Don’t make anything you will use only once

As a teacher, I struggle with the tension between wanting to be a great teacher and wanting to be a great business. After all, a teacher does everything he can for his students. A business tries to maximize the return on what it does.

So, maybe a great teacher would invest an hour learning about a company’s products in order to make one really great worksheet. A great business, however, would acknowledge that, as long as your pay is the same on a per-lesson basis, every extra unit of prep time you invest dilutes your return per hour.

Don’t kid yourself: you deserve a decent return per hour.

So, what can you do?


I made a web application that automates the vocabulary side of my lessons. Of course I’ll plug that shamelessly here.

But there’s a lot more you can do.

Raid the internet

My thoughts on the correct level of internet-to-self produced worksheets are not completely formalized. On the one hand, you don’t want to create the impression that your professional training didn’t amount to much more than a few internet searches.

On the other hand, though, my students are generally happy to get their hands on ‘different’ stuff. My stuff has a feel, a certain personality to it. And, I tend to use certain words. Things from the internet broaden all of that.

That’s one obvious way to maximize your return on the time you spend.

Reuse everything you make

There is only so much you can hide behind the “it’s good to expose you to different vocabularies and accents” argument. You’re getting paid to prepare a lesson, and it’s nice to show your customers that they’re getting their money’s worth.

To speak to the side of you that wants to be a great teacher, I should point out that students respond more to things that you have made for them. Even grizzled old adults like the idea that someone invested time in them, and they respond better to it. Almost everything I make available at is something I made along those lines.


A quick aside here: Before I talk about how I reuse stuff, I thought I’d point out that your students won’t know that you invested so much time making great materials unless you make them clearly yours. Use a header (or a footer) or distinct formatting or something so that, when your students get their hands on materials that you have made, they know it comes from you.

There are a handful of ways to reuse material. And they probably all deserve their own blog post. (Note to self, write them.)

Here are the ideas that come to mind:

  • Get two or more courses to run ‘parallel’ to each other in some way, whether it’s in grammar (if the courses are at about the same level) or in material (you can prepare travel activities that work with a lower level group as well as a higher level group). Then, prepare material that you can use with all the groups.
  • Master the art of organization. I struggle with this, but I know that it’s costing me time (and, therefore, Euros). If you know you’ll have a great activity with your own look and feel to use again and again later, you can spend that hour in prep time without feeling like a bad business person.
  • Reuse material in the same course. After covering some grammar point with great worksheets from the Internet, I’ll make up a review activity covering the same grammar, but with the students’ names and vocabulary from their company (or from our group). After we go over it in class as a sort of final review — ideally getting a few laughs along the way — I put it aside for a bit, then cut it into strips and mix it with other grammar that we mastered for an envelope review activity.
  • Make your own worksheet series. This sounds like a ton of work, but it’s basically the story behind the Absurd Business Worksheets that I make. I taught the topics so often, that I realized it just made sense to have something that looked like it came from me and so that I could leave out the parts that I never taught on other worksheets. It was a ton of time, once. But it’s been paid back to me many times.
  • Share your work. If you have a really great idea that you can only use in one class, go ahead and make it. Put it where you can find it if you need it again, and then share it with your colleagues. Post it on worksheet sharing sites like ISLCollective or try to make a few bucks on TeachersPayTeachers. The point is, you can get other returns from your work.

What do you think? Have I missed a great technique for recycling work? Are you the kind of person who makes everything fresh for every class? Do you have some tricks in how you do it quickly?

These are all things I’d like to know.

You’re a teacher and a business

The title I originally had planned for this post was maybe too long: “You’re a teacher and a business, so engage with your learner on at least two levels.” It does seem like a bit much.

Not every teacher is a business

If you volunteer or teach in a school system, then you’re probably not a teacher. When people read this blog, however, I imagine them working like I do: teaching adults (and some kids) for money on a freelance basis.

If that’s what you do, you’re a business.

Thinking like a business

This part of teaching is not easy for me. I can’t say “I have this mastered, let me show you the ropes.” Instead, I can say: “I get that this is important, and I know we all have to work on it.”

The thing is this: when you’re a business, your learners are customers. And they have certain expectations and behaviors. A customer knows that they are paying money for something. They don’t always know what. And, when the time comes to decide whether or not to continue paying for a course, they will look at it as a business decision.

Why do they come to the English lesson?

Most people begin coming to a lesson to learn English. Their boss told them they have to, or they have a four week road trip across Canada planned on their horizon. Either way, they start with a simple reason.

Once they are in the lesson, however, they continue coming because the lesson adds something to their life. Either they can see in some direct way how it makes their work easier, or it’s a fun thing to do to unwind after work, or maybe it’s a group of people they wouldn’t otherwise know who have interesting discussions.

Give them a reason to come

This seems like an obvious thing to say, but I’ve been guilty of forgetting this part of teaching. In (the former East) Germany, at least, students are so well trained by the school system that I never have to fight for respect to maintain control of the classroom. They come in, know that I’m the teacher, and behave.

But, even the ones who are learning English quit. It was eye-opening for me when one of my students told my boss “I was in Scottland this summer, and it really was easier to speak. But I don’t know what I’m learning in the English lesson.”

The moral for me is this: Students — customers — don’t always know they are learning. Looking at English as a circle, if the lesson spends most of the time close to the edge of their circle, where they’re working hard to keep up, they are liable to overlook how much bigger the circle has got. Instead, they’ll just remember that “it never gets any easier.”

It’s on you, as the teacher — and business — to take time to point out to them what they’ve learned. Go back to a conversation drill that was practiced several months ago and praise them for still having it mastered. Remind them how hard it was on the first day of the lesson. Even more, have something (a worksheet, a text, two pages in the textbook) that they can hold in their hand and say “we did this today.”

Most of all, once their English is good enough to have a bit of fun in English, make that a goal. Not for all the time, but for pretty frequent intervals. You can just have a great, rambling conversation. Take them to a virtual restaurant. Play a card game and make small talk in English. Do a one-teacher theatrical performance for them. The point is this: you should be able to remember the last time they were able to enjoy being able to speak English.

They will also come for a group

It’s probably worth writing a whole extra post on the fact that many learners come because they enjoy being in the group.

The point here is this: you should be good at keeping the group dynamic going and avoiding conversation topics (politics, religion) that you think will divide them. For this kind of student, English is something they find time for in their lives because it helps them relax. Other people do sudoku, these people learn vocab. Don’t spoil it.

This is an incomplete post

This is not something I’m great at. I can easily get too into teaching and forget the business side of things, or become too obsessed with “are they happy” to really teach well. But, the more I teach, the more I’m aware that it’s important.

Have I missed anything? How do you balance these two aspects of one job? Have I forgotten any important motivations that people have for sticking with an English lesson? Let me know.

Effort and Rest

You and I, we speak English. And, if you came to English teaching as a native speaker, you might make a mistake that I made: it seems easy, right?

Get that it isn’t easy

Sure, you know that people are paying you to teach them, so it’s obviously not something that’s super easy, but it’s important to understand that it’s not just ‘not easy,’ it’s ‘hard.’ If you are teaching ‘abroad’ (whatever that means for you), then try learning the local language. Learning English is at least that difficult.

More sports metaphors

I’m not an athlete, but I use a lot of sports metaphors in thinking about learning language, mainly because they seem to fit better than comparisons with learning chemistry, for example. Language isn’t something you know, it’s something you do.

Imagine you want to get in shape. You’re so dedicated to getting in shape, that you join a gym and sign up for a weekly class. The trainer comes in and gives you a five-pound weight. “Do three curls with that,” she says. You do the curls.

“Great. Now here#s a seven-pound weight. Do three curls with that.” I could probably do the curls with both weights, but if the weight is going to be increased by two pounds with each set of exercises I do, I’ll soon be either 1) unable to do the reps or 2) injured.

Neither of those really brings me closer to my goal.

Why doesn’t it look hard?

When you think about it with weights, it’s easy to realize that you’ll soon hit a point where you need to back off and build up some strength first. But why does English seem different?

I think it’s because most of the effort is going on between students’ ears, where we can’t see it. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Students who have just mastered “what is your name?” and “my name is…” have lifted their first weight, ever. You need to respect that that’s an accomplishment, and even though they only know one thing, they have to practice it until they can handle it.

And, when they come in the next week, they might be starting from scratch again, because it’s seriously hard, even if you think “this seems simple.”

The risk of overdoing it

Nobody will get hurt. And, to the best of my knowledge, you can’t “sprain a brain.” So, why worry?

The short answer is this: because you’ll lose students. Either they’ll think they can’t learn with you (this is the best case scenario because then someone else will at least be making money off of them) or they’ll think they’re too old, too stupid, or just not ‘language types’ and they’ll give up on English altogether.

What is effort?

The same way that Usain Bolt and I have different perceptions of what is hard, each student will find different things strenuous. This is an area where my idea of English as a circle is helpful for how I think.

As a general rule, the closer you are to the edge of the students’ own circle of English, the more tiring it is for them. And, when the circle is practically just a dot of “my name is…” then everything students do in English is ‘close to the edge.’

So, how do you manage effort?

If you workout — we’re back to the sports metaphors again — a typical workout is structured along the lines of super hard work followed by a rest period. The trick is to not get too much hard work, and not get stuck forever in the ‘resting phase.’

(A whole extra topic is the fact that language is different from exercise because you can enjoy being fit every day. You really only enjoy your foreign language abilities when you travel, so taking time off from ‘training’ to just let students revel in their ‘language fitness’ is recommended.)

When you’re leading a lesson, try to alternate between working hard and taking a break. This can happen both within an activity (allow yourself to be ‘sidetracked’ in order to facilitate a break before returning to pushing them to learn) or it can be between activities (things like the recurring activities are a great way to break up two more difficult activities).

What does rest look like?

That’s a good question, because, to the native speaker it all basically looks like speaking. What is rest?

When you’re teaching a beginners course, rest can be returning to their native language. I start the lesson in English — even the first one — and use my first ‘rest break’ to introduce myself in German. Other topics for a little chat in German are my tips on how to learn, motivation, things that are different between English and German, and, of course, praise. (“I know it’s hard, but think about how much more you said this morning than you could say six weeks ago… I think you all deserve a pat on the back, and your teacher deserves a whiskey.” — That always gets a laugh.)

Even before you’ve reached the end of A1, you can start ‘resting’ in English. After all, if you’re running intervals, you don’t stand still after one interval, you just return to jogging.

Some things you can do are to return to ‘conversation drills‘ that you’ve already mastered together. It’s almost a relief to go from “What do you do in your job?” to “Do you have kids? Where does your son live?”

Another strategy — especially within a grammar activity — is to be ‘distracted’ by the content of the activity. If you’re pushing hard to practice the structure “Berlin is bigger than Dresden” you can suddenly be doubtful. “How big is Berlin? How many people live there? Dresden has a zoo. Is there a zoo in Berlin?” It’s all vocabulary to review, and it lets the students rest their brains before you return to “Is Potsdam bigger than Dresden?”

How do your students rest in class?

Do you think my fitness metaphors are spot on, or simply absurd? How do you manage the level of effort you are demanding from your students? This is a relatively new idea for me, and I’d love to hear your ideas.

Recurring activities

Where I teach, lessons are generally structured into the following rough lesson components:

  1. The warm-up
  2. The conversation topic
  3. Grammar
  4. English for specific purposes

It’s a fluid list. Some groups don’t have a ‘specific purpose’ and not every lesson covers grammar (I’m a big fan of focusing on a certain grammar for four or five lessons, and then taking a break). For many lessons, you can add ‘correcting the homework’ to that list.

It seems like plenty to do in 90 minutes of two hours, right?

Sometimes I like a little more

This shouldn’t surprise you, because I’ve mentioned that I try to take more material than I can cover in a single lesson. (Short explanation: try never to feel like you have a hectic lesson, but try to keep the pace up, so nobody things “that was a slow lesson.”)

One of the ways I do this is by having what I think of recurring activities. They generally bridge the ‘conversation’ part of the lesson and the ‘work’ part. (If you count homework, grammar, and specific purposes as work.)

My criteria for a ‘recurring activity’ is that it should be simple enough that, if I explain it in one lesson, the students can do it without my help in another lesson. Right now, in my beginner group, hangman is a good example of this.

Before we open the book, I just draw the hangman gallows on the board and give the marker to a new student. (I keep track of who has done it and who hasn’t.) Then, they come forward and lead the group in a game of hangman and I’m only there to be strict about “is there” and “there is” or “there isn’t” and the correct pronunciation of the English alphabet. (The “there is” construction in German is different, so it takes some getting used to in English.)

Then, in the best case, there are a few minutes of classroom discussion where I don’t have to say a word. The students are able — within this activity — to do everything in English on their own.

I call that “maximizing student speaking time.”

I don’t force it

If I look at my watch and there isn’t time for the activity and everything else I have planned, I have no problem skipping it. After all, it’ll still be there for the next lesson. That means that an unusually good conversation can be allowed to continue without the students feeling cut off, but that a conversation that falls flat can be shorter and the lesson can still have the feeling of being “well paced.”

Some great recurring activities

Here are things that, at one time or another, I have included as a recurring activity:

  • Hangman (obviously, see above)
  • The student family tree activity. This takes a bit of time, but my (German) students are genuinely interested in learning more about each other. One student per week means that the vocabulary keeps coming back.
  • The review envelope activity. Students just pass this around and either answer the questions themselves or challenge the person across from them.
  • Trivia quizzes. Students draw a card that has a question with the correct answer marked, and they challenge the group to answer it. The group is allowed to discuss things between themselves before either agreeing on an answer or allowing each member to give their own answer.
  • The German naturalization test. This works like the trivia quizzes above, except with questions that I have translated from the German naturalization test.
  • Draw the floor plan of a student’s living room. This works just like the family tree activity above, with one student silently drawing while another student looks away from the board. The other students have to ask questions that elicit the information needed to draw.
  • Describing vocabulary. I made a collection of simple objects and put them on slips of paper in an envelope. I pass them around and students have to get the other members of the group to say as many words as possible in ninety seconds. This is great for ‘technical English’ groups because you can make them focus on the functions and dimension of the objects.
  • A question race. Students are timed to see how much time they need to get their classmates to say all the words in a 20-word list (not using the words themselves). Then, I record their time and another day a different student gets the chance.

What do you do?

Have any of the activities above flopped for you? Do you use any of your own activities? Which ones?

A fun restaurant game

This is an activity I do with my students about once a year, rationalizing that they’re more likely to use English in a restaurant than in any other situation. Recently, I wanted to give the ‘trouble group‘ a break from the pretty hard pace I had set for them, so I got it back out.

Target level

This is something you can do with any group of students that has already had a basic restaurant unit. By adapting the conversation and the ‘challenges’ to the level of the group (“I’m sorry, our last cow ran away and we don’t have any steak”) you can even fit this to more advanced groups.

The goal

Students practice restaurant vocabulary and have an unexpected change of routine in the lesson. In the best case, all of the students should walk away from the activity thinking “I did great at this!” because too often, they’re working on things that they think are difficult.


For this time around, I found a really great menu worksheet on ISLcollective and printed out the first two pages (front and back) to make little menus. I’ve done this without any menus, but then students miss the experience of reading the menu and it#s hard to say “we don’t have that.”

Even more, I found an album of “Italian restaurant music” available on Amazon Prime and downloaded it to my phone. Then, I packed the bluetooth speaker I use for listening activities and went off to class.

The activity

We started in the classroom and I welcomed the students the same was I always do. Then, when everyone was there, I said that, if I had the money, I would take them all to a restaurant to celebrate their progress. “And, I have good news,” I say at the end, “I finally found a restaurant to fit my budget.” (I adapted this little speech to the level of the class — I did this with most of my classes.)

Then, I wrote “Welcome to the Cottage Restaurant” on the board and turned the music on. Finally, I made a big show of apologizing for leaving. “I know it’s unprofessional, but I need to use the toilet and I’ll be right back.”

I walked out the door, turned around, and walked back in. “Hello!” I said in a bright, friendly American waiter voice, “my name is Antonio and I’ll be your server today. How are you all?”

Then, with lower level students, I just did a rapid restaurant role play, with me in the role of the waiter. (Food and drink were immediately ready.)

With more advanced students, I did a mix of either making the restaurant experience more challenging (food was unavailable, I brought the wrong food, etc) and I made a show of always walking back in just after the waiter left. (If the students didn’t order a beer for me, I accused them of being selfish.) Then, we did a simple activity or had a small conversation before I had to go outside for an important phone call and ‘the waiter’ came back in.

Next time

Let me first say it was a success. This is something I would do in any group, especially if you’ve got a handful of difficult lessons under your belt and they deserve a break.

Sometime next fall I’ll probably dust the idea off (I teach adults and I’ll have many of the same groups then) and run through it all again. (After all, they eventually will go to restaurants and speak English.)

When I do repeat this activity, I think I want to up the level of role play by putting on an apron when I am the waiter, or by having a tray to carry with imaginary food. With some groups (the evening groups I have known for years) it might make sense to bring some sliced baguettes and butter to put on the table to welcome them.

If you give this a try, let me know what works for you. Can you think of any other small details that can be added to up the restaurant realism?