Becoming the Best Teacher

Teaching in Beijing, China was my first TEFL experience outside of my home country, South Africa. I had an idea of what it would entail but I had no idea that within my year; I would be viewed as one of the most popular Teachers. At our annual regional charity auction with a total of 18 centers; my class was auctioned for the highest amount of 10,000 RMB. Needless to say; my center made the highest amount for the auction with a total of almost 20,000 RMB raised. This was a welcomed surprise for me but also great that the money would be benefiting orphaned children. I can’t say that I was the best Teacher as I was amongst Teachers with far more experience and expertise but I was voted the most popular Teacher in my time there. I think its important to strive to be both. The key here is to work toward being the best Teacher who gives off themselves 100 percent in their classes and to make sure every student feels that they are getting a sufficient Return on their investment.

Students pay a great deal to learn English and whilst some are doing it as a hobby; others see it as a pre-requisite for a better life and to realize their dreams. I worked at a training centre with a clientele of adult students so my advice and tips to follow are mainly from my personal experience; however this certainly can be used/adapted for kids and school environments too.

Its great to be able to travel around the world and immerse yourself in new cultures; but the reason you are able to do that is because of your job and in this case…your job as a Teacher. If you want to be really good at your job; you have to love it and make whatever circumstances you are presented with work for you. Let’s first take a look at some common complaints about Teachers:

Classroom in Beijing
Classroom in Beijing

Complaints from Students (Adult)

  • The Teacher seemed bored in the class
  • I didn’t understand the Teacher
  • The class was not fun
  • That Teacher made me uncomfortable (usually female students complaining about Male teachers)

Management Complaints and concerns

  • Adhering to dress code
  • Punctuality (this is important as in some places; your work time is monitored)
  • High TTT (Teacher Talk time)
  • Your class finished too early/too late
  • Not well prepared for the level you were teaching

Here are some observations and tips to make your classes fun and boast the highest quality.

  • Its important to be prepared for your classes in terms of the lesson plan and the material you will be using. Sometimes there may be challenges like insufficient teaching material or last minute changes – learn to adapt and take the initiative to be creative and add extra activities or material if you need to. After a couple of months of teaching; you will be very familiar with the teaching material and will be able to gauge where you can spice things up; eliminate some material and tweak it for better teaching practice – you can discuss this with your Manager first.
  • Know your students – the ages; levels; interests (you can gauge this in class) and have activities that align with these.
  • Set the rules early so that they are aware that even though this class will be fun; it’s all about learning and you wont tolerate anything other than their full attention. Here are some examples of rules set in my classes:
    • No Cellphones to be used during my class – even if it’s to research something they are learning in class (Students tend to want to look up the word/meaning in their vernacular to better understand or the pronunciation via an app)
    • If they are to take pics – then allow it before you erase information from the board or at the end of the class
    • Always have students introduce themselves and spell their names and write it on the board so that you can call them by their names and be personable
    • No talking when I am talking – they will have enough time to talk to each other during their activities.
    • If they need to take a phone call for work/something urgent- they can excuse themselves and go outside; Otherwise all phones are to be on silent.
    • No Chinese to be spoken in Class – Only English
  • Be aware if students are getting bored – this is extremely important because success of your class is also determined by how fun students feel your class is. The key here is to start your class on a really high note with lots of energy and make them all feel comfortable.
  • Change things! You can change the set up; make them do an activity that involves walking around or moving; blindfold them; get them to play a game etc. These can all be planned in your lesson beforehand.
  • Be Visual – always try to incorporate visual elements to your teaching even if that means you are drawing on the board; get pictures etc. Students tend to remember things better if they can see what you’re talking about especially if its something new to them.
  • While students are doing their free practice exercise; when you hear any common errors – make a note of this and do a group error correction at the end of the class before or after you provide feedback – they find this very useful. This may be dependent on the age group you are teaching.
  • Timing is everything – this applies to your overall class and covering all the teaching objectives set out for the lesson but also in terms of the attention you pay to each student. In smaller groups, if you have a few weaker students; you may need to give them some extra attention but do so without the brighter students feeling like they are robbed of your time or are bored while they wait for you. Always ensure that students have an activity or are practicing their speaking when you are assisting a weaker student.
  • Bring your authentic personality to your class and let them get to know you a little. When teaching; don’t be a rigid “stick to the lesson plan word for word” type of person. Tweak examples to make them relatable to you or your students. Students enjoy getting to know their Foreign Teacher and also like educating their Foreign Teacher about their lives and country. Try to use this in your class material and you will be surprised at the mutually beneficial learning experience you will enjoy.
  • Always have some additional activities – you never know when you will be presented with students who get through activities quite fast and expect to learn more so try to be prepared with some fun activities they can use to practice the target language they’ve learnt – this applies to kids and adults!
  • Work with and not against your fellow peers. I worked very well with my colleagues who were also my friends. It is important to maintain good working relationships and also help each other. You can learn so much from your colleagues and exchange ideas on how you dealt with similar challenges, students, lesson plans, activities and so on. Most of the fun ideas that worked in my classes were from other Teachers who shared them with me and vice versa. Your peers are your best resource! Then comes the internet.
  • Behave appropriately – if you are teaching adults; then you have to be aware of your behavior and body language. Teaching in China is known to be appealing for some men because of the beautiful students they will get to know; but not all these students are charmed by foreign men. Beware of getting too close to students and have clear boundaries. You are guaranteed lots of social fun and interaction outside of your classes; don’t risk your job because you can’t control yourself in class 🙂
Classroom in Beijing
Classroom in Beijing

Side note:

Depending on your teaching environment; if you have a hobby or special passion that you enjoy then you may also be able to introduce it to your students as part of their lessons. This makes teaching fun and enjoyable for you and your students. Here is an example of what I did:

At our training center; we had a class that was called an “English Corner” – this was where teachers could prepare presentations on topics of their choice (for example: Do aliens exists? Let’s talk about Donald Trump! Etc.) This was the best class for all Teachers because we got to choose the topic and went through the presentation with students who got the chance to answer questions and have discussions with each other. I introduced a 6 week TV Presenting Media Workshop for students sharing my experience in broadcasting and they got to learn and practice their English in a fun way (Interviewer and guest; Talk show etc.) and learning  the relevant English vocab pertaining to this field. Our center turned this into a campaign to improve students attendance and the overall winning students would get a CCTV studio tour and lunch.

I also hosted a wine tasting workshop as South Africa is famous for their wines and a dance workshop because that is one of my biggest passions. You can also introduce things your home country is famous for or personal things you enjoy to relieve the homesickness you may feel and make your lessons fun. Teaching English as a Foreign Language in a new country can be fun and exciting for not just your students but yourself too! Once you understand the dynamics, rules/red-tape, limitations and creative freedom within your organization; you need to find creative ways to ensure that you are enjoying your classes and by default your students will too. If you are presented with very challenging circumstances or are in an unhappy work environment; then while you work on your exit strategy, try to remember that your students should not be disadvantaged as a result of your circumstances and  be present in your classes. Your students can, sometimes surprisingly, turn a bad day into a pleasant one! Good luck!

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My First Teaching in Thailand

How Teaching in Thailand Taught Me So Much

The night before my first ever teaching day in rural Thailand I remember feeling 49% excited and 51% nervous. I never in a million years thought I would end up teaching English to Thai children aged from 4-9 years old.  My experience with children before this was very limited. I am an only child so hadn’t even had brothers and sisters to deal with and the idea of being confronted with up to 40 at a time in 30 + degree heat was terrifying.  I turned to teaching mostly because I didn’t want my travels to end and this was a way of extending them. I really was the last person you would expect to choose to go teaching and yet here we are. It’s safe to say over the past four months the students completely melted my heart.

First Day!

My first day of teaching in Thailand was the first day I’d been in a classroom since I left school myself and the second time I’d ever been on a scooter.  The first thing I realized was that my co Thai teachers didn’t understand much English and I knew next to no useful Thai. The rest of the day was filled with elaborate hand gestures and nervous giggles from both parties.  The first challenge was figuring out the level of English that my students had which didn’t take too long. It was next to none. The youngest ones were four-years-old after all. They could barely speak Thai let alone understand the concept of English. 

In the first week I didn’t have a co-Thai teacher for any of my Prathom classes which made it quite difficult in regards to classroom management since they didn’t understand what I was saying. However I realised that if I didn’t sort that out soon then we wouldn’t be learning anything this semester. The school was really great and sent a very competent teacher to all my Prathom (ages 6-9 years old) classes. It seemed that her simply being there was enough to make a huge difference to their behaviour.

I also found the lessons that I was most excited about teaching became the ones that the students seemed to enjoy the most and if they were having fun they were behaving. This became the way I managed every lesson plan from then on. If I wasn’t excited to teach the lesson then I couldn’t expect the students to be excited either. The Thai teachers were very welcoming towards me. Even though we couldn’t really use language to communicate they offered me food and smiles and I would do the same back and that was enough.

Thai Students

Over the course of the months I realized that this was the first job I’d had that I didn’t have any trouble getting out of bed for. Getting to know the students was genuinely a lot of fun and they always greeted me with so much enthusiasm. Every day also started with an assembly at the kindergarten which involved a daily dance. This is something I think all workplaces should instigate. You can’t have a bad day when each day starts with a fun dance.  As the months went on things got so much easier. I learnt what the students enjoyed and what they didn’t. They loved any activity that got them out of their seats and being silly so it was my task to try to slip some learning into any game we played.

By the end of the four months I was really impressed by how much they had managed to remember and had formed close bonds with many of the students.  To anyone still trying to decide if teaching is for them I would highly recommend to this program through On the Mark Education. You learn so much, not only about yourself, but people in general. You’ll form bonds with the students that you’ll never forget and the entire experience is one you’ll never regret.  If I can do it, so can you!

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