Reflections on three months of English language teaching

I’ve now been an English teacher for three months. Nice use of the present perfect tense there eh? Notice how you can’t say ‘I have been being a teacher for three months’ because ‘to be’ is a state verb and cannot be used in the continuous (+ing) form. I’ve started to notice these things!!!

Anyway, in my last post I was very enthusiastic about my new teaching career, but thought the shine might wear off if I had to do it full-time. And that’s exactly what’s happened! I’ve been teaching for 25 hours a week and it’s very tiring. 25 hours of teaching also means at least another 12 hours of planning, so it’s really a full time job. I haven’t had much time to do any writing.

I’m aiming for 100% Dead Poets Society….

Another reason the shine has started to wear off is that my main class is pre-intermediate. Intermediate really is the best level – anything below that and it’s quite hard work. The intermediates generally understand your instructions, and can speak enough that a speaking activity can go on for quite a long time, with plenty of error correction afterwards. Pre-intermediates can’t say very much, so none of the activities last that long. Plus, the reading and listening texts they can manage are necessarily simple and therefore a bit boring.

I’ve also found that at intermediate level or above, almost all students are good students. You need to be reasonably intelligent and to put quite a bit of effort in to get to intermediate level. Anyone who’s really slow or not capable of the effort and commitment needed either gives up or simply remains in pre-intermediate. In other words, in my class.

Teaching 15 students aged 16-65, from all over the world and with very different cultures and different language problems presents all sorts of issues. There are definitely some nationalities that are harder to teach than others. That’s not to say that 100% of people from those countries are bad students, just that a lot of them are. I wonder if people in some countries just have wildly different expectations and experiences of education, which plays out in their behaviour?

St Trianians on the rampage = my class on a Friday…

On the other hand, I don’t want to be too negative. I’ve had some pretty hair-tearing moments, but I’ve had some moments of triumph too. I had a shy Latin American student (yes! there are shy people in that continent too!) who was initially terrified of speaking English. He became quite a confident speaker after a few weeks, and when he left he exclaimed ‘never did I think I would enjoy the learning so much!’ I was so proud! I also taught a Japanese student to correctly pronounce /r/ and /l/. Never again will anyone laugh at him for failing to distinguish between ‘rice’ and ‘lice’. I’ve received a few odd presents and one student even said that they felt inspired!

I’ve learnt a lot about myself as well. I really enjoy getting my students talking and communicating. I enjoy teaching creative speaking activities, or even everyday communication skills. I don’t mind teaching grammar. It’s actually pretty interesting, as I’m learning a lot about my own language too, and it’s not nearly as scary as people seem to think. I enjoy teaching vocabulary, especially some of the slightly more advanced stuff, and I find I’m quite good at it. I also enjoy pronunciation work. There’s lots of interest in pronunciation: not just phonemes (individual sounds) but word stress, sentence stress, intonation patterns and connected speech. It’s also pretty fun and can be incorporated into all kinds of lessons. For example, in a lesson on ‘news’ I’ve had students practice reading the news in the style of a newsreader, with their voice falling at the end of end of every sentence to show how serious they are. It’s all quite difficult for my students, but I do try to teach them not to sound like robots. This has mixed results. I sometimes find my class has learnt absolutely nothing except how to say something silly like ‘oh really???’ in a very exaggerated way. The next time I say ‘that is not the correct answer,’ or ‘we’re going to study some new grammar now’, they all cry ‘oh reeeeaaaaalllyyyyyy teacher?’

The stuff I don’t like doing is teaching the exam class. I’ve only covered this a few times, but my word it was boring. The students were very motivated because they want to pass the exam, but it’s just really dull and has no room for creativity. I’ve found that many of the other teachers love the exam class because of the high motivation of the students, and because it’s very structured and has a definite aim. But I just don’t find it rewarding at all. Give me a good role play or a class debate any day! In fact, I’d rather have them messing about and shouting ‘oh reeeaaalllly’ than endlessly writing boring essays about global warming. At least it’s fun.

It could easily all descend into School of Rock to be honest…

The main thing I still find difficult is giving instructions for activities. You need to be incredibly detailed and precise, and to go through everything step-by-step, no matter how simple. You then need to get them to repeat the instructions back to you, to show they understand. You need to use very simple language and talk slowly. Frequently they still don’t understand. I guess I’m just not very good at it yet! I’m also not very patient. I often think ‘well, how difficult can it be to play dominoes where you match the start of the sentence with the end of the sentence?’ The answer is, very, very difficult indeed. I think part of the problem is many students have probably never played dominoes, or a board game, or charades before. The logic of these things escapes them if it’s not something they do in their country. Sometimes explaining the concept of a grammar game is much harder than actually teaching the grammar. But I’ve learnt that and am now very careful with games.

I’m looking forward to teaching in Portugal, where the groups will probably be monolingual and more monocultural, and hopefully with less of an age range. That should make things a lot easier: at least most of them will have similar problems. Then again, I might be surprised! I’ve been surprised by so many aspects of teaching that perhaps it’s best not to make any assumptions.