“I’ll be teaching my first ESL class very soon, and I’m a bit nervous. I’ve completed my teacher training and certification, so I know technically ‘how to teach’. But I’m curious about the aspects of teaching you don’t learn about at school. What ‘words of wisdom’ would you share with a newbie teacher?” *
You might think this is an easy question to answer if you have 20+ years of experience teaching ESL, but how do you condense over 20 years of hits and misses, successes and failures into bite-sized pearls of wisdom? Let’s give it a try. The bits of advice I’ll share below are things I’ve touched upon in different articles over the years, all in one convenient list.
What Is the Best Advice You Can Offer to Newbie Teachers?
Know Your Students
You can plan your entire course with just your book and syllabus. But if you start teaching without knowing more about your students, you’ll probably be teaching to the wrong crowd. Before you shoot an arrow, you aim, assuming you want to hit your target. So how can you start planning, how can you start teaching, how can you aim a course when you don’t know where your target is? And if you think that knowing your students’ ages and proficiency level is enough, think again. There’s a lot more you need to know about your ESL students.
Know How to Ask Questions
Any ESL teacher can get his or her students to ask questions. Questions with ever, questions with did, questions with the present or past perfect. There’s a lot of focus on making students ask questions correctly. But a really good ESL teacher asks the right questions him or herself. And I’m not just talking about the questions you ask students to get to know them. You need to ask the right questions to get them to speak more, to elaborate on answers, to get them to think in English. (Tip: Always ask “why?” It will maximize student talking time, any time.)
Sadly, this is a mistake newbies and pros often make. It is really important to be consistent with your ESL class. If you set your own classroom rules, follow them. If you say you’ll be giving them homework every Friday, do it. If you say nobody is allowed to speak the native tongue in class, you’d better be the first to set the example. Consistency gives the class a structure, a backbone; it allows students to know what to expect from you and what you should expect from them. Without consistency, you’re leaving the door wide open to chaos and improvisation.
Know When to Speak…
…And know when to shut up. Way too many ESL teachers ramble on an on, and don’t give their students the chance to chime in. Others interrupt students because they’re too eager to correct. And yet others don’t give students the time they need to answer and complete their phrases. We make these mistakes, and it’s very hard sometimes (and it’s still hard for me because I can be a real chatterbox), but you need to curb your enthusiasm and focus on giving your students the chance to speak.
Connect with Other Teachers
Teaching might seem like a lonely endeavor in that the teacher is solely responsible for what goes on in the classroom. While this may be true, fellow ESL teachers may offer a wealth of resources, suggestions and success stories when you’re in a bind. They can also offer support and encouragement when you’re down. So, hang out with other teachers before, during and after school. Or join ESL teacher forums. It is important to understand, especially when you’re new to a teaching gig, that you’re not alone.
Plan and Prepare
ESL students come to class with specific goals in mind. And to help them achieve those goals, planning and preparation are key. Be sure to keep the learning goals in mind during the planning phase and design activities that will help your students reach those goals. On the other hand, you’ll need to prepare the materials (worksheets, flashcards, toys, games) that you’ll use in class. Needless to say, you can’t plan and prepare for a lesson the night before a class. You’ll need to work out a schedule that works for you, and stick to it, or planning chaos will ensue.
Set Goals from the Start
I’ve just mentioned that students come to class with a set of learning goals, most of which can be quite general: speak English better. One of the keys to success in the ESL classroom is setting specific goals, goals that students can keep track of, goals that can be ticked off a list. So if you have a class that wants to “speak English better”, help them come up with more specific goals like, “communicate better with my boss/girlfriend/pals abroad”.
This is one particular piece of advice I cannot stress enough. When you’re a newbie at anything, you don’t feel confident. Confidence comes with practice, right? Still, it’s not necessary for your students to know that you’re a nervous wreck because it’s your very first class. If you act confident, you will feel confident, and your new students will notice that, too. Remember you have received the training, you have a plan, you have tools and materials, and you’re prepared to use them. You have plenty to feel confident about.
From an old veteran to a total novice, this is my final piece of advice: read the tips listed above, but follow your own path.
You never know where it might lead. And before you know it, you’ll be the one passing on advice to a new colleague.
* This question was sent in from a real ESL teacher, just like you! If you need any advice on a particular topic, share your question in the comments below. Or tweet your question to @busyteacher_org with the hashtag #ESLTeachersAsk. Your question might get picked and featured in an article!