Dear new teacher self – A letter to new and not so new ELT teachers

In less than a month, I will have turned 30, and I will be celebrating my 10th teaching anniversary. I first taught a class just before I turned 20; a teacher was moving to Canada, and my former boss at IH Montevideo, Rosario Estrada, who trusted me lot more than I trusted myself, gave me my first teaching job. Despite my dreadful board-work, my high teacher talk time, all the mistakes I made and being a rebel myself, that Elementary teen class changed my life. Here’s the advice I would give to that 20-year old, and I hope other new teachers will benefit from it.

 

Dear new teacher self,

Stepping into your first class as a teacher will be scary, you will make a lot of mistakes, and you will be very aware of them, which probably means you will reflect on it, and you will do your best to improve your practice. Yes, there’ll be times when you will feel that you’re awful and you just can’t improve. So don’t be afraid of taking risks, you will never feel 100 per-cent ready to take up the challenges people will offer, yet you won’t learn unless you try, make mistakes and try again. But do not stop reflecting, even if one day you think you are very experienced. If you think about your practice, and if you identify your strengths and areas to work on, you will be able to become a better professional. You cannot possibly improve, if you teach the same type of class again and again. After all, teacher development is “…a self-reflective process, because it is through questioning old habits that alternative ways of being and doing are able to emerge.” (Head & Taylor: 1996 p.1).

Stop talking and talking and blah blah blah! Yes, you will have to over-plan at the beginning in order to learn to give successful instructions, improve classroom management and find the best ways to teach different topics, but that does not mean sticking to your lesson plan to the minute and doing most of the talking yourself. One day, you will understand that the most important resource in your class is not you, let alone the interactive board. Your learners are the most powerful resource, and if you listen to them carefully enough, you will be able to help them. Instead of wondering: “How am I going to present the present perfect to talk about experiences?” Think about how you are going to help them discover it and practice until they make the new language point their own. That’s no easy task, and it certainly requires practice, but you will soon hear about guided discovery, and although you may not get it at first, there are a lot of online resources available to help you, for example, check out @whatisELT?’s Youtube channel and blog; they have a range of posts which can be incredibly useful for new teachers, and they are so generous that they even share lesson plans and examples, and yes, you can learn about guided discovery on their blog.  Once you think that’s the way in which one should teach, there’ll be authors who start making comments against these approaches and favoring a Just tell them approach, which obviously leads to more TTT.

Be a sponge! You will be really lucky because you will have academic managers who observe your lessons and give you tips. You will find them annoying every time they tell you that you need to speak less and give your students more opportunities to think, talk and practice, but one day, you will get it… and when you think you finally got it, someone will come and tell you about Teaching Unplugged. You may initially think that these people are a bunch of lazy teachers, but they will actually help you discover that you do not need to teach every single page of the textbook, especially when that’s not relevant to your students, and you will find out that meaningful dialogue and student involvement are key to learning. You will also start reading Paulo Freire’s books, and little by little, you will become a new professional. You will understand that you can’t possibly do 50 per cent of the talking in class, and soon you’ll do a lot less talking, and a lot more scaffolding.

Take up new courses, go to conferences and share ideas with your colleges.  If at the age of 23 your boss suggests doing a Diploma e.g. DELTA, don’t be afraid of it, embrace the opportunity. You will learn about a range of procedures which will help you improve your practice. I find courses which involve a lot of teaching practice, way more useful than those which don’t. You will also meet people who recommend on-line blogs and discussion groups such as @ELTchat or BRELT, and they will also recommend international conference. Some amazing colleagues like Vicky Saumell will offer to proof read your first speaker proposal, and one day you’ll be helping others. Attending conferences can be expensive, and it will require saving, but one day you will meet a network of professionals, who are even more passionate about teaching than you are – they will become an incredible source of motivation, you will learn about what goes on in other classrooms around the world and thanks to them, you will never regret being a teacher. Sometimes you may wish they worked with you, but knowing that you will see them at the following conference will be reassuring. Besides, you can start sharing what you’ve learnt with your colleague teachers, and that passion for sharing may help you become a very young academic manager. If you don’t have the money or the time to attend these conferences, don’t worry, there are a lot of free online webinars you can watch and attend, check out @EFLtalks.

Be careful with rules of thumb. After a few years in the field, you will discover that many teacher trainers and bosses will give you a range of recipes to become a better teacher. Some of those “recipes” can be very effective, but you need to be very careful. Every time someone tells you things like “You can’t ever do reading aloud.” or “You must have a board menu.” think about why they may say this and also find out about other people who may challenge these views. Being a reflective professional involves going beyond recipes, and adapting your teaching to what works in your context. Yes, you may think that reading aloud for comprehension activities is not effective at all, and you may avoid it altogether. However, a lot of students will tell you that they want to read aloud, and one day you will attend a conference and find from Dorothy Zemach that perhaps every once in a while you can do reading aloud, not necessarily for comprehension purposes but to practice phonological features of the language, personalization, showing progress, having fun, etc.

Some people will tell you that you can only give delayed-feedback, others will say that you need to give feedback on the spot, and there will be some who believe that you should not correct students’ mistakes at all, this may all sound very confusing, but through classroom research, you will find that in your context,  most of your students want to be corrected, and every single class you will have to decide, what, when and how. When it comes to learning, there really isn’t a one-size fits all kind of answer, so keep reading, listening to your students and colleagues until you find an answer which somehow works with your class, but bear in mind that this answer may not be suitable for the class you’ll teach the following year.

Be genuine, as a person, you will not always feel happy, and if students ask whether you are having a good day or not, there’s no point in faking,  it’s okay to say “not really”. I don’t think you should share with them every single personal detail about your life, but if they see you as a genuine human being, they may feel a lot more identified with you. You don’t need to do activities you don’t believe in either, you may not like class contracts, whilst other teachers may love them. If you don’t like contracts and you don’t believe in them, your students will probably hate the class contract lesson you bring. You must be genuine to yourself and to your students.  It’s not just me who says this “Genuine people don’t try to make people like them. Genuine people are who they are…. They know that when they speak in a friendly, confident and concise manner, people are much more attentive to and interested in what they have to say than if they try to show that they’re important… sincere leaders are much more effective at motivating people.”(Bradberry: 12 habits of genuine people, FORBES – May 2016).

Stop labelling students – labels can be positive and negative. Sometimes you will feel exhausted and there will be students who bother you, you may initially think that they’re anxious, disrespectful, etc. All these negative labels can do a lot of harm, both to you and to your students: remember that you may be being judgmental or even projecting, so instead of wasting time talking about these labels, write down what you’ve done and what the student has done, and ask other people for advice. “No one wants to have a conversation with someone who has already formed an opinion and is not willing to listen.” (Bradberry: 12 habits of genuine people, FORBES: May 2016).

Last but certainly not least: be passionate. Of course there’ll be difficult times when you don’t enjoy it as much and cannot possibly be as passionate, but remember that you’ve chosen to become a teacher because you love education. Continue enjoying it, reflecting and sharing. Listen to your colleagues, pay attention to inequality issues, get involved and never stop learning. If you do things well, as you grow older, some people willl  thank you for having been their teacher, and that will give you enough motivation to keep going.

best wishes,

your older teacher self

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4 thoughts on “Dear new teacher self – A letter to new and not so new ELT teachers

  1. Isabel

    Thank you for writing this! Ive been teaching for over a year and there can definitely be times where I’ve felt like the worst teacher ever. But people like you, fellow teachers, inspire me to keep improving to be the best teacher I can be.

    I’m feeling all warm and fuzzy inside after reading this 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. Verónica Bonet

    Natalia, I met you some years ago… so nice you share your experience and knowledge and so nice to see you are taking your light wherever you go… lots of love from Colonia.
    Verónica

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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