It’s safe to say that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I accepted a job teaching English in Thailand. I didn’t have a TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) certificate, and I had never really worked with children before. The whole year felt a bit like learning to fly a plane while already in the air. However, I emerged from my first year teaching English abroad with a whole lot of knowledge, as well as with a new love and respect for all kids. Here are a few tips for other newbies approaching a year of teaching English abroad and feeling just as unprepared as I was.
I’ve said it before: I just don’t like punishing kids. Maybe I’m still a bit of an idealist, but I don’t believe that kids misbehave for no reason. Are they bored? Maybe confused by the lesson? Whatever the cause, it’s probably more about my teaching style than it is about the actual kid. Instead of dolling out threats and punishment, I should be trying to understand the underlying issue.
Most of my classes were lovely: Maybe they had a genuine desire to learn and I succeeded at keeping them engaged, or maybe they had been well-trained by strict homeroom teachers. Yet, some of my other classes taught me an unfortunate lesson in what happens when you don’t set clear expectations for your students. There were a few classes that quickly recognized my lackadaisical approach to authority. It was a slow process, but in retrospect, I realize that they pushed the boundaries a little more every lesson. And every time they pushed, I let it happen. So they kept pushing. And eventually I was stuck with some seriously out-of-control classes: They broke my supplies, yelled, ran around, and generally had no sense of appropriate classroom behaviour.
My leniency didn’t benefit anyone. I’m sure it was fun for the kids at first, but by the end of the year, certain classes were making me feel exhausted and frustrated. As a result, I wasn’t acting like the kind of teacher that any kid would want to have.
I feel pretty certain that if I had just demonstrated standards of behavior from the beginning, these particular lessons could have been more enjoyable for both me and the students. Setting clear boundaries doesn’t make me a harsh teacher – ultimately, it actually makes me more fun because everyone wins when the classes run smoothly.
Learn the Kids’ Names
The benefits of this are probably obvious, but when I first started teaching, I didn’t make learning names a priority. I was teaching upwards of 500 kids each week, and their Thai names were as difficult to pronounce as they were to remember. I didn’t make some conscious decision not to bother with their names, but since they all wore nametags, it just didn’t seem essential at a time when I was trying to get my head around the basics of teaching. Later on in the year when I had found my teaching groove, I started to focus on smaller details like these, and I then began to realize the huge significance of names. The kids seemed to glow with a little more pride when I used their names to praise them instead of a vague “Good girl” or “Yes, you’re right!” The praise was more meaningful, and I think it made the students more eager to speak out when they knew the answers. On the opposite end, that old adage about disobedient kids really just wanting attention seemed to hold up. I think acknowledgement was all these kids wanted in most cases, and using their names gave them that.
Plus, as I came to know the students’ names, and consequently recognized each individual kid, I felt less like I was staring out into a sea of tiny faces when I stood up to teach. I was speaking to kids that I knew (and even liked!) It didn’t matter that there were 27 of us in the room – the teaching felt more personal.
Take the Simple Approach
Here was the premise of the most popular game in my class of 5-year-olds: When I held the flashcard up high in the air, the students would yell the vocabulary as loud as they could; then when I held the card near the floor, they would whisper the word. It sent them into fits of laughter and joy every time.
Lessons don’t need to be complicated and kids aren’t hard to please. It doesn’t mean you need to be boring, but once you figure out what the kids like, stick with it. Don’t overthink your lessons – whenever I do, the lesson usually ends up being confusing rather than interesting. Teaching is kind of like traveling in that way: Planning is helpful to a certain point, but it’s definitely possible to make life more difficult by doing too much.
Let Go of Logic
To be honest, most of the time it wasn’t the kids that presented a problem, it was the management. Jobs teaching English abroad tend to come with frustrating cultural differences. By cultural differences, I don’t mean bowing to colleagues or not touching things with your feet. I mean basing the recipient of an English award on which student is “cuter”; not being able to provide extra support for developmentally delayed students; or not being able to assign any student a grade lower than a “C”. I resented decisions that benefited the company over the students, heavy-handed hierarchical management structures, and constantly being forced to act as a propaganda tool.
The bottom line is that you will probably be asked to say and do things that seem (and objectively probably are) ridiculous. In general (at least in Asia), the status quo is king, so decisions don’t have to make sense, and there doesn’t have to be a reason. It’s humbling, but teaching life gets a lot easier when you stop seeking logic and explanation. Embrace the chaos, accept everything as it comes, and enjoy the ride.
Thinking about teaching English abroad? Check out my post on essential questions to ask before accepting a job!
TEFL teachers! What are your best tips for first-timers?