There’s always a bit of euphoria for me at the beginning of the school year in late August—a fresh start, new students, a chance to try out new routines. This truly is the New Year to me, not that thing on January 1.
However, the excitement I feel at the beginning of each new year pales next to what a new teacher feels at getting her first class. All of the classroom management, the curriculum and instruction, the day-to-day lessons and decision making—are hers and hers alone.
This initial excitement might be followed quickly by panic. Oh, no. It is all hers, alone—with an emphasis on alone. Teachers are in fact isolated much of the time—the only adult or professional in a class that may well be isolated from other classes, especially if it’s an ESL class, which traditionally have not been seen as part of the school community. One of my first ESL classes was in an outreach program of an adult school that met in the community room of an apartment building in a Vietnamese neighborhood. So in fact the class was a marginalized program of a larger marginalized program. It is in these situations that ESL teachers often work.
So given these circumstances and the bare room you’ve probably just been given, with a class that starts on Monday and this is Thursday afternoon, what are some ways to begin to set up your room?
HOWTO: Planning and Setting Up Your First Class
You Aren’t Really All Alone. Reach out
Many of us deal with stress by turning inward and pretending everything is fine, all fine. This is a bad time to do that. Most of us have an existing network we can turn to—family, friends, and former classmates, for example—who probably are very willing to help or donate materials for class. My friend, for example, in setting up her bare classroom, turned to her mother, herself a teacher, for a set of encyclopedias and her tech-savvy brother for some old computers.
Research. Find out About the Student Population
Knowing your students is key to serving them well. So even before the class meets, have a chat with the principal or program leader and find out about the students’ average age, where most students are from, and what their prior education is. With my first class, for example, knowing most of my students were Vietnamese immigrants, young parents, with little prior education told me that we should focus on literacy and vocational English.
Network. Beg, Borrow, Steal
We have a sense that teachers are held in low esteem in our culture, and that may be true, compared to doctors or lawyers, for example. But I continue to be amazed at how people will bend over backwards if I knock on their door and say, “Hi, I’m Stacia, and I’m the teacher for the ESL class that starts on Monday.” I’ve been offered extra chairs, free reign of the copy machine and coffeemaker, extra keys, a boom box…all right, so there probably is a pity factor involved, I suspect, and that’s all right. (That poor woman in there with all those ESL students…) This is mutual to a degree--I certainly feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t teach ESL. In any case, I’ve yet to have anyone turn his back on me over students. People like helping, but usually don’t know how. They are more than willing to help, usually, if asked directly: “My class starts on Monday, and I believe there will be fifty students, but we have only twenty chairs. Any ideas about what we can do?”
Further Research the Students
Once you’ve had them in class for the day, you’ll be able to find out more on your students. You might want to devote the first day to just getting to know each other: what do students want to learn? How much do they already know? To teach effectively, curriculum really needs to be based on the answers to these two questions. If I find out, for example, that my students already have basic conversational skills, I don’t want to focus on very beginner English but look at materials more in the high beginner range.
A good use of time the first day is to get a needs assessment from all of the students, either through a simple survey or interview, with questions like “What are your goals?” or “What do you want to learn from this class?” or “Do you want to work on conversational skills the most or academic skills?” You will probably see trends in the information you gather, as students with similar goals will often attend the same class.
The same can be said of students’ level—you will probably find students grouping around the same level, often high beginning, when they attend the same class, even if the class is officially “multilevel.” However, giving students a diagnostic of some sort helps in giving a general sense of students existing level although it may take a couple of weeks of working with an individual student to get a completely accurate picture of his skills. A diagnostic I like to give is having students listen to a short news report and then writing a paragraph paraphrasing the report. This gives you a beginning picture of students’ writing and listening skills.
Plan the Curriculum
Now that you have the basic infrastructure of your class laid, at least some tables and chairs, and you know what your students want to learn and a little bit about what they already have learned, it’s time to think about curriculum. Don’t reinvent the wheel here. It may be you are able to write materials on a regular basis, but it is fine to also rely on existing curriculum. Find out what existing standards there are for students at your level.
Expand Your Existing Network
Become familiar with the school library: there usually is a room, or a shelf, at least, of ESL materials—books, CDs, DVDs, tapes—that you can check out. Now that you know your students’ level, introduce yourself to the curriculum specialist and see what suggestions she has for your students. Or visit a couple of ESL sites, such as Longman’s or Oxford’s, find out who your local sales representative is, if possible, and ask her what she recommends.
It’s now the first week of school, and you were assigned just last week. However, you have set up your class, gotten to know your students, and chosen curriculum. You’re on your way to a great semester!