How to not totally suck at being an EFL teacher

Thai Paid Teaching

Being an EFL teacher is easy, as many people will tell you. And I completely agree with them. But being a good EFL teacher is a completely different ball game.

When I landed my first teaching job, I was pretty nervous before I started. Having never done anything similar, and also being a naturally quiet person, I wasn’t even sure that I could do it. After I started, I started to feel my fears were completely unfounded. There was nothing to it. Just turn up, go through the book with the students, accept their compliments on how good a teacher you are, and go home again.

However, after not too long, I realised that my fears had not been unfounded at all. Teaching wasn’t easy. I just thought it was because I was making a really bad job of it. More accurately, I wasn’t actually doing anything at all. I learnt a lot more about teaching (badly) during that time than my students did English. I’ve also seen a lot of other teachers make their own mistakes, which I casually observed from the side lines, glad I wasn’t making those mistakes in addition to my own! To give you half a chance of not doing similar, I’ll share a bit of what I have picked up.

Lessons Learned

The first real problem I encountered was a student asking me to explain a grammar point. And not even a difficult one. I was left stumped, and red-faced, by something an intermediate level EFL student would probably know. The answer “I don’t know, but I will check and tell you tomorrow” is fine for obscure structures and rare exceptions to rules; for Present Perfect, it isn’t. A good teacher needs to know why we speak the way we do, and not just how to do it. Read up on grammar, because the students will ask you.

Making sure you know the grammar you are attempting to teach is all part of the preparation. Lesson planning is key, but sometimes even that is not enough. Games that you think will be well received fall flat, activities that you think will take an hour are over in a quarter of that time. What are you going to do? Play Hangman again? Trust me, there are only so many times you can get away with that. You need a back up, and it needs to be good. It doesn’t necessarily have to be related to the lesson you have been doing, but it needs to be something that you can easily pull out and use when things haven’t gone to plan. You also need more than one. After learning the hard way, I had an ever-increasing arsenal of back-up options. Every time I saw a new non-specific activity, it went in there. It’s hard to use the same back-up plan on the same class more than once.

Get To Know Your Students

A good teacher should know a few things about their students. Knowing their personalities is just as important as knowing their language strengths and weaknesses. As much as what the students are capable of, you need to tailor the lesson plan to what students are interested in, to give your plan the best chance of being well received. A class of teenage girls will not give you much mileage with the Military Hardware lesson you spent all evening planning.

Knowing their personalities is especially important when utilising pair work. All of the students will want to work with their friends. It’s natural, but at some point, they will have to branch out and work with others. You can tell them it’s good for their future development, as life is all about working with people you don’t like, but you do have to bear some things in mind. If two people really do not get on, don’t try to force it. At the same time however, smart pairing of students can help you out. Two students of similar level will often work well together and not require too much input once you set them going, while you can pair a stronger student with a weaker classmate and ask him to help with his understanding of things. This will alleviate a little of your workload when you have several pairs who need your attention at the same time, and you can tell the stronger student it’s good for their English too. Like the lesson plans and activities though, it has to be kept fresh. Pairs should be rotated and mixed up regularly.

You’re There to Teach

Whether teaching adults in a private training centre or children in a high school, all students have one thing in common; they are there to learn. Whether they want to or not is another matter, but it isn’t your job to decide. Nor is it acceptable to see EFL teaching as anything less than a serious job. Some of the most self-centred people I have met have been employed as EFL teachers, using class time to slack off while students are having their money wasted or receiving a sub-par education.

Whatever kind of teacher you are, you have a responsibility to your students. Leaving that unfulfilled is the best way to become a bad teacher.

EFL teaching is a great way to make some money while you travel, to develop yourself as a person, to enhance your gap year and to make a difference to other people’s lives. The vast majority of teachers abroad do a wonderful job. Done badly though, nobody really benefits. By being aware of some of the pitfalls, you stand a better chance of contributing to the growing number of great EFL teachers in the world!

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