'Lessons Taught and Lessons Learnt': Reflections on my First Year as a TEFL Teacher
by Gabi Bonner
I think one of the wonderful things about being a language teacher is that your subject matter can be anything you or your students like. I've given lessons (at my students' request) on drugs, chocolate, Harry Potter, sugar daddies and toy boys, animal rights, cosmetic surgery and transvestites, to name but a few. Thinking about that lesson I taught on cosmetic surgery never fails to make me smile. It was a class of middle-aged business people who, when asked what topics interested them, proceeded to confess their near obsession with reading trashy gossip magazines on their lunch breaks. After teaching the relevant vocabulary, I told students that I was going to get them to come up to the front of the class, one at a time, and their classmates would decide which cosmetic surgery procedures they needed and why. I managed to keep a straight face and resist bursting out laughing for all of about five seconds while my students looked at me with a mixture of horror and amusement. After we'd calmed down and regained our composure, we proceeded with the real activity: looking at pictures of famous people and deciding what they'd had done. Lesson learnt: humour and letting your personality shine through break down all barriers :-)
I've been teaching CELTA guinea pigs this summer, so that the trainees could observe 'experienced' teachers. I got the beginners. I'd never taught beginners before and was terrified that they wouldn't understand instructions and that it would be a huge mess – a huge observed mess! We got through the first lesson relatively unscathed, even though I'm convinced that the only information they understood about me during the 'getting to know you' was that my favourite animal is a monkey (using extremely embarrassing gestures!) :-) In the next lesson I tried some Total Physical Response; which basically involves students moving around and responding to instructions and then giving instructions when they feel ready. It seemed to work; well, they remembered all the vocabulary when I tested them in the next lesson! By the third lesson, I felt we'd reached an unspoken agreement that I'd do my best to communicate with them in a non-patronizing way and involve them in their learning even if I had to jump on desks and make a complete fool of myself in front of the CELTA trainees, and in return they'd do their best to understand, make fools of themselves too and hopefully learn. On the last day we were sitting in a circle on the floor, having just finished a vocab revision game, when the strongest student in the class said to me:
'What animal favourite?'
I replied without hesitation.
Then from behind someone's back emerged a monkey'! (A soft toy one of course!) And they all tried to grab it and give it to me at the same time. I was incredibly touched. It was one of those spectacular moments that makes you feel like it's all worthwhile and that you're truly doing what you're supposed to be doing. Thanks guys :-) Lesson learnt: teaching beginners isn't terrifying; it's rewarding and great fun!
I think one of the best things about being a TEFL teacher is the opportunity to meet so many great people, and to help them achieve their goals. I think this is one of the most rewarding things you can do, and sometimes also one of the most surprising. I've taught chemists who work for the Institute of Beer Brewing; I was prepared to research obscure chemistry jargon to help them present their research at conferences, but instead they asked for a lesson on relationship/love vocabulary and chat-up lines; I was a bit surprised I must admit! I've taught Doctors of Law who wanted to pore through the finer subtleties of English grammar and seemed almost unnaturally excited about cleft sentences. I've taught musicians who spent their lessons singing to me and working on pronunciation, and then inviting me to their concerts. I've taught CEOs of multi-national companies to negotiate in English, and when asked what they wanted to do in their final class with me, requested a lesson on Harry Potter. Honestly, teaching never fails to surprise me :-) If you're looking for a predictable, repetitive job then please don't teach!
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