In my experience, the best language practice happens when students respect the learning process itself.
Having faith in the models and examples, the methods of practice, and the different exercises, produces useful attentiveness and enthusiasm, two key elements in the achieving of our learning aims. No matter which kind of skill is to be acquired, students must necessarily want to participate in the process. Gaining their trust and respect helps to create a truly successful learning environment and, though often difficult, doing so is easier than you might think.
How to Create Effective Learning Environment in Your Classroom
Be Prepared, and Be Obvious about It
No-one likes to have their time wasted. If the students see that you have a solid plan for the class – in a binder on your desk, or perhaps simply noted on the board – they will gain the sense of a journey which is taken together, from the introduction of the material, through checking and controlled practice, to free practice and fluency. This is only one of many reasons why you should plan every class you teach, even if this can be boiled down to a handful of sentence fragments in a notebook.
Preparation also helps give the class a flow, with one section leading logically into the next; this enhances the sense of a ‘journey’ and helps hold students’ attention. There is nothing worse, for a tiring student, than being made to feel as though the class has lost its moorings and is aimlessly drifting.
Another part of your pre-class checklist could be the gathering of all necessary resources. Consider pictures, objects, examples and quotations, web links, and of course your own plan, in a notebook or binder. Bring more than you might need; experience will guide you here.
Explain Your Aims
“Good morning, guys! It’s eight o’clock. By quarter past nine, you’ll be able to describe all kinds of tropical weather, and how it can cause natural disasters. Now, who can tell me the last time it rained in our city?” I began most of my classes with a quick description of what the students can expect to be able to do by its close, either spoken or written on the board. At the end, we check our progress against these aims; incomplete work is given as homework, or finished during the next class.
This clarity is mirrored in my classroom instructions. I have the habit of rehearsing these, so that I can find the most efficient method of communicating what I need. Imagine that you want the class to divide into four roughly equal groups, and then practice the language and gestures for doing so. Keep strong eye contact and be prepared to repeat yourself. Random milling about can badly slow the pace of the class, so be sure that everyone is moving in the right direction as quickly as possible.
If you found yourself learning about tropical weather in a second language, what issues might you encounter? Perhaps the difference between a hurricane and a typhoon, or why some storms have male names and some female. Exceptional language teaching goes far beyond meaning and pronunciation; anticipating your students’ questions gives you a special edge, and can make it appear (even when it might not be true!) that you’re very thoroughly versed in the topic. Have to hand an example of a major storm within your students’ lifetimes, or a few pictures to show how a hurricane works.
Be Firm but Fair
New teachers often over-react to disciplinary issues, believing that a stern, initial response will engender respect over the longer term. More experienced teachers know that it can be better to hold back until the measures will be most effective. A raised eyebrow – my favorite method for showing that I’m unimpressed – can be far more effective than a three-minute harangue. Move on from there to using some exasperated body language, as if you’re confused as to why some students would continue to chatter when the others are ready. Extra work, or requiring the student to sing, dance or otherwise slightly embarrass themselves, would come next, but the quickest way to lose respect, especially in Asia, is to shout. In all cases, I’m at pains to point out that I take no pleasure from punishing my students, and that dishing out extra homework or reporting someone to my superior is always done relucantly, as if I’m being made to do so, despite my own preference for harmony and co-operation.
Be Funny, but Not a Joke
The first time Luca forgot his homework, I let him know this wasn’t good, but gave him an extra day. The second time, I made a joke about how he’d forget his head if it wasn’t permanently attached, and gave him a 12-hour extension. The third time, my tone was a lot more serious; I told him my patience had run out, and gave him only two extra hours. When the homework failed to arrive, I gave him an F. The alternative would be to risk the students taking advantage of my generally relaxed and understanding nature. Luca knew where the boundaries were, as they were defined on each occasion. I didn’t let my joking response become an excuse to treat my deadlines with disrespect, and the other students, immediately aware that an F was on the cards, focused well and completed their work on time. Be funny, and make light of problems when and where you can, but know your own limits and gain a sense for when the students might be trying to take you for a ride.
Rule by Consent, Never by Force
Teaching is, in important ways, a form of government. We all need a little structure and discipline, but rather than a heavy-handed, dictatorial style, I’ve found a discursive, participatory democracy the most effective method of classroom governance. This works best with more mature students, but I think it has a place at every level. You could engage the students to find out how much other homework they have, and agree on a reasonable weekly or nightly workload for your own course. You could elicit areas of the language which particularly interest them, or the kinds of games they enjoy, working these into your course plan as a way to show your class that you’re listening, and that you regard them as unique individuals. Remember, the aim is for us to effectively practice language, not simply for the students to ‘do as the teacher says’. If you ever find yourself enjoying the power trip of bellowing at a class full of scared kids, consider switching to another profession, perhaps the armed forces.
We respect people who exhibit calm, well-organized competence.
Having a good plan, achievable and clearly-expressed aims, an even hand, and a sense of humor, will go a long way to helping create an enjoyable and effective partnership with your students.