TEFL Tip Tuesday: A Year of Teaching English, What Has it Taught Me?

A year ago today I landed in China, I had no idea what to expect. My original plan was to spend six months teaching in China and then move onto Vietnam. There I would spend another six months teaching and move onto Australia for a year before finally heading home to the U.K. It’s safe to say that isn’t exactly what happened. I fell in love with teaching English, fell in love with China and fell in love with the school I had been placed at. Now I don’t know when I’ll finally be heading home; I have just finished a year teaching in China and I am at the beginning of a six month contract in Myanmar. Teaching English has surprised me in how much it has taught me about the world we live in, about how language evolves and how to deal with unfamiliar situations and why they are not always a bad thing.

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Orientation week in Beijing

I travelled to China alone, this was not by mistake. I didn’t even try to convince anyone to come with me. When I made the decision to travel the world I did so with the conviction that I would be doing it alone! The reason behind this was not because I had no friends or because I was “travelling to find myself”. No, I chose to travel alone because I wanted to go and I wanted to go as soon as possible. I wasn’t about to wait for anyone to join me, who knew how long it would take to find someone willing to move themselves halfway around the world. I have always travelled alone, it’s the only way I knew and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? This year has taught me that my belief in solo travel runs deep within me and that it gives me the freedom to go and do whatever I want to do while I’m travelling. On the reverse of that it has also taught me that sometimes it is nice to have a travel buddy or a friend to visit in a country. Making friends and travelling with them is part of the appeal of solo travel for many people, and without some of the friendships I have made this year I would not have done or seen some of the incredible things that I have.

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Travelling solo doesn’t mean you are always alone.

When it comes to the teaching side of things I could go on for days about how much it has taught me. If you have ever had the pleasure of being introduced to me in a bar after a drink or two you’ll know just how much I can talk about the advantages of TEFL, to the teacher and student alike! The most surprising thing I have learnt this year, and the thing that really should be the least surprising at all really, is how much I have learnt about the English language. I always enjoyed English at school and, despite my Dyslexia, it was always one of the subjects I performed best in, but since teaching English I have found myself more and more fascinated by how our complicated and at times completely irrational language came to be the way it is. English as a language honestly makes little to no sense unless you have grown up speaking it, this is something I have discovered this year and something I have discussed with my fellow teachers at length. I think to understand this allows you to become a better ESL teacher. It’s not just about having fun games and a lot of energy (although these things definitely help) if you understand how much English really doesn’t make sense sometimes then it will allow you to think about the language from a non-native speaker’s point of view. If you can do that then you are going to be a much better English teacher!

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Chaotic but we made it work.

I always say to my eighth grade students “Chinese is so difficult” and they always say to me “No, teacher English is so difficult” it’s become a bit of a pantomime call scenario at this point, we’ve come to the conclusion that both languages are difficult. As much as I teach them English they teach me new things about English daily by questioning the language. This forces me to really think about why we use a word the way we do or why some words are spelled the way they are when really they could be spelled completely differently (even while writing that sentence I had an inner-battle of spelled vs. spelt). Teaching English has made me better at English.

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Grade Eight Girls on my last day.

Teaching English as Foreign Language has put me into situations that are completely unfamiliar and unknown to me. I had never stepped into a classroom as anything but a student until I arrived in Sanxiang, China one year ago. I had no experience as a teacher and my experience of working with children amounted to weekend Pizza Parties at my part time job and a short stint as a Young Leader with my local Girl Guides unit. This year has pushed me out of my comfort zone completely and taught me how to handle situations that I would not have come into contact with had I not become an ESL Teacher. It has taught me how to think on the spot when my lesson plan finished ten minutes before the end of class, it has taught me how to be a role model to teenagers who I thought saw me as the very uncool foreign teacher when in fact they saw me as the cool foreign teacher with two cats (having my cats associated with my cool factor is always going to make me happy) and it showed me how taking an interest in the cultures and language of the countries you visit can completely change that experience for the friends you make there as well as yourself. Unfamiliar situations used to fill me with dread, the unknown was worse to me than knowing something bad was about to happen (mainly because if I didn’t know I would think of about twenty bad things that could happen and these would spiral until it was better just to not do anything) but now I find myself excited at the prospect of an unfamiliar situation or an unknown challenge. I have definitely learnt this year to trust myself and my judgement in these situations because more often than not they turn out to be the best kind of adventures.

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Outside your comfort zone is sometimes exactly where you need to be!

A year of teaching English has taught me that you can’t run away from problems, you have to face up to them and moving halfway across the world doesn’t make them go away. China has given me the confidence to stand up for myself, it has shown me what I am capable of and it has shown me that people value my time and opinion. Being asked by students and teachers alike if I will be returning to teach in Sanxiang made me happy and sad at the same time, to tell them I was leaving made me sad but to know they wanted me to stay made me happy. I made myself completely at home in China and although I had to leave I know it is not forever. Teaching in China taught me so much and I know it still has much more to teach me. Here’s to another year of TEFL and many more to come, whether that be in China, Myanmar or countries as of yet undecided!

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

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: The Power of Pictionary

Pictionary; the Christmas day family games sesh is never complete without it but in the classroom it becomes more than a party game, this is where Pictionary becomes a powerful tool for learning. Pictionary is great for teaching English because it requires the whole class to participate. It is the perfect game to get students thinking and talking in English, especially if they are new to the language.

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At the start of term the Chinese teachers always decorate the blackboard beautifully.

I tend to use Pictionary as a cooler or filler, but it can work as a warmer just as well. You can use it to recap last week’s lesson and see how much of the language they remember or you can use it to round up your lesson as a fun way to make the new vocabulary stick in their minds.  The way I usually play is I split the class into two teams and select a student from each team to come up to the board. I then ask the student to pick one of the new vocabulary words for that day (this usually takes a minute as whatever I suggest they complain it is too difficult to draw, but after a bit of encouragement I usually convince them it’s not so hard). Then the class has to work out what they are drawing and the first team to shout the correct answer gets a point. Using the point system really gets the students engaged in the game. When my students play they play to win and it can get quite competitive! You can make it so that the winning team gets a prize, but I have found that just the thrill of winning is enough to motivate the class to participate.

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I’ve played Pictionary in my large classes and with my one on one tutoring.

I have found Pictionary works for all ages; I have played it with kindergarten, I have played it with grade one and I have played it with grade eight. No matter what the age the competitive energy has been present and everyone gets involved. Even the moody teenagers who thought they were too cool in the beginning couldn’t help but shout out the answer when the rest of their teams were struggling to figure it out!

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Drawing is the perfect filler for young learners.

Pictionary has been my secret weapon from day one of my TEFL journey. I think my love for this game a kid really helped me to sell it to my students as a fun game. I was excited about the game and this enthusiasm was infectiously passed on to my students. The power of this activity to engage students in English makes it without a doubt my favourite classroom game. When other games have caused my students to groan in protest Pictionary has never failed to energise them. The best part is that you can play this game with minimal materials; as long as you have a pencil and paper, a blackboard and chalk or a whiteboard and pens then this game is possible.

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

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 Tuesday: Thinking Outside Box.

Welcome back to TEFL Tip Tuesday! This week I’ve been experimenting in my classroom and it has completely changed the way I think about teaching. These posts usually come from something I learned last semester and now use in class but if there is one thing I know about life, it’s that you never stop learning new things. So this TEFL tip is almost as new for me as it is for you!

I have this habit of getting stuck in a rut, scared to try new things in case it doesn’t work out and disrupts my safe little bubble that I have created for myself. Now I know what you’re thinking, I moved to a completely new country by myself into a job I had no practical experience in, doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of person who is scared to try new things does it?! Well that’s just it, with me I’m either in my safe little bubble or I’m making a drastic change to my life or the way I do things. Recently I’ve been a bit bored when teaching my classes; besides my one grade two class I’ve used the same format in my lessons for almost a year and, well, it was time for a change! It’s not that the classes themselves are boring, in fact depending on the topic I can get some very entertaining answers, but I wanted to find a way for my students to practice their English that wasn’t just a question and answer session with the person next to them. This is what led me to this week’s lesson plan.

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What is the opposite of a staring contest?

All my classrooms have exactly the same layout; about fifty students at square desks, split into seven rows, squeezed into a medium sized square room. This was the box I needed to think outside of. I was taught the PPP structure of lesson planning in both of my TEFL courses and I really do believe in it but it can be difficult to get such a large class to participate in a communicative production activity that isn’t centred around them sitting at their desks. Add to that the fact that my school has strong focus of textbook led lessons, the thought of doing any kind of activity that involves rearranging the classroom has always slightly worried me. So, naturally, I decided to dive right into the deep end and do a lesson on directions that had the students practically turn their classroom upside down.  I first split the class into two teams. Three people from each team created a maze and five people from each team were blindfolded and directed through the maze by the rest of the class using the new target language. The first team to navigate all five people through the maze were the winners.

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This looks like madness but I was assured they had a plan…

Now, I’m not recommending that you start with something as drastic as turning your classroom into a maze but I am suggesting that you think about how you can use the classroom differently. How can you engage your students in a new and exciting way? I made the game a bit mysterious by sending the five students from each team out of the classroom before I explained what was happening, this made the students who remained in the classroom feel like they were in on a secret and therefore more engaged when I explained to them that they were going to create a maze out of desks and chairs. The students outside of the classroom found the mystery exciting and were eager to impress their classmates and win the race through the maze. This got the whole class working together (with a few exceptions that tried to sabotage their own teammates, but there will always be at least one troublemaker when you teach over one thousand kids) and made them excited to use the English they already knew as well as the new language they learned at the start of the lesson.

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Working together!

The most important thing that I learned this week is that although thinking outside the box can be scary and the results can be uncertain, it is so worth the risk! I’ve always found that using games and fun activities works best in my classrooms but now I know that I can take it to the next level and I encourage you to do the same!

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:

 

TEFL Tip Tuesday: Confidence is key!

For the first TEFL Tip Tuesday let’s start at the beginning; confidence! Confidence is key, even if you don’t think you have any. Being outnumbered is never a fun experience, the first time you walk into a classroom it might just feel like that dream you had as a teenager, the one where you realised you forgot to put your trousers on before you went to school! Everyone is looking at you… well get used to it, you’re the teacher now. No hiding behind a text book and dozing off in class, you are the one in charge here. But you are never going to be able to command a classroom if you walk in with you head down and a can’t do attitude.

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Outnumbered…

I’m a believer in the fake it ‘til you make it method, the more you act like a confident person the more confident you will become. I know this works because my go to coping method for a situation where I feel nervous is to be loud and proud. Outwardly I look like I live and breathe self-assurance and eventually I convince myself that the reason I look confident to those around me is because I am!

The classroom might look like a scary place but who is going to know that you are nervous beyond all belief if you walk in there like you’ve been walking into rooms your whole life (which you have by the way, so what’s the big deal?) You’re the “fun English teacher”, the kids are going to love you no matter what, so don’t be afraid of them. Put a smile on your face and just have fun; if you are having fun then they will follow suit and  soon you will forget all about the nerves. You won’t need to raise your voice to get them to pay attention to you if you look like someone who should be the focus of their attention.

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What’s more scary than forty six-year-olds?

My first day of teaching I felt so nervous (which was ridiculous because what is the worst that a bunch of six year olds can really do?) But I was prepared, I had lesson that I believed in and that was full of fun activities at the ready. I was confident in my lesson even if I wasn’t so confident in myself. That was all I needed to get me through the lesson, that little bit of confidence.

For more TEFL Tips  check out one of my previous posts:

TEFL Tip Tuesday: What’s it all about?

I had a thought recently that maybe I could share what I’ve learnt over the past year on my blog for people who are looking into teaching English as a foreign language. Coming into a classroom as a new teacher can be daunting and sometimes it is nice to feel like there is someone right there with you when you are faced with forty (or more) new students all staring at you expectantly. That thought turned itself into an idea and that idea is TEFL Tip Tuesday!

Essentially every Tuesday I will post a tid-bit of knowledge, a helpful hint or a fun way to get your students involved in the classroom and really loving English. The novelty of having a foreign teacher will always mean that your classes will be more looked forward to than their usual school English teacher but it can be hard to get students to focus in class, especially when you don’t speak their language! Hopefully through these posts I can share with you what I find useful and maybe, just maybe, you will find these things useful too.

If you have any questions about teaching English abroad then please feel free to leave a comment below, message me on Instagram or pop me an email. I’ll be posting a blog with my most commonly asked questions soon as well, so watch this space…

 

For now why not check out some of my previous posts about teaching abroad: