How to become a great TEFL teacher

Here are a few tips on how to become a great TEFL teacher.

Making your lessons personal
I’m a firm believer in telling my students about me: my family, my life, my pets, or my weekends and adventures. Sometimes they look at me as if I’m a nutter when I go on about my Westie dog or my three-day trip on a Greyhound bus across America, but normally they are interested because, like you, I am different from them.

Don’t just ramble on about stuff without linking it to the lesson. I've taken Rolf Harris' moto: Can you guess who it is yet? I do a lot of guessing activities. I take in photos of my family and ask them to guess who it is, put answers on the board and ask them to think of a possible question, dictate sentences and then ask them which ones are true or false. Anything that will create curiosity in the class will engage them more.

Once they get to know you, and see that you are also human, they will take more interest in the class and learn more.

Finding out about them
Whether your students are teething toddlers, annoying adolescents, or agitated adults, they are people with lives and interests. Each class is different, but find out what makes them tick. I’m not talking about what their favourite grammar point or phrasal verb is, but what films and TV programmes they watch, their hobbies, or books they have read.

If you’re using whiteboard technology, then get pictures of their favourite sports stars or singers from google. I have a group of young teenage girls who love Justin Beibel (who I call Beaver to wind them up), and I use pictures and videos of him in class.

Find out the latest songs they like and blank out words for a listening activity, or better still get them to bring in a work sheet. The more you know about their likes, the more you can ask and build rapport, which is vital for becoming a great TEFL teacher.

Having patience
Patience is extremely important for TEFL teachers. I used to get annoyed with students who didn’t understand my explications, found my lessons boring, or behaved badly in class. If you’re new to TEFL then the first two or three years will be a test. You may feel frustrated that you don’t know the answers to all the student’s questions, or fail to explain a complex grammar point in an understandable way. You will get the odd student who will pummel you with questions about why an orange is called an orange or why Turkey is called Turkey, but that’s all part of the learning process. As time goes on you’ll become more knowledgeable and will gain confidence. Have patience and you’ll get there in the end.

Planning your classes
Okay, maybe you don’t have to do a CELTA lesson plan for every class, but if you’re not prepared then your students will suffer, and they’ll make your life a misery. I remember when I first started teaching and I used to think up my lessons on the walk to work. I was only teaching conversation classes, but I doubt my students learnt very much.

If you have a plan then you’re more focussed and will perform better. A lot of my lessons take a slant from my plan and I like to do spontaneous activities, but that’s only because I have the majority of my class planned and I can afford to go on a tangent.

Being strict, but fair
With new classes I’m always overly strict to start with. I normally send one or two students out into the corridor during the first week (I said 'during', not 'for'), adults and tiny kids excluded. Teenagers need to know that you’re the boss and won’t be pushed about.

Get a system to control them. I’m not a massive fan of points for everything because I believe that it creates unnecessary competition and aggressiveness. I play the odd game, but I want them to learn because they want to learn, not because they’ll get a point or a smiley face at the end of class.

I do have a red and yellow card system in play to control behaviour and homework. You can make up the rules (or even get them to do it) but I give out red cards if they don’t do homework, insult others, or speak too much of their own language. Three red cards a term results in a telephone call to their parents. Two yellow cards in a week make a red. In 6 years I’ve only ever had to speak to one parent.

Not lying
If a student asks you a question and you are unsure of the answer then never lie. I’ve been caught out on a few occasions. I tell them I’m not sure and I’ll tell them next class, or look up the answer on the internet there and then. They’ll respect you for it, which I think is key to becoming a great TEFL teacher.

Enjoying your job
You’re teaching people to learn, having fun in class, and getting paid to live abroad. Don’t forget about that cruddy office job you used to do, or crappy boss and clients who used to give you a hard time. Teaching is fun and you’re doing something good by helping students to improve their lives. Have fun and the students will have fun too. A positive attitude goes a long way.

I hope this helps anyone who is new to TEFL or maybe just looking for some advice. Why not drop a comment about what you think makes a great TEFL teacher, all ideas welcome.

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