TeflGuy’s Top 10 Teaching Tips

TeflGuy’s Top 10 Teaching Tips

To teach is to be educated.

During my time as a teacher, I’ve learned as much as my students have, perhaps much more. Fourteen years in classrooms has given me rewarding insights into the teaching and learning processes, and here are my Top Tips for new ESL teachers, and hopefully also for more experienced teachers in any field.


TeflGuy’s Top 10 Teaching Tips

  1. 1

    Be Prepared

    This is number one for good reasons. Almost every red-faced moment I can remember as a teacher has been due to lack of preparedness.

    If you’re teaching a grammar point, have four examples of its use in your back pocket. If it’s a vocab class, be ready with several sentence examples to give the word context. It’s easy to be caught out and surprised by events in a classroom, so predict your students’ reaction to the material. What will they find difficult? What might they have seen before? What could slow things down, and how could you pre-empt these problems? Having a solid plan, with timings and interaction patterns, and plenty of good (hopefully occasionally funny) examples gives you a greater confidence, and gives your class the best possible start.

  2. 2

    Be Curious

    The best teachers are also students. Keep a notebook of new words you find, interesting uses of structure, useful examples, good advice, or anything which might serve your students the next day, the next week or whenever. If you find yourself wondering, ‘Hey, where does that word come from?’, actually go ahead and look it up; you’ll immediately find useful facts to bring to your students.

    Your notebook can also be a place for interesting facts that you find. Who knew that there were 45 million more native Spanish speakers in the world than English speakers? Or that that telephone, phonograph and electric light bulb were invented within three years of each other? Or that Russian cosmonaut Valeriy Polyakov spent a mammoth 437 days in space? Having a collection of great facts makes it easier to facilitate discussions on a variety of topics. Additionally, students are always impressed and flattered that we are knowledgeable about their cultures. Indeed, the more facts at your disposal, the more your students - particularly younger learners - will believe that you know everything. It’s not true, of course, but the respect it engenders can be a great boost to your classroom authority.

  3. 3

    Be Compassionate

    I’ll just come right out and say it: There Are No ‘Bad Students’.

    You may argue the point, but this rubric has helped me more than any training course or book on pedagogy. It is a discomfiting concept and leads to another aphorism which is often just as hard to swallow: Our students’ successes are largely down to them; Their failures are largely down to their teacher.

    I am responsible for almost everything that happens in my classroom, from the material chosen to the methods used, to the creation of a good learning environment, to some aspects of the social situation and the breaking down of barriers, all the way to elements of the students’ behavior and attitude. These events can be manipulated – not controlled but certainly strongly influenced – by an enthusiastic, thoughtful, professional teacher. We create the situations within which are students our supposed to practice. If it isn’t happening, it’s probably down to us.

    Have you ever raised your voice in the classroom? The majority of the world’s cultures find that to be a failing, a weakness, a symbol of self-doubt or questionable competence; I happen to agree. But, have you ever burst out laughing in the classroom? I hope so! To bring in humor helps make light of mistakes, and also reminds students that you’re a person with an emotional system, just like them.

    Empathy also serves us well. Many of our students are recently arrived from distant places, may not have been abroad before, and are understandably apprehensive. They’re dealing with homesickness and a radically new social situation. It’s easy to be a pushover, but it’s even easier to forget the challenges are students are going through; a balance is best, bearing in mind that what you say as ‘bad behavior’ may be a social tradition brought from home (e.g. shouting over other people) or a habit which could be quickly changed (e.g. not using a notebook). Students need time to adapt, and a caring word or a thoughtful question helps the students to integrate into this new environment and to trust their teachers.

    So, I hold this truth to be self-evident: Everyone is capable of being an excellent student. When treated compassionately and with respect, the student is more likely to realize that potential. A little forgiveness and understanding works far better than ruling your classroom by fear.

  4. 4

    Encourage Practice

    I’ve written about this elsewhere but it’s vitally important and worth reiterating. True practice of language should, in my opinion and that of many experts, embody the following:

    • It should be genuine, exactly as the language might be used in real life; language learning is seldom a purely academic pursuit
    • It should require independent thought from the student, so that, in their mind, the process of composing and producing the language has followed every step, just as as native speaker does
    • It should be consistent, with new material reviewed immediately after it is first learned, and then again a day or so later, and then once more after that.
    • It should be targeted so that ideally, at the end of the class, the student can express something they could express not at the beginning.

    Encourage and expect a noisy classroom. It’s better to speak imperfectly than to think silently. If there is silence, production time is being wasted.

  5. 5

    Require Honesty

    The main reason for never asking, ‘Do you understand?’ is that the students rarely say ‘no’. They just want you to move on and bypass the problem. They have not asked themselves: Do I truly understand this? Could I use it, on my own? Can I produce it accurately? Do I know how it fits together with the rest of my language knowledge?

    Encourage your students to consider exactly these questions before claiming that they ‘know’ something. Don’t just take their word for it! Ask them to show you the structure, or use the new word in a sentence. Then, you could say that they ‘know’ it, and only then.

    We are guiding our students towards being able to independently produce accurate language, so I never let students speak in fragmented sentences. I’m a real pain with conditionals and the like; I want to hear the entire structure, so that I become convinced the student has knitted together all the required aspects. I ask hundreds of questions to check understanding and elicit production. Be rigorous and demand that your students honor the learning process by approaching it genuinely.

  6. 6

    Do anything to help increase students’ focus

    You don’t need me to talk about attention deficit and distractibility; you’ve seen it, and it probably drives you crazy. There is a connection with technology, for sure, and some of us are battling neurochemical disadvantages in this regard, but much of the problem is that lack of focus becomes habituated. If you practice flicking abruptly from one thing to another, then you’ll get good at it!

    Whatever you can do to encourage sustained focus, in any field and with virtually any age group, will be beneficial. Whether it’s requiring students to write using a pen and a notebook, rather than by electronic means, or by using the clock to build in periods of quiet study, or by breaking up the class into manageable pieces... Anything will help. I refuse to accept that this is the century in which we forget how to pay attention, but it’s going to take serious work to change the trend.

  7. 7

    Be wary of gadgets

    Is an electronic dictionary better than a paper one? Sometimes, but only if it’s an outstanding electronic dictionary, and how many of them truly are?

    Isn’t texting good writing practice for learners of English? Sure, if they’re spelling correctly and writing in reasonably full sentences, but how many of us really do that?

    Is a self-taught IPad lesson as useful as a conventional classroom session? Sure, it could be, but only if the content is vividly and communicatively expressed, and if the activity requires plentiful production of the target language. I know from experience that these things are not true as often as they should be. Might the IPad be actually less of a tool than a barrier?

    Cellphone-related distraction is the bane of many classrooms. Consider banning them or placing strict limits on their use, with embarrassing or humorous punishments for infractions. Cellphone-based language activities should be judged on their merits. If they’re better than the ‘traditional’ alternative, then their use is justified; if not, then they probably aren’t helping the learning process.

    We cannot reject technology, but its role in language learning is not yet well understood. At its heart, language is communication between people. I have always felt that chalk and competence will teach and practice a language more effectively than glossy 3D apps.

  8. 8

    Cross Boundaries

    I like to think that foreign students arrive here in Boston carrying two suitcases; one for clothes, and the other for their culture. Whoever we are, we embody our own origins to some extent, and in a classroom environment, that strand of thought inevitably mingles with many others. This has unpredictable results, which can prove to be the most important and memorable events of a young life.

    Young learners come to the US and elsewhere not only for language, but for immersion in something arguably even more important: the world of ideas. Watching this happen, and seeing old illusions and prejudices melt away in the face of observable fact, is one of the true pleasures of teaching.

    We are advised (or instructed!) never to discuss politics and religion in the classroom. This is fair, and avoids a lot of problems. But I’d say that the teaching of tolerance and empathy, for example, in no way carries a religious tone; non-judgmental discussion of politics or religion can actually bring a class together and explode some long-standing myths. Contrasting the systems of government in Saudi Arabia, China and Belgium doesn’t involve talking politics; this is governance and society, not ideology. I believe it’s possible to have these discussions without appearing to favor one system over the other. It’s a tightrope walk at times, but one well worth taking.

  9. 9

    Be Analytical

    Make audio or video recordings of your lessons. You’ll learn more than a CELTA certificate will ever teach you.

    Analyze what you find and write down methods or concerns to discuss with your colleagues. If you have the chance to teach that same material again with a different group, apply what you learned. You might focus on:

    • How was your speed of speaking?
    • How much Teacher Talking Time was there? (Hint – if it’s close to 100%, then you’re a lecturer)
    • Were your classroom instructions clear to everyone?
    • Who goofed off, and why?
    • Who excelled, and how?
    • Was your board neat and useful throughout?
    • Did you waste time on a problem which could be pre-empted next time?
    • Did you have to rush because you ran out of time, and what could you have done about that?

    These enquiries do not represent self-criticism, but an honest appraisal, the carrying out of which is a sign of true professionalism.

  10. q

    Stay Healthy

    Teaching is demanding and taxing in just about every way a job can be. There’s a plethora of information on wellness, and here are some basics which I believe every teacher should consider:

    • Get enough rest. Lines under your eyes are not a good sign.
    • Eat a well-balanced diet. If you can’t cook, I urge you to try something simple today.
    • Keep hydrated, especially in the classroom.
    • Get regular exercise, preferably every day; engage in a variety of activities.
    • Meditate for ten minutes every day. This has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, making you a more effectively classroom teacher who is more likely to enjoy their working day.

Good luck and thanks for reading.

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