5 Worst Mistakes All Beginner ESL Teachers Make (And You Too?)
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.
Claudia has been an ESL teacher for 20 years and has taught a wide variety of students from pre-schoolers to senior citizens, complete beginners to advanced students. This vast teaching experience has helped her write over 100 articles for BusyTeacher.org. When she is not teaching, she is also a freelance travel writer contributing reviews for V!VA Travel Guides' upcoming Uruguay edition, as well as travel articles and blog posts for a variety of online publications. She is currently living in Buenos Aires, Argentina with her spunky 7-year old daughter and crabby 10-year old cat, Ulysses. Google +.
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Hmmm, I think number 2 is obviously the most contentious. With adult groups, I often become friends with students, very close friends. How can you avoid it if you spend 3 hours+ every week for a number of years with some students. I chat more with my students than with some of my family! I have invited students to my birthday parties and been invited to theirs. I have gone for drinks, picnics, trips, breakfasts, and many other other social occasion with students. In fact, some of my best friends are ex students. My comfort with being able to be friends with students has led to wonderful classroom environments where students feel completely relaxed and students engaging with the language many more times than they would if they just came to a class every week. For me, this idea that you can't be friends with ADULT students comes from schools not wanting the learning process out of their control because they can't make money from it. If you are teaching adults, they recognise when you are in work mode and when you are in friend mode. For me, my friends are more likely to follow my instructions and try to make the class a success rather than someone who I have nothing invested in and has nothing invested in me.
I think number 2 is a fine balancing act. On the one hand you want your students to be open and comfortable with you; there's nothing worse than a class with an unfamiliar atmosphere, but at the same time they need to know that your main reason for being there is to teach them. I don't teach adults anymore, but when I used to they would often ignore topics or feedback from me because they were more interested in telling me about their weekend than in me correcting their mistakes.
Another issue that came up, and I think this may be an issue for many people, was the lack of direction on my part when students would speak naturally. I spent so long trying to get them to talk that once they did I would just let them run free because at least they were talking and the awkward silence was gone.
I am also a little suspicious of point two being an absolute case. I think a distinction should be made between adult and young students and also group and one-to-one classes. I teach mainly one-to-one and consider the personal relationship I develop with students to be a key part to their enthusiasm and learning. On the other hand, with the one group of young learners I have, I agree that a boundary has to be set.
Any suggestions about what to do when your students share information that is too personal with you? Such as war trauma, financial problems, or family issues? I work with students who are refugees in the US and they are often facing many problems with no one to talk to. How can I draw the line without seeming insensitive?
Hi!i have been teaching English for 13 years.I also liked this article and whenever i read such articles i always think about everything I do at classes and I feel that there are too many things to learn.
when students get used to the freedom in their relationships with the teacher. it will be hard to organize them, to make them do some exercises for instance. they may just say " I don't want to" and you can do nothing about this. The teacher definitely should be the authority in class.
I've made the mistake of bonding too much with one of my groups od young learners and now they feel they can say whatever they want. I've made billions of mistakes like that and I still feel I need to work on it harder and harder. Sometimes it's just impossible to impliment different style into already taught group of students... ehh sometimes I just feel hopeless. :P but still I enjoy my work.
I like the article and I think that every new teacher should read it at least once.As for authority I think that's what students expect from teachers to have, that and proficiency of the subject they teach.
Certainly this is a good article to bear in mind. I agree with all the points described above mainly with point 2 because authority, in the good sense, rules our lives and so it rules the relationship between teachers and students. If not, just think about the relationship between parents-child, law-citizens, etc. Authority, law, rules are always present in our lives and it is through them that we grow up as human beings respecting the others and knowing that there exists a line that can not be crossed. Personally, dont feel Im better or more than my students simply because Im a teacher. But the fact is that I am a teacher and as such I am an authority figure in the classroom who must be respected by students to have an effective classroom management. Thanks for your contributions. liliana
Hello Errie thank you for your opinion. I agree that a great teacher should also be a friend who Ss trust. However, there are friends and friends. I would not invite my Ss to my birthday party, for example, or would be very selective about going with them to a pub :) I guess it's about the degree of friendship, and it's only you who feels where the line is because no one knows your Ss better than you.
Good article but I disagree with ''mistake 2'' Of course I'm the teacher but I'm not more than my students. We are the same. The fact that I teach them will not say that I have to stand above them. We are all human no matter what the background or culture is. I refuse to be professional because it ruins the wonderful friendships and bonds that you have with the students. Ohh...yea...did I already tell that I HATE authority.. Just my two cents.....
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