Getting to know your students and their abilities, needs and personalities is an important part of a new course. How are you going to make sure these first few classes are effective?
The first class of any course can be slightly nerve-wracking – for teacher and students alike! As teachers, perhaps the best thing we can do before we go into that first class is forget about our worries and think about how our students might be feeling. They may be excited to be there, at the beginning of a brand new course, full of ambition and hope, or they may be anxious about whether they will be able to keep up with everybody else and whether their classmates will like them. Perhaps they’ve never studied English before, so they have no idea what to expect. They might be wondering what the new teacher will be like and hoping that he/she likes them. They may be resentful – somebody with more power than they have may be the reason why they are there. In all likelihood, there will be a mixture of these – and many more! – feelings bubbling and brewing away in the classroom when we walk in for the first time. What can we do to help our students set off on the right foot? How can we lay the foundations for a challenging but fulfilling learning experience for all of us? Here are a few things to bear in mind:
Firstly, notice the use of the modals “may” and “might” and the adverb “perhaps”. Without talking to the students, we can’t know how they feel about being in the language classroom. The single most important thing we can do in the first few lessons (and indeed onwards!) is make opportunities to listen to the students. This will help us to discover what it is that brings them to our classroom, what it is they are expecting, what it is that they fear and so on, information that will help us to help them learn better: for a course to be successful, teacher and student expectations, both of themselves and of each other, need to be roughly aligned. This may be difficult to achieve if expectations are unknown.
Secondly, we need to plant seeds. If we want our learners develop their capacities for autonomous learning, there is no time like the present. Early lessons can be a great time for learners to share their past experiences of learning outside the classroom, to discuss why it’s important, to make plans (learning contracts, goals…) for their out-of-class learning for the current course. As well encouraging and motivating students, this enables us to gain an understanding of how and in what ways our students are already autonomous and alert us to the areas requiring further development. Of course, it is not enough for this to be raised in the early lessons: for autonomy to develop, motivation needs to be managed and learners need to explore and learn how to manage all the language practice and use opportunities at their disposal. At the beginning of a course, we should be thinking about how we will help learners to do this better.
Thirdly, we need to be clear about what our learners’ starting points are. Be this in relation to autonomous learning (as discussed above) or language use, if we don’t know where learners are starting from, we won’t be able to help them build on that. Thus, it could be helpful for our first lesson getting-to-know-you lessons to be designed so that they allow students to show us what they are capable of, in the process of getting to know their colleagues. To build on that needs analysis, tools like Edmodo can be invaluable: setting learners an activity for homework, which requires them to communicate using Edmodo, can give us further insight into the individual abilities of the students in our class.
Finally, it may seem silly but don’t forget the power of a smile and a kind word, in terms of putting students at ease and setting the development of student-teacher and student-student rapport in action. Smiling can also help us teachers to relax, and so be more open, aware and responsive to what is happening in the classroom, for each of our learners as individuals. The beginning of a new course can be a golden opportunity to turn our students from a group of strangers into a class of individuals, each with their own traits, quirks and special something to bring to the lessons; a united force that will push individual bounds back further than any of them thought possible.
Enjoy it! The sky’s the limit! Or is it?