TEFL Tips: Friend or foe?

This is a post for all those TEFL teachers out there worried about being too friendly, or not friendly enough, with their students. Bearing in mind this is coming from someone who married one of his ex-students, I may not be the best person to listen to, but I reckon I’ve got the perfect balance now in my classes.

Over the years I’ve tried various tactics: being over friendly and wanting students to like me, rather than teach them English, or being super strict and either scaring students so they have either begged their parents not to come to class or spent far too long before opening up in class.

Now I think I’ve found the happy medium where I have a laugh with my students, but they get the work done and respect me. Here are a few tips on how to get that balance.

Harsh, but fair.
Photo by Chris Pirillo
1-      Go in hard

It might be a tad late for this term (would you believe we were chatting about Xmas already in the staffroom the other day) but those first two or three weeks are vital for setting up your goal posts, making the rules clear, and showing them how far they can, or can’t, push you. The stricter you are to begin with, the less likely they are to take advantage of you, especially if you are a new teacher.

This year I kicked off my classes with a rant about Spanish, where I explained that each time they spoke Spanish I would put a line on the board, 5 lines is double homework, 10 lines is copy a text. This was even before I did the register or introduced myself. It seems to have worked, even though some classes have had double homework, and also a couple are a tad on the quiet side.

I also set homework from the first day, and explain that each time they don’t do it they get a red card, 3 red cards before Xmas then I phone their parents. So far so good, but one girl is on 2 already. I’m also strict on their time keeping, being ready when I walk in, making sure they thank me at the end of the class, sweeping the floor before they leave, that sort of thing.

I find it’s the 2nd and 3rd week when I have to get tough with behaviour, remind them of Spanish, and tell them the story about Mr Sirichild (a strict teacher I worked with in Thailand who used a hard wooden ruler for his punishment). Just keep on and by the 2nd month you should have them under control and be able to ease up a bit, which brings me on to my next point.
2-      Ease up a bit

Mr Sirichild might have been the Punishment Master back in the day, but you obviously don’t want to take it too far, and even though reducing your class sizes might seem like a useful idea when it comes to marking, it’s not going to do you any favours with your boss. 

So, to avoid any students telling their parents you are a pyscho monster, I'd recommend building up a rapport as quick as possible. I find the best way is by showing them you are human, tell a funny anecdote related to the lesson, get students to ask you questions in the text book before they speak in pairs and give them true, but funny answers, and try to laugh at any jokes they make.

When a class takes a while to warm up, or are especially quiet, I always wonder if I’ve gone in too hard and they are scared of me. However, it’s normally nerves and within a month or two you can usually find out what makes them tick and maybe introduce some more fun activities.

3-      No games / songs / smiling, until the 2nd month

I wait until the 2nd month before I really open up and show them my ‘fun’ side, as I find it’s trickier to handle a class when they know they can have a laugh with you. 

Over the years I’ve grown to dislike overly competitive games and activities which do nothing but cause tension, and tears, in my classes (especially if I lose). I try to avoid any unwanted stress by not going overboard with points or games. 

My philosophy is more about making them enjoy English through actually learning, communicating with me or their colleagues in English, and by trying to show them the values of being in my class. I also try to praise my students as much as possible, both on an individual and group level.

I appreciate that games have a great place in the lesson for aiding memorisation or recapping, but at times the focus on English gets brushed aside as they gang up on each other, and me. When I do finally start doing games, I prefer memory ones connected with vocabulary and phonetics, or grammar auctions. 

Bet he enjoys his job...
Photo by Mark Seton
4-      Have a laugh and enjoy your work

After the 2nd month then your students should be coming to class ‘happy’, or not too miserable if they are teenagers, and be respectful. They should know by now that if they put a foot wrong then they’ll get a warning of a big punishment, but also know that if they do the work and participate then they’ll get a reward, whether it’s a game, song, or the pleasure of listening to another of your anecdotes. I normally go for the anecdote, linked in with the lesson of course. 

Once you’re enjoying your classes you’ll open up more and feel yourself. The more experienced you get, the quicker you'll feel comfortable with the new classes, and vice versa.

So to sum up, of course they want to enjoy your classes, so be friendly, but don’t take any adults out for a drink in the first week (unless you are going to marry them) or bring in any birthday cake for the kids (unless they have the same birthday as you). Be firm, but fair, which a great boss of mine once said.  

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