If you had asked me in high school, I would have said teaching children was the last thing I wanted to do. Now it’s what I do every day, across nearly every grade level. No joke. I sing to babies in English two days a week, spend my days in elementary, middle and high-school classrooms, and in the evenings I tutor teenagers and one adult.
It was a little terrifying to get in front of classrooms those first few times.
I am 27 years old, and while that should afford me a sense of confidence with an audience of children, it doesn’t. It mostly makes it painfully obvious that it’s been two decades since I was in a kids’ shoes.
Do I play Minecraft? Hmm… nope. Not even sure I know what that is. Do I prefer Justin Bieber or One Direction? Couldn’t have less of an opinion, chicos. What kind of music DO I like then? Oh I don’t know, a little soul on Sundays, blues on Tuesdays and a whole lot of Prince on Thursdays.
Add on top of that the fact that I’ve never been much of a public speaker – despite my best efforts to try, try and try again. The reality is that I’m so fair-skinned that I’m practically albino, which means I blush uncontrollably when I’m put on the spot. And I mean pretty much every time. Then there’s the fact that I have no formal teaching experience and that I’m going into classrooms where I’m only supposed to speak English to students who have varying levels of the language.
So, I’d say the cards aren’t necessarily stacked in my favor.
Nevertheless, I’ve managed to make it this far and even have a fair amount of fun with it. This in in no small part because I’ve observed how teachers manage to keep their cool and keep the students in line.
Here are four survival tips I’ve learned for succeeding in a classroom as an ESL language assistant:
1. Don’t let them see you sweat
Act natural even if things aren’t going according to plan. Kids are like dogs. They can small your fear. They sense when you’re struggling and rarely throw you a bone. In fact, they’re more likely to exploit those moments of weakness by starting conversations with each other.
So the best thing to do pretend like everything is just fine.
- Your presentation isn’t loading? No big deal. You don’t need it right now anyways.
- A video doesn’t play? Too bad.
- You can’t get the projector to work? Ask a student to get it to turn on.
- Your zipper is down? Zip it up without skipping a beat.
In my days of presenting at my previous job (Brafton), I would get nervous every time something went wrong. Part of this was because I was going up in front of a group of professionals I respected, and I didn’t want to waste their time.
But now, I’m dealing with an audience of children. They’re not that tough of a crowd. If things aren’t going your way, just roll with it and pretend like it’s part of the act. They’ll probably buy it and you’ll get to save face.
2. Don’t pander to them
Of course you want your kids to like you, but that’s not the most important part of your job. You’re there to be a teacher (more or less) and not necessarily be their buddy. When students don’t consider you an authority figure, they are going to misbehave.
What I’ve come to realize is that even the best kids don’t really have a normal sense of decency toward other humans.
And what I’ve come to realize is that even the best kids don’t really have a normal sense of decency toward other humans. They don’t realize that you’re putting yourself out there day in and day out, trying your hardest to keep their interest and help them improve … or that it’s just plain rude to completely talk over you.
This is probably why the auxiliare program requires that language assistants be accompanied by a teacher at all times … but that’s not always reality. Teachers have to step out for various reasons, and you have to be prepared to run the classroom. And you also have to maintain some semblance of order in their absence.
I’ve become a master of the stink eye to show kids that I notice them goofing off in the back of class. I’ve had to shout “SILENCE” at them, slap desks and shush them to get them to listen. Take that, chicos.
3. Take control of the situation
After not spending a significant amount of time around children for … I don’t know… my entire adolescent and adult life, I forgot how unruly children can be.
I’ve asked a classroom to break into teams, assigned them group numbers and organized them into teams, only to see the classroom dissolve into chaos as soon as I told them to get to work. They tried to oust members. They joined other teams. They couldn’t organize seats altogether. They refused to work together.
I was just standing there like – seriously??
And that’s when I realized how long it’s been since I was in the fifth grade and dealt with 11-year-old politics. There are cliques. There are misbehaved kids you don’t want to work with. There are know-it-alls, class clowns and teachers’ pets.
The most successful teachers I’ve worked with leave nothing to chance. In one class, that meant spending nearly 30 minutes dividing the class into teams, physically moving the desks into tables for each group, sitting them down and plopping the work down in front of them.
So I’ve started to try the same. If you want two students to interview each other, you need to physically bring up two chairs and point them in the proper direction. When a student squirms the chair another way, you need to physically turn the chair back to where it’s supposed to be. This isn’t done in an aggressive way, but just in a manner to show them that it’s YOU who is managing the situation and in control of the classroom – not them. (And sometimes this is more effective than asking politely when they don’t speak that much English – or just say huh to every request you make.)
4. Keep it simple
I’ve found that the simplest exercises are generally the most successful. Sure, you might plan an activity that’s perfect for their age level and speaking abilities. You might even put a fun twist on it AND include a specific learning objective that ties into the material you’re learning.
But as soon as you get in front of a group to carry it out, it bombs. Maybe the students don’t understand the concept or the rules. Maybe they aren’t giving the kinds of responses you’d imagined they would. If you’re persistent, you might fight this for a little bit in an attempt to help them ‘get it.’ If you’re prudent, you give in and improvise to maximize value in the way it’s actually playing out.
On the flip side, I’ve had a lot of success with very simple games that require far less planning. Seriously. I’ve come up with lessons in 15 minutes that have gone over way better than those that take me two hours. And I think the success is in the fact that I am not trying to force any outcome. If the subject matter is on-target and it gets the students to practice speaking, I consider that a job well-done.
5. Kick your ego to the curb
In my first three months of teaching, I’ve had to do a lot of things I generally avoided as a practice. For example:
- Public performances: Yet, I had to get up in front of the class to sing and dance along with a Christmas carol at the teacher’s request. When I work in the daycare, I have to give shows that keep babies entertained. There is nothing cool about this.
- Excessive hand gestures: Now I use as many as possible to communicate very simple words (i.e., stirring an invisible pot means cooking, ramming my clawed hand towards my mouth means eating, kicking the air means soccer)
- Shouting to be understood: I usually have to speak as slowly and loudly as possible to students if they’re going to have any clue what I’m saying.
- Asking dumb rhetorical questions: What do YOU think the Pilgrims did to survive the freezing cold winter in New England? What kind of vegetables do YOU think they grew?
Everyone hates these kinds of questions, I know! No one wants to play a guessing game. But it’s practically the only way to get unruly students to feign like they’re paying attention to what you’re saying. So… it is. We all have to do things we don’t like sometimes.
Ride the learning curve
And even though these are things I don’t necessarily like to do, it’s certainly not killing me.
There is a lot of value in throwing your comfort zone to the wayside. It’s forced me to just be in the moment and do whatever is required of me to the best of my abilities.
Instead of giving any energy toward being embarrassed about it, I’ve decided to view it as a learning opportunity. It’s an exercise in being flexible and delay the fate of turning into a rigid human being who takes herself too seriously.
And above all, I try to have fun every day as I go into these classrooms as part guest, part teacher, part entertainer.
Do you have any suggestions for me? Or any stories about your first few months of teaching experience? I’d love to hear them.