The Ten Commandments of TEFL

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.

Source: Times Higher Education
  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

15 thoughts on “The Ten Commandments of TEFL

  1. These are some good tips! Definitely will keep this all in mind next year. Wanted to let you know I recently got accepted to be an assistant next year in the Academie de Montpellier at the primary level. Now I get to anxiously await my city placement. Thanks again for your advice when I was applying!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hope they come in handy for you 🙂 Congratulations on being accepted onto the assistant programme! The application process is definitely a rather drawn-out waiting game, but worth it in the end. Try not to worry too much about the town/ city you end up in, as the programme really is what you make of it and doesn’t have to be defined by the town/ city you call home for that year.


  2. I have a TEFL Cert and it was DEFINITELY helpful, especially when teaching higher levels (advanced grammar confuses even myself + lesson methodology is really useful). They don’t have to be expensive like the CELTA either; I did 130 hour combined online an practical course with which did the job and is well accredited.

    What I love about teaching English is the freedom – especially in immersive learning – to design a lesson plan on whatever topic you want. I’ve used art, history, drama, science, current event, you name it.

    I worked as a language assistant in Spain, started at 9:30 and only worked 4 days a week. Dream!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Advanced grammar – or, more accurately, explaining it coherently – can be an absolute nightmare. I find so long as I’ve read up on the grammar points and got some example sentences/ contexts at the ready it’s not so bad, but the second a student grills me on the spot I often have to resort to “I’ll get back to you on that one”! I think a TEFL qualification would be helpful for things like that, but since I don’t intend to make a career out of EFL I haven’t got any plans to do one (for now, at least). The scope for being creative with lessons is something I really like too – I find myself learning a lot of things as a result of teaching history, geography etc. through the medium of English. That sounds like the life! I had a similar experience in France a couple of years back – 12 hours a week on my year abroad – but this time around it’s been a bit different (more working hours, more planning).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Same again this term – but luckily they’re a really nice group, so it doesn’t feel like too much of a headache! Mondays this term are essentially LANSAD day – Lettres, Histoire and Langues (fortunately no Philo… I’m not sure how I’d feel about teaching something I really know nothing about). So far, I’ve found I prefer the LANSAD groups as my students actually participate, whereas the LEA classes often seem to be a sea of silent faces. I love it when they discover a new word and find it amusing 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh I’m so glad you have nice Lansad groups! Lansad day still sounds intense, though! 40 is SO many, you must be brilliant at classroom management. I hear Philo is the absolute worst. I liked teaching Labo classes because the groups were smaller. I didn’t love teaching but I had lots of nice students in all the filières that I still remember.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. It’s intense, but I think this term it’s easier as I’ve kept some of the same groups as last term, so there’s less pressure on the classroom management side of things as they know what to expect. From a behaviour point of view, I’ve heard the exact same about Philo! I’m finding that I enjoy the teaching, just not the admin that comes with it as that drives me up the wall at times!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It sounds like the job suits you well 🙂 Good luck with the admin – one time I couldn’t take sick leave because the doctor had written that I could take three days off even though I only needed one, but they still wouldn’t pay me for the other two days even if I worked because it said three days on the paper. Sigh.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. That sounds so typically French! I’ve spent the year so far crossing my fingers that I won’t get ill – especially on Mondays as the thought of having to organise rattrapages for six different classes just fills me with dread!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. In agreement with all of these points. I don’t have a TEFL certificate, but I’m strongly planning to work towards it in concurrence with my Master’s in Education soon. I find, though, that even without these qualifications, you do learn a lot when placed in the classroom setting, especially as either an assitant(e) or a lecteur/lectrice. I admit, I’m still learning, but those experiences are truly invaluable to becoming an effective, sympathetic teacher.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think the mindset of “native-speaker = expert teacher” is part of the problem, as often these jobs can be obtained with no qualifications. Learning on the job certainly makes you learn fast (and learn things no textbook can fully prepare you for), but a crash course in how to actually teach students grammar would have been helpful for me! At the end of the day, I guess it’s all part of the experience – and continual learning can only make you a better teacher 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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