What are the three pieces of advice that you would give to teachers just starting out in their ELL classrooms?
Wow, I remember it like it was yesterday. Sweaty palms, a racing heart, and a feeling like I was going to be torn to pieces by this classroom of middle school students, all for the sake of fulfilling a student teaching requirement for a college course. Fifteen years later, after teaching English to children, adolescents and adults all throughout Europe, Asia and the U.S., I still get the sweaty palms and racing heart before entering a classroom and I’ve come to embrace that feeling.
If I could give some advice as a seasoned teacher to those just starting out, I would have to say, first of all, to be okay with the nervousness. I have never seemed to get rid of the anxiety before a first class, but I see it as an anticipation that comes before a birthday or Christmas. That excitement gets me pumped up so that even on a dull, sluggish Monday, I can enjoy this class and be contagious so that the students do too! Anticipation also makes me prepare better and more thoroughly. As I chew my nails before a class, I think through the lesson and the questions or challenges that will arise with learners. I am pushed to do my very best, and, if we aren’t doing that each lesson, why are we teaching?
My second piece of advice is to show passion even in the mundane. Have you ever been to a Zumba class where the instructor just really wasn’t in it and kept looking at the clock? I have! Let me tell you, I didn’t finish the class and I didn’t break a sweat! On the flipside, I have been in those Zumba classes where, despite being a white girl from Nebraska, I felt like a professional salsa dancer drenched in sweat at the end of the class. The instructor helped set that tone through her passion, helping me feel like what we were doing was important, fun, and worthwhile. Our students walk in, often times with the world on their shoulders and have this dreaded feeling of learning English because it is so difficult or because of bad experiences they have had trying to speak in the real world. That mental block can truly stifle the learning process. As each student walks in, I welcome him or her and let him or her know I am happy they are there. Coming to class is an accomplishment in itself for some students! I let them know that today is going to be exciting. We learn, even ‘boring grammar’ as students would say, with games, real life role-plays, and fun engaging activities for the whole class. They see me jump around the room, make a fool of myself, and share how much I love learning English, not always because I do, but because I want them to embrace it. I want them to see how fun, enriching, and important it can be to their lives. If you ask any of my students, they will say, that crazy lady loves teaching and has passion! Nothing ever gets her down. Although that isn’t always true, I make sure that nothing can stop me from making the classroom a safe, enjoyable, and productive space for everyone.
Finally, get to know your students and make the class theirs, NOT YOURS! Make it your mission to learn their names on the first day, no matter what it takes or how many students there are. Empower them to be a part of the decision making process in what you are learning, no matter how hard it might feel to you. Ask lots of questions to students to find out what their lives looks like. Of course, I know many teachers have to follow a curriculum, but I can always address that curriculum through their lives and what I know to be their goals, struggles, joys and accomplishments. I know that following these three principles in my own teaching has made such a difference. I hope it does for you as well. Remember, making the ELL classroom enjoyable not only benefits our students, but you too!