18 Oct Working with new teachers (Part II): More of the Things They Say
Article originally published in the IH Journal, issue no. 45. Author: Sandy Millin.
Do you find it hard to teach grammar? Are you vexed that your students keep speaking their mother tongue in class, instead of English? Do you have difficulty controlling the class? Whether you’re a novice or a more experienced teacher, this article goes through the most common dilemmas in the career of an English teacher to give you practical answers 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 have listed some of the things I typically hear them say, and the kind of advice I give in response. Thanks to Shannon Thwaites, one of the new teachers I’ve worked with at IH Bydgoszcz, for extending my list of problems and solutions.
“I can’t explain grammar”
New teachers often try to learn about grammar using reference books, but I think that language banks in coursebooks are actually the best place to start. It is easy for new teachers to fall into the trap of learning lots of information about grammar points and then trying to tell the students all of it, even if they don’t really need to know it. Using a language bank helps them to avoid this. They are designed to be accessible to students so they contain the right amount of information for the level, explained using language at the correct level. This is a good starting point for teachers to decide what is and isn’t important to include in their lesson.
New teachers could also watch YouTube presentations of other teachers explaining the same grammar points. This is a great way to get ideas for how to check language and use resources, e.g. the whiteboard. If you are in a supportive staff room, it is a good idea to get into the habit of asking your colleagues how to work with a particular grammar point. Finally, new teachers should be reminded that it is impossible to anticipate all of the problems that students might have with a grammar point the first time they teach it. Each time we work with particular language, we become better at predicting what students will find difficult and working out how to help them with this.
“My students keep speaking their own language, not English”
When I first started teaching this is something that I was very obsessed with. I didn’t realise that the main reason my students were speaking Czech was because my instructions really weren’t very clear and they didn’t understand what I wanted them to do. I came up with lots of different strategies to try to make them speak more English, but what I really needed was somebody to observe the lesson and point this out to me. Now if I hear new teachers with the same complaints the first question I ask them is when and why do students speak their own language. I encourage the new teacher to think about whether they are speaking, for example Polish, because they don’t understand instructions, because they don’t have sufficient language to perform the tasks, or simply whether they are so excited by the task itself that they don’t want to wait around to think of the English and instead try to complete it as quickly as possible in their own language.
If teachers have used these ideas and students not speaking English is still a problem, one idea which I have found works quite well is to give the students targets. For example, they can aim for five minutes only in English. One student is responsible for timing the five minutes, and if they reach it they are allowed to speak their own language for one minute. If they don’t reach it, the five minutes restarts and they must try again. It is also important to remind teachers that it is very tiring to speak in a foreign language for a long time. They shouldn’t just wait until the students have annoyed them and then snap at them for speaking their own language. Instead they should be fair and consistent and give students the support that they need to speak English.
“I can’t control the kids in my classes”
Most teachers coming into our school have never worked with groups of under 16s before. We help our teachers to plan lessons which are as engaging as possible to reduce the likelihood of things spiralling out of control, but it can still be a challenge, especially if a new teacher doesn’t feel particularly confident being in charge. One of the most useful things I got out of studying the IHCYL (now the IHCYLT – Certificate in teaching Young Learners and Teenagers) was the idea of planning alternate stirring and settling activities, raising and reducing energy levels. I suggest that new teachers think in terms of five-minute blocks, and we have a template with nine such blocks on each side, and break in the middle, which they find to be a useful framework.
For classroom management, we have two school-wide points systems that have been in place for many years: one for 7-11 year olds, the other for 11-15 year olds, and regularly remind teachers to stop low-level disruptive behaviour as soon as possible. To aid consistency, it can be useful for teachers to write a list of what they consider to be acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and decide where their “line” is. Obviously this will vary in some ways from class to class, but it can act as a starting point when deciding which behaviour to reinforce and which to stop. Finally, we encourage new teachers to peer and video observe to see how others manage behaviour, and particularly how they get attention in order to give instructions and round off activities.
Every profession has an apprenticeship stage, whether you are a doctor, chef or cleaner. Teaching is no different. When you’re in your first job, it’s difficult to have a sense of perspective on what is and isn’t normal, possible or desirable in your workplace or job. It’s easy to spend a lot of time wishing that things could be different: different groups, fewer split shifts, no classes at X o’clock, less travel, etc. As managers, it’s important to remind ourselves of this, and that any dissatisfaction expressed isn’t necessarily aimed at us, though sometimes it might feel like it! Help teachers to understand the benefits of working where they are, and the range of experience that they will be able to put on their CV when they move on. The first year will be a challenge, but every year after that, things will get easier, and as teachers build up experience, they should improve their chances of finding jobs which better match their wish list. Having a range of experience also helps them to refine their wish list and work out what they need and want from their careers. It’s important to remind new teachers that if they really don’t feel that a particularly school or job is right for them, or even that teaching isn’t right, they should do their best to try something else. There are a huge range of opportunities out there, and being unhappy because you’re constantly wishing things could be different is not good for anyone.
There’s nobody to help me
Luckily in IH schools, this isn’t normally the case, but for some new teachers it can feel hard to find people to support them when they’re first starting out. The first challenge is to admit that help is needed – bottling it up doesn’t help anyone! It can feel like everyone is so busy that they won’t have time to help, but it’s always worth asking just in case. If they really are that busy, they will say so, but most people can manage at least a few minutes to help out someone else in need, or they can suggest a later time when they will be free. If there are other teachers around who are working with the same book or level, new teachers can ask for planning support or try to meet with colleagues and plan together, potentially saving work for both of them as ideas and materials can be shared. Managers can help this process by suggesting who could work together, particularly in a larger school where new teachers may have a lot of colleagues to get to know. Another important arena to explore is online communities, for example #ELTchat or #ELTplaybook on Twitter, or the Teaching English British Council Facebook group.
As I often say, if you can’t work it out by yourself in five minutes or less, ask somebody else!
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