Why be a great English teacher when instead you can just settle for being a terrible one? If you’ve already secured a position as an ESL/EFL teacher, the hard part is done, so now you can just relax, kick back, and follow these useful tips to make sure your students will learn as little as possible:
1. Assume you know the language just because you speak it
I am possibly among the world’s top ten grammar nerds, and even I’ve been stumped a few times by questions posed by students or fellow teachers (seriously, native English speakers, raise your hand right now if you’ve ever heard of adjective order in a non-EFL setting).
Grammar and language structure are complicated topics, and while being a native speaker gives you an automatic advantage in most areas, it doesn’t guarantee you instant expert status.
If you’re a little hazy on your verb tenses or tag questions, try to brush up before classes start, and it never hurts to have a small grammar book or online resource at your fingertips to consult when those weird questions come up. This is also important if you know you have a very strong accent – obviously you can’t (and shouldn’t) try to make your accent disappear, but be aware of how you’re teaching your students during pronunciation lessons, and try to provide contrasting examples so they can hear how accents change the way words sound.
2. Fail to correct your own mistakes
Sometimes we start talking too fast, or talk about one thing while thinking about something else, or try to write while having a separate conversation. We are people. We make mistakes.
Just because you’re in front of a classroom doesn’t mean you’re going to be infallible, so it’s better to accept from the beginning that you’re going to switch letters, or mispronounce something, or accidentally start incorporating grammatical quirks of your students’ native language (almost guaranteed this last one will happen). This is fine, but don’t try to brush it under the carpet when, not if, it happens. Though some of your students are undoubtedly doodling, napping or texting, there are plenty that are paying close attention to what you do and say, and they will pick up on every word, even the wrong ones.
Even better, try to make intentional mistakes once in a while, especially with writing, to see if students can catch them. This is great for students’ confidence and makes them feel more comfortable making their own mistakes – if even the teacher is wrong once in a while, it can’t be that bad!
3. Let students know you speak their native language
The whole point of immersion language teaching is that it creates a situation in which students, by necessity, have to speak the second language. This is a great way to encourage vocabulary building, cooperation, creative problem solving, and the occasional informal game of charades – which all goes out the window the second the students catch on that you understand what they’re whispering about in the back of the room.
The shortcuts aren’t doing them any good in the long run, so don’t let them start.
It may be hard to resist the urge to laugh at a particularly clever dirty joke, or to help a student who is truly struggling to articulate something, but your students will learn so much more from working with their peers or finding new ways to express their thoughts than they will if you give them the answers or translate for them. The shortcuts aren’t doing them any good in the long run, so don’t let them start.
4. Underestimate the value of games – or songs
Sometimes we think games are best suited for younger students, while older students need a more “serious” classroom environment to learn. While some lessons do require relative levels of silence and note-taking, interactive lessons can sometimes be the best way to teach a topic – not to mention they’re great at keeping students of all ages engaged. Younger learners love new songs, while high school students have an astonishing ability to memorize lyrics to popular tunes, even if they don’t understand what the words actually mean.
And games are fun for everyone from the smallest children to middle-aged adults – just because they’re grown-ups doesn’t mean they don’t like to play and sing, too! Don’t cheat your students out of fun lessons because you feel like the activities might be too childish – most of us would rather go back to first grade than high school.
Music is also a fantastic memory device and teaching aid – I know I still remember some songs I learned all the way back in my middle-school Spanish classes, well over a decade ago.
5. Ignore your students' levels
Just because your students are in the same class doesn’t mean they all have the same level of English (or learning style, or learning challenges, or socioeconomic backgrounds, or so on ad infinitum). This is especially true in large classes, where it’s impossible that all 45 students have exactly the same level of comprehension and vocabulary set.
You can see a range of multiple grade levels within just one of these classes, from advanced students to the ones who won’t understand a word you say. It can seem near-impossible to design classroom activities that account for so many different levels, but practicing scaffolding your lessons and pairing students in mindful ways that allow them to help each other will improve their language levels across the board, regardless of where they started.
6. Pass up the opportunity for cultural exchange
Your primary job may be to teach English, but your presence in the classroom has so many effects beyond greater understanding of the present perfect tense. For some students, you may be the first native English speaker they’ve ever met, the first person from your region or country, or even the first person they’ve ever encountered from any other country. This role of “cultural ambassador” can be tiring for some people, but remember that your very presence in the classroom is expanding their world.
You may be the first native English speaker they’ve ever met, the first person from your region or country, or ... any other country.
Don’t be afraid to incorporate lessons about your country, culture, customs or hometown – these details can be eye-opening for your students, who are probably already immensely curious about you and where you come from. You’re learning about their lives and culture just by living there, so it’s only fair for you to reciprocate a little.
7. Have no backup plan
Teaching is just like evolution – it’s survival of the fittest out there, and sometimes your teenage students arrive with sudden, strange mutations. Well, maybe the second one isn’t always true, but it’s a fact of teaching that things almost never go according to plan, and you have to be ready to adapt to deal with new situations.
Surprise assembly? Classes cancelled for a school-wide soccer match? Two extra hours of class because the chemistry lab flooded? Whatever happens, you’re going to have to roll with it, which is why it’s always smart to have a few fallback, tried and true options up your sleeve just in case. Yes, lesson planning is important, but no matter what a perfect, Type A micromanager you are, you can’t control those weather systems or faulty walls, so even if your Plan A is perfect, don’t forget about a Plan B.
8. Expect special treatment
Yes, you will probably get some additional attention for being both new and a foreigner, especially if you’re the only foreigner at your school. While it can be exciting (or annoying, depending on how introverted you are) to be the center of attention, it’s also not the reason you’re there, nor does it automatically entitle you to special or preferential treatment.
Your contract may very well be different from those of the other teachers you’re working with, and it’s important to know exactly what it says, so that you don’t end up at those six-hour Saturday “trainings” when your presence isn’t required. Still, beyond any contractual differences, you’re expected to be working as part of a team contributing to the overall education of your students.
Asking to leave work early or trying to get out of completing evaluations by playing the “clueless gringo” card might work (at least the first few times), but it won’t make you any friends among your co-workers and will make you look less committed in the long run.
9. Say you are “not a real teacher”
Yes, plenty of us who choose to work as ESL/EFL teachers, either in our home countries or abroad, are not certified teachers. We may have studied history, anthropology, biology, law, or something else that didn’t involve public speaking. While it is important to go through TEFL certification if at all possible so you have a background in the unique challenges and teaching tools necessary for this line of work, it is entirely possible to be a successful, compassionate, effective teacher without completing a master’s degree in education.
Referring to yourself as less than a “real teacher,” whether to yourself or in public, does a disservice to you and your students. If you don’t think of yourself as a real teacher, it’s unreasonable to expect your students to do so, and it also shows them that you don’t think of your job as “real” work.
So... ready to get out there and be a terrible teacher?
Though it’s possible to fall into some of these traps that could make you a less-than-stellar teacher, there are twice as many ways to be a great ESL teacher. Whether it’s your creative lesson plans, hilarious songs, positive attitude or just obviously caring about your students, you’ll figure out the strategy that helps you find success for yourself and your students – just remember to stay off of this list!Photo credits: Jessie Beck, Everybody ready, Amusing Thailand, and International Disaster Volunteers.