Teaching is a strange business. Everyone knows what’s wrong with it, but not many people know how to do it right. Colleagues, principals, parents and of course students will be quick to tell you what not to do in the ESL classroom.
But how exactly can you avoid common mistakes, what makes an effective teacher, and how can you become one?
Courses hardly equip you for real life
It seems to me that the courses I took at college did not actually equip me for the things that I encountered in the real classroom. The courses were very theoretical, and many of the issues that we encounter as new teachers are not really dealt with in the courses, or at least are presented in a very theoretical way with very little in the way of hard, practical advice and coping strategies.
I have pondered this over and over, and actually, much of the stuff that I know about teaching (and learning) was picked up in the classroom and not in any of those TEFL courses I took over the years.
I can tell students how to remember things better and how to learn grammar rules. Many of the simple, down-to-earth things that go into making an effective teacher can only come from the real-life interaction with students in a classroom.
So let’s look at some of the common mistakes beginning and sometimes even experienced teachers make in the classroom, and how they can be avoided.
1. Don’t lose control of your classroom
The first thing that you should know as a teacher is that you have to have that magic thing called “presence” or “charisma”. How do you get that? (If you aren’t Robin Williams or Michelle Pfeiffer?)
Well, that’s a good point. But all that I can say is that if you are an introvert, a quiet speaker or a person who doesn’t have a bit of a performer in your personality, you are going to have an uphill slog as a teacher. I am not saying you can’t do it. I am saying that confidence in the classroom is pretty much a central part of it.
We are in a weird way taking the stage every time we step into the classroom. We want students to pay attention to us and listen to us, and to be authoritarian. You don’t have to shout (in fact shouting usually means you have already lost control). You don’t have to be scary. You don’t have to be bossy. But you have to make the classroom feel like it’s your domain, and that you are in charge of what goes on there.
How do you get control?
Take charge of your classroom! Physical space is defined by territory. A good way to take control is by pacing around the classroom a lot and marking out your territory. The students will feel that you are in charge and feel safe.
Equally, marking out who is in charge, makes the classroom a safe space for all students, and saves the quiet ones from being overshadowed, and bullied by the more dominant ones. Each student should feel he can participate in your class safely.
A common mistake made by beginning teachers is wanting to be friends with all the students. You can be friendly but you are not their friend. I think that especially when you are young you need to make an invisible boundary line between yourself and the students. They look to you for knowledge.
That’s not to say you can’t be fun, entertaining and friendly – you should be all of those things. But if you don’t have the control you will soon have anarchy and chaos.
2. Don’t make a whiteboard mess
Effective use of your board is a very important part of your job. I often used to walk into a classroom of a new teacher in the middle of the lesson and have no clue what was being taught. The board should be there to show what you are doing, what your plan is and where you got to in the lesson.
If a student arrives late, he/she should be able to glance at the board and know what the subject of the class is. I also believe in having the date clearly written so that students can keep track of classes.
You don’t need to write tons of stuff on the board, don’t write a doctoral thesis. But it should be up there in point form and with a title so that students don’t get lost. Of course, your handwriting should be legible too! Page numbers are nice too if you have a coursebook.
If you give a homework assignment that should go up at the end. That way students can’t say they didn’t hear what you said, didn’t know… or whatever.
3. Don’t get into a head-on fight with a student
We have all been confronted with “problem” students. They can be students who are confrontational, or who don’t keep quiet, or students who bully others. How can we deal with those situations?
Again, this is something which comes with experience and is not really dealt with on our TEFL training courses. The first thing I can say is that we have to pick our battles. A battle avoided is the best kind.
Sometimes we can deal with disruption by ignoring it. Sometimes we can deflate the student with humour (and I don’t mean by mocking him/her). We can make a joke with the class and defuse the tension.
Sometimes we need to call that person over during the break and have a quiet private word with them. I suggest you never do this in public as that would humiliate your student. You can sometimes find out what is bugging the student in a 1 to 1 chat.
Sometimes we can do something really simple like moving students around in the classroom, and break up certain buddy networks. You have to know your students’ personalities well and see what is going on between different groups in the classroom, and again, take control. Which brings me to my next point: classroom layout.
4. Don´t forget to set up your physical classroom
This is another really basic thing that I don’t remember being taught. When you walk into the class, the very first thing you need to do is take control of the physical space.
You can do this in many ways, but a very important one is by making sure that you have eye contact with everyone and making sure you can get around the classroom easily so that you can reach every student.
It means not having chaos, and arranging the desks/tables to suit you. This will depend on the kind of activity you want. I mean, that if your class is mostly going to be frontal, you are going to arrange tables so that everyone is facing you and there are spaces between tables so that you can walk around (see point 1).
If you want a more collaborative, group sort of lesson style you can make a semi-circle, or several, or have students sit in clusters. But you should still be able to have eye contact with everyone and walk around.
I cannot overstress the importance of this. Many classes I have observed has been chaotic simply because the physical layout was chaotic. Students should feel that you are the boss and that you can reach everyone and that everyone can see and be seen.
5. Don’t feel intimidated by “know it all” students´ questions
There will come a time when someone asks you something that you don’t know. It might be sooner or later, but it will happen. This is something we all dread because we think we have to be invincible. We don’t. Being in control does not mean being omniscient, neither does it mean not admitting to being human.
We should always show our students that we can learn something. That’s what it’s all about, we want them to be lifelong learners, as we should be ourselves. So a very good thing to do is to own up that you don’t know something.
Students don’t want teachers who think they know everything. They want teachers who encourage them to be curious and inquisitive about their subject, as the teachers should also be.
So a great thing to do is to say “Well that’s a fantastic question! You know I really want to know the answer to that and I will find out and tell you!”
I remember a horrible class I had one time that was just chaos, and I went to an older mentor and asked her what to do. She said, “Open it with them”. I said, “What…?”. She said, “Share with them and ask their advice”. So I did just that. I had nothing to lose.
I went to the kids and (in their mother tongue, not in English) I said “Hey kids, this isn’t working right? What do you think we should do about it?” And you know what, they were just great. They gave me a list of what was wrong (I wrote it all up on the board) and they gave me suggestions to fix it (I wrote in another column) and we discussed.
I tried a few things. And it was not perfect, there were still problems, but it cleared the air. And it made me like them better. It made them like me better. We were no longer on opposite sides of the battlefield, we were people trying to solve something together.
6. Don´t take it all too seriously
The most important tool in your box, I saved for last: humor. If you can’t laugh at situations you are going to be in you are in a whole lot of trouble. There are so many stresses in the classroom situation, you will not survive.
Firstly with your students, but also with your colleagues, bosses and with others. Being able to make a joke in class is invaluable. Being able to make one in the teachers’ room, similarly.
Just try to take a step back and see the absurd in some situations, and that will make a lot of difference.
Good luck – you are going to need it! 😉