During a three week course on world travel, we discussed Japan and make peace cranes to adorn our classroom

How to Be a Successful English Teacher – Things I Learned the Hard Way

Teaching in any country can be challenging, even without the added difficulty of a language barrier.  Yet as globalization increases, the demand for English teachers internationally continues to boom literally everywhere around the world.  Many English teaching positions don’t require experience or a relevant degree, and will accept any graduate of a higher education institute who is willing to give teaching a try.  That said, there is a huge difference between landing a job in Korea, Costa Rica, or Armenia and teaching English, and teaching it well.

Here are some general tips for future teachers of the world, or anyone with an interest in expanding their horizons overseas.  Some of these suggestions are based on research done by prominent figures in language acquisition research, and some are through my own triumphs and epic failures as an ESL teacher.  Hopefully they’ll make your transition abroad that much smoother, and give you the resources to love your life overseas.

–       Keep it simple. A huge part of the job of job for Native Speaking English Teachers (NSETs) is to provide students with an opportunity to become more comfortable using conversational English, rather than imparting our knowledge of the English language.  Instead of overwhelming your students with vocab lists and complex themes, try to keep the core of your lesson as basic as possible.  If you’re teaching a lesson on giving advice, teach them the phrases What should I do?, If I were you, I would…, and If I were in your shoes… and leave the rest to them.  Inventive language is generally more natural than learning rigid sentence structures anyway.

–       Make it relevant. Admittedly, this is a hard balance to strike, as NSETs are partially there to expose students to foreign cultures, while giving providing them with the resources necessary to discuss their person life in their home country.  While it can be frustrating to find that students only want to talk abut their favorite movies, actors, and musicians, it’s important to give them English that is relevant to their interests.  If you are doing a lesson on landmarks in New York City for your students in Beijing, talk about Chinatown.  Show them pictures of what impact their country has overseas, and why it matters in the global scheme of things.  If you’re doing a lesson on travel, give them an English map of their city ask them to recommend places to tourists.  It is much easier to become motivated in a subject if you see opportunities to use it.

–       Be encouraging. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that supportive teachers lead to successful students.  Be consciousness about how you correct mistakes, and try to smile as frequently as possible.  When you’re the only foreigner in a school, you’re a novelty, and therefore constantly watched by students, staff, and parents.  Use this to your advantage by appearing approachable, which will in tern make students feel comfortable holding a conversation with you in or out of the classroom.

–       Share successful lessons with others. The best way to try and make sure that your lesson will go over well with your students is to trade past lessons with friends and fellow teachers.  If you’re a PowerPoint whiz, then post your latest Jeopardy template online for others to download.  The best lesson I ever did was a ‘How to Survive a Zombie Attack’ group activity that I got from another NSET in Seoul.  If your students are going crazy for it, spread the love with others.  For teachers in Korea, you can use the website Waygook to upload and download games, worksheets, and PowerPoints, as well as brainstorming ways to improve your own teaching methods.

–       Have fun. Obviously, this pointer should not require much of an explanation.  If you make your classes fun, the subject of English becomes fun, and doable to even lower level students.  Teaching a language doesn’t always mean that you have to hammer down grammatical concepts, but it can be as simple as experiencing new things in a foreign language.  When I was a middle schooler, I loved playing the card game Spoons, so I taught it to my students at the end of our intensive program.  In listening to my explanation, not only will they learn new words like deck, dealer and pass, but they can improve their listening comprehension.  Once the game got started, it was good to see lower level students having an equal chance to succeed as my advanced students, because unlike with most activities, their English fluency was not the focus of the lesson.  Students would praise each other in English, show off their success in English, and mock slow-reacting friends in English, which is an amazing achievement for any teacher struggling to get a class to speak.  Thing back to what you liked when you were the age of your students, and have them do the same things.  If you liked making Valentines for friends as a kid, then grab some construction paper, lace, and glitter and have your students go to town.  If you are an expert origami maker, teach your students how to make peace cranes in the front of the class.  If you then find that a student knows a pattern you don’t, ask them to teach you, which will not only make them the expert of a new concept, but give them a great opportunity to practice English commands.

During a three week course on world travel, we discussed Japan and make peace cranes to adorn our classroom
Christmas cards that my students made, and then surprised me with at the end of the semester 🙂

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