TEFL Tip Tuesday: Cultural Differences and How to Handle Them

If you are a TEFL teacher then you are probably about to move to a completely new country with completely new and sometimes confusing cultural differences. The first thing I want to say is; don’t see this a bad thing. It can be and is a wonderful learning experience and a way to open your mind to other cultures so embrace them!

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We weren’t told about the Sports Meeting Opening Ceremony until we showed up to empty classrooms!

Cultural differences can present themselves in some weird and wonderful ways, in and out of the classroom. They can range from kids falling asleep in class to fellow teachers giving you little to no information about what is happening at the school. It can be frustrating and it can seem like they are doing these things because you aren’t performing well as a teacher but let me assure you that unless someone has come up and told you that you aren’t doing a good job or that something needs to change then these occurrences are nothing personal!

I have had kids fall asleep in class before, this tends to happen mostly in my middle school classes, I do not take it personally and I often leave them to sleep unless the class is laughing at them. The reason I don’t let this affect my class is because I know how hard these kids work every day. They are often awake well before me, with their school day starting with a 6:30am run around the campus, and are still in school when I’m climbing into bed for a Netflix marathon, they finish classes at 10pm. I design my classes as a safe and fun environment for my students to learn and practice English in, so I never get mad at a kid if they happen to fall asleep in class.

In the U.K. we are used to having instant access to all the school’s timetable information at the beginning of the year. We know in August when the last day of school will be at the end of the year and we know exactly what days off we will receive for each holiday. This is not always the case in China and I have learnt to just go with the flow a bit. This cultural difference can definitely be the most frustrating of all the ones I have come across but the best advice I can give is just to stay calm and every now and then give your school a gentle reminder that you might need to know how many days off you will receive over the Spring Festival so you can start booking your travels. Most of the time if they aren’t giving you any information it is genuinely because they themselves don’t have it yet, my school has to wait for the government to tell them when the exams will be before they can tell me when my last day of term is and that is just the way it is. This semester it meant that I was told the Friday before my last week of term that I only had a week left and it meant changing my lesson plans completely to combine two weeks into one and abandoning the rest of them. A mild annoyance but in the long run it gave me a longer holiday and meant I didn’t have to work on Christmas or my Birthday so I wasn’t complaining!

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Cultural differences mean that my students had an exam on Christmas day, something that would no doubt cause riots back in the U.K.

At the end of the day every country is different and if you can relax and embrace those differences you will grow a better understanding of the world and how it works. How we handle these differences can vastly change our experience of a country and I have always found that calm and understanding gets me further than annoyance and anger. So, be aware that things aren’t going to be the same as home and incorporate them into your understanding of the country and even your daily routine and you will come out the other end will the best experience you can get!

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

TEFL Tip Tuesday: Back it Up!

Computers are unreliable. Computers in Chinese schools are extra unreliable! There will be times when you arrive in class only to be told by a student that the computer is not working today. What are you going to do?! You spent a whole hour on your lesson plan, you have funny videos to show them and word games that require the code you stored ever so safely on your powerpoint presentation but didn’t think to write down in your notebook!

One of my first ever lessons the computer didn’t work so I had to do my whole lesson using the blackboard.

 

This all sounds very dramatic and worst-case scenario, but it can happen. Unless you want to sit in silence with your kids for an hour or, even worse, sing that lovely song you had downloaded and planned your lesson around out loud yourself… Having a backup plan for days when technology fails you is vital to your TEFL experience.

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My lesson planning notebook.

The first thing I advise you to do is write your entire lesson plan in a notebook, I have a specific notebook for planning my lessons and while it might seem like a waste of time to write it all down when you have created a perfectly good powerpoint, let me tell you it is an important tool to have. (If you aren’t a fan of handwriting your lesson then you can always use that handy lesson plan template they told you about back when you were learning the ropes. Type it up on your computer, print it out and carry it with you. Personally, I am a fan of the hand-written lesson plan but that is just me!) The reason I encourage you to have your lesson plan to hand at all times is because, when you think about it, your original lesson can most likely be adapted to work without using a computer. Some schools don’t even have computers in the classrooms! So apart from missing out an interesting video or funny gif you can present each class with the same lesson, computer or no computer.

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School in Thailand don’t usually have computers…

Say for example you are doing a lesson on personality traits, this could rely heavily on a computer for video examples of different personalities. Maybe you have a word game for a warmer, write this word game down in your notebook as well as all the possible answers you can think of (or that the internet told you about, but where’s the fun in that?) It might seem like common sense but honestly sometimes I create the warmer on my laptop and completely forget to write down the actual game in my book, I’ll open my notebook to see that all I have under the warmer heading is “word grid game”. GREAT, AILEEN!! What word did you decide on? What order did you put the letters in so that it isn’t obvious what word you they are trying to find? And what are some answers to the game so that when the students tell you it is too difficult you can rapid fire off some words to show them how easy it actually is?! The game can be easily transcribed from your notebook onto the board and actually I usually write the game on the board anyway to make sure everyone in the class can see it.

Crisis averted, you make it through the warmer and now you move on to presentation, this is where those videos would come in handy. The first thing I recommend is to have flashcards printed out, this was not possible at my school as we did not have access to a printer but if you can print flash cards then do print flash cards!! The second tip I have for this situation is to break out your inner artist and get drawing. Every school will have one of three things; a whiteboard, a blackboard or paper. Write the words alongside little illustrations showing what the word means, you may not be the best at drawing, but this is just an opportunity to have a laugh with your students about your artistic talents or lack thereof…

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All the emotions that grade one know… I know some of them aren’t emotions but they are six so I let them off with it!

Then comes the practice section of your lesson. What were those question and answer couplets again? If you power point was working, they would be right at the front of you mind but there is no computer today so what can you do? Have no fear the lesson planning notebook saves the day again! Write down your questions and answers in your lesson plan and not just on your presentation. This actually helps whether you have a working computer or not. Trying to remember the questions and answers with your back to the computer is just asking for a clever student to correct you on your sentence structure. A quick look at your notebook lesson plan and you are sorted. Just make sure that any changes you make to your powerpoint you also make to your notes!

Production is easy, the students do all the hard work there. You can close your book and watch the magic (or chaos depending on the class) happen as your students communicate the new language with each other. No technology needed!

Ok so this is all well and good but what if your lesson can’t be translated from digital to analogue quite so easily? Well I admit that is a bit of a dilemma. The best thing to do in this situation is to have a collection of games that you can fall back on if it is indeed a computer free day. (I will be writing a post soon all about my favourite TEFL games and why they work so keep an eye out for that). There are so many good games out there and the kids will love the fact that they “don’t have to do work” for a whole lesson. Of course, these are educational games so they are still learning… just don’t tell them that.

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It is always handy to have a set of pictionary cards on you!

The last thing I have to say on the theme of having a backup would be to literally have a backup. I have two usb sticks, this might seem like overkill, but my school’s computers tend to occasionally corrupt my usb which is less than ideal. There was even one class that I completely avoided plugging my usb into the computer, for pretty much the whole semester because every time I did it would stop working after that class! So my advice is to save it to your computer, save it to your external hard-drive and then save it on two usb sticks. Take it from someone how has lost a whole semester’s worth of lesson plans… BACK IT UP!

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

TEFL Tip Tuesdays: Speak Their Language.

Welcome back to TEFL Tip Tuesdays, this week I want to focus on speaking the same language as your students. I know this sounds counterproductive, but stick with me…

When introducing a new topic in English it is important to keep students interested and the easiest way to do this is to make it relatable to their own lives. When I say speak their language, what I mean is use their interests to communicate the topic to them. Find out what movies they like, the music they listen to, what they do on the weekend and translate that information into a fun and engaging lesson plan. My eighth graders are really into Marvel films so it is easy to get them engaged in a conversation if it has something to do with Captain America or Spiderman. I recently did a lesson where I asked my students to write me a scary story and you would be surprised how many of them involved Marvel characters saving the day!

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I wasn’t looking forward to teaching teenagers, but they’re not so bad really.

These themes are so simple to work into all stages of your lesson from warmer, to practice and production, all the way to your cooler. It is even better if you share the interest and are able to show off a bit of your knowledge on the subject. For example; a lesson on the future can be easily focused around Marvel movies because of the very nature of the movies themselves, use the ideas from the movies to inspire a conversation about how we might live in the future. Will people have superpowers in the future? Will we travel to other planets in the future? These are some great questions that get students thinking in future tense without them even realising they are learning something new, because the theme is so familiar to them.

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Charades is a fun cooler to end a lesson on movies.

If you take an interest in your students you will soon notice a change in attitude towards you. It can be quite common for students to see the foreign teacher’s class as a time where they can switch off and stop learning for one hour of the day. While I think it is important for students to be relaxed in my classroom I obviously still want them to learn something from me. A classroom full of teenagers can be a challenge to control, they believe they have much better things to be talking about than the rules of the English language. Gaining their respect by getting to know them, even a little bit, is one of the best ways to control your classroom. If even one student starts to actively participate in your lesson then they will want the rest of the class to play along too, this will cause a ripple effect and soon you will find that it is the students asking for people to be quiet and listen instead of you!

For more TEFL tips why not read one of these posts: