So you got the job, the ESL teaching job you’ve wanted for so long! That’s the good news. The bad news is that class begins on Monday.
In addition, you aren’t really prepared, and the first weeks of a term are critical in setting the tone. The good news is, however, that you can easily get prepared keeping a few principles in mind.
What are the keys to a good start to your career as an ESL instructor? There is no real magic formula, but following are some principles to keep in mind.
Keys to Your First Weeks as an ESL Instructor
Get to know the staff. Identify key people.
These are the people to go to for assistance: the receptionist who takes your calls and knows where supplies like printer paper and white board markers are; the custodian, who has the key to everything, literally; your co-teachers who always are there with advice and assistance. Get to know these people quickly and offer your own assistance on their behalf to establish a good relationship. It takes a staff to teach a class, to paraphrase an old adage!
Identify important places and resources.
I once worked at a university for the better part of the year before learning the student union/cafe was right across from my office—in fairness, I was holed up in the office working on my dissertation much of the time. However, I would usually discourage this practice—it’s important to get out, talk to people, and learn the news of the organization, if for no other reason than students may be asking you for this information. You should know where the union, the library or learning resource center, the registrar, and the tutoring center are.
Get to know school culture.
Each workplace has its own norms, rules, and expectations, its “culture.” Spend some time learning that of your new school because understanding a workplace’s culture may be as important as possessing the requisite job skills. No two work cultures are alike: in some, for example, occasional tardiness is not a problem while in others it is severely frowned upon. Look around and ask yourself questions: How important is it to be on time? What do most people wear to work—jeans or suits? How long do people take for lunch, and do they eat here or go elsewhere? What is celebrated here and how? Are employee birthdays, for example, recognized? Is there an annual holiday party? Answering questions like this will help you understand the expectations for behavior at this school.
Get to know your students.
When school starts and students start attending classes, begin immediately memorizing their names. This can be more difficult than it sounds: many ESL students are in an intermediate stage of acculturation and have adopted “American” names but haven’t yet fully committed to them, so you have to remember both: that Mohammed’s Western name is “Sean,” although he often doesn’t respond to it but sometimes writes it on his papers. You should learn not only student names, however, but also something about each student as an individual—a career goal, a hobby, an interesting story. Knowing something about each student helps in getting to know him or her—and, incidentally, remembering those pesky names!
Establish a class routine.
As part of these critical first weeks, you should also establish a class routine, which helps a class run more smoothly. Establish procedures for entering late, for turning in late work, where papers and books are located, and what students should do with personal items such as electronic equipment during class. Also covered should be what is included in each class day: reading at the beginning, perhaps? Journal reflection at the end? Such procedures will help the class run smoothly because everyone knows what he or she should be doing. In addition, if you have students help you in establishing the routine, this gets them involved and more committed to making the class run well.
Offer Your Help; Establish a “Niche”
Again, while certainly veteran teachers will come forward to help you—that is what teachers do—you should offer help in return. You may think that, as a rookie teacher, you have little to offer, but everyone has something to offer, even if it’s general availability—as I did as a new teacher at an ESL adult program, where I quickly gained a reputation for willingness to teach almost anything, anytime—I would substitute almost any class with little notice. Indeed, one evening the vice principal glanced at me and said, “Weren’t you wearing that same dress yesterday?” I replied, “No, not yesterday--this morning; it’s the same day,” and exchange which shows the kind of hours we were both keeping. However, I did quickly gain a reputation as a flexible and hard worker, while also developing the experience I lacked. I was, of course, at this time young and childless; those hours are not possible for everyone. However, other new teachers can establish their “name” in other areas; one of the students in my graduate courses, for example, as a new teacher “leaked” his computer expertise when helping a colleague fix her computer. After that “secret” was out, he was in constant demand around campus helping teachers and staff with their temperamental technology—so much so that it began to interfere with his teaching duties. However, this also, in a difficult economy, provided some buffer for him—what employer wants to let go of an employee like that?
Relax. Have fun!
The hard part is over now! You understand the school culture; you know your students, and the students know you and understand the class routines. And you have your niche! You can relax now—until midterm, that is!
Starting a new job is never easy, perhaps even less so with teaching jobs.
But by identifying key people and resources, and setting up your own class procedures, you’ll be part of the school culture in no time!