TEFL Tip Tuesday: Why Your First Day of Teaching Will Probably be a Disaster and Why That’s Ok!

It’s been a while but I’m back with another TEFL Tip Tuesday. This post was inspired by a recent Q&A we held at the language centre I work in. It was for new teachers arriving in Myanmar and teaching English for the first time, we were asked to give them one piece of advice about the job and well, without even hesitating I said “Your first day will most likely be a complete disaster, but that’s half the fun!” and speaking from personal experience it’s the most honest advice I could give!

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My first week of teaching went less than smoothly but I loved every minute!

Whether you have previous teaching experience or not, chances are your first lesson as a ESL teacher is going to be a complete disaster. Yes, I said disaster and yes you’ll probably agree with me about ten minutes into your first day that absolutely nothing you planned is…well… going to plan!

Let’s rewind a little bit here. Back to before you’ve even walked into that classroom; because I imagine if you are reading this it is because you are looking for advice for your first day on the job and therefore, have not even stepped into a classroom unassisted yet. More likely than not you’ve just completed some kind of course in ESL/TEFL/TESOL (whatever acronym they slapped on your certificate) and although it may feel like a blur of irregular verbs and classroom management techniques, you’d be surprised how much of this TEFL stuff is now second nature to you.  This stuff is in your brain now. For better or for worse you are a qualified, certified English teacher. All that’s left to do is get that first, actual, real life lesson out of the way.

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Me and the girls after our Graduation from Xplore Asia’s TESOL program.

Let me be the first to tell you, that though it will probably go down in history as one of the most chaotic and or awkward hours of your life it will also be the first story you tell anyone back home when they ask you about your TEFL experience. It’s one of those funny in hindsight kind of experiences and as with any first, it is completely unavoidable.

 

So, let’s get it over with!

 

Your first day; you’re bright eyed and bushy tailed, eager to get into that classroom and show those tiny humans (or possibly fully grown adults depending on how you get placed) your plethora of knowledge of the English language. Only one problem though… this classroom does not have a computer, nor does it have a HDMI cable so that carefully put together introduction slide show you prepared is gone, out the window, useless!! OK, ok just stay calm and ignore the fact they’re all staring at you expecting greatness, like you’re Captain America and the fate of the universe rests solely in your trembling, sweaty hands. Improvise, the limit does not exist when it comes to the possibilities of a board and some chalk. Any lesson can be converted from powerpoint presentation to chalkboard masterpiece with enough energy and imagination.

A chalkboard masterpiece?

Before you know it the hour’s up and it’s onto lesson two and then just like that you’ve somehow stumbled your way through an entire day of teaching (your first day of teaching!!!) with only a few sticky fingers and a scattering of biscuit crumbs in your hair. Did 90% of what you had planned end up on the cutting-room floor? Probably. Did you have to use brain muscles you didn’t even know existed when one particularly mischievous teenager pointed to THAT word in the dictionary and asked you to explain it, even though he knows perfectly well what it means!? Well, yes but it’s nothing a trained professional like you can’t handle. And, did any student for one second suspect that you were kind of winging it for half, if not all, of the lesson? Nope! They had no idea. Believe me when I say they are much more interested in having a good time and learning something new than they are in whether or not your lesson plan has been followed to the exact second. As long as you open with something fun, use a bit of magician’s deception (read: big hand movements and distraction tactics) when things go slightly pear shaped, improvise your way around faulty technology or just plain non-existent technology and end your lesson on a memorable note then you did a pretty good job from where I’m standing. It may feel like a disaster in the moment but really the only person thinking that is you and when it’s all over that first lesson will be a cherished memory and one hell of a story.

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Note the tiny piece of paper he is drawing on, a particularly tight budget in my first semester meant I had to ration my paper handouts. This resulted in a few complaints from students but it’s nothing a few stickers can’t distract them from!

Your first day of teaching will probably be a disaster, that’s ok! Trust me, if it went 100% perfectly then you’d have a hard time keeping up with yourself for the rest of the semester. Some people will definitely take to the role more naturally than others, it’s just the luck of the draw, but no one in the history of the world has had a perfect first day on the job. I really do believe that the more disasters you encounter early on, the better teacher you become. It’s not just your students that should be learning in the classroom, your teaching technique and style will have to evolve and adapt with each new challenge that is thrown your way. No two days are ever the same and in my opinion it’s the best part of the job! Throw predictability out of the window, you’re a TEFL teacher now!

 

For more TEFL tips check out on of my previous posts:

TEFL Tip Tuesday: Laughter is the Best Teaching Method

It doesn’t matter if you are teaching six-year olds, teenagers or adults; if your lessons are entertaining then your students will be engaged from the word Hello. One of the easiest ways to make a lesson entertaining is to use material that will get them laughing. How you do this is really up to you and your personality but by linking the new vocabulary to such a strong emotional response the words are almost guaranteed to stick in their heads! If you are a bit on the shy side then maybe your form of comedy is to include a funny GIF instead of a still image when introducing new language, if you are more outgoing then maybe acting out the new vocabulary in an over dramatic way is the best option for you. I use a mix of both in my lessons and it really does lift heads from desks when the subject matter isn’t all that interesting but has to be taught (somethings are unavoidable if they are part of the curriculum).

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Say Cheese!

 

I can vouch for this from both the teacher point of view and the student point of view having sat in various language classes since I was in primary school. Like most people who went to school in the U.K. I studied a language (our school taught German) from the age of about 8 until the age of 15. The main phrases I remember from German are almost useless “I have one Rabbit” being just one example. The word for Rabbit in German is “Kaninchen” and we found this word very funny in second year of Academy (also known as middle school outside of Scotland) it was just a fun word to say! As a result, this phrase has stuck with me into adult life whereas most of the useful phrases have slipped from my mind…

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Xplore Asia Class of August 2018, Thailand.

Another phrase I can think of is more recent and comes from my time in Thailand last year. As odd as it sounds this example does not come from one of our Thai language classes (although there is one that comes to mind when I think of those lessons, but it is too rude for the blog. Those from the course might remember the Thai word for a certain green vegetable that caused a few smirks from orientation week). No this comes from a bonus Afrikaans lesson given to us by our wonderful TEFL instructor Jako. In order to demonstrate his teaching methods to the class, he presented his Afrikaans lesson to us as if he were teaching English to a class of Thai children. I don’t know how many people reading this will agree with me, and I don’t know how many people reading this will even know any Afrikaans but the language is quite similar to English (it is a hybrid language of all the colonies that invaded and colonised South Africa so there are bound to be some similarities). The four of us sitting towards the front of the class definitely saw the similarities, especially when it came to one phrase in particular; “die kussing is op die bed”. Now, I don’t know what happened exactly… whether it was a mix of four similar personalities sitting together, the high energy and enthusiasm that Jako brought to every lesson or just the fact that the sentence was pretty much exactly the same as the sentence in would be English; but the four of us were reduced to a quartet of giggling school girls! I can tell you one thing though, I haven’t forgotten how to say “The pillow is on the bed” in Afrikaans… (yet another very useful phrase in a foreign language, I know).

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Where is the pillow ladies?

What I hope these examples show is that if you bring a bit of high energy contagious fun into your classroom then the language is more likely to stick, and not just the obscure phrases. Use this with everything. An example that really got my teenagers laughing recently was during my lesson on directions; I would ask them how to get from the classroom to my office. As they were telling me these directions I would act them out turning left and right and going straight until I got to an obstacle or a window or a door. Then I would either pretend to climb out the window, over the desk or I would actually just walk out the door. This did result in them purposefully aiming me towards these things, but as long as they are using the language I don’t mind standing on a few tables.

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Go Straight, Go Straight!

For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?

Organised Chaos: the First Few Weeks of Teaching

Teaching English: just when you think you’ve got it, you lose it and just when you think you’ve lost it, you crack it again.

 

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One class hard at work drawing Nessie.

 

My first day of teaching I realized I had lost my USB stick somewhere between getting on the plane in London and arriving at my placement school. As a result I gave my first three lessons by placing my laptop screen under a projector which was set up by a six-year-old! Good start…  A quick trip to the computer shop at lunch time for a brand new USB stick and the problem was sorted, until the computer in the next class room didn’t work and this time we had no projector! Time for a bit of blackboard improvisation and a few games (there maybe about forty Chinese children who now think that Scotland’s flag is pink).

 

When the computer doesnt work and you have to present your class with just a black board and chalk
Improvising a lesson about Scotland.

 

The first week I focused on introducing myself, explaining where Scotland is and showing the kids some Scottish wildlife. Being placed in a southern province meant that my pictures of the snow back home left each class gasping in amazement. I also decided to teach them about the Loch Ness Monster which meant I got to enjoy their take on the Scottish myth in the medium of crayon and felt tip pen (I was even lucky enough to have been gifted some to decorate my bedroom wall with). I have to say though some of the kids are extremely talented at drawing, especially considering they are all between the ages of six to eight years old!

 

Some very talented children in the class
Drawing Nessie

 

In the first week of teaching I was introduced as “The New Beautiful Foreign Teacher” in at least two of my classes, which made me want to turn around and run out of the room. Especially when it is followed by 40 small children giving me a round of applause (if you are anywhere near as socially awkward as I am then you will understand why)!

One of my favourite parts of the job so far is how every day I am greeted with consistently enthusiastic “hello”s, hugs and high-fives. Some of the children have also figured out that my favourite animal is a Panda. This means that “Panda” is shouted almost instantly every time we play Pictionary, every circle is a Panda in their eyes! My name has proved a struggle for some of the kids and so to about half of my 800 students I am known as “LeeLee”, which I have decided is close enough…

 

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Some of the students outside class during break.

 

We were lucky at our school, we got to pick what grade we wanted to teach. As a result, I am teaching 1st grade, which is nothing but endless fun, games and colouring. The good thing about 1st grade is, because they are so young, as long as you are animated and lively enough they won’t notice it you suddenly have to improvise for the last ten minutes of the class because you got through your lesson plan in record time! So far I have played “Who Stole My Pencil”, “Heads Down, Thumbs Up” and a new version of “I Spy” that I have recently invented; it involves a class room full of small children running at me with various objects of a whatever colour “I Spy” in order to high-five me first and win a point for their team (because you try explaining how to play “I Spy” to 40 children who speak almost no English).

 

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Me with one of my classes.

 

So far, I am absolutely loving teaching English! The kids are incredible, the school is beautiful and I have already been for lunch with my Grade One Contact and Mandarin Teacher at her home here in Sanxiang, cooked by her lovely mother who looks after the children in their dorms at night. I’m not even a month in yet but I know this is going to be a hard place to leave when it comes to July! As they say, find a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.

Back to Blogging – P.s. I’m in China!

I’ve not written a blog post in over a year! Well not for this site anyway, but I’m in China and I want to document it. So as of Monday I hope to be posting a weekly blog about my experience.

I arrived in China on the 20th of February and it has been a whirlwind of adventure and friendships and experiences since then! All of which I will update you on properly in the blog posts that follow this one.

After I graduated University in July I realized that as much as I loved my course and everything it involved, a desk job just wasn’t for me, not right now anyway. I had the travel bug, I needed to GO somewhere, anywhere, and where better than China?! A completely different culture, new people, new places and a chance to try my hand at a possible new career. Also… Pandas! The decision was obvious, the choice easy. So to China I went…

 

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View from the window flying into Beijing.

 

To give you a basic run down of my current situation, I recently passed my TEFL qualification certificate which allowed me to apply for a teaching internship in China. The lovely people at STA travel, I-to-I TEFL and ImmerQi all helped in setting up my trip and I will also be writing posts for I-to-I TEFL so keep an eye out for those, I’ll let you know when they are posted. I have been placed in the South of China in a Province called Guangdong, my school is in a “small” (I use inverted commas because it is bigger by far than Aberdeen but by China standards it is classed as small) town near the city of Zhongshan. I’ll go into more detail in a future post, but it is BEAUTIFUL! I could not be happier with where I’ve been placed and the people I’ve been placed with!

 

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The school campus.

 

My plan as it stands just now is; complete my internship here in China, spend a month travelling around South East Asia and then go on to do another 5 months’ internship in Vietnam. Who knows where from there but I feel like trying to plan further than a year ahead is just not how I work.

I left home almost a month ago, after a wonderful send off from my friends and family, I spent a week in London and then hopped on my flight to Beijing for a week of orientation, cultural classes and exploring. It was a ten-hour journey by bullet train down from Beijing to Guangzhou and then a further hour to our town. As I write this I am sitting in Sanxaing, Guangdong Province, China, in my new home, with my new flat mates, easting pancakes because it’s International Woman’s Day so what else are we meant to do?! (I should be creating a lesson plan for my first graders… but I thought I’d post this little update first).

 

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Flat mate goals! (We only own chopsticks… they are suprisingly versitile).