Emily McLaren is an English language teacher and travel blogger who is currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. She has taught English in Thailand and continues to travel and use her TEFL qualification and skills wherever possible. In this post, Emily discusses what a new English language teacher should consider and prepare for before starting their first job.
After earning my TEFL qualification a few years ago, I spent a summer in Thailand for my first English language teaching job. It was one of the most challenging but enjoyable times of my life. I thought I was prepared before I left, but after speaking to some other EFL teachers, it was apparent that we all had different experiences of our first job teaching English abroad. With that in mind, and based on my own personal experiences, here’s a few points that I think are the most important things for new EFL teachers to consider before taking on their first job.
Do as much research as you can before you go. Not just on the country, but for the logistics of the move too. Your passport must be valid for at least 12 months and you’ll likely need a visa to confirm your eligibility to work abroad. Not only that, but you’ll need to consider what items you take with you. In my case, I left large winter coats and boots at home and picked up quite a lot of things after I’d settled in and figured out what I did and didn’t need. It’s much easier than trying to squeeze your whole life into one suitcase!
Something to pay particular attention to is the dress code of your school. Come prepared with formal clothes such as a shirt, smart trousers or skirt, and comfortable and practical shoes (you’re on your feet all day!). Don’t show up for your first day in a baggy t-shirt and sandals – teachers in Thailand, specifically, are held in high respect and as such, you should dress to reflect this. If it turns out that your school is more relaxed with what you wear, then great, but don’t be surprised if you’ll be expected to wear formal clothes.
Bring plenty of classroom essentials. I didn’t think of this and thought I’d have access to coloured pens, paper, stickers, and all the other items we use day-to-day in the classroom – but I didn’t! My school had a few textbooks and that was more or less it. Thankfully, a more experienced EFL teacher had plenty of stationery to share, but if you’re going to be working in a developing country, you’ll need to come prepared with your own supplies.
So you’ve got your stationery covered, but what else should you bring? I had access to a small CD player, so I loaded up a few CDs with songs my students could sing along to. Be sure to choose songs that are sung in a clear accent with minimal use of slang terms – here’s a list if you’re really stuck for ideas, and I found that my students loved to sing (and shout) along to Jingle Bells! I incorporated music into my lessons by playing the song a few times and having my students sing along, which was great for practicing their pronunciation. I also made up worksheets of the lyrics with a few missing words for them to fill in.
Finally, it’s well documented that realia can make your lessons even more memorable. You’re creating a link between the object and word, which is an excellent way of getting your students to remember the new words they’re learning. There’s no limit on what you can use – some soft toys, your favourite food from home, train tickets, or small items of clothing are all safe bets. I brought some sweets and asked my students to describe them to me – some described the taste, some spoke about the shape, and some told me the colour. All of their answers were accurate, and this is another small way of encouraging students to practice their use of adjectives.
Your lessons need to be fun. For the most part, I attended school in the United Kingdom, where lessons were very formal and there wasn’t much time for laughing. However, in Thailand, my students loved jokes and I found it much easier to teach in a classroom that was having fun. Most teachers find it difficult to motivate their students to write, but there’s a huge number of digital resources on offer, such as apps, videos, and social media, which can all be harnessed to reinforce what your students are learning. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone of writing on a board and try out some new things.
As I mentioned before, not only is incorporating realia into your lessons a great way of teaching your students new words and phrases, it’s also a lot of fun! You can use realia to role-play real-life situations and to put words and phrases into practice. I brought some restaurant menus from home with me and some accessories such as a hat, false moustache, and glasses, and would role-play ordering food with my students. They thought the false moustache and glasses were hilarious, and would always wanted to wear them to “look like a waiter”!
Prepare yourself for cultural differences. I think this is one of, if not the, most important thing to consider. You’ve probably already given some consideration to this, but as this post points out, many schools are much less structured than the Western ones. I was taken aback at how relaxed the education environment was and it took a few weeks for me to get to grips with everything, but I enjoyed just being able to teach without the usual bureaucracy. Remember, you’re there to teach, not overhaul the education system. That’s just how it is! Go with the flow and try not to get stressed out over things you can’t control – focus on your students and teaching them as best as you can.
Teaching English abroad can feel overwhelming to begin with, but you will settle in and succeed. Preparation really is key, so although you can get caught up in the excitement of moving, make sure you put aside some time to do as much research as you can before you head off.