18 Oct Working with new teachers (Part I): The Things They Say
Article originally published in the IH Journal, issue no. 44. Author: Sandy Millin.
Are you overly critical of your lessons? Do you often compare yourself unfavourably with other teachers? Do you feel the stress level caused by teaching is becoming rather unbearable? Whether you’re a novice teacher, a mentor or a DoS, this article goes through the most common problems in the career of an English teacher to give you useful solutions from one of today’s most prominent TEFL stars: teacher trainer, writer and blogger Sandy Millin.
Since becoming the Director of Studies at International House Bydgoszcz, over 90% of the teachers I’ve worked with have fallen into the category of novice teachers, having less than three years of experience. Most of them have recently completed the CELTA or Trinity CertTESOL, and many are living abroad for the first time. I also have very strong memories of my own experiences of this period of my career, and of how overwhelming it could be, both in positive and negative ways.
In this article, I will list some of the things I typically hear them say, and the kind of advice I give in response.
“That lesson was rubbish”
There are two routes to go down here, depending on whether you think the teacher needs sympathy or positive thinking. If it’s the former, remind them that we all have lessons we don’t feel are great from time to time, and it is by reflecting on these that we make them less frequent occurrences. You could also talk about the most recent “not great” lesson you’ve taught to show that even with experience, they happen. If the teacher needs help with thinking more positively, ask them questions like “Was it really rubbish?”, “Did the students learn something?”, “Can you think of one thing that worked in the lesson? What about another?” These can help the teacher to balance their thinking a bit more, and are highly recommended even if you started with the sympathy route!
“X is such a good teacher. Why aren’t I?”
Obviously, this is one I hear all the time! New teachers tend to put even more pressure on themselves to perform well in class than most of the rest of us do. They often seem to expect to be perfect teachers from day one, and get very frustrated when things don’t work they way they want. This can contribute to higher levels of stress and perhaps also depression.
I find metaphors work well here. Remind them that teaching is a skill, just like learning English, learning to play a musical instrument or a sport, or learning to drive, whichever is closest to their experience based on what you know about the teacher. Here’s an example: “If you’re learning to play the piano, you don’t sit down at the piano on day one and expect to be able to play Chopin immediately. If you have a beginner English student who keeps making mistakes, you don’t chastise them and tell them they’re a failure. But you’re a beginner teacher, and these are the things that you’re doing. Let yourself be human and let the learning process unfold naturally. Teaching is a skill just like any other. Give yourself time, think about what does and doesn’t work, and you’ll get there in the end!”
“Is it normal to feel this stressed?”
The short answer to this is “Yes!” The longer answer is that new teachers have a lot to get their heads around: a new career, a new lifestyle, a new school, new colleagues, new students, new materials/coursebooks, and if they’re living abroad, potentially also a new language, a new city, new flatmates. The list goes on. It’s inevitable that they can feel overwhelmed.
Set aside time for new teachers to talk to you about how they are feeling, and help them to come up with ideas to manage their stress levels. One way could be work with them to create a timetable for their planning, not just their lessons, bearing in mind that work expands to fill the time available. Meet them for a couple of weeks to reflect on the success of the plan and move it around until it’s working for them. Even if you feel like you’re very busy, a few minutes helping them to plan now will hopefully mean you don’t have to find cover or a new teacher later! If possible, try to limit the impact of the new things too, for example by giving them a couple of groups working from the same coursebook, by showing them around the city as soon as possible, and by giving them a chance to get to know their flatmates a bit before they arrive if you can. The other thing I often recommend is that they watch Tessa Woodward’s 2013 IH DoS conference talk, “The Professional Life Cycles of Teachers”, so that they realise that survival is a normal state, and it’s not just them feeling that way.
Whatever you do, make sure you watch out for signs of poor mental health or burnout here, signalled by unusually high levels of stress that don’t seem to change over time or with coping mechanisms. Keep lines of communication as open as possible so that new teachers know that they have somebody to speak to when they feel like this.
“I don’t have time to eat/sleep/have a life”
Following on from the previous point, remind teachers that their health is a priority. If they are hungry, tired, and/or only managing to work and never relax, they will not be teaching good lessons, as they won’t have anything to give the students. Timetabling time off is just as important as timetabling lessons and planning time. Taking regular breaks leads to more effective work, even if that feels counter-intuitive.
Food is one area where planning particularly helps to save time. Teachers at our school tend to bulk cook at the weekend, freezing some of it for future weeks to provide variety. They could also swap meals with other teachers if they like similar food, or cook for each other sometimes. I used to do this two days a week with a colleague at IH Newcastle, and was introduced to quite a few new meals this way, as well as saving time preparing food on those days. Spending five minutes planning your meals for the next week can also make shopping cheaper, which is important as money worries can contribute to stress too.
New teachers should make sure they switch off screens long enough before bed to wind down, as well as prioritising a healthy sleep routine with the most regular sleeping patterns their timetable allows. I find a routine really helps me here – I sleep much better if I have time to write my diary and read for a bit before bed. With a good night’s sleep, I can work much more effectively and my lessons are better quality. Try to consider this if you’re timetabling too, to make sure that teachers will have enough time at home to sleep properly.
For life outside work, new teachers can ask around about classes or clubs, for example a board games night or gym classes, which fit around their timetable. Sites like Couchsurfing have message boards where you can ask people to meet up or for suggestions of things to do in the area. Most places now have an English-speaking or languages club of some kind with regular meetings, and new teachers can contact them about organising a different time to meet if it doesn’t fit in with their timetable. Ask teachers or students if they can recommend any which you can pass on.
Finally, I would recommend watching the webinars from the recent IH Wellbeing Season, including tips on meditation, mindfulness and mental health, which you can find in the Members Area of the IHWO website.
Sandy Millin is the Director of Studies at International House Bydgoszcz in Poland. She is also a CELTA trainer and materials writer. In February 2018, she self-published ELT Playbook 1, a book of tasks to help new teachers settle into their career and begin to build up an online support network. You can find more information on her blog: http://sandymillin.wordpress.com