By Leigh-Anne Hunter

EFL Teacher

Akara has decided to sit under his desk again and no amount of threatening to send him to detention will lure him out. I’m not sure if that’s because he 

a) likes detention because he gets to be with his 10-year-old classmates who make paper airplanes out of their handouts; or
b) doesn’t actually know what “detention” means.

It’s only my second day teaching Grade 5 learners at a government primary school in Phuket, and I’m already IOMH (In Over My Head). Fortunately, I’m South African and we can be pretty tough.  I managed to survive for a year, but I can also say, with complete honesty, that I made plenty of mistakes. Here are a few survival strategies for newbies...

Adapt or die

Standing in front of the class in my pink teacher’s uniform with Akara under the table, I realised that I had two choices. The first was to forge ahead with my carefully laid-out, elegantly-staged lesson plans written in my tiny Phuket apartment. The second choice was to do as the locals do: turn them into paper airplanes and come up with something new.

I had to radically adjust my expectations of teaching, which is more like facilitating. There were many times I felt like a student, as well as a teacher. Be flexible, read the students and listen to their needs.

Get experience locally

The truth is, that while a reputable TEFL or CELTA course is incredibly helpful, nothing will fully prepare you for teaching a real-life ESL classroom outside of your comfort zone.

When I did the course, the practical component involved teaching well-mannered, conscientious Congolese adult immigrants whose English proficiency was their ticket to getting a job. 

Teaching kids is a whole different ballgame. The classes I taught ran for 50 minutes which is a long time for a small person to listen to someone in another language. We had limited resources, so I could not resort to colourful toys or an interactive white board. On the upside, this made me flex my creative muscles. I did everything from making sock puppets to using musical instruments. 

You may think, I don’t want to teach kids. However, I found teaching children to be an enriching (albeit sometimes infuriating) experience. The games and techniques I learnt were valuable when I later taught adults.  Both adults and children love a bit of fun. While in Thailand, I also taught teenagers, which had its own challenges. In many countries, it’s more common to find jobs teaching children and youth than adults.

Put yourself in the students' shoes

One great thing about teaching in a foreign country is that you get a very real insight into what it’s like to learn a foreign language. I experienced many strong emotions when practising my rudimentary Thai: embarrassment when trying to order a meal at a restaurant; frustration when I had to repeat myself ten times; apathy, why bother, this is just too hard!

For the first time, I understood what it’s like to be laughed at when speaking a foreign language. I also understood the courage it takes to risk making mistakes, and to experiment with new words. 

Master classroom management

When it comes to classroom management, theory is one thing, practice is another. Class sizes in Thailand in government schools are often large. I was gobsmacked when I walked into my first class and saw forty students!

Classroom management was by far my biggest challenge as a new teacher. Adjust discipline techniques for different age groups. For example, sticker charts work for kids, who love to collect stars and rewards. However, teenagers need more intrinsic motivation. Find out what interests them to get on their side. Adults take offence to school style discipline, but respond positively to knowing the rules and the purpose of the activities. 

I’m not an authoritarian teacher by any means and many students quickly figured this out. Then I overcompensated by becoming overly strict (“Detention! Everyone!”), but found I loathed myself for it. Everyone has their own teaching style that is influenced by their personality. So, I learnt to remain authentic and to become more assertive, and for that I can thank Thailand.

Summary: 7 tips for new teachers

  1. Plan but be ready to adapt, be flexible
  2. Listen to the students, they are experts on what works and what doesn’t
  3. Get experience locally with different age groups (it also is impressive to have voluntary teaching on your CV)
  4. Be resourceful
  5. Ask about resources and teaching materials when you apply for jobs, having an ESL library is a good sign
  6. Attempt to speak a foreign language, to get a sense of how it feels
  7. Be authentic, and assertive when it comes to discipline