In my lengthy career as a TEFL teacher I’ve mostly taught small classes (8 at first, decreasing to 4 or 5). If you’re being asked to teach mobs of 30 I doubt much of this article will be helpful.
In the last 10 years, most of my students have been employees of big banks or financial institutions. Well-educated and keen to practice - with real-life incentives to improve their language. If you’re dealing with moody, demotivated teenagers or whatever, I don’t have the skills to help you.
Also as soon as I got ‘good’ at teaching I pretty much stopped teaching beginners. It’s useful to do it at least once because it’s a real eye-opener and very rewarding, but jeez. Don’t make a career out of it.
General Tips and Tricks
I’m not much of a hippy. Don’t talk to me about healing crystals or homeopathy. (I have a vegetarian girlfriend so I do eat a lot more lentils and chick peas than an average dude, but I make sure to complain every time so she knows I’m only doing it for her. I’m romantic like that.) Point is, I’m not into esoteric, touchy-feely stuff.
But I strongly recommend you take an emotional intelligence course. I was home for a few months before or after teaching in Poland, can’t really remember the timeline, and my mum was doing an online course at her local college. It was free so I joined in.
One of the exercises was to watch a TV show with the sound off and try to decide if the characters were happy, sad, in love, whatever. Then watch it again (sound on) to see if you were right. Big Brother was on so I did that a few times. Also, because I’m a creepy male pig, when I’m walking past a Starbucks and I see a woman talking to someone, I quickly try to guess (based on her body language and facial expression) if she’s talking to another woman or a man. (I’m amazing at this little game.)
There were a ton of other concepts in the course too. Reframing your emotions, stuff like that.
What it did was utterly transform my performance in the classroom. Next time I had a student in front of me it seemed like I was READING THEIR TINY MIND. I was spotting fleeting micro-expressions that told me if they understood or not, if they hated their partner, if they were bored, if they were demotivated.
For the first time as a teacher I began to spot problems before they arose. I stopped reacting defensively to every little thing. I stopped worrying.
I could go on and on about it. Just find some resources and start working on your EQ.
Adapt, but Not Too Much
There are 3 types of English native speakers who live abroad (or deal with lots of foreigners in their home country).
The first group continues to communicate as though they had stepped into their local pub instead of a new country. Loud, fast, complicated. No thought for their listener. (Note if they had an ounce of emotional intelligence the distress on everyone else’s face would tell a tale.)
Those people are ridiculous to me.
The third group, and if you are starting to feel stressed because I have skipped a group then you have great attention to detail and I’m sure you’ll do well as a teacher, are just as bad. They OVERadapt. You’ve probably met English people who seem to have mislaid the word ‘that’ and can only say ‘this’. (If you haven’t come across that phenomenon yet, keep an eye out for it. It’s really bonkers.)
They do it because they strive so hard to be understood and to reduce communication barriers with their students/colleagues that they start to embody foreign grammar.
It’s bizarre, but at least it comes from a good place.
The correct way to adapt is to be like me. Obvs.
Slow down when talking to your students. Slow down MORE when talking to beginners. Modulate the complexity of your grammar. Be conscious of idioms. Know that if you use advanced phrases you’ll have to explain them. Enunciate.
BUT be yourself to a great degree. Speak English. Speak your English. If you stay in one country too long you’ll start to absorb that country’s grammar through hearing your students’ mistakes, like an infection passing across the blood-brain barrier. Fight it! Fight as hard as you can!
Teacher Talk Time
The worst teachers talk more than their students. Fact. If you are getting bad reviews from students it’s because you are droning on. This is THEIR time, not yours.
Now you might find yourself in the position, like me, of always being the most dazzling and fascinating person in any room you enter. By all means indulge in some storytelling and self-aggrandisement as a kind of ice-breaker.
And then shut up and let the students take centre stage. You narcissistic monster, you.
(One thing that happens with me - and I know how this sounds - is that students will DEMAND some update on some ongoing story. ‘Andrew, what happened when your girlfriend found out you ate her birthday chocolates?’ ‘Andrew, did you confront your neighbour yet?’ I have had to BRIBE classes - ‘I’ll tell you when you’ve finished exercise B!’)
I am English, which means I cringe hard at the thought of singing or dancing in public. As such, I would never do a musical exercise with my students. No way.
But one of my top banker students told me his previous English teacher had often got them to sing in class and they all loved it.
Do it if music is in your heart or whatevs; don’t do it if it’d make YOU uncomfortable.
I Don’t Know
For 15 years I tormented myself by thinking I had to know everything about the English language and lived in dread of being asked some high-level question.
In the rare cases I DID get such a question, I would twist myself into knots trying to answer mind-boggling questions about the minutiae of this mad mismatch of languages we call English. All to preserve this facade of being an expert.
One day I finally felt comfortable enough to say ‘Yeah I don’t know that.’
And nothing bad happened!
Here’s the deal. There are things you should know as an English teacher, like the difference between past simple and present perfect, or how to use modals or conditionals.
If you have panic attack or brain freeze when asked about something ‘simple’ like that, you just say, ‘We can review that next week if you want.’ Or ‘that’s coming up in unit 8 so let’s leave that for now.’
It’s really no big deal. By all means answer the question if it comes up and it makes sense to, but it’s not the topic of today’s lesson is it? Otherwise you’d have the answer in front of you.
And if the grammar in question is so complicated that you can’t find the answer in any of the Murphy grammar books, does the student really need to know? Of course not. They can’t even use inversions, so why are they asking you about things you don’t even know the name of?
That said, you should know your grammar. I wish someone in my first school had given me a set of Murphys and said ‘go through them, do all the exercises, you’ve got 5 months so don’t stress but if you don’t do it you’re fired’.
Here’s a random tip. If you’re using a grammar book like the excellent Destination series, you’ll find that it has a grammar explanation section and then exercises. Why not skip the explanation and get your students to plunge into the first exercise?
Doing it that way (instead of reading the grammar rules out loud or filling your whiteboard with timelines and THEN doing the exercise) has 2 great benefits.
First, if the students get all the answers right, then you don’t need to study this grammar. Right? Save everyone a boring 20 minutes. Move on to something more fun. More speaking. More listening.
Second, if they get 7 out of 12 wrong, or they found themselves mostly guessing, then they will be much more attentive as you explain the grammar. And you’ll have actual example sentences to refer to. Examples that are fresh in their mind.
Peer to Peer Learning
Imagine in the previous scenario, 3 students got most of the answers right and have a good grasp of the grammar. One dullard scored 5/12.
This is a prime opportunity for you to do something awesome and teachery.
‘Hey student A, you seem to have a good grasp of this. Can you explain it to student D? Thanks!’
Now you can either let students B and C watch, listen, and help, or you can tell them to have a conversation while they wait for D to catch up.
‘What should we talk about?’
’What am I, the bloody conversation police? Talk about whatever you want! You’ve got 2 kids and his face is so sunburnt I’m surprised it hasn’t fallen off! Surely you can generate a two-minute conversation?’
If they are difficult, you can give them a topic relevant to what you did last week, or whatever’s going on in the news.
Just don’t let them go onto the next exercise. You can’t manage a classroom full of people going through the material at different speeds.
Then monitor the A/D conversation and clarify as needed.
This is really important. One student has some information and another student doesn’t. That could be as simple as ‘what did you do over the weekend’. This is the time most learning takes place, I think. So don’t let them bridge the information gap IN THEIR OWN LANGUAGE.
There are times to make things easier for the students. Times when you need to step in and help, or clarify. You’ve boosted your EQ and now you can see that student A has no idea what student B is talking about. BUT WAIT. Don’t dive in. Hold your horses. Let them struggle through. It might be that all you need to do is inform student B that student A doesn’t get it.
It seems cruel to let the people suffer, but that’s when the magic happens. In fact, you should yearn for these moments. You should design materials hoping to provoke these moments.
If you’ve got a pairwork activity you MUST NOT let the students look at each other’s paper. Turn them back to back if you have to.
One thing I do is this:
Hands worksheet A to student A, worksheet B to student B.
Me: ‘A, show your paper to student B.’
They do so.
Me, instantly, snatching the paper away from B: ‘No! What are you doing? Never let him see it!’
It might seem like I’m joking, here, but I’m not. I legitimately do that all the time. And it works.
Note that after struggling for a while, students will start to show each other the words on the paper, or translate a few words into their native tongue. That’s fine. Just make sure they give it a good go at first.
I can’t remember where I read it or why I started doing it, but when a student asked me to repeat myself, I would, but quieter.
It’s funny. It’s like you’re telling them off for not listening hard enough, just as they start to listen harder.
Imagine you’ve been doing an exercise for a while and the students are stuck on one part of it. Instead of telling them the answer is ‘Mexico’ you can just sort of whispermumble the syllables. Me-ih-eh. What? Me-ih-eh.
8 times out of 10 someone will get it. And they’ll be super happy because they worked it out from your demented clue. And you didn’t tell them the answer.
Did anyone learn anything? Maybe! More than if you’d just said ‘Mexico’. Right?
When I was new to teaching, and for a long time after, I felt I had to impress everyone. In the first lesson with a new group, for example, I’d be ‘on’ like Robin Williams. Clowning around, throwing around one-liners - doing everything short of winking and having a tooth shine when I smiled.
These days I go into the first lesson, introduce myself quickly, get the student’s names, and get on with it. It’s really enough.
That said, if you are creative you’ll have an urge to bring that into the classroom. One teacher I knew in Poland would teach his students all the different words for movement (ambling/strolling/crawling etc). He’d get his class to stand on one side of the room and literally amble, stroll, or crawl. So awesome! But you’ll go insane trying to make the second conditional that fun.
Tricky. Hard to break it down into rules. This is where your high emotional intelligence comes into play. You’ll have a much better feeling for when to correct people if you pay attention to how they react when you do.
Always correct mistakes on topics you’ve covered in class.
If the mistake is something that’ll come up in future, maybe it can wait.
If you decided to let it wait but then it’s happening so often it starts to BOIL YOUR BLOOD, then correct it. Just be wary of opening a rabbit hole so big no-one can ever escape from it.
A cough, a raised eyebrow, a confused ‘huh?’ are all ways to indicate a mistake has been made. The student will analyse what they said and try to correct it. i.e. you don’t even need to SAY there has been a mistake. The downside is that when you are frowning in disbelief at some story they are telling, they will think they’ve made a mistake. But hey. Nothing’s perfect.
Encourage students to correct each other. Use your high EQ to monitor for signs that it isn’t welcome. Most of my students are happy to get correction, even if they would prefer it didn’t come from their co-worker.
In my career I didn’t have much appetite for discussing teaching with other teachers. I didn’t always have much opportunity either.
But the few times I was able to sit in and watch someone else doing a class was really interesting. If you get the chance to do that, go for it. Be aware that having someone watching changes the dynamic of the classroom quite a lot and you might not see that teacher at their best.
In my case I had an awesome group that loved the lessons so much that this super attractive school administrator asked to come and watch a lesson (to see what all the fuss was about, probably). Of course it was the worst lesson I’ve ever done.
Still, I’ve sat in on some pretty terrible lessons and that alone gave me a ton of confidence. ‘Well I’m better than THIS’.
If you’re routinely checking your Instagram during class, you’re probably a shitty teacher.
In my last year of full-time teaching I was absurdly efficient. I needed to do almost zero preparation and knew every coursebook like the back of my hand. I was reading students like they were fortune cookies. All that time when students were doing a reading exercise, a listening activity, or ploughing through some grammar - I could have written a short novel, possibly about robots.
Sure, once I set a 10-minute reading task I’d check my email or watch a cat gif. Or once I pressed play on tape I’d shoot off to do a pay-pee (that’s peeing when you’re being paid). We’re not machines.
But come on. You should still be monitoring. Ambling around while the students work through tasks can be very, very revealing. I’ve uncovered tons of deep-seated beliefs that needed to be laid on the altar of truth and smashed to bits, just by watching a student write ‘C’ in a box where they should have written ‘D’.
And I’ve seen students cross out the correct answer ‘B’ because they heard the word ‘X’.
You don’t have to waste all your precious life energy and you can and should rest when possible during a lesson. Just avoid the trap of turning your lessons into your free time.
Do Unto Others What You Have Done Yourself
Hey, bro. If you haven’t done exercise 1 on your own before class, why not? Why are you asking the students to do an exercise you haven’t done?
‘Because I’m a native speaker, Andrew.’ Well la-dee-dah. Look at Little Lord Fauntleroy over here.
Ugh, with that attitude I’m not even going to explain it. Just know that 80% of the problems you’ll have in your classroom will vanish overnight if you know what the students are supposed to actually do.
The last thing I said is doubly true if you’re teaching an exam class.
I went to a Cambridge seminar a couple of years ago and to explain how they constructed the exams they gave everyone in the room an FCE reading task to do. So imagine a room with 20 English teachers doing a very simple exercise.
I whizzed through it in 2 minutes, obviously. There then followed 8 minutes where I felt a surge of self-doubt and paranoia. Why was everyone still writing? Was I in a Derren Brown show? Was I being secretly filmed and everyone else in the room was a paid actor?
The teachers (actors?) to my left and right were struggling with it. Struggling with a B2 level text. The guy on my right noticed my expression, which I assume could be described as ‘aghast’, and said, ‘not so simple, is it?’ in a cheery voice.
I realise I’m in danger of going on a proper rant here, so let’s just say - If you want to teach an exam, do the exam. I don’t mean pay 300 dollars and do it, speaking test and all. I mean Google ‘[exam name] handbook’ or buy a book with sample exams, and do AT LEAST ONE.
And if you find it hard, keep doing it until it’s easy.
In my classes I normally let activities run their course. The ideal time to stop an activity is JUST before people start getting bored of it. Remember emotional intelligence?
But if you’re preparing for an exam you have to be aware of the time element.
Let’s say you are teaching the CAE reading test, part 7. The first time you do it, let the students go slowly. They have to learn how to do it.
The next time, they get a generous time limit. Say, 20 minutes. And each time, bring that time limit closer to how much time they’ll get in the exam.
It’s a good idea to get your students to do a reading test very early on in the course. In the first lesson, give it to them as homework. Tell them to take it seriously and give them the time limit they’ll have in the exam.
You’ll learn all kinds of things from the mistakes they make. You’ll also be able to quantify their improvement through the course. If you do another test halfway through and there’s no improvement, you can have a chat with them about why they aren’t getting better.
(It might be that the classes aren’t working for them. They might do better with a different teacher. Don’t take it personally - you should encourage them to move classes if that’s going to benefit them. More likely is that they aren’t doing any homework because of what’s going on in their lives.)
You are not responsible for students passing or failing the exam. I refuse to take credit for a student who passes, and would ignore any blame if that ever came up.
You have 90 minutes a week, or 1 hour twice a week, or some other insignificant amount of time. You are basically a guy on the street pointing and saying ‘the train station is down there. Turn left at the H+M’. And your student is a tourist who can trust you and start walking or can just go into the nearest coffee shop and dick around on Snapchat.
Students who pass do so because their level was already high enough before they even started preparing or because they took my advice and did a ton of homework and read books and watched Game of Thrones.
Do your part. The rest is on the student.
Random Tips and Thoughts
If you are cutting up a worksheet - with matching pairs for example - certain wily students will try to match them by pairing shapes, as though they were putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
In this image you can see that it’s actually fairly simple to work out where everything goes just by looking at the dotted lines and stuff.
Prevent that by making some extra cuts.
Now any student who tries to game the system will be thwarted and will be mad at himself for even trying.