Avoiding the First ESL Lesson Blues

By Dan Hinkley
Some of the things you can do to make the first lesson less painful and the experience enjoyable

Suck in the air, relax, keep breathing. This is it. After mulling over teaching theory, classroom management skills, grammatical terminology and honing your pencil sharpening speed to 15 pencils a minute, it’s time for the main event. Regardless of how much public speaking you have done or how confident you usually are, it remains stomach achingly nerve wracking to stroll to the front of a room full of multinational, multilingual students all waiting expectantly for you to improve their collective English ability. Here are some of the things I think you can do to help the first lesson seem less painful and make the experience enjoyable, hopefully for you and the students!

  1. Relax and smile!
    As a teacher, your appearance is very important. On arrival in Thailand I was told that forgetting to wear a belt here is similar to forgetting to wear a tie in the West. Your body language is reflected in the students, if you look like you’d rather be somewhere else, they will feel the same way, if you’re positive and are enjoying teaching, the students are likely to find the lesson more enjoyable and therefore more memorable when using the English in the future. It’s best not to set your standards too high for your first lesson, just try to relax and get a feel for being in front of a class; where to stand, how to project your voice and how to write clearly on the whiteboard. Also don’t worry too much if it doesn’t go exactly to plan, your teaching is only going to get better!
  2. Gradable tasks
    Though you are usually told what level your students are, it is very difficult to gage exactly how good their English is – or how confident and willing to speak in front of others they are – before meeting them face-to-face. For this reason it’s a good idea to prepare tasks which can work for a number of levels and situations. Open ended questions such as “Tell your partner 5 things about yourself” work well with less confident or lower level students (I like red, I am from Taiwan, I am 24 years old etc) just as they do with confident or higher level students (I once swam with dolphins, I love to watch football on Saturdays, One day, I hope to climb Everest etc).
  3. Have your equipment properly prepared
    It may seem obvious but it can lead to embarrassing moments if you haven’t prepared everything for the class. This means you have to check the tape is cued correctly, the tape recorder is near a plug, the whiteboard pens aren’t empty, you have the correct number of photocopies, you have thought of questions the students are likely to ask and have the answers to hand, you have a lesson plan (or at least some notes – which are easy to refer to – on how the lesson is to progress) and most importantly, you’ve remembered to put your trousers on.
  4. Make sure you have a ‘filler’
    This is an activity or game (usually something fun) which you can use should any of the above go wrong, or if you finish everything you’ve planned before the end of the lesson. Not only is it surprising how often the ‘filler’ is used, but it is also a good confidence trick even if you don’t actually use it. Having a good filler gives you the confidence to try other activities, safe in the knowledge that if it doesn’t work, you will still avoid every teacher’s nightmare of having 20 minutes of the lesson left with absolutely nothing to do.
  5. Don’t keep secrets!
    You don’t have to tell your students everything about yourself but, when you meet in a classroom situation for the first time, I think it is a good idea to tell them a little about yourself. This helps to break down the student-teacher barrier a little and develops your rapport with them. It’s also good to give an example which they can then apply to themselves. E.g. A lesson on the present continuous may start with you saying “I like playing football,” you can then elicit from the students, “I like going swimming,” “I like doing judo” etc. Try to engage all of the students in the class rather than only the confident, extravert characters. To find out your students likes/dislikes helps to plan future lessons as you can base them around students’ interests. This prevents you from preparing a lesson based on a text entitled The History of Boxing for a class of pacifist Tibetan monks.

I’ll always remember my first lesson. It wasn’t first lesson proper as such, I mean my first lesson during the CELTA course. Picked at random, each of us was assigned to teach a class of students who had volunteered to take a lesson with trainee teachers, the students only volunteered because the classes were free but this failed to alleviate any of the pre-teaching tension I was feeling. I was given a half an hour long class at first, building up to an hour after the second week of the course, my first lesson was to be with the Upper-Intermediate students. Having taught a range of levels since, I think with each standard of English comes slightly different challenges – there’s definite pro’s and con’s to each one – but I remember my thoughts at the time, from a teaching perspective I thought that teaching Elementary meant ‘easy,’ and that Upper Intermediate meant ‘hard.’

We were told the classes would be around 15 in event there was around 25 students present. I was shocked at this gross error of judgement at first, now I realise it was probably done on purpose for our long term benefit, the EFL world seems full of surprises like such as this one. Manchester is not generally known for its balmy summer heat, but this day (of all days) it felt hotter than the sun in the classroom I was due to teach in. I have since taught in the middle of the Thai hot season (upwards of 35 degrees) with broken air-conditioning units offering no respite, I swear that classroom in Manchester was the hotter of the two! The heat and the swelling numbers (students sitting on the floor and standing in the door-way) did nothing for my self-confidence, and the feeling of 25 sets of eyes watching, waiting, was more than a little unsettling. Just before my lesson, one of my fellow CELTA course students tried to help me (?) by offering these words of wisdom; “Remember, they can smell fear!” Oh really? Thanks for that vital information!

I remember the lesson was on uses of the past tense, when and why we use the different forms. Being a native speaker, I knew how to use the past tense perfectly, I didn’t however know the rules – or even the names – of the different forms, or why we use each one when we do. After 2 days of information stacking as preparation, I chose a text and questions on King Arthur. The only thing I remember from after the lesson started was that I mixed up the names of Lancelot and Guinevere at least twice, “Arthur and his lover Lancelot, err I mean Guinevere…” this led to much stifled chuckling from the on-looking teachers as much as the students. Other than this, my first lesson was over and I hadn’t made a completemess of it, I was also¬†comforted by the knowledge that even if you haven’t taught the lesson very well, you have at least given the students an accurate example of speech as well as giving them a chance to improve their ability to listen to a native English speaker.

Written by Dan Hinkley for Tefl.NET April 2017

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