There's a handful of issues that TEFL teachers raise again and again. They're certainly problems I faced when I was starting out in the classroom.
• Why won't my students talk?
• Why do my students seem unmotivated?
• Why doesn't the class understand what to do?
• What if I run out of materials?
Happily, there are some pretty simple techniques you can use to solve them. I wish someone had told me about them before I started teaching!
1. Get students talking to each other, not you
We all dread walking into a class and there's deathly silence. No matter what you do, students just won't respond.
As a result we become more and more hyperactive, running about the front of the class, trying to enthuse students, urging them to say something.
The truth is this doesn't work. The louder you become, the less students are willing to talk. Why? Because they're anxious. And they can't compete with you, the crazy extrovert teacher.
The moral is: never ever start a lesson asking questions to individual students.
You have to start straight away with a warmer where students talk to each other. It can be as simple as: 'Hi everyone. Stand up please. Say hello to five people, and ask them how they are. Go!'
A student-student warmer creates a buzz that lasts for the whole class. Students are so energised it's hard to stop them talking.
(I think most teachers know this in theory, but forget to do it. I've observed hundreds of classes where the teacher walks in, faces one student, and says something like, 'So, Yuki, did you have a good weekend?'. That's not a warmer!)
2. Write the lesson aim (somewhere)
We all know a good lesson has an aim whether it's 'students learn and practice present perfect for life experiences', or 'students read a magazine article for main idea and detail'.
However, amongst all the visuals and mingling activities and cue cards and handouts, students might not realise there's a point to it all.
If our students are used to a traditional education system, they're used to a lesson aim being written in a book or a syllabus. Without this, they may think the class isn't teaching them anything.
I don't suggest we walk in and say 'today we're going to do present perfect'. Write it somewhere instead. Ideally, create a programme, stating the aim for each lesson, and hand it out at the start of the week or semester. Alternatively, simply write the aim in the corner of the whiteboard.
It's such a small thing. But it makes students trust you. It shows you have a plan, and know what you're doing. Then students can relax and enjoy the journey.
3. Good instructions = great class
Managing a TEFL class is a particular challenge. We want our students to be doing all sorts of different things working in pairs, groups, mingling, playing games, speaking from prompts on cards, performing roleplays.
If students don't know what to do, it'll be chaos. (Or worse your elementary students will sit there like stunned mullets.)
This seems obvious. Yet the biggest mistake new teachers make is not thinking about instructions. They rush them, they don't consider whether they make sense, and they don't choose words students will understand. The teacher then spends ten minutes running around the class, reinstructing to each pair of students.
1. Use a signal to get everyone's attention. (For example 'OK!')
2. Wait until you have eye contact with every single student. Even in a class of 50! (This might mean half a minute of silence, but that's a good thing. Silence, in fact, enhances your authority.)
3. Plan in your head what you're going to say.
4. Instruct simply and clearly, with 'please' at the end. (For example, 'Stand up, please'.) Then stop talking!
5. Support your instruction visually. For 'stand up' you can raise your hands. For more complex activities you can write prompts on the board, or demonstrate.
There are other things you can do (e.g. ask questions to check students understand), but get the basics right first.
The point is that instructions are really special. Just realising this is half the battle. If you plan what you'll say, get everyone's attention, and take your time, your lesson will run like clockwork
4. Exploit the coursebook
Lots of teachers worry they'll run out of material. As a result they prepare twice as much material as they need for each class, just in case. Or they carry round lots of random activities in their file. Or they have three stock standard filler activities (one of them probably being hangman).
It's time to take control. Being anxious every class you won't have enough to do is no way to live! A fun filler is fine every once in a while but it should be when you decide it's appropriate, to give students a break, rather than out of desperation.
There's a simple way to exploit your material. It means you can get three times as much from a coursebook. The aim isn't just to fill in the hour, but actually to make the material significantly more effective and memorable for students.
The answer is to personalise everything in the coursebook.
This involves getting students to change, or add to, material in the book to make it relevant to them.
• After students complete a gap fill grammar exercise, they change the sentences to make them true about their partner.
• After students read a story, they write a new ending.
• After students read a text about New Zealand, they rewrite it to make it true about their country.
• After students listen to people talking about problems, they work in groups to come up with advice.
This is not a trick. It's effective teaching. Students have much more relevant practice, and they find it really interesting because the content comes from them.
Do try these ideas out and share your experiences with us!