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  • Starting Strong

    One of the most difficult things to do in teaching is to begin.  The first time you stand up in front of your classroom your mind goes blank.  All your training, preparation, and warm-ups suddenly evaporate.  The only thing that seems to be going through your mind are the many pairs of eyes watching you intently to see if you spontaneously combust, which you feel may happen at any moment.  Somehow, you start to mumble random words at a rapid fire pace, covering most of your carefully prepared lesson in less than 10 minutes.  A look of incredulity and total incomprehension comes over the faces of your students.  This adds to your already fragile state.  Then you suddenly realize that the students can’t understand you, you have a very difficult time understanding them, you have already finished your entire lesson, and there is still 45 minutes left of class.  Glorious.

    Ahhh, the joys of being a first-time teacher in Thailand.  Almost everyone goes through some asemblance of the description above.  And everyone survives.  They go on to master their classes, become Super Teachers, and have a thriving, vibrant classroom full of fun, creativity and happy students who run up to hug them.  It always works out just fine.  But the above scenario can be avoided.  Given the amount of stress and worry it brings to teachers, it should be avoided.  Here is how to do it: start strong.

    Starting strong means taking the necessary steps to ensure that your first few days of teaching are successful, smooth and fun.  While you will most likely still get a few looks of “who is this person and why are they talking?” from your students, those looks will only last a few moments instead of a full hour (which seems like eternity).

    Here is what you need to do to start strong:

    Have enough material to last several classes.  That doesn’t mean targets.  That means activities.  For each target you should have at least two activities.  For example, if your target is “Can you jump?” you should have multiple activities to go with that language.  Your first activity could be having students come up individually, answer the question, and then jump.  Your second activity could be asking the class as a whole, and then they jump.  Your third activity could be a jumping contest.  After a student answers the question, they jump and you mark how high they jumped on the board.  “Can you jump?” just took up at least 10 minutes of class and we had fun and the students learned.  Win-Win.   

    Your first class is an excellent time to review.  That means you will be able to hit more targets than a regular class, giving you more material to work with, giving you more targets to over-prepare with, as well as do multiple activities with, thereby making your life much easier.  However, all of this is predicated on another element of starting strong.

    Find out what your students already know.  You won’t know what material you can review unless you know what your students have already learned.  To accomplish this, look over the previous teacher’s lesson plans.  Take notes.  Study them.  You will also want to contact the previous teacher and talk with them about the class.  If the out-going teacher cares about their students (and they do) then they won’t mind talking with you at length about what they have already covered and the best ways of interacting with them.  

    Research is the key component of preparation.  You need to learn what the students already know.  Then you will know what you can review with them and what you can teach them.  However, research is once again predicated upon another element of starting strong.

    Put in the time and effort
    Research and over-preparing take time.  A lot of time.  You have to learn what the teacher has already covered with the students.  That means going over at least several months of daily lesson plans.  But the more time you put into your research and preparing, the better your first few classes will be.  Putting in the time and effort leads to another part of starting strong.  

    When you first arrive, you have to adjust to a new town, new culture, new job, new students, new home, new food, new language, new people, new employer, new weather, new habits and the list goes on.  It can be overwhelming.  Luckily, there will be lots of other teachers around to help you through this exciting time.  They will ask you to go out, have fun, go away on the weekends, and dance until the wee hours.  Go.  Enjoy.  Have fun.  But don’t lose your focus.  Your classes should be your focus and main/highest priority.  The sooner you master those, the sooner you will be able to have more fun both in and out of the classroom.  The islands will still be there next month, and the month after that.  You may have to opt out of some things so you can put in the proper amount of time and effort.  People will understand.  Take the time at the beginning of your teaching career to put all your energy and focus into your classes.  

    This is a key element of starting strong.  The urge is to think, “Yeah!  I’m in Thailand!  This is awesome!  It’s like I’m on vacation!  Let’s party!”  A better mental approach would be “Yeah!  I’m in Thailand!  This is awesome!  I’m going to be a great teacher!  I’m going to focus on that first!  There will be lots of time for vacation later!  Let’s become a great teacher first and then party!”  If you can get the right mental attitude about teaching in Thailand (it’s a job and a vacation – in that particular and prioritized order), then many of the initial difficulties will take care of themselves.

    Training is a big part of getting ready to teach.  Training can be long and sometimes dry.  You’re learning a lot of new information in a very short period of time.  Try to concentrate.  Ask lots of questions.  Take notes.  Take notes.  I say this twice because I usually suggest it once and very few people do it.  But notes will be very helpful later when you want to review the large amount of material that has just been given to you.  

    Loosen up
    The sooner you become the goofiest person in the classroom, the easier your life will be.  Don’t take yourself too seriously.  Laugh at yourself.  Do ridiculous things now so that you will be more relaxed about doing them in the classroom.  Practice making faces in the mirror.  Open up a book and wear it as a hat.  Put on some music and dance around like Napoleon Dynamite.  Don’t be shy.

    Ask questions
    The more questions you ask, the more answers you will get, the more information you will have at your disposal.  Seek out specific people to ask questions.  Different teachers will approach targets in different ways, so you’ll get a myriad of answers for just one question.  This is good because it will give you many different ways to teach a target as well.  Select the approach you like best and give it a shot.

    Slow down
    The number one response from students of new teachers is “The teacher talks too fast”.  





    Slowing down doesn’t mean talking to the students like they are idiots.  They are learning the language, not stupid.  Everyone slows down the right amount eventually.  They find the right pace of speech for their kids.  But in that first class, at least 50% of the incomprehension by the students is caused by speech that they aren’t used to.  Keep in mind that students learning a foreign language respond a lot to tone, visual cues and body language.  They have gotten used to their former teacher’s style, speech and cadence.  Now they have to adjust to yours.  This takes time.  You can help them along the way by slowing down your speech.  Stand in front of a mirror and practice saying things slower and more deliberately.

    Simplify your speech
    Most teachers get so nervous on their first day that they say something like this, “Okay, class.  I am very happy to be here.  My name is _______ and I come from ______ which is in the northern part of _________.  We have lots of cows there.  I love cows.  Cows give us milk.  Anyways, today we are going to talk about emotions.  The right question to talk about emotions is “how are you?”  Who would like to answer this question?  Don’t be afraid.  Raise your hands.  There are many responses for this question.  I’m sure you know a few.”  Imagine if you were learning Chinese and your teacher came in and assaulted you with that verbal barrage.  You have to remove all the excess language from your speech.  Don’t say anything except the target, “How are you?”  Nothing else is needed.  Later, after you get to know the students and they get comfortable with you, then you can include more explanatory comments (but still keep it simple).  The worst thing you can do, at any time, is to overload your sentences with words.  Simplify your language.  You’re not only teaching kids, you’re teaching kids who don’t speak the same language as you.  

    Starting strong is the greatest favor you can do yourself when you begin teaching.  Once you feel comfortable and confident in the classroom, the rest of your new life will quickly seem much easier and fun.  Starting strong takes effort, but by following the above suggestions and prioritizing effectively you’ll find that it has many rewards.