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.