The Best Advice You Ever Got About EFL Teaching

There’s a lot of really useful advice about EFL teaching available out there, but with so many methods, theories and opinions on offer it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are four of the best and simplest tips and tricks that I’ve ever been given...

1. Be Adaptable
There are many schools of thought over what makes a good teacher, but in reality there is no one “correct” way to teach. How could there possibly be a one-size-fits-all approach to language learning when your students are all individuals with widely differing backgrounds, ages, personalities, language levels and preferred ways of learning? Added to this already vast pool of variation is a second tier of expectations – that of your employer. Whether you’re working for a board of education, a private language academy, or an international business that offers free English lessons to its employees during their lunch break, you’ll have a syllabus to follow and certain boxes that must be ticked. Being adaptable is therefore paramount – if teachers were animals they’d be chameleons. You need to be able to tailor your lessons in such a way so as to meet the expectations of each student, as well as whoever is paying your wages. This is no easy feat, and even the most experienced of teachers will struggle to keep everyone happy 100% of the time. Teaching is a constant balancing act. Plan your lessons to ensure that you cover the assigned materials, but remain flexible, open-minded and willing to try new things. Get to know your students and their individual learning needs; what is it that they want to achieve, and what types of exercises and activities do they find the most effective? At the same time, know when to take an authoritative role: too much choice in a classroom can be counterproductive, or even chaotic (particularly when teaching kids).

2. Less is More
This commonly spouted idiom can be applied to teaching in two key ways: 1) the material you cover in each lesson, and 2) the resources you use. A common mistake made by many new teachers is to try to pack too much information into one lesson. Of course, the last thing you want to do is run out of material before the end of a class, so you overcompensate and decide to teach five grammar points in one hour. In reality however, you should be able to put the objective of your lesson into one simple sentence. Repetition and practice are key; make use of all four skills – reading, listening, speaking and writing – to teach the same vocabulary or grammar point in a variety of different ways. This way, it’s more likely that your students will retain the new information. Secondly, while it’s tempting to make use of all of the weird and wonderful teaching resources that technology has to offer these days, there’s still a lot to be said for the good old pen and paper of yore. While additional teaching resources may look jazzy, be discerning with the ones you use. Ask yourself: “does this contribute to the lesson’s objective in a meaningful way?”. If it’s more of a distraction than a teaching aid, ditch it. You don’t want to overwhelm your students, or spend half of the lesson explaining how to do something rather than actually doing it. It’s also good practice to get use to teaching without too much “kit”, as some schools or organisations won’t have the funding for anything more than the standard textbooks and a photocopier.   

3. Be Friendly, Not a Friend
Be friendly and approachable as a teacher, but maintain a professional distance from your students. This can sometimes be difficult, particularly if you’re teaching adults that are around the same age as you. Often they’ll be intrigued by your decision to move to their country and want to get to know you better. Naturally, they’ll want you to experience the best of their country and so will often offer tips and advice about where to go and what to see. They might even invite you to a local event such as a festival or show. Of course, exchanging stories about your respective countries and cultures can be a great way to get the conversation flowing in class. However, beware of talking about anything too personal, or of spending time with your students outside of the classroom. It can be difficult to maintain the authoritative air of a teacher come Monday morning if the last time you saw your students was at the pub on Friday night. You might also be asked to go for a coffee with your students after class. This can be difficult to avoid without seeming impolite, but try to keep these meetings to a minimum. A “quick coffee” can sometimes turn into a one-on-one unpaid extension of your lesson. Students can come to expect it, and those that can’t or don’t want to attend might feel excluded and short-changed. 

4. Keep Calm and Carry On
As with any job, there will be times during your career as a teacher when you’ll feel fed up, frustrated, or insecure about your abilities. With so many balls in the air, there are bound to be occasions when it all just seems like too much. No matter how much positive feedback you receive, there will be that one negative comment that sticks in your head. Try not to take things too personally – you can’t win them all. Recognise your achievements and your mistakes, reflect and continue to grow and move forward. Be resilient and persistent in the face of challenge, and most importantly: don’t loose your cool in the classroom. Whatever happens, keep calm and carry on! When you need to let off some steam, talk to your colleagues. You’ll soon realise that you’re not the only one who’s having difficulty controlling a rowdy group of kids, or explaining a complicated grammar point to an exceptionally pernickety student. Deep breaths everyone, deep breaths!