145. Nightmare Teaching Experiences (Part 1)

This episode is all about English teaching and some stories of bad classroom experiences. Transcript available below.

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Hello listeners, how are you doing? It’s a beautifully clear and sunny September day here. This time of year always reminds me of going back to school after the summer holidays. So, because of that, I’m going to talk about some teaching experiences in various schools I have worked in over the years.

In this episode I’m going to talk to you about my experiences of being an English Language Teacher. I’ll tell you what it’s like from the teacher’s point of view, share with you a few really bad experiences I’ve had as a teacher and then explain what I learned from them.

If you would like to read and study every word of what I am saying then you can because there is a full transcript for this episode, which is available at http://teacherluke.wordpress.com. Just find or search for this episode on that page. 145. Nightmare Teaching Experiences

There you can read every single word I’m saying, you can copy+paste words into google to check them, or you can transcribe some of what I’m saying and then compare it to the correct version provided on my website. There’s lots of ways to use the transcript as a tool in your English learning. If you need more ideas, just leave a comment below asking for suggestions.

You should also look out for some idiomatic expressions I use in this episode. I have scattered a number of idioms throughout the episode. I think they’re useful, common and expressive ones. Can you notice them? I will deal with them in the next episode.

So, let’s get started. Listen to my stories, leave our thoughts in the comments section and watch out for some idioms too.

I’ve been teaching for 12 years. I’ve taught in a few countries around the world, including the UK, Japan, France and Norway.
It’s a really great job.
I get to meet people from all walks of life and all different countries.
I’ve met some truly fascinating and amazing individuals.
For example, over the years I have met high-ranking politicians, expert scientists, movie stars, executives from successful car manufacturers, IT systems engineers, computer games makers, World Cup winning football players, F1 drivers, musicians, even a porn star and plenty of other interesting people.
In the classroom I’m pretty much my own boss.
I can be creative
I can have an idea in the evening and realise it during the next day
I can think up my own tasks and have the students do them (e.g. bank robbery, planning a TV show, presenting their own political manifesto, role plays, comedy improvisation games, business meetings etc)
Sometimes I can just make things up on the spur of the moment and then make them happen there and then.
I can see students learning and improving
I get to know my students and have a chance to learn about life all around the world.
I sometimes have the opportunity to make the whole room laugh, or to laugh myself at very funny people in my classes.
I have opportunities to travel and see the world, and I think that is extremely important as a way of developing a sense of perspective about life in general. So, I am very happy to be an English Language Teacher. I think of it as a proper career which involves hard work, and unique rewards.

There are some downsides to the job though, which we shouldn’t really complain about. I will at least mention some of the things which are a common frustration for career TEFL teachers.
Usually it’s that the job is undervalued by others. It seems a lot of people consider a career in TEFL to be trivial and easy. For example, I’m sure most of my friends think that basically, all I do in my job is sit in a lovely quiet room surrounded by 4 cute Japanese children, showing them big flashcards – blue, red, green and yellow! GOOD! and then have loads of holiday. It’s not like that at all. People always say things like, “so how are the kids?” or “SO I guess you’re on holiday at the moment!” and I’m like “I don’t teach kids!!! I teach finance directors!!!” and “I don’t know the meaning of the word holiday!!!” Also, lots of people consider TEFL to be a holiday job. Like, “oh TEFL, yeah I did that on my year off during university”. Some people consider it to be the job you can do if everything else in your life fails – like it’s a kind of step down to a more relaxed, less challenging lifestyle. A friend of mine told me once “sometimes I feel like just giving up, dropping out and becoming a TEFL teacher”.

The fact is, the job can be whatever you want it to be. If you consider it to be something to do while you travel, or something to do while you focus on writing your first novel then fine. It can be just a means to an end. If you consider it to be a genuine career move, you find the human interaction, the pedagogy and the linguistics to be fascinating and you’re prepared to work very hard at it, it can be a great career. There are some millionare English teachers out there. For example, Raymond Murphy, the guy who wrote English Grammar In Use. That’s now one of the biggest selling books of all time, all around the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if you had a copy of that book yourself.

I’m thinking of writing my own book actually. It would be full of grammar and vocabulary exercises as well as lots of other things to read. It would be full of my humour, but it would also be really useful and a great companion to these episodes of the podcast. Would you be interested in that? Does that sound like your cup of tea? Let me know.

Anyway, regarding TEFL, it’s more challenging, professional, multi-skilled and demanding than people realise. It can be incredibly energy sapping, emotional and painful at times, if things don’t go well. Of course it can also be very enjoyable and rewarding. Sometimes it is easy, but sometimes it’s very stressful. It’s swings and roundabouts really, but generally I have found it to be a great career.

I think there’s a misconception going around that if you can speak English, you can teach English. Not the case at all. It takes years of experience and a couple of academic qualifications under your belt. It might even be possible to prevent people from learning if you do it wrong! I also hate that kind of charisma man – the guy who just loves the attention he gets from a class of learners of English and turns it into his own special one man show. He doesn’t realise that they give him that attention because they’re there to learn from him. Sometimes my worst fear is that I’m just another charisma man teacher. But of course, that’s ridiculous…

Learning a language is not like learning another subject, like maths or history. You’re not just learning information, but learning how to do something – and not something like cooking or playing tennis, but how to express yourself and interact with other people. There’s something deeply personal about learning a language, and often the best students are the ones who throw themselves and their personalities into the learning process.

So, teaching English means working closely with people, and this can be wonderful. It can also be very challenging, ridiculous, embarrassing and difficult. I’ve worked directly with people before, in shops, restaurants and bars and you learn after a while that a certain percentage of the people you meet will be either weird, a twat or an arsehole. It’s just the way it is. It’s human nature. There’s always one person who makes life difficult. There’s always someone who will throw a spanner in the works. Some people call it the 1/30 rule. That at least 1 person in 30 is a dickhead. It’s true in English teaching too. The majority of the students you have in your class are great, but then sometimes there is one of those ‘1/30’ students, who will kind of screw up your class, spoil what you try to do, upset other students or convince them to turn against you. Sometimes you have a few classes that are perfect, and everyone is great. You enjoy it, but in the back of your mind you’re thinking – I’m going to get 2 or 3 “30s” in my next class, I know it! The reasons for why some people have to act like total dicks is a kind of mystery. Let me give you an example of what I mean…
-Huffing and puffing a lot when you ask them to do normal exercises
-Constantly interrupting whatever you are doing with completely unrelated questions
-Being cruel to other students in the class to the point that none of them want to open their mouths
-Disagreeing with what you say even though they’re wrong – why? Nobody knows.
-Acting like whatever you are doing is really easy and boring even though they’re consistently getting it wrong
-Turning up late and getting very shirty with you if you bring up the subject
-Convincing other members of the group that whatever you’re doing is wrong and that some kind of mutiny would clearly help everyone learn English
-Preventing anyone else from speaking and practising their English, and assuming that when they speak they speak for everyone.
-Generally disrupting the class and destroying the nice atmosphere which is essential to creating the right conditions for learning – and for what reason? Usually because of ego, or because of insecurity or being an especially spoiled brat who can’t handle it if the universe is not spinning around them every second of every minute of the day…

I realise that talking about experiences like this is especially negative, and I hope you don’t get the wrong impression about my classes. The vast majority have been really great, with some super cool people and a really positive atmosphere which allows language to develop properly. It’s just that every now and then you have a bad experience which sticks in your memory, but the crucial thing is to learn from these bad experiences, which is not just true in teaching – it’s also true in life. We regret the things we don’t do, and we learn from the mistakes we make and the bad experiences we have. Which is a pretty damn good reason for going out there, being courageous and doing things for the first time.

So, back to these 1/30 people who can torpedo your class. If you’ve been a language learner in a classroom, you may have met one of these people. Usually, they have no idea they are doing doing something wrong, which is kind of frightening because it means at any time we could be acting like a total dick without realising it. Sometimes it is because they have a sense of entitlement – being spoiled by their parents means that they are not comfortable unless everything is based around them, and they have to be the centre of attention, whether that is good for everyone or not. This means they just can’t handle being in a group situation, where they have to put others first or consider themselves to be one among many who have to work together to make the experience more fruitful for everyone. Sometimes I expect these people don’t even realise they are being rude, but think that they are doing something good.

It’s not just the odd student who can derail a lesson though. There are many other reasons. The teacher probably holds the most responsibility (I’d say it’s something like about 60/40 between teacher and students) but also plenty of other things, including the time of day, the weather outside, the day of the week, the season, the nationality of all the students in the class, the facilities – the room, the atmosphere, the light, the quality of the equipment, the seating arrangement, the noise levels, the number of students in the class, the material being used (published or not, self-made or not, the condition of photocopies) and so on and so on. The list goes on.

Many of you have probably experienced things from the point of view of the student. You probably have a different side of the story for what makes a good lesson. That’s another episode of the podcast! I’d like to read your comments about experiences of being a student in a language class. Maybe you met some terrible teachers, or shared classes with terrible students. Send me your comments please! This episode really is a chance for me to share some nightmare teaching experiences with you, and then to reflect on what I learned from them as a teacher. Why have I chosen the nightmare experiences? Because they’re the more interesting stories and there are things I learned from those experiences. I think we learn more from our bad experiences than from our good ones. I’d like to share some of those things with you, and just tell you some stories that you might like to hear.

I know I have a lot of teachers listening to this too, so feel free to add your comments and stories below. Teaching is a great, important and undervalued job, and it comes with a unique set of challenges. I think part of the uniqueness of teaching is the fact that as a teacher you are kind of outnumbered by the students. There’s more of them than there is of you. As a teacher you can feel an enormous pressure to deliver the right kind of training, and if your students are not happy, that is a real nightmare for you because it means that somehow you are personally responsible. That may not be the case, because as we have seen above, there are many factors for a good lesson, but teachers often feel they are on the front line. We can suffer a lot if a lesson goes badly, whether it’s our fault or not. Sometimes weeks of your life can be full of drama and bad vibes just because your class is going badly. Of course the students suffer too – in fact that’s the main point of all this. We’re trying to help the students learn English, but sometimes it just doesn’t work that way and it can feel like either you’re fighting some kind of pointless battle, or that the gods are acting against you somehow. It’s important to learn from bad experiences in class, to learn how to prevent them or just how to react to them correctly.

As learners of English in class you also have a responsibility to make a class work well. It’s great when students know this and work together with a teacher to allow a class to be a success. One of the roles of a teacher is to be a facilitator. That means to help to create the right conditions in which the students can learn for themselves. Being a teacher should not mean just standing there doing most of the speaking, lecturing to the class like they used to in the old days. The teacher shouldn’t really be the centre of attention. The students should be at the centre of what happens in class, but that gives a lot of responsibility to those students. They have to work together, allow the right conditions for learning to develop, be unselfish, help others, attend regularly etc. With the wrong attitude, the students can totally torpedo the lesson. With the right attitude (seeing everything as an opportunity to get involved in an active learning process) they can take a lesson to new heights. All it takes is for them to accept some responsibility for the success of a class, then enthusiastically take whatever the teacher gives them, and run with it.

It’s also the responsibility of the school manager to create the right conditions for learning. Creating an air of respect or positivity in the school helps. Making sure classrooms are in good condition certainly helps. Giving the teacher the tools to do his/her job effectively definitely helps. Managing the numbers of students in class helps a lot. If you have too many students in class, it can be very hard to teach them effectively. If students are dropping in and out of classes, it’s hard to build a team spirit. If the students can move up or down a level whenever they want it can spoil any sense of unity, morale, solidarity or rapport which is essential to creating the right conditions for learning. Also, the manager should put in place some method of ensuring that the students are divided properly by level. An entry exam + interview is pretty important. Also, a good balance of nationalities and genders in class is important.

Seating the students is crucial too. If they’re all seated separately, with lots of space between them, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to engage comfortably in speaking tasks. Teachers should try to arrange the tables and chairs before a lesson to bring the students close together in comfort, so they can see each other, interact with everyone, see the teacher and the board clearly. Putting students all around one table makes them feel they are connected and working as a team. Putting them on separate tables makes it feel more like an individual test. Having them stand up and walk around can replicate real life speaking tasks and allow body language to come into play. Moving the students can help the blood and oxygen flow better and prevent people falling asleep.

Intelligence types are a consideration too. People learn in different ways. Some prefer analysing language, some prefer to see visual representations of grammar or vocabulary (e.g. time lines, mind maps or just images) and others learn best when involved in some physical movement. So a variety of activity types is important. Get the students moving around and interacting in different ways, rather than just sitting at their desks for the whole lesson.

We should also remember that you can’t please all the people all the time, and so there will always be someone who’s not really into a particular activity. On those rare occassions that everyone is into it, everyone can reap the benefits.

Preparation by the teacher makes a massive difference. The more you know about the students in advance the better. You can then try to directly meet their language learning needs. Hopefully they all have similar needs – that’s the management’s job. PLacing students in classes based on their needs (business English, exams, academic English etc). Writing a careful plan, with learning objectives and a good balance of language and skills work, with all the correct types of support exercises, communicative techniques and so on, is vital in assessed lessons, but a very good idea in other lessons as a way of ensuring quality. But then again, it’s important to know when to throw the plan away and just improvise a lesson there and then. You should teach the students not the plan.There’s no point doggedly sticking to a plan if the students don’t really need that particular language point. Sometimes it’s necessary to leave the plan, and follow something that comes up in class and which is clearly what the students need or are interested in. It’s ok to go off on a tangent as long as it is relevant and the whole class goes with you.

TTT is something we should cut down on in the language learning classroom. People often assume that as a teacher I talk all the time, and you could be forgiven for thinking that if you listen to this podcast. But I believe that a really good teacher must be a good listener. We’ve got two ears and one mouth for a reason. You must listen very carefully to your students. Listen to their English to see what they need, or what they’re doing wrong. Listen to their reactions to different things you do in class – that helps you to choose the right kinds of activities, and generally you must listen in order to encourage them to speak. People are naturally more willing to talk extensively if they feel that someone is really listening. Have you ever talked to a friend, but felt like they weren’t listening? It makes you feel “oh, what’s the point, I’ll just keep my mouth shut”. It’s the same in class. If you feel no-one cares, you’re not going to talk. So the teacher should listen, show you’re listening and encourage others to listen too.

Marketing can also have an effect on your class. If the students have been led to believe they’re going to get something from a course, that is going to affect how they react to what you’re doing. If your school has an amazing website that makes lots of grand promises they probably will come into the class with a lot of expectations, especially if it is an expensive school with a good reputation. You have to beware of those expectations and try to meet them immediately! An expensive school, with a powerful marketing drive can set the bar very high for its teachers – putting all the pressure on them to deliver the end product. That can be very stressful for a teacher, but it is also a good process to go through for training you into a good teacher, because you are forced to raise your game.

As you can see, there are loads of factors to take into account as a teacher. There are plenty of other things I could mention, but really I would like to start telling you some stories of real teaching situations I’ve encountered.

So, here are some experiences:

1. My first teaching experience
-Where to put my hands?
-Awkwardly leaned/sat on a desk
-Students were really rude to each other and completely lacked any sense of cultural awareness or sensitivity (one guy was from Iraq, and another guy immediately mimed firing a gun at him – facepalm)
-I had no idea about the language point I was teaching. I could only explain it by using the tense itself.
-I was teaching present continuous. The best I could do is print off a load of clip art with people doing things like dancing, playing basketball, and the students just had to explain what was happening in the pictures. Not bad, but that was it.
-I had no voice – I couldn’t string a really coherent and confident question together. I had no engaging classroom presence. I was not able to frame activities effectively. I came across as mild and weak.
-I was really put off by the reactions of the students. Often, students in TEFL classes will look at you with a kind of pained expression on their face. This is because they’re listening carefully and possibly struggling to understand. Whenever I saw this pained expression it went straight to my heart.
-I was crippled by nerves. I couldn’t function.
-Every day after my teaching practice I would go home and watch Bill Hicks videos to cheer myself up, wishing that I could have his confidence in front of other people.
-There was doubt over my ability to do the job at all and in the middle of the course my tutor warned me that I might fail.
-One woman said to me, “seriously Luke, why don’t you just concentrate on music? Why do you want to become a teacher?”
-It was actually quite a difficult time because I couldn’t imagine having a career in music. It was too unreliable. I wanted steady employment. But for the first 5-6 years, before doing the DELTA I was in a shaky position as a language teacher, frequently wanting to get out of it but not really knowing how to do it, and not having the courage to just do something else. In the end, perhaps I’ve decided to make a go of it. I don’t know if that matters to you or not, but perhaps you can relate to my situation then, by thinking of your situation – what was it that led you to follow the career you’re doing? Did you always want to do that? I’ve never known what I want to do with my life, or quite where it is going. I just know I want to do what I do well, and I want some level of success. TEFL might not be the high-reward job, but ultimately it is all about the individual – what can you do to make your dreams come true? With the right attitude and a desire to work, you can do anything you want to. Just be positive and work hard, don’t give up, be dedicated, don’t let failures stop you but see failures as an opportunity to learn. Look for possibilities beyond the work you’re doing now. Think outside the box. These are all standard bits of wisdom for success. I wish I followed that wisdom all the time, every day. But you’ve got to try.

What I learned: Confidence is vital. Even if you feel a bit depressed or not in a good mood, it’s important to put a smile on your face when you walk into the room. Put on a brave face because somehow your mood has a massive influence on the mood of a lesson. Also, knowing your stuff is very important. You have to study the rules of English grammar a lot so that you can answer any question that people ask you. At the beginning it feels almost like you’re making it up because you’re unsure of yourself. This confidence comes with time and experience.

2. Sweat and Stress Rashes
This is when I taught my first multi-national groups after teaching in Japan. For some reason it was terrifying. Generally the Japanese are quiet, sweet, non-confrontational. I went back to London where the standard of teaching seemed to be much higher. There were lots of people who’d been doing it for a long time. Lots of well qualified career TEFL teachers who worked for Cambridge sometimes, things like that. Lessons were observed more, and generally there was the feeling that the students had travelled hundreds of miles to come to London to study English, paying lots of money for an intensive English course, and so they want to improve fast and effectively. This was stressful for me as I was used to dealing with small groups, using the same old material time and time again, not really dealing with much grammar, but working on creating a safe environment for people to feel comfortable speaking English.
So, when I joined my new group of 16 students from around the world, it was quite a culture shock when I realised they were all from many different places I’d never been to, or met anyone from. I had students from Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Korea, Japan, France, Turkey, Czech Republic and Brazil. That is quite a broad range, which is very interesting. But certainly a lot of those countries are more direct than the English and the Japanese. In fact I was quite surprised by the directness of people in the way they interacted, showed their emotions clearly (like disagreement) and spoke quite loudly with some interruption. They were all keen to learn and to be challenged. They’d been studying with another teacher who they really liked. She was quite strict and did a lot of grammar with them. They enjoyed that. So, they asked me lots of things that she had taught them, kind of checking their knowledge but also testing me too. I felt a sense of challenge, distrust and tension. They were already a group who knew each other. I was entering their circle, as the kind of leader or alpha male, and I was still relatively young and I looked young for my age too. I was probably dressed too casually too, because I hadn’t worked out that the way you look is very important. If you go in wearing a suit, people will immediately think you are professional, serious and experienced. If you wear jeans and a t-shirt, they might not feel they are getting what they paid for. I was wearing jeans, and a shirt untucked. Not bad, but these days I always make an effort to control the first impression by dressing smarter so they know they’re getting a professional. Small details can be important. Also, it’s good to be strict and not too friendly at the start, and then ease that off slowly until you become more relaxed and friendly in the middle, and then motivational and trustworthy. Humour can help a lot, but you have to use it sparingly and dryly as well. If you go for big laughs and make lots of effort, you’ll come across as a dick who is desperate for attention. If you make subtle jokes which are understated, with a straight face, there’s less chance that you’ll come out of it badly, and it will improve the atmosphere rather than make it awkward. You shouldn’t tell jokes, although I do, and pay the price for it. I mean, pre-written or well known jokes. Usually jokes are received badly because no-one understands them. Sometimes a joke comes up that people love because they learn from it, but usually they just make the students feel bad because humour excludes them. The best thing is to allow the students to be funny and make each other laugh. This is immensely rewarding for them. You can help by allowing people to laugh, laughing yourself or engaging the students in conversation with a view to them saying something funny. You may even be able to feed the students some funny lines, which allow them to say something funny in response, which lets them take the credit for any laughter which occurs.

So, I didn’t know any of that, or know how to do it then. Instead, there I was standing in front of them, not making a good first impression, very nervously attempting to keep control of myself and run an effective class. It was not a strong first few lessons. I would often get stuck on a grammar question, lose the answers in the teachers book, get the CD on the wrong track, make mistakes on the whiteboard and so on. It was really tough and embarrassing. I felt like my reputation was hanging by a thread. I went to class every day really early to get ready and I dreaded the arrival of the students. I would use copious amounts of energy running around the classroom in a stressed out state, my face bright red, sweat patches under my arms, my sweat dripping on students books as I lean over to help them. I developed a rash because of the stress. I had little red spots on my wrists and arms. Amazingly I managed to work out grammar points and answer questions about them at the same time. There’s a lot of pressure in dealing with grammar that you don’t even know yourself and trying to explain something you don’t understand, while everyone is looking at you. They say people’s biggest fear is speaking in front of people, like in a presentation or speech. It was like that for me every day. That’s pretty awful, but also ridiculous. It brought out the ridiculousness in me. I couldn’t help seeing the whole thing as some kind of bizarre joke. Here’s me in front of all these people from around the world, and I don’t even know how it happened or if what I’m doing is useful at all. I developed a slightly eccentric teaching style, with quite a lot of bizarre humour which really came from my feeling very weird to be teaching. Eventually it worked and I began to make the students laugh all the time, and laugh quite hard sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes. The key thing was that I was using laughter to aid the teaching, not just to create laughter. Students began to tell me how much they enjoyed the classes because the atmosphere was good, and that they really learned things.

In the end, that class went very well. We all got to know each other, and in some cases became friends who I am still in touch with now, nearly 10 years later.
What I learned:
You should stick to what you know – play to your strengths, but don’t be afraid to take some risks because that’s how you learn. Be yourself and add some personality to lessons. Not too much though – you shouldn’t dominate or anything, but students tend to respond well when you give something of yourself to your lessons. It seems that students are quite preoccupied by teachers expressing their own personality in classes. Don’t be afraid to be a little bit vulnerable in class, but at the same time you have to be completely sure and confident about the language. It’s a difficult combination of being human and super-human at the same time. Study the grammar, prepare well in advance, have fun and treat the students with RESPECT at all times. Never get angry, never tell anyone to shut up. Go for a drink with the students or take them out of the classroom every couple of weeks. Don’t get too close to them though, because ultimately you are their teacher, not their friend.

I looked young, and students would never realise I was the teacher. Sometimes I’d have to convince them. New students would often come into class with a form from reception. They had to give the form to the teacher. They’d come in the room and look around, then give the form to the most ‘teacherly’ looking person in there, usually the oldest. I would always have to put my hand up and say ‘I’m over here! I’m the teacher, hello, my name is Luke, like Luke Skywalker… Luke, I am my father…. etc”
I guess you should look like a teacher, or be aware that people have ideas of what a teacher should look like or behave like. You can use that to your advantage – by being ‘original’ but it can also work against you if you seem unprofessional or inappropriate.

These stories continue in part 2 of this episode – 146. Nightmare Teaching Experiences (Part 2)