A foreign country – ten things I wish I’d known when I started teaching.

I have been involved in teaching English for many years – I have never worked in any other field.  I ‘taught’ my first class in 1979. I have used inverted commas because I took my first job with no training at all at that point and I had very little idea of what was going on. But I grew up in a seaside town in the UK and there were always jobs like that to be had. The money seemed good to me and in all honesty it was a good way to meet exotic girls from exotic countries. I have grown a lot since then as a teacher and subsequently teacher educator and this blog is a result of a little reflection on my three thousand years in ELT.

1 Students don’t really listen to the teacher.

Or to be more precise some of them listen for some of the time. One of the most boring things known to humanity is to sit in a group and listen to somebody talking and talking and talking. Yet we all do it. Teachers will often say to me with great confidence that when they speak the students are listening, and indeed they appear to be. But appearance does not always show the drifting minds that have moved from your exciting explanation of the third conditional to what they need to buy in the supermarket, a worry from work or that good looking man they saw on the bus today. Verbose monologues do not teach. Which brings me to my next point.

2 I like the sound of my own voice too much.

Like most teachers I feel that when I am speaking I am in control – indeed there is usually at least some silence when you are talking. But, as I say above, that need not indicate listening. I have taught myself to use my voice as a resource, a resource like any of the others we have in our classes. In your planning, consider when you will need to talk, for example to set up activities, to present and to summarise. Equally, during the lesson use your voice as a targeted resource, to clarify, to reassure and to motivate. My sense is that a minimal time speaking to the class as a whole and with students working largely in small groups is the way forwards. Your spoken interventions to the groups or individuals are thus very focussed and so highly effective.

3 The course book that you have and hate is the course book you have.

There are truly great course books in ELT, plenty of good ones and of course some rather mediocre ones. Such is life. But the book you have is the one you have to use and I think, to the students at least, you have to be seen to like it.  I see teachers as the bridge between the book and the students. You are a kind of ‘localiser’. If you think that text on the London underground is not relevant, then find or write one on the local bus network. If you think that grammar box explanation is too complex, fine. Make your own explanation using the L1 as needed. Books are not set in stone.

4 Learning a language is hard, really hard.

Time is never on the side of the language teacher and there is always pressure to keep moving. Try to slow down as much as you can and allow students time to think, time to form their answers, time to try things out. At the end of the session allow a few minutes of reflection so they can piece it all together. Learning a language is hard, really hard.

5 Students need to know what they are doing and why they are doing it.

ELT students can be asked to do some things that to them feel a bit strange. Pairwork, role plays, games and even the fact that they need to speak English all the time are things that are second nature to us, yet can feel alien to our students who after all are not specialists in our field. Students can sometimes resist being asked to do certain things in class and overall will do activities better if they understand the rationale behind them. A ‘zero lesson’ at the beginning of a course or semester – likely held in L1 – is a way to explain to them how and why they will be doing certain activities in your classes.  Usually 20 minutes –with a few examples – is enough and I think it’s a great investment. Give it a try. Teens and above.

6 We need to give our learners survival strategies.

I am a really poor language learner, (I’m British!), but I travel a lot for my job. I have taught myself various survival strategies to make my life easier when I am travelling.  For example at airports in the Arab world, I have taught myself to listen for the names of cities and numbers. I don’t know which numbers, just that it is a number and that if I hear it in connection with my destination city I need to ask the staff what has happened to my flight. I have to rehearse almost every transaction in Russian – shops, ticket offices and restaurants. Rehearsal and then in I go! In Spanish I can say “it’s one of those things you use for + verb” to deal with my very poor vocabulary.  You can think of lots of these mini-strategies and students seem to like them, especially those who travel for work.

7 Students will take risks.

If your classroom is a safe place to be, psychologically safe that is, then students will take the risks with the language that will allow then to break through to true fluency. But creating that safe place is a challenge – try to always have it in your mind.  What can I do to make this place somewhere they can ‘let go’ and really try? It’s like that first swim without armbands I guess. You have to really trust that teacher don’t you…..

8 As a teacher you are never alone.

Remember whatever happens in you in class – good or bad – has happened in a classroom before. Many times. Don’t ‘bottle it up’, talk to colleagues and their similar experiences will be very reassuring.

9 Conversation classes are a silly idea.

First of all, I would wonder what the students were doing the rest of the time if not talking. The spoken language should be fully integrated into every stage of the lesson. Students want to speak and we need to maximise their opportunities to do so. Standalone conversation classes are very contrived and in my experience become dominated by a few pushy students. I don’t like them.

10 We need to make time for reflection.

Point 4 mentions giving time for student refection after a class. We also need to reflect on our own work. Try to find a little time for yourself, to reflect how the classes that week went and what you can learn from them. It will also help you to value yourself a little more and that must be a good thing.

This piece is called ‘A foreign country’ after a quote from the 1953 L P Hartley novel ‘The Go-Between’. The opening line is “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. A nice sentiment to have in mind as you look back at your own teaching perhaps.


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