Personal experiences of a new TEFL teacher (by Anna Greenwood)

I thought that a one month TEFL course and the fact that I am a native speaker of English would be enough to equip me to teach English. As I started to teach in Nepal, and later in India I slowly learnt many lessons myself. The most important lesson I learnt was to be genuine and honest with the students. Teaching is not simply about entertaining the students, but guiding them honestly and directly through the maze of learning ahead of them. As a teacher we are imparting more than just knowledge, we also impart wisdom. As we stand in front of a class day after day the children witness our behaviours both good and bad. The teacher has the task of showing them how to learn effectively, and so the teacher must look to herself (I use this to mean both genders) first and at the methods she employs in developing and presenting both the lessons and herself.

Be wise

Just as the students witness our behaviours, so we too witness theirs and there is a place for correction; bad habits are more easily corrected at a young age than as adults. For example, a young tree can be supported to grow straight, but if it is not supported it hardens into its own shape and cannot be straightened later. From my experience correction is best done wisely with advice and without judgement, giving the student responsibility for choosing their own behaviour. Of course, this requires one’s own wisdom (and a great deal of patience) and when I am unsure of the correct approach I talk with a respected teacher, or consult the Bible which is full of good guidelines for life. I am teaching in a Buddhist monastery, so the wealth of knowledge here is incredible from highly developed minds. I keep to a limited source of knowledge and avoid asking everyone so as to avoid my own confusion. Between Buddhist philosophy and Christian scriptures there is much good advice on life skills.

Be patient

Patience is another great lesson. I heard a TEFL teacher tell of her first teaching experience racing through the text book, then later realising it was too fast. I too have been guilty of becoming frustrated when students don’t work according to my lesson plan. Students, it is true to say, have lesson ideas of their own and in a class of 15 students there are 15 different ideas floating around (I am fortunate to teach small class sizes). What is the purpose of teaching? I think it is to direct the students’ learning, and this may take five minutes or five lessons. The teacher cannot know how well a new class will respond or learn. I witnessed another teacher walk into the first class of the morning and start with ‘What was wrong with you all yesterday?’ after a bad test. They had not met the teacher’s expectations. I had them second period and the mood was very low.

Be humane

Another lesson is that students are not machines; they are human. They have good days and bad days. I took an idea from a video I watched and begin every lesson by greeting each student personally with ‘Good morning. How are you?’ I start by teaching a standard reply, and once they become used to this, we play with it to introduce ideas like ‘I’m on top of the world,’ or ‘I’m under the weather.’ Students can be very honest, and may sometimes say ‘I’m homesick’ or ‘I’m lonely’, and this reminds me that they are human and that they are dealing with more than just an English lesson. Simply recognising their feeling is enough; I don’t have to fix them in any way. It allows me to engage directly with eye contact with each and every student and gauge the mood of the class up front. Maybe one student isn’t engaging today, or another is overflowing with energy. Every day is different. I too get lonely and homesick sometimes, and I take responsibility for dealing with those feelings so that I don’t project them onto the class – I think this is very important.

Be compassionate

A beautiful lesson I learn almost daily here in the monastery school is that of compassion. If a student is low, the others will often care for him gently, maybe simply by sitting with him, or by trying to engage. As a teacher I could force this child to study, but I choose not to. That day the student’s mind is closed. Tomorrow will be another day and I will greet him in the same way as I do every morning. ‘Good morning. How are you today?’ And I will listen to his reply.

Rereading what I have written I know there are many more things that will spill into my head as soon as I click the ‘send’ button and mail this to the web site – practical teaching tips, grammar tips, and life skills are all the domain of the TEFL teacher.

Knowledge is important, but wisdom is more so. Ultimately teaching is not about the teacher; it is about the future of the students. The students should be the winners in the teacher-student relationship. I started teaching a year ago and I soon realised that my English grammar knowledge was not great (actually it was rubbish), but I am seeing that wisdom is a great asset. I don’t necessarily follow the ‘correct methods’ although I do look at them; I follow my instinct, I listen to wise advice and I listen to the students. One year on and it seems to be working.

Note: This article by Anna Greenwood originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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6 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Another wonderful post, Anna! I love your lessons–your students are lucky to have such a wise, patient, humane, and compassionate teacher!

    One more lesson for your list: Laugh often–with your students, and especially at yourself 🙂

    • Anna says:

      Yes, that is a great tip Barb. Laughter is great in the classroom. Everyone wants to enjoy what they are doing. Walk into the classroom with a big smile on your face 🙂

  2. Hi Anne, Hi Barbara

    WOW… nepal and India. I indeed am jealous. Aren’t those first teaching experiences such deep learning experiences? I mean I always learn a ton in class, but the beginning was BOOTCAMP.

    Love this post AND i love etymologically, so I’ll track back your wise words of wisdom through history a bit, and as briefly as possible 🙂

    wisdom = vision (Vladka from slovakia and I did a post on this that you might like) to see is to know and to see means to be very very present, and PATIENT AND COMPASSIONATE—-

    Both “compassion” and “patience” comes from Latin patī== to suffer, to endure, to be patient—- ironic in the end if you were to say “a hospital patient deserves our compassion and we should be as patient as possible with them”… a bit repetitive etymologically-speaking 🙂

    “Humane” i dissected on my own blog last week— it comes from humus, which means “of the earth” hence homo sapiens (“earthy knowing ones”)

    Look forward to more great posts from both of you.

    Cheers, Brad

  3. I think what you say is extremely valuable and true. But I would add a caveat to this: it depends on the class. In my experience (and many of my friends and colleagues) one major issue is that of discipline so as to make the class where everyone can learn and everyone can have a say.

    I’ve taught in several classes of rowdy teenagers. Whilst patience, humanity and compassion do certainly have a place in those classes, they have to come into play once the class has quietened down and is listening attentively!

    Perhaps Nepalese students are more respectful than most, but teenagers from a lot of countries will simply walk right over a teacher who is too soft IMHO.

    To new TEFL teachers I would add to those admirable qualities you’ve mentioned above, the one of Control. Once you have control of a class you can lead them anywhere and allow them to learn in the most perfect environment possible; but without Control it tends towards chaos…

  4. Abdo wahdan says:

    Hi Anna,
    This is the first time to read one of your posts so I wanna thank you so much and I will try to be one of your followers because I enjoyed this post very much.

    I wanted to add that as an EFL teacher I learned many several wonderful things and the one which I want to share with you is to be one of every student’s family according to his/her age.What I mean here is to deal with them with emotions and to care about them in all sides not only to help them to get more information or learn some new things.
    I hope that you will replay and tell me what you think about that.

    Best wishes,
    Abdo Wahdan.

  1. May 23, 2011

    […] a unique addition to our Stories from the Front Lines of EFL. She followed that post with another, Personal experiences of a new EFL teacher, that shares some lessons she has learned working with her monastery students. I look forward to […]