Being afraid to admit you don’t know
Many new ESL teachers believe they need to know everything. Faced with difficult questions they invent something rather than admit ignorance and then spend the rest of the lesson praying no one catches them in a lie. This is bad for the teacher’s self-confidence and it’s bad for students. It’s perfectly okay to say, “That’s a good question. I’m not sure of the answer. Can I get back to you tomorrow?” or, “Here’s a useful resource. Report your findings”. Students respect honesty. When you stop worrying about seeming infallible, you’ll have a lot more energy to devote to your class. Admitting ignorance can also create a safer environment for students to try new language and encouraging students to use other resources fosters learner independence.
While it’s okay to admit you don’t know the answer to something, it’s not okay to use this as an excuse not to do your homework. You don’t need to know the answer to every question, you should know where to find them. Many new ESL teachers, either because they’re afraid to look weak or because they’re simply unaware, don’t take advantages of resources around them. Go to a specialized bookstore and get some grammar books, some teaching methodology books, some extra activity resource books. If you can’t afford to buy books, most libraries have a wide selection. The internet has tons of sites that answer grammar questions, provide additional practice activities for students or videos that clearly illustrate new concepts. Perhaps the most valuable resource you can access is other ESL teachers. When you’re new at a school, find a teacher you’re comfortable talking to. Most teachers are happy to share their tips and suggestions. Not only will you get advice that is specifically relevant to your students and school, you may find yourself with a mentor of sorts. Of course, no one likes to feel taken advantage of so, when you feel comfortable, shoot an activity their way. Until then, almost everyone appreciates a coffee.
It’s always a good idea to be prepared but it’s important to spend energy in the right places. Early in my career, I had a grammar class about passives. I wanted to be prepared so I read everything I could. I was so excited to show off my hard work that I filled my students’ heads with far too much information. I thought I was being thorough but was only being confusing. Often it’s better to know one good simple explanation and leave it at that until you’ve mastered it.
Another way new ESL teachers over-prepare is in their materials. As a teacher trainer, I often find teachers in training have spent hours and hours meticulously crafting material. It’s beautiful. It’s fun. It’s creative. But when it comes time to put it to use, it doesn’t work quite as planned. Sometimes the material is so appealing it’s distracting. Other times, it’s so creative it misses the point. Rather than go with the flow and modify the activity, the teacher is so attached to his/her creation that he/she bravely soldiers on, leaving confused students in the wake. Great material exists. You don’t need to burn out re-inventing the wheel. Or course, tweaking material to make it more relevant to your students’ lives is an excellent idea but make sure you manage your time. Remember, the end goal is fostering learning, not wowing students with your creations.
Taking on too much
As a new ESL teacher, I was eager to prove myself and take any and all opportunities. When I was offered an academic preparation course and a grammar course, I accepted even though I didn’t have any experience teaching either. Everything was so new that I often felt inadequate. I ended up spending so much time familiarizing myself with the material and studying my grammar that I felt burned out and wasn’t even able to focus on making connections with students. The next session I worked only part time and was able to give one hundred percent to my class. I enjoyed the experience so much more and was able to take time to reflect on my mistakes, allowing me to grow. When I moved to full time again, I made sure to consider my comfort level with the types of classes before accepting. It’s good to accept challenges but remember that when you first start teaching, it’s all going to be new.
Shying away from challenges
While I believe in you shouldn’t take on too much when you’re first starting out, that doesn’t mean turning down classes just because you’ve never taught them before. The only way you’ll learn is through doing. There are so many resources available. Once you’ve got your feet under you, say yes to teaching that pronunciation class or that power speaking class. Not only will you make yourself a valuable asset, it feels awesome to tackle new challenges.
Comparing yourself to others
When I first started teaching, I tried to model myself after my trainer. I really respected how organized she was. I was constantly berating myself for my disorganization. One day, a colleague remarked that she was impressed with my adaptability. I began to see that my trainer was very organized because she preferred a very structured style of teaching while my “disorganization” might actually be a sign of flexibility. Neither style was necessarily better but when I kept focusing on being organized I was losing opportunities to go with the flow. I saw myself as a failure. Rather than concentrating on your weaknesses, try focusing on your strengths. You might envy the way your colleague can crack up her class with a joke but maybe she envies the way your calmer personality seems to get students talking more.
Being too hard on yourself
Sometimes students don’t speak because they’re too worried about making mistakes. It seems obvious to us that without speaking they’ll never learn. We recognize that making mistakes is part of the learning process but we’re not always able to put this into practice in our own teaching. I guarantee you will make mistakes. Some will be minor like photocopying the same page twice and some will be bigger like making a spelling mistake. In the end what matters is how you recover. If you can laugh about it and roll with the punches, your students will forgive you and you’ll be able to move on. If you dwell on your mistakes, you’ll make yourself miserable. Would you rather a perfect but miserable teacher or an imperfect but happy one? I know what most students would pick and I definitely know who I’d rather be.
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