Teaching a New EFL Class for the First Time
As we prepare to head back for a new term, most teachers with be meeting at least one new class for the first time. A first meeting is a chance for us to make a good first impression, to establish expectations and to set the tone for the classes to come. A good first class can often preface an enjoyable and productive working relationship for teachers and students. A bad first experience can mean that teachers spend the term playing catch-up and trying to repair any damage done. Given this, what advice can we offer teachers who will be meeting a class for the first time? Below are our top tips for EFL teachers who are starting a new term in a few weeks’ time.
ADVICE FOR NEW EFL TEACHERS
Meeting a new class is particularly daunting if you are newly qualified. Before we move on to the main part of the article, here is some advice specifically for NQTs starting their first job:
- Think about how you are going to present yourself. This includes how you dress and how you choose to interact with your students. If it is not just a new class, but your first class, you will be given lots of advice from friends and colleagues – everything from ‘Be strict and make sure you don’t smile,’ to ‘Just be yourself,’ or ‘Make sure your class is fun and that you have fun too!’ Whilst well-intentioned, such advice is of limited value.
- You need to learn how to be with your students and how to interact with them. Good mentors will empower you to be natural in the classroom. But what does this mean? It means emphasising those aspects of your personality that work for you in the classroom – taking account of the ages and backgrounds of the learners.
- Always bear in mind that we don’t have a single way of presenting ourselves. We all present ourselves differently depending on who we are talking to and on the occasion: when we are talking to our children and when we are talking to our boss; if we are giving a speech at a wedding or chatting to our friends in the pub. Teachers, over time, find the right balance – what is important is not to try to be someone you aren’t. Don’t try to be fun and bubbly if you are reserved and thoughtful; don’t try to be strict and severe if you are relaxed and friendly. The main thing is to feel confident and in control - and one of the best ways of doing this is to be well-prepared. This does not mean having a plan and sticking to it at all costs. It means having a plan ‘A’ and having thought through contingencies for when the plan isn’t working.
- Always do a ‘walk through’ of the lesson in your head. Predict the possible range of responses and behaviours - and know in advance what you are going to do in each potential situation: If a student is struggling with an activity, can you provide a helpful tip or clue? Do you ask another student to help? Do you narrow the range of options? Do you move from open questions, to closed questions? If it is a behavioural issue, is it trivial enough to ignore? Do you have a quiet word with a student person-to-person; Do you get them to move seats? Do you invoke a formal procedure?
- In short, minimise the likelihood of situations arising where you have to improvise decisions on the spot. Having thought through your responses in advance will help you deal with situations quickly and efficiently and give the class confidence that you are in charge and know what you are doing. The confidence that comes with this is what will allow you to develop a natural classroom persona.
IMMEDIATELY BEFORE THE CLASS
It’s not always possible to be in class much in advance of your students, but when you can be it’s a godsend – so make the most of the opportunity:
- Arrive early and organise the space. Make sure the classroom layout is optimised for the activities and tasks you have planned.
- Organise any handouts and resources. Lay them out on the desk for easy access.
- Prepare a cue-card for yourself with a list of the main activities. It provides you with a quick visual check of where you are in proceedings and lets you adjust timings, if necessary. It also means you don’t skip any activities by mistake.
- If you have time before the lesson, write up any task-related word lists, rules, questions etc. If you have a folding board or a flip chart, hide these so that they aren’t a distraction. You can reveal them at a moment’s notice to transition straight into a new task, rather than students having to wait for you while you write.
- Similarly, set up in advance anything you can for other activities – for example, hidden cards or objects, pictures stuck to walls, cued-up PowerPoint presentations or video resources.
THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES
- Sometimes teachers are told to stand on the door as the students enter, to greet them and chat to them. I prefer a slightly different approach: give yourself something to be doing as the class enters - but look up from what you are doing and greet the students as they enter. Having something to do will not only help you feel relaxed but will give the learners a sense that they are entering your space and that you are in charge of the business that is conducted here.
- Dress up to dress down. I quite often like to be wearing a jacket when the students enter and then take it off just before starting the first activity. It’s a bit theatrical but seems to work well – wearing the jacket shows a level of professional seriousness and respect for the students and their learning; the discarding of it acts as a ‘down to business’ signal.
- Don’t get caught up in too much marshalling and policing of low-level misbehaviour. Give the class time to settle. There is unlikely to be serious disruptive behaviour – unless it is a continuation of something brought in from outside the classroom. If there is, deal with it promptly, in an understated way, if possible. It might be a behaviour that can be stopped just by making eye-contact with the student concerned, or with a simple ‘Do you have a problem?’ Remember that this is the students’ first encounter with you too, so they will be feeling their way to a certain extent – even the attention-seekers or the ‘too cool for school’ crowd.
- Start with an activity. Some teachers like to start everything slowly – for example, going through administrative procedures (handing out books, going through the timetable and the syllabus.) This feels safe for them and for the class – it is generally undemanding and controlled and feels like a gentle introduction. However, a quick opening activity can provide focus and purpose, and you run a lower risk of students becoming bored and/or disruptive when they are having to pay attention to a task. If well chosen, an activity will engage them straight away and set up the expectation that this is a class where we get on with things. In an ideal world, this should be an activity that allows you to learn a bit about the individuals in your class – or for them to learn about you and the course.
- After the introductory activity, students should be ready to settle, and you can move on to outlining routines, rules and the programme of study. You can also run through some of the resources and equipment in the room. Allow time for students to ask questions and use the opportunity to ask questions of your own, to check and reinforce their understanding, and make clear your own expectations.
- Some teachers will want to set their own rules, others will negotiate these with their students, to get ‘buy-in’ and to provide an appreciation of why certain rules are necessary. Whichever you prefer, establish rules, sanctions and rewards in the first lesson. The reason is very simple – once you have a system that everyone understands, you can more easily avoid confrontations or escalations since you simply become the ‘honest broker’, implementing what has been laid out: “You know the rules: if you do (x), then (y).”
DURING THE LESSON
Here is a list of some of the things you might want to achieve during your first lesson with a class:
- Learn the names of your students. Do this in whichever way works best for you. Some teachers use name cards, badges or seating plans. Some will use specific memory techniques such as word/name associations, visual imagery, or key words. Others like to learn names through classroom activities such as list-building.
- Use your favourite ice-breaking activities to get a sense of the interests and personalities of some of the students.
- Try to gauge the range of levels of in the class.
- Try to identify what the students need. This can be based on a formal needs analysis, informal observation or a question and answer task.
- Find out what your students want from the class. This might not be the same as what they need, but you can usually marry the two, at least to some extent.
- Teach them something! It’s important that they leave the first lesson feeling they have learnt something new – even if it is just one simple phrase.
- Set expectations. This can be everything from acceptable working noise levels, to behaviour, to establishing routines.
- Preview something exciting you will be doing in the next lesson.
AFTER THE LESSON
- It is worth reviewing the lesson soon after – it’s a good chance to test yourself on things like student names and where they are sitting. It’s also good to assess the parts of the lesson that worked well and any that didn’t go exactly to plan. Do you need to make any adjustments for the next lesson or to plan any interventions? What kind of activities seemed to work well with this group? Can you tailor future lessons to take account of this?
Remember, if you make a good start with your class in the first lesson, the effort you put in is likely to pay you back many times over during the remainder of the year. All the best for the start of the new term – we hope you have a great time and that your first lessons lead on to an enjoyable year of work and fun.
Written by Mike Turner