Secrets for Surviving Martinis in the Classroom, Grammar Insecurity and Chinese Politics.
What its like to be an elementary teacher, Teach English Abroad West China
By: Christina Nelson (justin) 2012.01.06
TOURS/ITINERARIES BEFORE AND AFTER YOU TEACH ABROAD
On the first day of class, none of my students showed up.
I had arrived on campus at a quarter to eight already I could not stand the heat while Teach English Abroad West China sun and humidity only to find the classroom I had been assigned to completely empty.
I stood at the podium looking down at empty desks, fearing the moment those seats would be filled with faces staring up at me, expecting me to fill their brains with the skills required to speak English fluently. So I’m a native speaker of English. So what? My vague notions of teaching had come directly from my experiences as a student at a liberal arts university. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. Suddenly my brilliant idea about teaching English in China didn’t seem so brilliant.
But then the bell rang, and no one was there. So I waited. Thirty minutes and a trip to the English department later, I gave up and walked home. I was later informed by my boss, a 20-something English teacher who had better things to do than keep track of the foreigners on campus, that class wouldn’t start until the next week. The anxious hours I’d spent meticulously planning the lesson had been wasted.
Despite my frustration, I was also relieved but still worried about the next day. The school I was teaching at Zhejiang University of Technology in Hangzhou had given me no curriculum requirements, no books, no teaching materials, and no advice; I had to come up with everything on my own. The program I had signed up through, Princeton-in-Asia, gave us a brief, four-hour teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) training course, and I had not done any outside TEFL training on my own. I soon learned, though, that many other first-time English teachers abroad were in similar situations and some had even lived to tell about it.
For those of you going abroad to teach English, and whose only qualification is your native-speaker status, here are a few tips to get you started in the classroom.
BEFORE SCHOOL STARTS
Make sure your sense of humor has had a tune-up. English teaching job ads should include this as a requirement. When you show up to a writing class and no one has a pen or paper, when the entire back row is asleep, or when a student does a presentation on how to make a mixed drink, and then passes the cocktail out to all of her friends in class (this actually happened in one of my classes), you will need a good sense of humor.
Don’t expect resources or support from the school. Bring your own materials, or get creative and make them. Some schools, especially private schools, will offer every teaching resource imaginable from computers and multimedia rooms to books on methodology and a choice of textbooks while others will offer: absolutely nothing, like my public school in China.
Check out your school beforehand. E-mail other foreign teachers at the school to ask about working and living conditions and students’ levels and backgrounds. Before you sign a contract, ask the person hiring you to give you contact information for current teachers. Check out the discussion boards on www.ESLcafe.com for information or advice on specific schools around the globe. When you get to your new home, seek advice from the local teachers to find out what they do in their classes.
Although classroom situations vary from place to place, students are students they will act up if given the chance and will respond well to certain situations no matter what the context. But keep in mind that my suggestions are based on my experiences teaching in China and may not apply if you’re teaching kindergartners in Ghana.
Establish rules from the beginning. If you’re lucky, your school will already have an outline. If not, you have to decide: Do you mind hearing Lone Ranger ring tones from a cell phone during class? Do you mind if students are late or don’t come at all? Is it OK if they talk to each other while someone else is speaking? Once you’ve laid down the law, you have to enforce it consistently.
Never underestimate the power of routine. If the students know what to expect, they’ll be more comfortable with you and your strange, foreign teaching style. I always start my conversation classes with the question “What’s new?” I usually pick two or three students to tell me about anything going on in their lives, on campus, in the city, or in the world. Students in my class have brought up everything from President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq to the gap between rich and poor in China to the most popular video game. On a few occasions, “What’s new?” has turned into a full-blown class discussion.
Whether you’re teaching an advanced conversation course or a class for absolute beginners, choose topics that will engage your students. Adults just starting to learn English may not be able to say much, but that doesn’t mean they want to play simplistic games like bingo or sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” every class. One of the best lessons I ever used was a discussion about how life has changed in 50 years. My students with the lowest levels of English were the most excited about the topic, and students who usually didn’t speak at all were raising their hands and blurting out answers to my questions.
Don’t let the age gap (or lack thereof) intimidate you. If you’re teaching at a university, you may be the same age as your students, and it can seem daunting to try to establish yourself as an authority. Be confident about your teaching methods and your class activities. If students question your methods because they seem unconventional, stick to your planned lesson. Giving in to student demands will make you seem less like an authority figure and more like a teacher who doesn’t know what she’s doing. I also had quite a few students 10 or more years older than me some who were even teachers at my university, and who were not opposed to telling me when they thought one of my lessons was less than effective. I found it helped to listen to their concerns and desires. They were, after all, more experienced than me, and some of their input was invaluable.
Avoid taboo topics. At some schools, politics and religion can be flashpoints that can get you in trouble. In China, preaching religion and discussing Taiwan and Tibet were explicitly spelled out in my contract as subjects to avoid. When in doubt, it helps to have basic knowledge of the history, current events, and culture of the country you’re in.
Whether you’ll be teaching in Asia, South America, Europe, or closer to home, keep in mind that even the most seemingly boring class can surprise you. Teaching can be a great window on another culture, and it is almost always an adventure. And if your students don’t show up on the first day of class, don’t worry, you’ll soon start to wish they’d do that more often.
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Photos by Tom Allwood