You just landed a cushy job at a public school, and you're excited to jump on the plane and get started. But then you realize, Wait, how am I going to teach 40 students in one class??
When I first came to China for a job at a public high school, I had class sizes of 45-50 students. When I guest-taught at the local primary school, class sizes hovered around 35-40 kids. This might sound overwhelming (and it is), but in many countries around the world, my experience is very typical.
Countries like Japan, South Korea, and China all have giant class sizes in their public schools. While South Korean and Japanese public schools tend to be capped at 40 students, Chinese classes can reach 50 students!
How do you manage so many students in one room? How do you teach oral English to 50 students in a 40-minute class period? How do you remember everyone's names?
Never fear, as an experienced teacher who's used to working with large classes of up to 50 students, I'm here to give you all the tips and tricks you need to manage giant classes while you teach abroad!
1. PowerPoint is Your Best Friend
How do you keep a group of 40 small children engaged for a 40-minute English lesson when they can barely understand what you're saying? Avoid student fatigue by creating PowerPoint presentations for all of your lessons. I loved to start the lesson by introducing the vocabulary with pictures on individual slides. This ensures that everyone knows what's going on and also allows you to teach new vocabulary without knowing the local language.
Not only are PowerPoint presentations helpful for introducing vocabulary, they're also great for keeping you on track while lecturing to older students. Having a PowerPoint behind me made me feel much more confident going through a lesson, and reminded me of my plan for the day.
Some students may also be better at reading than listening comprehension. Having a basic outline of your lesson on a PowerPoint slide ensures that everyone understands what's going on and keeps students focused on the lesson.
2. Keep Classes Exciting and Entertaining
There's nothing worse than a boring lecture, especially after a long day of classes. Prevent your students from falling asleep by keeping things interesting. Put funny photos in your PowerPoint presentations, create active games, and let students express their creativity whenever possible.
Keeping Younger Students Engaged
For younger students I love to include art, games, and singing whenever possible. For example, when teaching body parts, I had students draw their own creative monster. Whenever I said the name of a body part, they practiced by drawing that part of the monster and labeling it appropriately.
In an animal lesson, I drew animals on small slips of paper and had each student pick an animal. Then I drew both a farm and a forest on the classroom board. I called on each animal individually, and the student with that animal would walk to the front of the board and place it in the correct location.
Singing is also very helpful for younger students, especially if music or fun dances are involved. A well placed "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" has saved many a lesson from chaos.
Entertaining Older Students
What about high school students? You can't exactly expect them to sing and dance, can you?
Don't worry, there are plenty of ways to keep older students entertained. For example, I love to include hilarious photos in all of my PowerPoints and make funny jokes throughout the lesson. I'll give them an example of how "Teacher Richelle is lost, and needs English directions to find the cafeteria". One time I even had them blindfold each other outside and give English directions to walk around obstacles.
Teenagers also love any opportunity to get creative. Whether it's describing their dream trip or the physical features of their favorite celebrity.
One game that I created that was particularly successful was the "Titanic Game." I asked students to brainstorm a list of jobs and included a few interesting ones of my own, along with celebrities like Justin Bieber. Then I asked students to vote on who they would save if the Titanic lifeboat could only rescue five people. Unsurprisingly, most groups saved Justin Bieber.
3. Call on Random Students
What's the best way to make sure students are always paying attention? I'm a big fan of calling on random students, especially among older groups. No one wants to be caught daydreaming when the teacher asks them a question, and many students will pay attention and prep answers to questions just in case.
Personally, I love to call on students who look like they're daydreaming, are talking with their neighbors, or are attempting to do homework in class. Accountability is key!
4. Group Work is Essential
How do you teach oral English to a class of 50 students in 40 minutes? Group work. That's how.
Lump students into pairs or small groups for activities. Then have them nominate a student to share their work with the class. Just make sure that they don't always pick the same student to present every single time.
To be honest, group work is much more successful with older students. It's hard to make 10-year-olds work efficiently in small groups. However, among older students, you can definitely assign tasks to ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak English.
Ask students to brainstorm jobs or holiday activities. Tell students to work in pairs and talk about what they did over the school break. Give students a small map and ask them to give one another directions to specific locations using English. The possibilities are endless!
5. Monitor Groups to Ensure Everyone is Working
With 50 students in a class, it's almost impossible to ensure everyone is actually working together in English. That's why it's important to constantly wander the room and monitor progress. Call out groups that aren't speaking English, and look over people's shoulders to make sure that they're working.
If students need help, they can easily get your attention, otherwise your constant vigilance will pressure students into actually completing the assignment.
6. Assign Group Presentations and Performances
You may not be able to have each student speak individually in a class of 40 or 50 students, but you can definitely have students create skits or presentations. Have them work together to create a skit that covers the major lessons you've learned that year, or give a presentation on their favorite travel destination in their home country. Just be sure to emphasize that each student needs to speak during the activity.
7. Don't Be Intimidated!
I'll admit, as a 22-year-old standing in front of a class of 50 high school students, it was hard not to be intimidated. But just remember, you're a trained teacher! You have control!
If groups of students are misbehaving, don't be afraid to discipline them. My school didn't have any sort of detention, but I once kicked an entire group of 5 students out into the hallway for misbehaving. While many of them might've laughed at my disciplinary method, they all missed out on seeing photos of my travels over Chinese New Year. Some of them even tried to break back into the classroom when they heard how much fun the other students were having.
Always remember you are the teacher and you are in control.
While teaching 40-50 students might seem impossible, it really is very easy to manage a big class once you're used to it. Make a PowerPoint presentation, play a few games, break students up into small groups, and create fun, engaging lessons.
Sure, teaching abroad may come with its set of challenges, but there is no shortage of rewards either. By the end of the year, you'll be loving your giant classes!
This post was originally published in November 2017, and it was updated in June 2020.