Seven Steps to Becoming a Good ESL Teacher

When entering the ESL teaching profession, it can at times seem daunting to create a classroom environment this is fun and productive. It is not enough to be simply a native speaker; successful ESL teachers must take certain steps to earn the respect of their students and lead enjoyable classes. Below are seven key steps to becoming an effective ESL teacher.

1. Learn the rules of the English grammar

It should go without saying that ESL teachers should have a thorough understanding of the rules of English grammar. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Many schools in foreign countries will hire native English speakers without testing their knowledge of the English language. The result is that many teachers are unable to provide clear, meaningful explanations when asked questions pertaining to grammar or usage. An ESL teacher who can clearly explain the difference between past tense and present perfect tense, for example, will quickly earn the respect of the students and their parents. Such teachers are in high demand, as there are currently an unfortunate number of ill-trained ESL teachers.


2. Learn the students’ language

When teaching overseas, in Taiwan or South Korea, for example, employers usually do not require their ESL teachers to know the natuve language. However, taking the time to learn the language spoken by the students can be very worthwhile, for many reasons. First of all, it makes it easier to explain more difficult vocabulary words or concepts to them. For example, on many occasions I had classes with students of various levels, from advanced to high-beginner. Because the textbook was too advanced for the beginner students, I would regularly provide translations of certain difficult keywords in order to help them understand without slowing the pace of the class too much. In addition, learning the students’ language will earn you respect. If a student gets out of line, there is no use yelling in English if the student can’t understand what you’re saying. If you can scold them in their native tongue, however, they will surely take notice.


3. Bring in your own teaching materials

ESL textbooks are, in general, written with the largest possible audience in mind. Since ESL is taught in different countries and cultures around the world, many ESL textbooks may have certain shortcomings for certain cultural contexts. It is therefore very useful to take a few minutes to develop supplementary worksheets in your free time, as this can help fill in the gaps for your students. For example, students in different countries may produce different types of errors, depending on the nature of their native language. As a teacher, you can thus bring in worksheets to review and focus on these errors. Bringing in your own teaching materials allows for more customized and effective classes, and best of all, these worksheets can likely be used over and over for future classes.


4. Have fun!

I rarely played games in my classes, because I didn’t need to. I had fun in the course of teaching, and I tried to make sure that my students were having fun too. For example, I got tired of asking for volunteers to read in the textbook and having nobody volunteer. Therefore, instead of asking “Who wants to read?” I began asking “Who doesn’t want to read?” The last student to raise his/her hand was therefore chosen to read. Little tricks like this will keep the class alert and elicit a few giggles here and there. When teaching children, it is easy to get them to laugh. If they say, “I’m cold” respond to them with, “Hello cold, I’m Aaron. Nice to meet you.” Bring jokes into class. When you teach past tense for the first time, tell them this joke: “Why is six afraid of seven? Because seven ate nine.” It will take them a few seconds to get the joke, but they will inevitably think it is hilarious once they do. Having fun and being silly in class makes children enjoy and actually look forward to coming to English class!


5. Start strict, and mellow out from there

With any new class, it is important to start out by setting some ground rules. Let the children know that they are expected to behave well and follow the class rules, and that they will be punished if they don’t. Use a stern voice (see #6 below) and let them know that this is a serious classroom. Stay serious and somewhat strict for the first few classes, until everyone has adapted. Then you can ease off and start being more relaxed. Once you develop a rapport with the kids, they are more likely to keep behaving, but if you start out by being Mr. Fun, you may have a class full of kids who don’t take you seriously and are very difficult to control.


6. Use an angry voice

When I first began teaching nearly a decade ago, some of the best advice I received came from a friend who explained the usefulness of an “angry voice”. In other words, have a loud and stern voice that projects anger, but avoid actually internalizing that anger. There is nothing worse than when misbehavior or other problems in class actually make you angry as a teacher. This can quickly ruin your day and adversely affect the productivity of the class. It is therefore useful to use an “angry voice”, while being careful to remain calm and avoid becoming actually angry.


7. Remember to speak at a level the students can understand

Several times in my teaching career I have watched as an inexperienced teacher scolded students, saying things like, “Why would you think it’s acceptable to do that?” Meanwhile, the child would stare back blankly, failing to comprehend words like “would” and “acceptable”. This speaks to a larger problem in the course of classes – the failure to speak simply. When teaching young, beginner-level students, it is crucial to avoid using idioms and stick to the tenses and vocabulary that they can understand. This will inevitably involve a lot of pantomime and clarification. It is also important to speak slowly and repeat yourself often. Many teachers tend to forget how difficult it can be for a young child to sit in a class for an hour or more and constantly concentrate to understand the foreign language being used by the teacher. It is up to the teacher to alleviate this burden and give them a more nurturing, realistic environment in which to begin using English more naturally.


With these seven steps, it is possible to quickly and easily create a class that is productive, fun, and respectful!

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