For many aspiring assistants, the prospect of standing in front of an attitude of teenagers (that is, apparently, the collective noun for the youth of today) with, most likely, zero TEFL-related qualifications to your name is fear inducing. Awash with acronyms, brimming with bureaucracy and crammed with conjugations you’ve probably never heard of, it’s not always easy to stay afloat in the ever-evolving world of EFL. I’m by no means an expert on all things TEFL, but having spent my year abroad as an English assistant in Alsace and the past five months (and counting) working in the English department of a French university, it’s fair to say I’ve learnt a few things along the way. With application deadlines looming, I’ve decided to offer a few pointers for any assistants-to-be.
- Establish boundaries
This is less of an issue when you’re teaching in a school, and more of an issue in a university when you’re of a similar age to your students and – if you’re anything like me – several inches shorter than the majority of them. I’m quite happy to chat with students or make a (poor) joke at my own expense (Student: “What does knackered mean?” Me: “Me on a Monday night, after nine hours of teaching.”), but when it comes to teaching I make it clear that I expect them to participate and engage in the lesson. Anyone who fails to cooperate is usually on the receiving end of a collective ‘chut!’ from their classmates. Classroom management is made infinitely easier if you establish boundaries and expectations from the off.
- Put yourself in their shoes
At 08:00 on Mondays, I teach a group of forty-odd LANSAD students. LANSAD (Langues Pour Spécialistes d’Autres Disciplines) is an acronym used for classes of students who follow programmes in history, literature or geography (amongst others) and have not chosen to study English; they are there out of obligation. Analysing Shakespeare – in all probability – wouldn’t go down a treat with this lot, so making lessons interactive, fun and, crucially, relevant to them is key.
- Use your imagination (and theirs)
Would you like it if someone handed you a wedge of grammar exercises and told you to crack on with them? How about copying down slide after slide of information, only for it to go in one ear and straight out the other? Yeah, me neither. Enter, imagination. Well-chosen excerpts from books (e.g. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful or Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave) can be springboards for discussion, as can songs (e.g. Pete Seeger’s ‘Little Boxes’ or The Pogues’ ‘Thousands are Sailing’) and poems (e.g. Connolly by Liam MacGabhann). Likewise, YouTube has a video for everything – though choose with caution. Amongst other things, I’ve incorporated Dragon’s Den, The Apprentice and JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them into interactive student-centred lessons. Don’t be afraid to let your students’ imaginations run wild – the results will often provide ample amusement. When I was an ELA with the British Council in Alsace, I asked students to create an advert encouraging people to enlist in the army. One group was particularly enthusiastic and used the tables and chairs to make a trench and invented an absolutely hilarious script, which concluded with a French soldier chirpily using the McDonald’s slogan to describe his experience of combat.
- Accommodate different learner styles
As you’ll likely know already, everyone learns differently – so it goes without saying that your lessons should incorporate material which accommodates different learner styles. Switching activities regularly also means that your students are less likely to get restless and bored. By including a variety of tasks – e.g. YouTube videos, press clippings and group tasks – you’ll appeal to the different learner styles, whilst also ensuring your students are actively acquiring the core competencies that they’ll be assessed on.
- Always print spares
Because one of the following will happen: a) your register will be inaccurate and you’ll have a dozen more students in your class than you had anticipated, or b) you’ll have asked them to read something in advance of the class and someone will inevitably have forgotten/ lost their copy.
- Have a ‘Plan B’
Sometimes, things don’t go to plan. Whether it’s the overhead projector refusing to cooperate, HDMI cables that just don’t want to be friends with your laptop or the internet going down, make sure you’re prepared to resort to Plan B. Always have a few activities that don’t wholly rely on technology – this way you’ll have something to plug the gaps until you identify a solution to the problem.
- Give credit where credit is due
Some students hate participating in class and often it boils down to one (or a combination) of two things: shyness and fear of making a mistake. I can empathise with these students – I was one of them myself when not on familiar territory. Last term, I had a student who was extremely competent, but never wanted to speak up in class – until we hit the topic of human migration, when his hand shot in the air and I couldn’t quite believe my eyes! It just goes to show that, with steady encouragement, these students will eventually come out of their shells. Acknowledge everyone’s progress – something as small as giving one correct answer on a grammar quiz may be nothing for the class brainbox, but everything for the student who ordinarily struggles in class.
- Stay one step ahead of your students
In other words: do the best you can to anticipate potential questions. I teach a couple of translation classes – French to English – to undergraduates, using articles on topical economic, political and environmental issues. As such, I go over the suggested translation of each text before class, highlighting any words or expressions that I think could be problematic, listing synonyms or alternative (but equally acceptable) structures and noting down any grammatical queries which might arise. This helps me to avoid feeling put on the spot in class without an answer.
- Maintain perspective
If you end up with a class you thoroughly dislike, remember they’re only a small part of your timetable. If things don’t go to plan one day, remember the next lesson’s a clean slate. Sometimes, you just need to take a moment to see the bigger picture.
- Treat holidays as holidays
Switch off – or you’ll burn out. It’s all too easy to get caught up marking students’ work, planning lessons and tying up odds and ends; before you know it your week-long half term has evaporated into thin air. Effective time management is the key to striking a balance between your professional and personal life.