Here are some of the main points that the younger and more naïve me wishes she had known before starting my first TEFL job abroad.

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Over 10 years ago I became an EFL teacher. I completed a 5-week course (sometimes these courses are 4 weeks), packed a suitcase and moved to Spain. Simple, right? Not so much.

10 years, a master’s, a couple of academic management positions, a lot of training and a tonne of mistakes later, I can reflect on all these experiences as a new teacher.

Here are some of the main points that I believe the younger and more naïve me wishes she had known and possibly had a little more training in before that flight.

Using textbooks

Textbooks can be amazing things. They are created by language specialists with many years of teaching experience, language and methodology knowledge. However, the important thing to remember is that the creator/s of a textbook usually created that textbook with their students and environment in mind. The goal usually is to complete a textbook per academic year, but how does that fit into 1-hour 30-minute class? Moreover, how many grammar points should you cover per class? How many new words can you introduce? What other skills can, or should you cover? Like every situation there is no carbon copy answer, no one-size-fits-all situations answer; however, let’s look at all these questions in more detail below.

Teaching grammar and vocabulary

How much grammar should you teach? This depends and before we can answer this, we probably need to ask a few more questions. Are you teaching new grammar, revising or reviewing? If this is new grammar, you will probably want to cover less, and you will want to focus on the uses of that structure. It is also important not to think that you have to cover every meaning for that type of grammar. For example, if I am teaching the “present perfect”, I do not want to teach every single usage of the “present perfect”. You need to be aware of how this is limited for each level. We might be only talking about it using “for” or “since” to talk about the duration or start date/time of an action. Try not to complicate your mind and be clear what you are trying to teach. The rules for teaching vocabulary require the same questions. Generally, you may have been told in your initial training not to teach more than 10 new pieces of vocabulary per class, but again this depends. How long is the class? What is the context or level of the students you are teaching? If you have clear goals for each and an understanding of what your students need to achieve then you will be better able to answer these questions for your own teaching context.

Classroom management

Perhaps the one thing that most TEFL courses don’t prepare us for is classroom management. If you’ve done a CELTA, you’ll know that the “A” at the end is for adult. Moreover, most other TEFL courses also mean that you train teaching adults. In the UK, this usually means willing students who are happy to have free English classes. I can imagine that this is a similar situation all over the world. However, the reality can be quite different; from tired students to tired teachers, to demanding parents, teenagers and very young learners. The beauty and difficulty of being an EFL/ESL teacher is that we never meet the same audience twice. Even if these are your students that you have taught for years, they are often affected by factors unknown to you. You are probably aware of the notion that as teachers we wear many hats, the therapist, the referee, the motivator to name just a few. The best thing you can do is be relatable and authentic.

Try to build a rapport with your students, get to know them, make the classes relevant to them. You are human and so are your students. This is relevant to all age groups. If you have a competitive group, you might want to play on that. If you have an artistic group, you might want to bring that into the class. Use your students’ personalities and interests to maintain motivation.

Preparation

It is normal to feel stressed and overburdened when you first start teaching. If like me you are teaching a lot of different levels, you may feel that you are only a few steps ahead of your students. You do not need to know everything about this the origins of a particular word or grammar structure, but you do need to know what you are going to teach. If you are lucky enough to have colleagues remember you can turn to them. Maybe you need to share ideas or just talk over your ideas. Remember even experienced teachers like to do that. Also, don’t think you have nothing to add just because you are new to teaching. Many more experienced teachers are happy to listen to new ideas of how to teach topics or grammar points that they feel they have taught a hundred times.

Time management

Many courses provide you with this ideal concept of time management. You will do a “warmer” for 2-5 minutes, a few examples on the board, elicit their meanings, controlled practise, freer practice and then group correction. All these will have a specific timeframe, but the reality is your students may arrive late, technology may fail, photocopiers may not work and worst of all your students may quite simply not be in the mood for that particular activity on that particular day. Moreover, your students may take longer at each stage than your ideal lesson plan suggested. Your objective is to teach the students not to follow your lesson plan to the exact minute. Even in observations, you usually have a section to complete where you can predict the problems. Complete this section and tell your observer what was happening in the class from your perspective on that day.

Having said all this, I now know that you can’t beat practical experience. Some things we have to learn the hard way, so accept the process. Are there other areas that you wish you had extra training or practice in before you started teaching?