“Here are your books, pre-intermediate level. Class starts at seven tonight.”
I glanced at my watch, and nearly dropped the books I’d just been handed. It was after five! The mantra during teacher training had been “baptism by fire” – learn to teach by doing. During that first day of class, though, as a freshly minted English teacher in Moscow, the fire nearly scorched me.
Adjusting to life in a new city, compounded with first-time teaching stress, meant that I never considered how I wanted to shape the atmosphere of my classroom. I didn’t realize that, as I was adjusting to my new surroundings in a foreign country, my students were simultaneously adjusting to the foreignness of me and the English language.
I learned that the first lessons are central to creating a positive learning environment in the ESL classroom. To reach the ultimate learning objective – communicating in English – students must engage with the language by using it, and they need an atmosphere that fosters comfort and confidence to facilitate this engagement.
Here are a few tips for creating a positive and comfortable classroom vibe:
1. Give students the opportunity to get to know you.
I quickly found that, as the teacher, I was the perceived focal point of the classroom. My students were curious about me, my background and experiences. I capitalized on their curiosity by letting them ask questions. I also learned not to be thrown when questions broke the norm of what I considered to be polite, introductory topics. My students, for example, were perpetually obsessed with my decision to come to Russia alone; where was my husband? I was offended, until I came to appreciate their direct but genuine inquisitiveness.
Teaching Tip: Create question and answer sessions for your students, focusing on their reasons and motivations for learning English. Once they realize you are equally interested in them, doors open and the getting-to-know-you process becomes mutual. Be patient if students don’t open up immediately. Developing rapport won’t happen overnight. Enjoy the slow developments as they unfold, don’t force them.
2. Give students the opportunity to get to know each other.
Regardless of the class level, everyone is working toward the same goal: communication. By fostering a network of cooperation among my students, I found that they began using English to communicate with each other just as they did with me.
Teaching Tip: Integrate pair and small group activities into your classes, to help students utilize and reinforce skills. They will become more comfortable with each other, and can practice speaking without the anxiety of the entire class’ attention focused on them.
3. Ensure students are comfortable making mistakes.
Fumbling my way through a few elementary Russian lessons, I experienced, firsthand, the reality that I was constantly preaching to my classes: learning a foreign language is difficult and mistakes are inevitable and necessary learning tools.
Teaching Tip: Even if you don’t formally learn the native language of your students, familiarize yourself with a few words and phrases. Relate your language-learning experiences to theirs, and demonstrate that you also make mistakes. My students loved laughing with me as I butchered the pronunciation of the simplest phrases in Russian. But if I could make mistakes, so could they.
4. Maintain a sense of confidence and honesty.
Though my students were exposed to English language movies and music, I was, in many cases, their only live contact with a native speaker. In their eyes, I was the authoritative voice when it came to language. The expectation to be a walking dictionary was overwhelming, and impossible to fulfill.
Teaching Tip: Teach with confidence and honesty, not authority. The ways we use language to communicate are varied and flexible, and even native speakers often break rules. The Londoner in your recorded listening activities may express a phrase differently then you would with your New Yorker friends. Make students aware of this flexibility.
5. Be open to developing friendships with your students.
Expectations regarding student-teacher relationships vary and are influenced by governing societal norms. Many of my students viewed me as a guest and occasionally extended invitations of hospitality. I always accepted.
The trick, I learned, was not to let developing friendships disrupt the progress or dynamics of my class. The more I got to know my students and realized how easily we could chat, the more inviting tangents from my lesson plans became.
Teaching Tip: When teaching in a foreign country, get a sense of the cultural expectations for student-teacher relationships from other teachers. Familiarize yourself with the norms of hospitality.
If friendships with your students begin affecting your lesson plans, devote a five-minute session at the end of class for open conversation. The allocated time will create a space to develop a relationship with your class and will give students the chance to use English in real-life conversational contexts.
The dynamics of each class are different. The connective tissue, however, is that each student feels you are invested in her progress, and that she has a positively reinforced space in the classroom to learn and practice English.
Do you have any tips to share about creating a positive environment in the ESL classroom?
To learn more about teaching English abroad, check out Matador’s Teaching ESL Focus Page.