs.

So now that I've opened your eyes a little, don't be disheartened. As most experienced teachers will tell you, it can be a great way to see the world as it really is: a not-so-harmonious blend of vastly different and unusual cultures teeming with exciting and unusual people just seething about waiting for that one special person to come by and give them something which, though often paid for, cannot actually be bought-- the chance to learn English with a native speaker-- YOU. For many, at least for a while, you may become the single most important person in their lives, a responsibility that you should never underestimate. And, if the weight of this weren't enough, you also stand before them, not just as an individual, but also as your country's ambassador and cultural representative. And you thought TEFL was just about teaching English.

In any event, when all's been said and done, nobody likes to be 'the new kid on the block,' but like it or not, it's happened to all of us. So as to help you avoid some of the trial by fire which accompanies such an 'honour', the following tips are proffered for your consideration.

You don't have to have a memory like an elephant - Just remember the basics and forget the rest

This short section has been written with an eye to giving the newly qualified EFL teacher a little pre-hands-on classroom savvy. So useful is it (oh yes), it might very well have been entitled "The Ten TEFL Commandments" rather than "Tips," and though Moses may not have come down from the mountain with them, they bear reading.

Tip . 1. Remember the Six Ps

In order to do the best possible job, start by planning your lessons. No, not a half-hearted attempt to sketch out the "sort of" performance that you would like to try and emulate, but rather that gutsy, down to earth, meat and potatoes performance which would have brought tears to the eyes of your TEFL trainer. Try and remember something which I like to call the six Ps, that is "prior planning prevents piss-poor performance," and if all this seems a little "Wow, he really put in on the line," then remember, when all's been said and done, it's not me up there in front of the class, it's you. All I'm trying to do is make your stage debut a little less memorable.

Tip . 2. Spend Extra Time Preparing for Your Lessons

Now that you've prepared your lesson, prepare some more. Perhaps the greatest downfall of many new teachers is lack of adequate preparation. Finding yourself 15 minutes before the scheduled end of class without the faintest clue as to what to do next can only be surpassed in embarrassment by the accidental passing of wind. Though the latter problem is beyond the scope of this guide, the new TEFL teacher will find that "overkill" on the lesson plan initially makes more sense than to try and exactly time the lesson. To do this, follow your sequencing, but add optional "bits and pieces" here and there for use if needed.

Don't forget, bring a watch to class and place it near your lesson plan (assuming no wall clock is within eyesight). If the lesson is moving along too quickly, then 1) add 'bits and pieces,' 2) do some extra pronunciation work with the class (usually they can profit from this anyway) and/ or 3) throw in a warmer exercise (see Compendium of Warmers and Fillers). Eventually you'll get the hang of timing your lessons fairly well.

Remember however that even experienced teachers keep an additional game or activity up their sleeves for that "every now and then day" that comes along when either the lesson is bombing and radical change is necessary or the lesson is going too well and an early finish looms on the horizon.

Take heed of the Boy Scout motto, "Always be prepared".

Tip . 3. All the World May be a Stage, But You're Not the Only Actor

Planning your performance and knowing your lines is all well and good, however remember that the best TEFL actors and actresses have all allowed their classes to upstage them. In other words, let your students be the centre of attention. It's imperative that you know when to act and when to direct, and if you need to 'act', make it a cameo performance.

Tip . 4. To Thine Own Self Be True, or the Best Teachers are Always in Control

This is perhaps one of the more important TEFL commandments, as students learn best in classrooms that are well managed. This refers to the teacher's ability to manage not just behaviour but time and space as well. First-time teachers usually make the mistake of wanting to be liked so much they forget about respect. Most likely this is due to inexperience. So as to help the first time teacher avoid the problems that always accompany a class out of control, the following advice is offered. First, take charge of your class on the very first day. In other words, start out the way you intend to carry on.

Second, every teacher should have some idea about how they would like their class to behave. Questions such as "to what extent will I allow my class to speak in Russian"?; "Will I allow my class to yell out answers or will they have to raise their hands"?; "Will students, especially younger ones, be allowed to get up and leave the class without asking permission?" must be asked and answered. In other words, you need to set the ground rules from the start and enforce them. Remember, you can be authoritative and human without being authoritarian and demanding complete obedience. Believe me, good behaviour management will give you the respect you'll need in order to maximize classroom learning. Though no mention has been made of maximizing space and time, it is of equal importance, and has more to do with the planning, timing and staging of lessons than it does actual classroom conduct, except where a certain type of behaviour is sought after in order to complete a particular activity.

Tip . 5. Classroom Games and Activities Should Centre Around Learning

Rule . 1 of using communicative games and activities in the classroom is that they should enhance the learning of English. This, however, should not be taken to mean that they exist solely as a means of demonstrating key points of English (e.g., emphasizing a grammatical structure). Indeed, certain games such as warmers may serve only to stimulate tired students unable to go on without "getting their blood going" first. The point is, you should always know why the class is going to perform a particular activity. If its purpose is to re-stimulate, fine, and if not, what do you hope to accomplish in the time during which the game will be played?

Rule . 2, make your directions clear and comprehensible, speaking slowly and grading your language appropriately. When necessary (and usually this means all the time) repeat the directions. Once you've done this, check for understanding. Never ask "Does everyone understand these directions?" but rather "Who doesn't understand these directions?" And even if nobody raises their hand, ask someone to repeat them anyway. I guarantee someone doesn't understand them. Teachers usually know who the weaker students are. Therefore you already know who probably doesn't understand. If necessary, assist them at the start of the activity until they catch on.

Rule . 3, monitor the activity closely assisting or making notes as needed. Don't be afraid to intervene if the students are off track. Remember, results count. If the students show signs of not understanding, reiterate the game rules. If the students continue to have difficulty or show signs of intense boredom or frustration, then consider scrapping the game. If you do this, be sure to process the lack of results with the class, trying to understand why the game went wrong. Likewise, if the game went as planned, then once again process the results. The class has got to leave a game understanding why it was played, and what was accomplished or learnt.

Rule . 4, communicative games and activities should be time limited; that is, they should not be allowed to go beyond their allotted time unless true learning is occurring and looks likely to continue to do so. In which case, a few extra minutes should be allotted. Regardless, students should be aware of the time they have to complete the task and how much time remains.

Rule . 5, recycle good games and activities. This is true for two reasons. First, the class enjoyed them and will look forward to playing them again with enthusiasm. Second, the class will already be familiar with the rules and so will only need a brief reminder as to how to play the game. This will save you time which can be devoted to the actual playing of the game.

Tip . 6. Make Your Presentations Professional

Though real professionalism should start prior to entering the classroom, you're only really marked on classroom performance. In other words, results count more than effort in the eyes of your students. They've paid their student fees, so it's only natural that they evaluate what they've paid their money for, and for better or worse, that means YOU. In TEFL, there can be no acceptable excuse for lack of professional conduct on behalf of the teacher. This does not mean that inexperience is inexcusable. Language schools that hire inexperienced teachers cannot and should not expect the impossible. They do however have the right to expect their teachers to come to class adequately prepared to teach, and teaching is all about getting the students to speak English. Where students are able to speak some English, this should start immediately through the use of content questioning, elicitation, and/ or repetition. In other words, let the students understand right from the start that they are there to learn English and that they should spend an equal, if not greater, amount of time evaluating their own performance. This is best accomplished when students have confidence in their teacher and his or her ability to teach English in a professional manner.

Tip . 7. The Book is Never Enough

Before making a presentation, give additional thought as to how to more fully exploit the material. Questions such as "Is there an interesting aside I can make?;" "Would this be a good time to give the class some additional facts concerning the subject?;" "Should I increase the challenge by adding some additional vocabulary, mentioning a phrasal verb or idiom or pointing out the difference between American and British English?" should all be asked and answered while planning the lesson. Never assume that your students only want the minimum and will be satisfied with that. Remember, your students have paid for more than just English; they've also paid for the privilege of learning English with a native speaker. Therefore they want to pick your brains. Unfortunately, they don't know what to pick, but you do. Keep in mind the following rule of thumb, "The book is never enough." The best EFL teachers give something more than just what's written in the book. Look to discover what's missing from the course book, ways the classroom could be improved and/ or any other opportunity to increase learning in the classroom.

Tip . 8. Dress Smart for the First Week

This will help you feel more comfortable standing in front of a classroom of eager students. Remember, you will not only look more professional, you will actually feel more professional too. As time goes by you will no doubt want to 'dress down' a little, but unless you are extremely confident in your teaching ability from the very start, it pays to at least look the part.

Tip . 9. Act Assured on the First Day

You are probably nervous. This is only natural, but always remember, your students want to like you. Likewise, they want to feel confident that they are going to learn English, a feat that has eluded them so often in the past. Therefore, job 1 is to set out immediately creating an ambiance for learning. This has more to do with rapport than it does actual teaching, and as most experienced teachers will tell you, teaching is 60% rapport, so the quicker you develop this, the better. So don't hesitate, jump right in and at least act like you know what you're doing. You'll get the hang of it in no time.

Tip . 10. Problems with Grammar, Overcoming Your Handicap

If you're having problems with grammar, which is perfectly natural for a while, develop a few answers that will allow you to escape from questions the answers to which you don't know. You will need to say confidently

"That's not important now." (You are the teacher after all)
"We're doing that tomorrow." (This gives you 24 hours breathing space)
"Who's the teacher, you or me?" (Turns a problem into a joke)
" just because!" (Said with a laugh, not a frown)

Remember, however, these are survival strategies and not meant for long-term use. Eventually, you're going to have to pull up your bootstraps and get your 'act together'. You are, after all, an English teacher, and it's your job to know grammar, not to mention, any one of a dozen related subjects. There is no long-term substitute for adequate preparation and this means being thoroughly familiar with and 'expert in' the grammar being presented. Above all else, remember, sometimes the real answer to a grammar question is valid and there is a legitimate need to know, while at other times the real answer is 'just because!'. Try and learn the difference.

Special Bonus Tip . 11. Discover Trade Secrets.

And finally, the easiest and surest way to discover secrets of the TEFL trade is . . . to ask questions of experienced TEFL teachers.

After all, they were first-time teachers once themselves.

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