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Survival Tips for your First Year of Teaching (and reminders for your thirtieth)
I am several decades from my first year in the classroom (at the front of it, as well as sitting at a desk), but I thought I’d offer you some Top Survival Tips for newer teachers and invite others to add theirs in the comments section. I do remember that first year – as you will, decades from now – and I cringe as I do so, on occasion, but I also remember the good stuff. I remember the moments when I realized something had clicked as well as those when something had crashed. I’ve also been a teacher trainer for some years now, and a teacher mentor for novice teachers – which, as a role, is a privilege for any more seasoned teacher and I thoroughly recommend it as a way of clearing your professional cobwebs and keeping your mojo working. These tips are from a combination of my own experiences and from observing new teachers, and they’re for anyone about to start their first year in teaching, and those wading/skipping through it and happy the first semester is behind them. For reasons of neatness verging on obsession, I have chosen ten. But there are certainly more that could be added: feel free to add yours at the end.
1. Fear of Teens
The very fact that this was the first thing that came to my mind, thirty years on – yes, this September is my 30th anniversary as a teacher – means it is definitely an area that caused me angst in the early days. It is now what I consider my ‘forte’. You learn from the knocks.
Teenagers are not only potentially close to you in age, they are experts in being in a classroom and more so than any other age-group you teach. They have classroom dynamics (from the student side, and not necessarily in a positive sense) down to an art, whilst not yet having the cognitive development to control all their impulses in terms of the way they treat each other, the way they treat you, the way they react to materials / activities (head on table for boredom, raised voice in L1 for disagreement, getting rowdy when enjoying a team game…). If you are under 30, they may deem you too young to know anything or to merit respect, you may get comments about your hair, your clothes, your politics, your religion …. My advice is to let it wash over you. Teens are wonderful to teach, but you need to draw your line very clearly in the sand. You must be fair above all, and stay calm above even that. Never ever shout. They are merely pushing to see how far they can go. Don’t push back, bend, don’t break. If you stay calm – even pause in silence then calmly get back to what you were saying – they are far more likely to respect you in the end. If you lose your temper, cry or anything along those lines, you’ve lost them. Remember, though, they’re 3D people, not caricatures. They have bad days, just like you; they’re under peer pressure, just as you were at that age; they probably feel challenged, vulnerable, maybe even ridiculous speaking a ‘foreign’ language with ‘funny sounds’ (ie English). So, every day has to be a new day. If you listen as much as you speak, if you give respect as much as you expect to receive it, if you treat each student with the same calm degree of fairness, if you leave any sarcasm or other condescending style of self-defence at the door, and just be yourself, you’ll be fine. And if someone tells you you got the ‘difficult class’ or the ‘grotty teens’, ignore them. Only teachers make teens difficult and grotty – that one’s down to you. Win them over, and you’ll have friends for life. I can show you some of mine, amongst my Facebook friends and email contacts. (But never try to BE their friend – they’ll just think you’re sad. Friendship tends to develop after they’ve stopped being in your class, when they realise they want to continue having you in their life.)
2. Fear of language rules
A lot of new teachers are a little shaky on the grammar front. This is particularly true of so-called native speaker teachers (NESTs), as they haven’t had the grammar training NNESTs have had. Don’t wing it, be honest, say ‘I’m not sure, but I’ll check it and we’ll look at it in the next lesson’. You can go online and check, you can carry a copy of Michael Swan around at all times, but that detracts from the flow of the lesson. Note it down, check it later, and answer it in the next lesson. Alternatively, for less complex questions, set up a ‘secret’ Facebook group for your class at the beginning of the year, and post the answer there (also useful for posting all homework, interesting articles to read etc). Then, in the next lesson, ask if they have read your post and get those who have to explain the answer to those who haven’t. If it’s a more complex question (I have excruciating memories of “What’s the difference between ‘as’ and ‘like’, Fiona?”), do your homework and, if you decide it’s relevant to the whole class, deal with it in the next lesson. Otherwise, do your homework and explain the answer to whoever asked the question in the break or after class.
If you are a ‘NEST’, bear in mind that your students may well partially know the grammar rules better than you (from previous years, from school if they’re adults, and so on) they just haven’t internalized them yet, so again, don’t wing it – they’ll spot you a mile off. And if you’re young, or obviously new, be prepared for those students who delight in trying to catch you out with tricky questions – I don’t understand where the pleasure is to be had in doing that, but there are plenty of those students about.
Also check the grammar boxes and exercises in your coursebook or materials before you teach the lesson for the first time. Sometimes there are editorial errors, and sometimes things aren’t explained clearly – check everything is correct, that examples are examples of what they claim to be, that you have planned to look at the same uses as the ones presented in the book etc. You will look far more professional if you can say ‘I’ve spotted a typo in exercise 3, sentence C – it should say…..’ than if you gleefully teach your language point, then come unstuck as sentence 3C appears to completely disprove you. Whilst I don’t believe in preparing rigid lesson plans, I do firmly believe in preparing myself.
I can’t count how many teachers I’ve met who think that one CELTA course and around three years’ teaching means they ‘know everything’. Or a one-year training course to be a state education teacher and three years’ teaching. Easily as many as those who’ve been teaching the same stuff the same way for over twenty years. Never ever think you’re the most knowledgeable person in the room. Ever. Everyone in the room has knowledge and it’s all valid, read your Illich and your Freire. You can still learn. In fact, you should still be learning every day of your entire professional life. And if you’re not, YOU’re doing something wrong, not your students. Always be open to making mistakes. As a teacher, you should be a model of behaviour, in many ways, so don’t model arrogance. Please. Reflect on your lessons at the end of each day. Think of three things you did brilliantly and three things you could have done better. Then work on all six of those things.
This is similar to 3. Be realistic. You may be new, but we should all still be trying new things and keeping up to date with methodology and ideas. If you feel insecure, honestly, you’re more likely to become a good teacher than the over-confident newbie, because you’re more open to reflection and improvement. All change starts with dissatisfaction. Believe in yourself and your capacity to get it right ‘soon’ – tomorrow, next week, next month, and keep trying. If you are really under-confident, though, I’d suggest biting the bullet and asking a senior teacher you feel comfortable with if you can observe them and to observe you, then reflect on their teaching and yours. Ask them to help you spot your strengths as well as your weaknesses, and get their support for your development. You’ll probably make a good friend along the way, as well as gaining knowledge and confidence. Win-win.
5. You The Teacher
You may have an idea of what a teacher is from your own experiences at school and/or from trainers, but you are you, and you’re different from everyone else. Don’t try to be something you’re not, don’t try to teach in a way you’re not comfortable with. We are supposed to look out for the needs of everyone in the room – and that includes you. Be yourself, even if it’s a version, but be honest and authentic. Don’t try to be A Teacher. You are one.
Surprised? There are various things to consider. One is comfort. You move a lot when teaching, so comfort is number one, but remember comfort means ‘professional, and comfortable’. As a Director, some students complained to me and insisted on changing teacher for the following reasons:
- Smelly clothes
- Sitting cross-legged, letting sandals drop to the floor, not putting them back on again
- Sleeveless tops and unshaved armpits (both genders)
- Official football t-shirts (Barcelona, Arsenal etc etc.)
- Un-ironed and/or stained clothes
- Very low necklines (both genders)
- ‘Strange’ footwear (2 cases, both men: crocs and something like ballet/dance shoes)
They may seem unreasonable complaints, but as a teacher, the lesson isn’t about you, it’s about the students’ learning, and if your clothes distract, make a slight adjustment. Smelly clothes are an obvious one, but wearing a football team’s official shirt may not make you popular with fans of their rivals – and resistance to you can mean resistance to learning.
7. Materials – paper
Don’t give huge amounts of photocopies. They end up as shopping lists or in the classroom bin.
8. Materials – digital
Powerpoints are usually teacher-fronted and can be boring, especially if they have a lot of text on them. Go to a conference, observe how presenters use powerpoint etc, and reflect on what engages and what doesn’t. Powerpoint is useful for reducing paper waste, but it’s more effective for images than text on the whole. If you DO use it, don’t whizz from slide to slide. Think “Can I get at least 10 minutes out of this slide? Will it get my students speaking, thinking, processing?” If not, consider ditching it (unless it’s an answer key, or similar). Materials should be stimuli, they are not The Lesson.
9. Out of the classroom – preparation
Don’t over-prepare. Prepare yourself more than your lesson. Think of ways to teach things that will generate language, engagement, spontaneity and connection, and check for potholes (see point 2 above). Check your materials work, but don’t waste time on detailed step-by-step lesson plans. You shouldn’t cling to a plan, there will be human beings in the room, not just you and your plan, so, as long as you have the general outline covered, have checked the answers to reading comprehensions (and can explain why they’re correct) and that there are no errors in the materials, just go in and have fun. 3-hour planning sessions for a 55 minute lesson should stay on your pre-sessional training course, but winging it is just as bad.
10. Out of the classroom – bosses etc.
This is something to think about once qualified but preferably before you accept a job. Don’t fall for the ‘native teachers are best’ thing – they are not, they are no worse or better, they are different. Native speakers may have different pronunciation, which some bosses seem to think makes them better teachers (and some parents), but non-natives have the benefit of having been successful learners of the language they’re teaching and can empathise. So, if you’re a non-native teacher, fight for your right to work at a centre, contact TEFL Equity if obstacles are put in your way – though, to be honest, any good centre worth working for probably doesn’t care about teachers’ birthplaces. If you’re a native speaker teacher, please don’t play that game, call them out for dodgy practices and then apply elsewhere.
Equally, though, don’t sell yourself short. Don’t go for the jobs with invisible contracts, poor pay, no health cover and so on. The cowboys will only continue to exist as long as we let them.
Now, it’s over to you. What else?