Meghan Beler is a full-time teacher trainer for Oxford University Press in Istanbul, Turkey. In this piece she writes a letter to herself about things she wished she knew when she first started teaching.
Dear Younger Self,
As you have probably realised by now, teaching is hard work. On top of a full teaching load you have to deal with homework, exams, misbehaving students, staff meetings and (gasp!) students’ parents. You are experiencing a lot of uncertainty and ups and downs, sometimes even on an hourly basis. You may feel that you don’t have enough time to plan the spectacular lessons you dreamt of when you were training to become a teacher. I remember what it feels like to be a new teacher, so I would like to offer you some simple advice that can help you deal with some of the challenges you are currently facing.
Choice: First of all, don’t be afraid to give your students choices about their learning. As a teacher, it’s very easy to fall into a pattern of being the decision-maker, judge and jury in the classroom, but allowing choice is an important part of helping students become autonomous learners. By having your students make some decisions in the classroom, you can also increase their involvement and enjoyment of your lessons. Start with something simple, such as allowing students to choose which questions from an exercise that they would like to answer. You might also consider asking them how they would like to carry out an activity – individually, in pairs or in groups? Homework and projects are other areas where choice is a possibility. If you want them to get more practice with past simple at home, give them some options and take a whole class vote, for example:
- Write a short composition about your last holiday.
- Record yourself talking about what you did last weekend.
- Prepare a ‘past simple’ quiz for your classmates.
This allows you to cater to different learning styles while encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning. For learners who are not accustomed to being given choice in the classroom, this new responsibility may come as a shock to them and they may struggle to come up with ideas or even try to ‘cheat’ the system. But with a bit of persistence and optimism on your part, you will be amazed at the wonderful ideas your students can come up with.
Aims: While the amount of material you feel you need to ‘cover’ over the course of a week/month/semester may seem overwhelming, it’s important not to lose sight of the aim(s) of each lesson and (even more importantly) how best to help students accomplish them. When working on a new grammar point, stop and ask yourself whether you should spend an hour on mechanical drills or whether it would be better to get students really using the language in a more communicative activity. If the aim involves developing students’ reading skills, try not to get bogged down explaining every vocabulary item. At the beginning of the lesson, write your aim(s) on the board and be sure that you give students enough time and opportunities to reach those aims.
Checking Answers: Although it is an inevitable part of the language learning classroom, answer-checking tends to be monotonous and teacher-centred. You might have found yourself spending so much time checking answers that you had little time left for anything else. Instead of acting as a human answer key, give some of these ideas a try:
- After students finish an exercise, have them check their answers with the person sitting next to them, behind them or across from them.
- Go over problematic answers only.
- Assign a specific number of questions to small groups. When they finish, have them put their answers up on the board. As students are working, alert them to any answers that might need revisiting.
My last piece of advice to you is this: don’t be so hard on yourself. When the students aren’t as enthusiastic as you had hoped or an activity doesn’t go as well as you had planned, don’t take it to mean that you are not good at your job. Discovering what works and what doesn’t in your lessons is part of becoming a good teacher and the experiences you are going through now will be a source of knowledge and an important point of reference for you in the future. It’s okay to slow down, relax and enjoy your lessons. You’re doing just fine.
The More Experienced You
If you could write a letter to your younger self, what teaching advice would you give?