You’re the teacher now, so act like it

I think the most valuable thing I learned as a new teacher, was that your students expect a teacher. Maybe you’ve bamboozled your way into a job. Maybe you feel fully qualified to teach an EFL course, but you’re new. Maybe you’re fully qualified and think that you’ve bamboozled your way into a job. None of that matters.

People signed up to learn English from you. When you walk in the room, they see a teacher. (Assuming you dress more or less appropriately.)

Don’t ask them what to teach

My own weakness was always asking the students what they wanted to learn, or if what I taught was helpful. After all, I’d never worked in an office and here I was teaching ‘business English’ by the tried-and-true method of reading ahead in the book.

Unfortunately, what happened was that I was delivering what my students perceived as decent lessons, addressing their needs to some acceptable degree… and then telling them that I was a bad teacher. And, if you tell someone something often enough, there’s a risk of them believing you.

You have a plan

In Germany, at least, the teacher has a plan. That means that today’s lesson builds on yesterday’s lesson in some way. If you’re feeling like showing off, you can go in and say “in the next three lessons we’re going to be talking about…” and make it clear that you have a plan.

Later, at the end of the course, they’ll judge you by what they learned. But now, when you’re making first impressions, they’ll say “what kind of teacher are you?” And if the answer is “not a teacher,” you’ll be digging yourself out of that whole for a while.

How to fake a plan

When you’re beginning a new course, it can be hard to show up with a plan ready. Sometimes I’ve been given groups that are “great talkers,” and when I show up they’re barely putting sentences together.

Other groups have taken written placement tests and I was told to prepare for an A2 group, but they’re speaking at a B2 level and just need to polish up their grammar.

Start off with a test

I have a test that I made by adapting the questions in the back of the “Murphy’s English Grammar in Use” book to be a bit funnier (in my opinion — I’m a funny teacher, but a teacher.) I show up on the first day with a tried-and-true get-to-know-you activity and then I cheerfully announce “I heard that this group likes tests. Is that correct?”

And we do the test together, out loud, in as low-pressure of a situation as I can make it. “This is just to let me know what we need to cover. Nobody gets a grade.”

Then, I come to the next lesson prepared to do a block of two or three lessons of grammar review. And, wow, people don’t even realize that I still feel like a fraud most days.

What can you do if you can’t ask them what they want to learn?

It still seems counter-intuitive to me that I would get penalized for asking “was this material helpful,” but it certainly seems to be the case.

So, how can you get those great bonus points that teachers get by teaching exactly to students’ needs? I have a couple of strategies.

Connect lessons to student mistakes

If you’re not following a book with grammar. Or, even if you are and some students keep making the same mistake, introduce a grammar review/drill period with “I’m always correcting you on the ‘he does’ not ‘he do’ mistake. And you know that teachers don’t like to work, so let’s try to fix that so I can work less.”

Take lessons from company materials

This is something you can do with students who are ‘too busy’ to do anything outside of lessons. Hit up the company website and either come in with well thought out qustions about it “what is a pulse generator? What does ‘negative voltage’ mean?” Or, turn the material you find into exercises. (Gapfill, matching)

Get students to bring material in

Some students are great. They want to learn — often, on a deadline — and they think about their English lesson outside of class. Ask them to bring in material such as an email they received in English but couldn’t understand. Or, an email they sent in their native language but would like to be able to send in English.

If you’re lucky, you might get a student who is willing to keep an English diary. I give this as a ‘voluntary assignment.’ I say “keep some paper on or in your desk, where you can find it in a hurry. Then, whenever you realize ‘that’s something I can’t say in English’ write it down and bring it it. We’ll talk about it.”

I’m always clear that there might be a delay between when I receive the material and when we can discuss it in class. “I’m not as smart as you guys. I might need to go home and ask Google what it all means.”

The important thing is, I do my best to radiate teacher-confidence and I still consistently prepare lessons that feel ‘tailored’ to student needs.

With time, it gets easier

If your first lesson is tomorrow, don’t feel bad if you can’t sleep tonight. And, if you have your plan prepared and realize that something isn’t going to work, don’t panic. Just act like you’re prepared and divert to another activity.

You might bomb your first lesson.

But, with time, you’ll learn which activities you can do at a moment’s notice. And your students won’t think “she came in here and her first plan didn’t work” they’ll think “she came in here and at first I couldn’t understand what she wanted from me, but she did a good job matching the lesson to my needs.”

In teaching, as in most of my life, it seems that the first and most important lesson is “fake it until you make it.” And you will make it.

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