Oscar Wilde once said, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes”. This holds true for everyone starting out in a new career, and ESL teachers are no exception. But one thing is accepting we’ll make mistakes as we go and chalk it up to a lack of experience, and another is completely ignoring the worst kind of mistakes you could make. Since anyone can learn from their mistakes, then we can certainly learn from the five worst mistakes beginner ESL teachers make.
5 Worst ESL Mistakes
Taking up all of the talking time
In an ESL class, what is the most common reason students are enrolled? They want to SPEAK English! And what happens when the teacher speaks most of the time? They don’t have enough chances to actually practice their speaking skills. Those who are new to ESL teaching often make this very crucial mistake: They take up too much of the talking time, either because they feel uncomfortable around silence or long pauses, or because they are over-enthusiastic to share their knowledge. So clearly, hogging most of the talking time is out of the question. But, how to find the right balance between student talking time and teacher talking time?
As a general rule of thumb, students should speak for 70% of the class time, while teachers speak for the remaining 30%. These percentages could be tweaked in cases where students are absolute beginners (50-50), or at the other end of the spectrum, very advanced learners in need of intensive speaking practice (90-10). This means that in most cases, your participation should be limited to giving instructions and explaining essential points, but above all to eliciting response from students and facilitating all types of speaking activities.
Ignoring boundaries between teacher and students
ESL teachers should be friendly and strive to bond with students in order to achieve the best learning outcomes. But there’s a line between being friendly and being a friend. A teacher is meant to be an authority figure, one that is most definitely not on equal terms with students. This is a very common mistake in young teachers, especially because they might be the same age as their students. It's all right to share some personal things and talk about family, pets, interests or hobbies. But you must never let it get too personal. Any personal information shared must be supplied to give students context when they are learning something new. It is not meant to be shared so you may be accepted by students. This is when the lines become blurred and students get confused. You lose all authority and any effective classroom management is severely compromised.
Be on friendly terms, talk about your dog or what you did last weekend, but make sure students feel there is a boundary that can’t be crossed.
Poor or inconsistent classroom management
This is one of the mistakes that is often made due to a lack of experience. Classroom management is not an exact science; it’s not like teaching the past simple tense. Each group of student is different and rules must be set as a group. The problem stems from the fact that new teachers may not have a clearly defined teaching style. So, they either become too strict or too lax. There are plenty of articles you can read on effective classroom management; you may agree with some of the techniques, you may disagree with others and choose to implement your own. For example, you may choose to forego stickers as a means of rewarding students, and choose another method. It’s not about being stricter, but rather being consistent. There’s nothing worse for a group of students than empty promises or weak threats. Once you define how you'll manage your class, stick to it!
Forgetting cultural differences
Some teachers are so focused on teaching things about the English culture, they completely ignore their students’. Some gestures ESL teachers commonly use in the classroom, like the gesture for OK, may be very rude in other cultures. In some countries, students may be used to lecturing, and may not react positively when you propose a game. This is a mistake ESL teachers make above all in foreign countries where the culture is very different from Western culture, like Arabic or Oriental cultures. Learn about their customs, especially greetings, and use this information to create a positive learning environment.
Not gathering enough information on students’ backgrounds and needs
How many beginner ESL teachers start a lesson with a new group and don’t even find out where they’ve studied English before, how long, and with which results?
What if you have a student who has studied English countless times, off and on, over the last 20 years, but is still at an intermediate level? It doesn't matter if you obtain this information from your department head or from the students themselves; this is essential information to have if you want your students to advance, to make progress in their English language skills.
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, for mistakes will surely be made. There are valuable lessons to be learned from each and every one. Start by avoiding the ones listed above, and you’ll start your teaching career off on the right foot.
We’d love to hear from all of the experienced teachers out there! If you’ve made any mistakes you'd like to share with us, please do so below in the comments.
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