It vividly brought to mind my own first days as a parent at The Manhattan School for Children in New York. There were at least ten languages spoken in our first grade families; many of them did not speak English at all. Spanish was wide spread, and due to our closeness to Columbia University, there were a few exotic examples, like Croatian, Japanese, Korean, German... Children had no problems communicating with each other; they also translated what their Japanese or Croatian classmates were saying to their teachers.
There are children who need different approaches, individual timetables, flexible schedules, and careful treatment. It is important to understand that while some of them may have permanent learning disabilities like dyslexia, or some physical impairments like poor eye sight, lower hearing, seasonal allergies and various developmental problems, others may find themselves in a tough situation temporarily. Through my years of teaching, I had to deal with children who could not master spelling no matter what methodics I tried; some could not even read in their own language, in ninth grade.
You memorize your lesson plan, study your new class roster, arrange your materials, choose a few extras, get ready. The bell rings, you enter the classroom on cotton legs, and suddenly you are faced with triple the expected number of students. The other two teachers are out sick, you learn; nobody warned you. This is what had happened to me. And it kept on happening with maddening irregularity and complete unpredictability.
Activities that help.
*switch on an audio warm up. It does not matter if you have 10 or 30 students chorus, it will just be very loud.
There are lots of tourists bravely walking around chattering in all the languages of the world. English is the predominant means of communication, if you want to ask a question or someone asks you for directions, it is most often done in English. Receptionists, waiters, tour guides, drivers, shop assistants speak English. Naturally all the participants of our huge conference, at which I am only an accompanying person, speak the same lingo. There are plenty of opportunities to communicate, to learn, to practice and to observe.
I was fortunate to have very good teachers, first at school in Siberia, then at Moscow University. Our school teacher taught us a marvelous fact: NONE of the sounds in our native language were the same as those in English. In our second year of school, aged 8, we simply listened carefully and repeated after her. Thus we learned about the great differences between “sink” and “think”, and the importance of “ship or sheep”, to name but a few. We heard her pronounce strings of words like “bat-bet-bed-bad” and “sit-seat-Sid-seed” and carefully chorused after her.
I explain it partly because it is a useful one to know, partly due to the fact that its meaning and usage are slightly different from the original in my native language. Realia is one of the nouns used in the plural form, yet it may be followed by a verb either in the singular or in the plural. It comes from the Latin word “realis” which produced many words with the same root. In the general sense, it means “the realities”. In education, it pertains to objects or activities used by a teacher to relate classroom teaching to real life.
The final state exams are compulsory. During the academic year, various kinds of tests are in place, to assess students’ progress in all the traditional skills, such as reading, writing, speaking and listening, as well as grammar. They are all orientated towards the current children’s age and level. We teachers can be somewhat flexible about it, in that we are not obliged to conduct any one specific kind of test throughout a school year, nor are we restricted in terms of the frequency.
Quite often, the situation may differ significantly when several children have cell phones and one pupil from an affluent family possesses a smart phone or an iPad which naturally they are happy to demonstrate to the class and the teachers. Needless to say, they also use it at every opportunity whether they really need to or not. Children do boast. Someone may be happy because they get the top result in a test, and another one may draw everybody’s attention to their parents’ luxury car, for want of a better example.
Truth be told, there is no such thing as an “average teacher” either. I also believe in personalized approach to teaching: one follows the other. Some of us find it natural to sing and dance at every lesson so to speak, while others will stick to the more sedate modus. “Hello children/colleagues, I am happy to see you!” This phrase is my staple. I inherited it from my own grandmother, it comes natural to me. The response is immediate. It does not mean that I never have any problems; it does mean that the rapport is established really fast.
* Teacher’s Books. When I started working at school after ten years as a university lecturer/instructor, I did not know the first thing about teaching children. By an incredible coincidence, Heinemann Publishers representatives came to Siberia looking for EL teachers who would agree to make trial runs with their new textbooks; I was the only volunteer. I lugged back a set of 30 student & activity books, and one Teacher’s Book. Once I Began reading it diligently, I realized that I was saved: everything I ever needed to know about teaching beginner/elementary level, age 8-9, was there.