Stand Up and Be Counted: 5 Reasons to Stay on Your Feet While Teaching ESL

Stand Up and Be Counted: 5 Reasons to Stay on Your Feet While Teaching ESL

Think of the classic image of a classroom full of bored students.

They’re slumped over their desks, leaning on elbows, half asleep, or causing trouble at the back. And where, in all this under-achieving lethargy, is their teacher? I’m willing to bet that the teacher is just as bored, waiting for the students to finish their work, reading the paper or pretending to grade student assignments, and most definitely sitting at their desk.

That’s not to say that the teacher should never sit down; far from it. Teaching is an exhausting task and taking adequate rest is essential. I just occasionally worry that being seen to teach (mostly or entirely) from one’s own desk encourages debilitating phenomena; we might have students thinking, “She’s way up there, and I’m down here, separate and disconnected. Do I really have to listen? Does she really care what I’m doing?”

Of course you do. But if you’re rooted to the spot, I’d contend that you miss a lot of what’s going on, including major opportunities to enhance the students’ learning experience. A mobile, energetic teacher quickly finds that their mobility pays dividends. Here’s why.

Stay Mobile and Energetic in Class with These 5 Simple Ideas

  1. 1

    Lead By Example

    If you’d like an energetic classroom full of language and practice and interaction - and if you’re a professional ESL teacher, this is your Holy Grail - then the best way to set such a tone is to do so personally. My students see my own energy as something to be matched and drawn upon; make no mistake, dashing around is extremely demanding, and by 5pm each day, I’m a very tired man, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. The pace that you set is one your students will equal; raised energy levels result in more language production, something we’re always looking for, and a happier, more enjoyable classroom to which your students will be more keen to return the next day.

  2. 2

    Getting to Know You

    If you’re on your feet and moving around during presentation and practice sessions, you’re more likely to engage, both formally and informally, with the people who depend on you for their learning environment. You’ll catch bits of opinions - even bits of gossip - and learn much more about the background of your students. Understanding who these people are, together with a thorough analysis of their learning needs, allows us to tailor our classes not just to students, but to our students. What are they worrying about? Which new friends are they making? Are they happy? Are they homesick? These are details you’re likely to miss from many yards away, unhelpfully insulated by a teacher’s desk.

  3. 3

    Keeping an Ear Open

    During practice time, it is essential that you’re within earshot of the language being practiced. This is simply the only way you’ll know if the students are using it correctly. From your desk, I’d guess the best you’d hear is a mixed chorus of indecipherable language production; up close, you can hear every word and syllable, offering advice and corrections where necessary and judging whether or not the material is taking hold.

    If you’re close by, it’s also more likely the students will feel comfortable asking you questions. I remember, back at High School, feeling very reluctant to disturb a teacher who was clearly busy with something other than teaching their class; I fell behind because I couldn’t get the help I needed. To be responsive to student needs, right there in the moment, is a great sign that you’re committed to their learning, and as a result, they’re more likely to follow suit.

  4. 4

    Staying Alert

    Towards the end of a tiring day, you’re more likely to tap into your energy reserves if you’re on your feet. Take brief breaks by returning to your desk to consult your plan, look something up, make a note, or do some quick grading, but it’s best if you don’t stay there for long. Simply standing and performing a quick ‘sweep’ of the room (a ninety-second check to see who’s doing what) gets your circulation going and brings renewed focus to your task of motivating students to produce language.

  5. 5

    On Patrol

    We’ve all seen the signs; a student with their head down, staring at something under the desk, or giggling with a classmate over something hidden behind a book. In days past, this might have been a magazine, but these days it’s invariably a cellphone. Sitting at your desk for lengthy periods is no more or less than an invitation for your less motivated students to goof off.

    You might consider this kind of behavior to be your students’ problem, and not your own; I can’t agree. Responsibility for the learning (or lack thereof) going on in your room is yours, and this includes discipline and focus, even for those student without much passion for the subject. Permitting distraction and undisciplined behavior can damage your reputation, and might lead to your being seen as a ‘soft touch’, someone in whose classes the students need not produce their best. These outcomes are negative for the learning environment and can erode your own enthusiasm for the profession.

Newer teachers tend to head off into teaching at full speed, and only later learn to take it easy and pace themselves.

Conserving energy is just as important as putting forth a vibrant, energetic personality. Find ways to balance these two needs, making use of your enthusiasm during practice and feedback sessions, and those other moments when, for a variety of reasons, it’s useful to nudge your students along. At other times you can relax and, once the exercise is properly set up and has started successfully, you can let the class run itself.

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