'Lessons Taught and Lessons Learnt': Reflections on my First Year as a TEFL Teacher
by Gabi Bonner
August – 2007: So, here I am, teaching over summer, sharing the school with thirty enthusiastic CELTA trainees who are going through just what I went through almost a year ago.
'So what's it like being a teacher?', one of them asked me. I stopped to consider this for a moment, then smiled.
'It's the best job in the world', I replied, sincerely.
Watching them go through the ups and downs, stresses and successes of learning to be teachers has prompted me to reflect on my own experience of teaching. So, here I am, thinking that it might be a nice idea to share with anyone who wants to listen some of the experiences (good, bad and crazy!) of my first year teaching TEFL, and about why exactly I'm convinced it's the best job in the world.
First of all, to all you CELTA trainees, your true learning is going to begin after CELTA, as soon as you're thrown in the deep end and start teaching between twenty five and thirty hours a week. The course gives you what you need to be able to stand up in front of a class and not look like too much of a clueless idiot, but I think teaching is the kind of job where your learning and training never really end. I guess the transition into 'proper' teaching is probably smoother for some than for others. I think I was fairly lucky overall, despite a bit of a stressful first lesson. The students were a group of primary school teachers, there was no assigned course book, they were supposed to be pre-intermediate level. Yeah right! I got to the school and found the classroom after an embarrassing exchange of horrifically-pronounced Czech words (just on my part!) and gestures between myself and the receptionist. My students were waiting for me. 'Why do we keep changing teachers?' A woman asked, in English that was definitely NOT pre-intermediate level. After explaining that there had been some 'shuffling around' of teachers and that they'd have me for the rest of the semester, I quickly realised that my lesson on the past simple taken from New Headway Pre-Int was going to be a joke. Most of these students were at least upper-int. A teacher's worst nightmare: an obsolete lesson plan, and in my first ever lesson! I kind of managed to save the lesson though, after discovering that these teachers were desperate to complain about the recent changes in the Czech Education System; perfect material for a heated debate and some language feedback at the end. Lesson learnt: don't always expect students to be the level you're told they are, and make sure that your first lesson with a class can be modified/adjusted according to the students' level.
After my rather 'dubious' first lesson, I went through many ups and downs and way too many hours spent lesson planning before I began to feel semi-confident about what I was doing and what my students were doing. At the beginning I was absolutely petrified of my proficiency class. I'd try to anticipate every single possible question that could be asked and then stay awake the night before worrying about it. I remember one of my proficiency students asked me a random question out of the blue (it was actually during a lesson on future tenses). He wanted to know what the difference was between 'As soon as he finished his exams he went abroad' and 'As soon as he had finished his exams he went abroad'. I mean, both sentences sounded perfectly correct to me, and any difference in meaning wasn't apparently obvious. It wasn't until I went away and looked it up in Practical English Usage by the legendary Michael Swan that I discovered that using the past perfect emphasises slightly the independence of the first action from the second. Lesson learnt: It's impossible to anticipate every question you could possibly be asked, and if you get asked a question that you can't answer, it's okay to say 'I'll let you know next week'. It's better than getting yourself into a tizzy before or during the lesson, or guessing the answer, trust me!
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