Standing in front of a classroom of fifth graders on my first day serving as a teaching assistant at an Elementary school in Torreledones, a suburb North of Madrid in Spain, I was hit smack in the face with a harsh realization -- I had no idea how to teach.
I had thought I would be prepared for this moment. After all, I had experience working with children at summer camps and led a university-sponsored tutoring program in my local community back home.
And yet, no experience short of classroom teaching will prepare you for classroom teaching. One of the common misconceptions about teaching is that it’s easy. Well, whoever said “those who can’t do, teach” clearly never stood in front of 30 ten-year-olds and tried to advance their education while simultaneously keeping their attention.
Teaching is challenging for a multitude of reasons. Crafting lesson plans that teach curriculum requirements in a clear and entertaining manner requires a wide breadth of knowledge about both content and student behavior. On top of this, classroom management, that is handling the number of students in the classroom and each individual’s unique personality and behavioral problems, is extremely difficult.
First-time teachers abroad have an added challenge -- not only do they need to learn the fundamentals of how to teach, they also need to do so in a culture that is foreign from their own.
Lucky for me, I found that the seasoned teachers at my Elementary school, as well as other teaching assistants participating on the Auxiliares de Conversation program, were eager to help by sharing helpful tips, lesson plan ideas or even just a listening ear.
My colleagues and friends helped me navigate my first year teaching abroad with success. I want to do the same and give you what help I can, so here are five lesson plan ideas for first-time teachers abroad.
Lesson Plan Idea #1: The Geography of You
A large part of the reason why your current employer hired you to teach abroad is because of your diverse background. Your role is to not only teach your new students content in their curriculum but also teach them about the country you come from.
Chances are no matter what age range your students are, they will have a great deal of interest in you. After all, your very presence is something new to them, something that breaks up the normal that they know, be it the classrooms, walls, and teachers of the school who have become familiar to them over the years.
A great way to create a geography lesson that ties in their interest in you is by doing a “geography of you” lesson. Create a power point presentation that includes maps of the world, your home country, home state and even home city along with pictures of you in these places.
To help students better understand, show a map that includes their country in relation to your home country. You’ll likely receive some bonus points in the form of extra attentiveness from your students if you also include photos of yourself in your host country. For example, I included a picture of myself in front of the Real Madrid Football stadium and my students got very excited!
Lesson Plan Idea #2: Lyrical Listening Comprehension
The more you are around children, the more you learn how much they love to sing. Music is not only beloved by adults and children alike, it is also shown to help boost memory.
Put an entertaining twist on listening comprehension with the use of music. Print off song lyrics to one of your favorite songs. Leave some words blank. Play the song for your students and have them fill in the blank words as the song moves along. Based on your student’s level of English, you may need to play the song more than once for them to catch all the words.
A few tips: make sure you thoroughly familiarize yourself with the lyrics first to ensure they are age appropriate. Sometimes our favorite songs have innuendos that sneak past us! Also be sure to select songs that have real words (those sounds in “What does the Fox Say” likely won’t teach your students much). Finally, there are a plethora of songs written about history, geography, and literature. Try to find a song that ties into other aspects of your students’ curriculum whenever possible.
Lesson Plan Idea #3: Play a Game
Games are another trusted method for making learning enjoyable and engaging for your students. However, when it comes to teaching, not just any game will have success.
Simon Says is a classic game that can help younger students practice vocabulary. If your students are particularly restless this is a great way to get them up and moving while practicing their listening comprehension skills and learning new words. Hangman is another game that can help young learners practice vocabulary while staying seated.
Taboo, Scrabble, Charades and Pictionary, and Two Truths and a Lie are all great options for helping more advanced students improve and practice English vocabulary.
Don’t be afraid to invent your own game. Create your own board game that adheres to the curriculum or develop a hide-and-seek type game that will take your students outdoors to learn about science or math. Your students will appreciate your creative efforts for sure!
Lesson Plan Idea #4: Make it Hands-On
Doing worksheet after worksheet and sitting down all day can get boring for many students. Take the subject matter they are learning about to the next level and help them get hands on.
For example, to supplement my students’ workbook chapter on cities, I had students create a city of their own. Each student brought a cereal box, milk carton, or other paper objects from home and was assigned a specific building. After finishing worksheets with vocabulary, my students were then given time to turn that object into a certain building or requirement for the city using scissors, markers and colored paper.
The classroom came together to draw roads, parks and street signs on a giant sheet of paper and then the students placed their buildings on top. At the end of the week, my classroom gave students from other classrooms a tour of their model city.
A hands-on approach will be a good fit for most subjects. Help your students practice math skills by turning your classroom into a grocery store and count out change to purchase classroom objects or plastic fruit. Teach history by having your students make a paper mache replica of the Eiffel Tower, or build bridges out of straws to test the fundamentals of engineering. The opportunities are truly endless!
Lesson Plan Idea #5: Read Your Favorite Children's Book
Reading is a staple of learning that never goes out of style. When in doubt of what to do with your students for an hour or so, read them your favorite children’s book.
It’s important to note that there is a lot more to reading to a class full of students than simply reading the text.
To start things off, set a chair up in the front of the room and invite your students to leave their desks and come sit on the floor in front of you. You’ll want to create a welcoming atmosphere for your students to feel more comfortable as you read.
Before you start reading, introduce the title, author, and cover illustration. Ask your students to predict what the book might be about or connect the themes and topics to other lessons your students have been learning about in the classroom. If you have a personal connection to the book share that as well.
While you read, read with expression. Match your tone of voice to the tone of the story. Make sure you read slowly and enunciate especially if English is not the primary language of your students.
While reading it is a good idea to stop after every page or so and ask your students questions about the plot, intent of the characters, predictions for action or to share more background knowledge about what is being shared. Questions are welcome, both from yourself to your students and from your students to you.
Final Thoughts on Lesson Planning
Teaching abroad is an exciting endeavor. For a first-time teacher, the first few months in the classroom can be daunting, especially when it comes to lesson planning.
For the best chances of success, allow yourself plenty of time when it comes to lesson planning. Ask the experienced teachers at your school for advice and pointers along the way. Your fellow teachers from abroad may have their own techniques or lesson plans that have been successful to share with you as well. Keep a positive attitude and devote the time that is needed to plan a well-crafted lesson and you will surely be on the road to success.