As the famous George Bernard Shaw quote goes, “Those who can do, those who can’t teach”. But, while this might come as a surprise, even teaching requires a certain level of know-how. Prepared as you might feel after getting your degree or going through that teaching course, there are still plenty of mistakes you’ll make. Which is perfectly fine. Mistakes and failures are an inherent and valuable part of life (something we often fail to teach our students). But by avoiding the ones listed in this article, you’re free to go out and make your own mistakes to then learn from.
#1 Not clarifying goals
Every teaching course ever has taught its participants the value of setting clear student-centred learning goals. However, many teachers forget to check that their “student-centred” goals are actually in line with, well, their students’. Of course, it’s hard for any group larger than one to align its goals, but you, as this group’s de facto leader, need to at least take their opinion into account.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you need to have an in-depth conversation about the benefits of the communicative approach with a bunch of 7-year-olds, but rather that you occasionally touch base to see that where you’re taking the class is the same place most of them want to end up at.
#2 Not giving enough (speaking) time
Speaking a foreign language is scary, as anyone who’s ever learned one can tell you. Depending on whom you’re teaching, there can also be a lot of cultural baggage keeping your students from engaging in heated discussions. All of which is majorly annoying when you’ve got a lesson plan to get through and you’ve come up with this brilliant speaking game that’s supposed to get everyone talking (that’s what the website claimed, at least!). All of this might lead you to help your students out a bit. Offer them the words on a platter, finish their sentences, interject your own thoughts into their argument.
While this might feel like “teaching”, you’re actually stopping them from finding their own vocabulary and actively using the language. Instead, learn to embrace the silence and only offer up your help as a last resort. With student groups too uncomfortable with speaking when everyone’s attention is on them, pair work is usually a good starting point. Just make sure to circulate and check that everyone is still practising the target language.
#3 Not checking everyone is still with you
While teaching can sometimes feel like a one-(wo)man show, it should actually be a constant back-and-forth with your students. As such, it’s important to keep checking that everyone is still with you every now and again. This starts with giving clear and concise instructions and ends in making sure that everyone actually understood what they have to do next. And don’t think just throwing “Do you understand?” out there will do the trick. More often than not, you’ll receive “Yes” as the answer, regardless of the actual situation.
Instead, ask someone to repeat the instructions to see if they were a) paying attention and b) able to follow what you were trying to explain. This is also a good way of seeing whether you’re generally talking at a level understandable for your students. If everyone constantly fails to repeat your instructions or parts of the lesson, you should probably take a hard look at what’s going wrong. Efficient communication is an irreplaceable tool in every classroom, so you should work extra hard at making sure it’s working in yours.
#4 Not differentiating enough
In an ideal situation, you’ll be teaching a group who is mostly at the same level, so that getting everyone to participate will be more-or-less manageable. In some cases, however, you might be trying to engage a group whose skills differ so wildly that producing a coherent lesson for everyone seems like an impossible task. But whichever situation you find yourself in, differentiation in an important weapon in every language teacher’s arsenal. From providing multiple levels of the same materials to creating separate tasks to fit with your learners’ abilities, differentiation can take many forms. So it’s up to you to decide what works best in your particular circumstance.
Luckily, it’s quite easy to find excellent ESL materials created specifically with a mixed-level class in mind. A good starting point is over at Larry Ferlazzo’s excellent blog.
#5 Not staying true to yourself
As a novice teacher, you’ll probably be pouring over multiple advice articles providing you with conflicting information. Your classroom will inevitably seem like a chaotic hell or a mirthless fascist state – in the view of advice columns, there is rarely a middle ground. While you’re welcome to look for guidance anywhere you wish (and should certainly talk to anyone you think might help you in this challenging time), you should also take all advice (including this one) with a grain of salt.
In the end, you’ll need to trust your gut and your training to decide what’s best for your classroom. And trying to completely overhaul your teaching methods based on some “higher-ups” opinion will most likely end in a disaster. So relax and remember, as we said in the beginning, it’s important to make your own mistakes.
Conclusion – Take your students’ needs and goals into mind while trusting your instincts
The only thing scarier than speaking a foreign language is teaching it. As a new teacher, it’ll often seem like nothing is going to plan and the fear of messing up your students’ entire future (!!!!) can grip even the strongest of us. To avoid that, just keep a few simple rules in mind: make sure your students’ and your goals match, see that you’re able to make yourself understood, and take their idiosyncrasies into account. Other than that, there’s nothing left to do but to believe in yourself, hope for the best, and learn from your inevitable mistakes.