Primal Fears: Preparing Your Trainee Teachers for Their First Class

Primal Fears
Preparing Your Trainee Teachers for Their First Class

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 4,898 views |

First times are scary.

Anyone who has ever stood in front of a group of students has experienced doubts about their ability, worries that they’re insufficiently prepared, or fears that they won’t get along with the group. It’s like giving a big corporate presentation, only this kind of presentation lasts for an entire career; even when you’ve finished explaining the content, you’re still there, monitoring practice, dealing with problems, asking check questions and following up to make sure the material is really being learned. It’s a profession which, like few others, places demands on our confidence, and challenges our views of ourselves.

The initial steps, when teachers might deliver a practice lesson at the end of their training, or begin working in a school for the first time, are critical for building confidence.

The initial steps, when teachers might deliver a practice lesson at the end of their training, or begin working in a school for the first time, are critical for building confidence. And I believe that this confidence isn’t just ‘nice to have’; it’s an essential tool that new teachers will need in their professional lives, and as trainers, we can help them shrug off their fears and get off to the best possible start.

5 Ideas to Prepare Your Trainee Teachers for Their First Class

  1. 1

    Prepare Like Crazy

    Experienced teachers can dash off a good lesson plan in a few moments, perhaps on their way to school on the bus or while watching TV the night before class. For a new teacher, building the kind of lesson plan which will be most helpful – one which is detailed, comprehensive and caters for all the ‘what-ifs’ – can take several hours. Assure your students that this is time well spent, and that it will get much easier, and faster, with practice. Eventually, they’ll have a personal library consisting of several big folders of past lesson plans to refer to, and each time will be a subtle improvement over previous versions.

    1. Include everything. Glancing at a recent lesson plan of mine, I notice that an entire section of practice is summed up with a scribbled piece of code:

      PW (10-15) +M, FB

      This is my short-hand for PairWork, which will last 10-15 minutes, during which I’ll Monitor the practice, and then I’ll ask for FeedBack. I can boil this section down to an acronymized code, because I’ve organized pairwork practice many hundreds of times. But that wasn’t always so. Here’s how the same type of section appeared in a plan, back in 1999, when I’d just finished my CELTA certificate:

      Practice: Gesture to indicate pairwork (joining fingers); confirm pairings (you two, and you two); nominate student A & student B, then check (I’m A, I’m B); A asks question (How many…) and B answers (I have two brothers / one dog…).

      Monitor and Check. Listen for pronunciation (have, not ‘haf’; no throaty sound for ‘h’). Gesture for reversing A & B student so everyone both asks and answers.

      Feedback – T asks questions, select random student to answer. Praise – thumbs up.

      What took ten minutes of careful thought, back in 1999, now takes no time at all. But new teachers absolutely need this level of detail, and the time it takes to write it all down will pay off handsomely in the classroom. They won’t skip a step by accident, all of their good ideas about gestures and classroom management will become reality, and the learning process will be thorough and complete.

    2. Articulate Clear Aims. This answers the question: ‘Why are we here?’ I believe that every class should have a point, even if it’s just general fluency practice, and that new teachers should make a habit of comparing the outcomes of the class to their original intentions. A reasonable number of aims for a 40-60 minute class would be between three and five. Here’s a set from an intermediate class of mine a few weeks ago:
      1. Review color vocab[ulary]
      2. Present comparative structure: ‘___er than…’
      3. Practice comparatives
      4. Pron[unciation] – check ‘th’ and practice 33,333 TT [tongue-twister]
      As you can see, for very experienced teachers, the list of aims almost becomes a lesson plan in itself, but this kind of quick, short-hand preparation takes months and years to develop. Until that point, we have to take the long way.

    3. Use Some Imagination. Until the lesson plan meets its class, it remains a set of intentions whose success can’t be judged. I have my trainees close their eyes and imagine their students at their desks, imagine how the room will look, and picture just how the whole scene will fit together. Where will the teacher stand? How will they use their hands and facial expression to complement what they’re saying? What will the board look like, at different stages of the class? How might the students respond to certain questions?

      I have my trainees close their eyes and imagine their students at their desks, imagine how the room will look, and picture just how the whole scene will fit together.

      Visualizations like this can really help dissolve away some anxiety, because in a small way, the teacher has already been there and done it.

    4. Craft and re-craft excellent examples. This couldn’t be more important. Especially when working with lower-level language learners, one of the worst things you can do is stand there and give a lengthy, wordy explanation of a grammar point or new word. Challenge your students to continuously boil down their explanations into as few words as is reasonable, and to use only the words their students already know, or can easily guess through inference and context.

      Then have them provide lots of examples which will quickly lead to asking, rather than telling. This could be as simple as:

      What’s green? A tree is green, and so is grass [points out of the window, or to a picture]. Jorge’s bag is green [points to the bag]. What else is green in the classroom? [open, questioning gesture]

      Or it could be more complex:

      I’ve already had breakfast today [thumb over the shoulder for the ‘past’ gesture]. The nineteen sixties have already happened. The Olympic Games have already finished, and so has the World Cup. What has already happened for you, today? [open, questioning gesture].

      Working carefully on your examples dramatically accelerates the learning process, because the students can see and hear the language in the right context straight away. Crafting good examples is a real skill, and one your trainees should practice from the outset, and continuously.
  2. 2

    Rehearse Like a Professional

    Think about it. Neil Armstrong nailed the Apollo 11 moon landing, in difficult circumstances and while running out of fuel, because he’d practiced those very skills thousands of times. Placido Domingo can sing entire operas from memory, because he’s practiced the heck out of them. The more we practice, the better we perform, it’s as simple as that.

    Student teachers who rehearse – in front of a mirror, or their friends or colleagues, or through watching a video of themselves – end up reducing their Teacher Talking Time (TTT)

    Student teachers who rehearse – in front of a mirror, or their friends or colleagues, or through watching a video of themselves – end up reducing their Teacher Talking Time (TTT), tend to explain the content more concisely and with better examples, and use clearer language for classroom instructions. They can also roughly judge their use of time, and adjust their plan accordingly. And this doesn’t just apply to the Presentation section of the class; have them practice their check questions, so that they ask just the right type to elicit the target language. This example is less successful:

    Teacher: Is this green?
    Student: Yes.

    Fair enough, the student has shown that they understand the word. But how about this:

    Teacher: What color is this?
    Student: It’s green.

    Gold star! The student has used the target language in a full sentence – the Holy Grail of language learning. But they only did so because the question required it.

    The best rehearsals combine preparation with imagination; the trainee can anticipate what a student might ask. Believe me, you don’t want to find yourself improvising an explanation of a complex grammar point – I’ve lived through train-wrecks of my own creation because of this, more than once – so run it through during prep time, just so you’ve done it at least once before you have to do it ‘live’.

  3. 3

    Watch Other Professionals

    New teachers can learn an extraordinary amount by simply observing experienced teachers in action. Help them focus on particular aspects of the class – the Presentation section, how the teacher uses simple language, gestures, pictures and objects, and how they structure and manage class time – and then discuss their findings afterward. What would they have done differently? What might they emulate in the future?

  4. 4

    It’s All About That BASS

    I encourage my trainees to remember four priceless pieces of advice through a mnemonic.

    Breathe deeply and slowly
    Ask lots of questions
    Smile often
    Slow down your speaking

    These are the four most common newbie errors, in my experience. Student teachers get themselves stressed out, mentally and physically, which has a whole suite of troubling results. A common one is that it increases their speed of speaking, which is never a good thing, especially with lower-level learners. They aren’t used to engaging their students through questions, and end up becoming more like a lecturer. And they forget to enjoy themselves, and to let the students see that this is a fun, shared experience with positive and interesting outcomes.

  5. 5

    Encourage Analysis, but Also Self-compassion

    One of the biggest questions when analyzing a class is this: ‘Did the students use the target language?’ For new teachers, this won’t always be true, but that’s no reason for despair. Invite them to consider how the lesson might have gone differently if they’d modeled the target structure more, used more, or clearer examples, and perhaps monitored the students more closely to make sure they were on task. These are all good things to remind a new teacher before that fateful first day.

This is ESL, not brain surgery.

I always remind my trainees: This is ESL, not brain surgery.

No one will get hurt if it goes badly. Relax, follow the plan, respond to your students, keep your eyes and ears open, and everything will be fine.

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