Part 3: How to Make Your Classroom Effective, Intensive, and Fun
Before I get started on all of the ins and outs of classroom management in a foreign country, you should probably realize that your English teaching experience might look nothing like a traditional classroom. There are plenty of programs that consist of English camps of various lengths, after-school tutoring, or intensive retreat like programs. Before I taught in Malaysia, I lived in Thailand teaching for an organization that orchestrated English camps through contracts with local school boards. What we did was spend a weekend or so at a local school, run an intensive, two-day camp in which we taught the children games, songs, and orchestrated large-scale activities like a scavenger hunt or American football tournament, and have the students put on a skit or play, all in English. While English camps might not be the most content-heavy educational initiative in the world, they are an excellent way to increase a student’s motivation to speak English and to be honest, help the kids have a little fun while learning.
If you are teaching in a classroom, however, you are in for a treat. Although the structure of your lessons may depend on whether or not you are teaching with a local co-teacher, educators teaching abroad are usually given plenty of free reign over the English language content that they decide to teach the students. As you teach, I would recommend taking the advice of the following ten tips for new English teachers abroad.
1. When it comes to deciding what you want to teach, stick to the experts.
Although it might be tempting, if you’re an easily-excited, overzealous educator like me, to immediately begin planning all of your lessons as soon as you know what country you’re stationed it, I’d recommend holding off at least until you can make contact with your school. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, there are excellent educators and curriculum planners all over the world. Since these professionals will have a good idea of what kinds of English content the students will need to know to pass qualifying exams or other similar assessments, lean on them when it comes to prioritizing what to teach.
2.If you know teaching best practices, use them. If you don’t know them, learn them.
Just as the world is full of excellent teachers, it is also full of excellent teaching best practices, resources, and pedagogy. With the help of the internet, it is easy to brush on on the latest in TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) as well as figure out some of the common best practices for teachers of any subjects. As a new teacher, it was most helpful for me to learn about exit tickets, in which you create a small mini-quiz to be given at the end of each lesson to assess whatever learning goal you made for the lesson. Small tips and tricks such as these can make a big difference to a new teacher and help your classroom run much more smoothly and effectively.
3. Ask for student and colleague feedback, and do it often.
In my experience, it can be difficult to know if you are doing a good job during your first few months of teaching abroad, especially in Asian countries where giving honest feedback can be seen as forcing someone to “lose face”. Anonymous feedback forms can be one way to bypass any awkwardness on either side. Although you might be nervous to hear what your colleagues are actually thinking as you fumble your way through your first few weeks teaching abroad, small tips given anonymously can give you information that you might not get any other way. For example, one of my colleagues anonymously told me that some teachers were critical of how little time I spent in the teachers lounge and that some of my colleagues thought that it was because I didn’t like them. This was, of course, not the case, and I the hint and spend more time with my colleagues forming bonds that I didn’t realize that I was missing out on. Asking students for feedback is also a very productive way to improve your teaching. In my experience, students are remarkably honest and insightful and almost always able to recognize good teaching. As a teacher who likely has different customs and classroom experiences than your students, getting their feedback will also let you know how to be more accessible to them.
4. Join and lead as many after-school activities as you can.
If you are in a classroom setting, it can be hard to get to know all of your students at once. Regardless of the wealth of the school that you teach, many countries struggle with overlarge class sizes that are not ideal for having close-knit relationships with your students. To bypass this, take as much time as you can to get to know your students outside of the classroom. Leading an interesting after-school activity is a great way to do this while still interacting in an educational environment. Be brave when trying to decide what kinds of clubs or activities you might lead– you don’t have to be especially good at an activity to have fun with your students. I’ve had the pleasure of joining karaoke clubs, coaching a girl’s track team, helping my students write letters to One Direction and all kinds of wacky, insane activities for the sake of the kids I love and don’t regret a minute of it, even if writing letters to one direction was just a little bit much.
5. Become a member of your new community.
Your success as a teacher is going to hinge on whether or not your students can feel comfortable with you. One way to overcome this is to be seen in your community doing normal, fun things that make you seem approachable. For me, it was being seen every Saturday night at the pasar malam or night market. I would see my students and their families and often join them for a cup of tea and some snacks. You want to give yourself as many opportunities to be a part of your community as possible, and interacting publicly with community events is a great place to start.
6. Reflect, Revamp, Teach, Repeat.
Being new in a classroom is almost always tough and you should prepare yourself to work through many, many setbacks and failures as you make your way to good teaching. It is good to have a growth mindset for the first few months. Look at each lesson as an experiment, be well-prepared, and try your hardest. Then, once the class or school day is over, take some time to reflect on what went well, what could have gone better, and what about the lesson was challenging. You might consider recording these reflections in a notebook or blog. Another great way to reflect on your classroom environment and your own efficacy as a teacher is to record yourself with your phone or a camera. Watching yourself teach will not only teach you some of your unconscious but still distracting speaking habits, but also will allow you to see what is going on in your classroom that you don’t always notice, whether or not you are speaking slowly or concisely enough to be understood, and how well you are pacing your lesson. Reflecting also gives you time to consider what it is that you really want your students to leave your class with.
7. Make it fun
Finally, it’s important that you make learning fun for your students. Because of the struggles associated with large class sizes and limited resources, there is often little time or money to plan and facilitate hands-on, moderately expensive activities like field trips or scavenger hunts. Since you might have access to funds through scholarships and grants, the ESL placement organization, or through fundraising that you do on your own (like through Volunteer Forever) you may have access to resources that will help engage your students and help create memories that will last far beyond your stay in your country. Be sure to talk to officials in your school to see what kinds of opportunities are available or what past ESL teachers have done. Because of funding from my program and generous donations from my friends and family, I was able to take my students on an American-esque camping trip, take a team of students to an international student entrepreneurship conference, have multiple scavenger hunts, and paint a mural all within a year at my placement school.
8. Make time for families.
While I was in Malaysia, one of the best things that I ever did was accept one of my student’s invitation to eat dinner with her family. At the time, I was just excited to try some home cooked local cuisine, but once I arrived, I realized that sharing family time with my students gave me a chance to experience the Malaysian culture as I never could on my own. Eating dinner with her family soon became a weekly event and when my other students found out, I very rarely had an evening to myself to veg out on American food, which was probably a good thing. I formed the best relationships of my time at my students’ dinner table and being around such warmth and let’s be honest, delicious food, helped me cope with the downsides of travel such as homesickness and culture shock. As an introvert, it was honestly draining to be out every single evening, but it was worth the effort in how much it improved not just my relationships with my students, but my effectiveness in my school.
9. Let your impact be known.
Even if English is not a primary language in a country, many countries have English-only newspapers or sections of newspapers that are eager to cover any sort English language activity. Whenever you have a big event, such as an English Camp or field trip, let the local press know. Since my program was government-funded, state-owned newspapers were especially eager to cover anything that I was doing to benefit Malaysian children. Having your activities in the spotlight doesn’t just thrill school officials who love to see their schools getting good press, but validates your students’ sense of what you are doing is fun and purposeful. You can even make an activity out of reading the newspaper article that the kids will be extremely excited– and proud– to show to their families and friends.
10. The internet is full of ideas– use them!
When I first arrived in Malaysia, I would spend hours planning out my lessons and trying to think of creative ways to engage my students using English. While my efforts were well-meaning, I could have used my time much more wisely had I just used the internet, and the minds of the thousands of ESL teachers who have put ideas there, and saved a lot of time and headaches. Many resources, such as Dave’s ESL Cafe are just full of games and activities that are tried and true by experienced ESL teachers. Use the internet and hopefully a printer to your benefit and use other teachers’ ideas to make your lessons even more awesome.
These tips aren’t a conclusive list of how to make your time spent teaching English abroad incredible and productive, but they will take you a long way. As long as you are willing to be enthusiastic, hard-working, and attentive to the needs of your children and communities, you are likely to make a mark that lasts.