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The First Year of ELT

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The challenges a young teacher faces and how to cope with them.

In my third year at Moscow university, when I was 19, I was offered a part-time teaching position by my own department to be paid on an hourly basis as a professor's assistant. I got two groups of first-year students, some of them a bit younger, some the same age and some older than I was. This was exactly what a wise student, that inevitable person familiar to all of us as the "class clown", shouted gleefully at our introductory seminar. I asked mildly, " Do you mean that you are ready to come out and teach vocabulary instead of me?" Silence. That beginner year gave me invaluable insights and experience which served me well in the future. I realized that working with youngsters, even those who were actually older than I was, could not compare to anything else. The high I got when I felt that I managed to teach them, to impart my knowledge, to help them overcome some hurdles, was incomparable! During the winter break I visited my former EL school teacher, shared my impressions and attended several of her lessons to watch how she organized her work, how she maintained discipline and to understand how she managed to motivate me as a child.

• If you had a favourite teacher, an opportunity to observe their techniques later may give you some very good pointers! NB: they may teach any subject; what really matters is that you enjoyed their lessons.
• Understanding your students' needs, interests and goals is important. One can never teach anybody by forcing a topic or by making children learn the new rules by heart. Try to see what makes each of them tick, and then try to connect their individual aims with the national curriculum.
• Do not spend lesson time on arguing. "Why do we need this stupid topic (grammar rule, vocabulary, audio exercises et cetera)?" The only answer is, it is our lesson plan, examination requirement, the national curriculum. It is amazing how much can be achieved by simply repeating one short phrase.
• Try to teach values, not just a set of topics per term. Example: we have learned about genetically modified food. We have also learned several new facts. Now we know the relevant vocabulary, so we can look up the subject on the web, check the news and see what is written on the subject in other countries. We can share our new knowledge with the family, translating from English into our own language. We can work out a few measures for the future.
• This one is very important! Failures do happen to all of us. Even experienced teachers may not cope with a disruptive student; a topic which seemed easy may result in a complete disaster at a test. There are days and nights when we feel that we did not manage to teach anybody anything. By all means reflect but do not over-analyze. Do not beat yourself up. What you are feeling means that you are human.
• In the age of ICT anything we need can be found on the web. True, not everything we read in Wikipedia is fact. We can Google anything and everything, communicate with colleagues, find international programs - the list of possibilities is endless. The real challenge is that of choice. The abundance of information is staggering. I would suggest that a young teacher choose a few sites where they feel comfortable and stick to them professionally during their first year. It is good to visit some well-known international sites for ELT and one or two of your own national platforms. I use Teaching English, The Free Dictionary and regularly. Any good reference site is a handy tool when some information is needed. Browse and surf, just don't forget why you started it.
• Sadly rather many times in my life I was told by a younger colleague that teaching is impossible because children are little monsters, the demands on a teacher are too great, the parents are impossible to deal with... if after your first year you feel like that, probably this profession is not for you. But if in spite of all the challenges, the frustrations, the tears you still feel the spark, the desire to see those eager young faces, the wish to share your knowledge and help form the budding minds, why, go for it!

Nina MK, Ph.d.