Tips for New Teachers

Welcome to the Winter 2013 term at Language ETC! After a much-needed holiday break, it’s great to be back. At orientation on January 12, I asked a number of experienced Language ETC volunteers what they wish they’d known when they started teaching. What advice would they give to new teachers? Here are their tips (and some of my own):

Prepare and overprepare. I lay it all out in advance. I write a set of prompts, a lesson plan really, and go over my moves before class.

— Larry Lawrence, Advanced Plus

Signal the start of class. When I’m ready to start class, I yell, “Good morning, class!” or “Good afternoon, class!” The students yell it back. If they are not loud or enthusiastic enough, I repeat. This helps get the class going on time. Students will remind me to do it if I forget and go right into the lesson without the greeting.

— Lee Griffith, Weekend Volunteer Coordinator

Talk as little as possible, so that students can talk more. Let students answer each other’s questions. If someone asks you what a word means, don’t give the definition yourself — instead ask if anyone else in the class knows the meaning, and let that student explain. Before the class does a textbook exercise, ask a student to read the instructions aloud. Try to have a student-centered classroom rather than one focused on the teacher.

— Lucy Hamachek, Advanced Workplace

Do more listening than talking. We teachers love to talk, but sometimes silence is better.

— Brooke McEwen, Basic A

Speak naturally. Use normal, everyday pronunciation and speech patterns, like contractions. It doesn’t help students if you speak extremely slowly and “correctly,” because the English they hear in the real world doesn’t sound like that.

— Jud Dolphin, 3A

Let students struggle a little. Don’t jump in with the answers too quickly. Students need time to think.

— Suzanne Rosenthal, 3B

Give simple explanations. When a student asks a question, keep your answer short. If a word has ten meanings, don’t try to explain all of them. You can go into more detail if the students ask for more.

— Lucy Hamachek, Advanced Workplace

Use small groups. It gets the students talking. If they just listen to the teacher talk, they don’t learn. The optimum size of the groups depends on the activity you’re doing. Pairs, threes, fours, and fives can work well for different exercises.

— Mike Mele, 2A

Use conversation circles. When the class is going to discuss a topic, pull the chairs into two circles. When you divide the class in two, each student gets twice as much speaking time. Each circle is facilitated by one of the co-teachers, who keeps the conversation moving and draws quieter students into the discussion.

— Cathy Sunshine, Advanced Plus

Make it fun. Use the power of games. Don’t just march through workbook drills. This is something I wish I’d known when I started!

— Dan Guilbeault, 3A

Know your grammar. You have to work at it. As native speakers, we take grammar for granted. But you need to know enough that you don’t get caught off-guard by students’ questions.

— Dean Frutiger, 3B

Learn the grammar and how to teach it. Take advantage of opportunities to brush up on grammar, like the workshops that LETC offers from time to time.

— Mary Janice Dicello, Basic A

Call on students at random. I remember language classes in high school where the teacher would go through a textbook exercise, calling on us in the order we were sitting. You figured out which question would be yours, prepared the answer, and then went to sleep until it was your turn. That’s why I always call on my ESL students in no predictable order. They focus on every question because they never know when they’ll hear their name.

— Cathy Sunshine, Advanced Plus

Pace the class. Things often take more time than you expect. Sometimes you need to slow down and repeat to make sure students understand, especially at the lower levels.

— Katie McGuire, Advanced Plus

When students give oral presentations, stand at the back of the room. Most students, when you ask them to speak to the class, will speak to the teacher. If you stand in front, the presenting student will turn and talk to you, turning his face away from the class. This makes it hard for the other students to hear and understand. So instead of standing up front, stand in the back, and say to the presenter, “Speak loud enough so I can hear you all the way back here.” This encourages the presenting student to face the class and project their voice.

— Cathy Sunshine, Advanced Plus

Let students lead. Sometimes you can give the chalk to a student and step back.

— Patrick Garcia, 4A

Schedule open-ended activities last. Timing classes is often tricky, because it’s hard to predict how much time each activity will take. Activities with a beginning, middle, and end are best done early in the class so you have enough time to finish. I like to use conversation as the last activity since the amount of time it takes is elastic. When it’s time to go home, you can just stop.

— Cathy Sunshine, Advanced Plus

New teachers can also find some helpful guidance in the blog archives. For example:

Start of the Term: Name Games and Icebreakers
Teacher Talk
Hot Topics: Conversation Starters for ESL Classes 
Managing the Multilevel Classroom
Musical Chairs: Seating Arrangements for the ESL Classroom
Hidden Resources: The Ventures Workbook and Add Ventures
Teaching ESL Beginners: Tips from Two Longtime Volunteers
Teaching Advanced Students at Language ETC


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One Response to Tips for New Teachers

  1. Elly Perl says:

    Rely on your acting and artistic skills: I find it really puts a class at ease when I act out something that I am trying to explain. I am quite a ham, and will “flap my wings” or skip or knit an imaginary sweater if it facilitates understanding. In addition, I always tell the class that I am NOT an artist, but that doesn’t stop me from drawing maps, illustrations, or diagrams on the board to get a point across. Usually my pictures are recognizable enough, and they are always amusing.

    Elly Perl 4A

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