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Solving Typical New Teacher Problems – 11 questions

If you have  just finished your CELTA / TEFL etc and have started your first teaching job, you are probably finding life pretty tough at the moment. This is the period of time when planning takes longer than the lesson itself, your sleep is interrupted by feverish dreams about classes, and inside the classroom if anything happens that you didn’t expect, it results in panic and demoralisation.
It gets easier. Believe me, it gets easier. And fairly quickly. But what can you do in the interim? Survive? I recently asked a new teacher to write down a list of problems she has had in her first two weeks of teaching and they make for interesting reading due in no small part to their familiarity – I reckon a lot of new teachers experience at least a few if not all of these problems. With this in mind, I have posted the problems below, along with a few solutions that might make your life a bit easier.

1) I don’t know how much to prepare, or how much material a class will get through in the lesson.

2) I can’t tell if students will whizz through an activity or whether they will struggle with it.

Timing is a problem that a lot of teachers experience, even later in their careers. When this transfers to the classroom, there can be a fear of under-preparing material. Bear in mind though, that there is no necessity to complete everything you have prepared. With this in mind, let’s focus on two areas of a lesson – controlled practice and the end of the lesson.

Controlled Practice: If you are teaching grammar / vocab / discourse / phonology, you will have a controlled practice stage in the lesson. Remember though, that “control” is not something that is on a single level. There are degrees of control, some freer than others. Why not prepare an extra controlled practice, that can be used if learners need it and dropped if they don’t?

If this is a skills focus, you may not have a controlled practice. That doesn’t mean that skills practice can’t be repeated though. If they have done a speaking activity they could do it again in different groups, a different situation or with a greater degree of autonomy. If it’s reading, they could summarise, report, write or collect vocab. If it’s listening, talk to them. Tell them a story – this is called Live Listening. If it’s writing, they can read and correct other’s work. All of these things can be put in or taken out.

The end of the lesson: This is where you can put emerging language on the board, error correct, chat or get learners to reflect on what they’ve learnt. How many of these things you do is up to you. If time is short, you can just get them to reflect and leave the emerging language until the next class (I’m not suggesting you leave it all together – if it’s come up, then students need it). This stage is very flexible indeed – anywhere from 2-15 minutes. Remember this and schedule it in your plan.

So, at these stages, over-plan and consider these areas as flexible.

3) What do I do when everyone else gets something except for one student?
If there is someone else who speaks the same L1, why not get them to explain in their language? L1 in the classroom is discouraged on the CELTA, but I think this is bad advice. The fact is, some things are just quicker, and if it helps the focus of the lesson, go with it. Students can negotiate pairings, explain and translate in their L1 and it will only make the actual focus of your activity clearer and run smoother.
If there are no L1 opportunities, you can only do so much. A student not understanding does not equal a lesson failure. Reassure the student that they will have another chance to meet this language in the future, or give them a chance to speak to you after the class. You can’t always go with the lowest level student, and something to remember is that students will only get something when they are ready to anyway – maybe that student simply isn’t ready yet.
4) What can I do with the early finishers – some of the things they teach on the CELTA just aren’t good ways to deal with this.
Set time limits for exercises and don’t be afraid to challenge students with the limits. Emphasise that it doesn’t matter if other students haven’t finished and don’t wait around until everyone has finished, unless it is a reading comprehension exercise requiring everyone to have read everything. If there are a couple of students who always finish early, what else could they do? If they are responding to questions, could they write the questions again using different words? Could they make a few new sentences? Could they be persuaded to start making an entry in their learner journal about the lesson during this time (learner journals are excellent)?
5) What can I do if students reject material on religious grounds?
This is difficult. Obviously, the better you know a class the more prepared you can be for this. Think about what the language or skills point of the material is. You can still teach it – could you do it the old-fashioned way? Unplugged, pen and board. If it’s pre-language focus, you could switch to PPP. If it’s a controlled practice, do you have a back-up ready? It’s unlikely to be freer practice, because the context of the language will already have been defined and rejected. Have a look at what Luke Meddings says about Teaching Unplugged: http://lukemeddings.posterous.com/
6) How can I cope with students who missed the previous lesson / a related lesson?
Give them a handout of the language focus summary / refer them to relevant course book pages. Then move on. You can’t do it all again just for one student.
7) How can I deal with arrogant or difficult students who disrupt the class and believe they know it all, even if they don’t?
Remind them that all students are here to learn and to be fair and respectful. Don’t be afraid to warn persistently disruptive students or even to send them out. Your DOS will be on your side with this. If the student is simply arrogant, help them to notice their mistakes and main weaknesses with the language. Don’t be afraid to correct them on the spot, or to say “no”. Also remember that not all students are good learners. It may be that the class just isn’t working for them and they need time to adjust.
8) How can I prevent unjustified usage of L1?
Simply put, you can’t really. But be careful. What is “unjustified usage”? If a student is translating, negotiating or explaining and it is within the context of the lesson, why not allow it? If this is still a problem, why not rearrange your classroom a bit? “Cafe style” – tables with four chairs each, or circles of four chairs can manufacture separation of students who persistently use L1 to chat, rather than help with the lesson.
9) How can I prepare for one-to-one lessons? What are the differences between one to ones and a larger class? What can I do in the first class?
Think of a one-to-one as an excellent way to cater your lesson specifically for a learner. They get all your attention and you can customise everything specifically for them. Bearing this in mind, you need to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their motivation. Do a diagnostic and a needs analysis as your first class. Ask your DOS for a copy of their placement test and needs analysis and use this to highlight weaknesses. Talk to them in the first class; get a clear picture of them and their needs. Get them to write something for you – maybe a summary of what they want or their learner goals. Then work from there.
Obviously, groupwork doesn’t work. But as the second person of a pair, you can direct and manipulate pairwork very effectively in the class. Remember, the student has requested one to ones and will be wanting to interact with you as much as possible, so let that happen.
Other than that, try and view the lesson as a regular class. Don’t be afraid to give controlled practice exercises, writing or reading. The relative silence and lower monitoring needs can feel akward, but this will pass and it isn’t a bad thing.
10) How can I vary the exercises? My coursebook seems very samey.
Students won’t notice lesson patterns as keenly as you. If you are always using a text for new grammar, that isn’t a bad thing; you want students to have learnt by the end of the class. Try rewriting the material, reading it out loud as a listening, or using different speaking exercises. Use the teacher’s book, and don’t be afraid to substitute materials.
Have a look at what these are online: Dictogloss, grammaring exercises, Task-Based Learning and Inductive approaches in the classroom.
11) How do I mark writing?
Most schools have a policy or a key: sp = spelling, WW = wrong word etc etc. But is this enough for students? Try remodelling a sentence of two at the end of each student’s writing. Also, give them something to work on. Find a problem that they have, then write a “teacher tip” at the bottom of each piece of work. “We use present simple / imperatives / “to+ing”  to….” or “Can you think of different words for these?” are good examples. In this way, you are ensuring that every student notices and can work on one area of their writing, which personalises their experience.
I hope this has all been helpful.
Simon

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