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Texas ISD School Guide
Texas ISD School Guide

Articles for Teachers

How to Be an Entertaining ESL Teacher
By:David Cramer

When I started teaching English my students often complained that my classes were boring. Most beginning teachers get those kind of complaints. It actually took me about a year and a half, even close to two years, before I got beyond that stage.

There are many things that I've done that have come easily and naturally to me, but teaching English wasn't one of them. I thought it would be, but it was pretty difficult for me to learn, and though I've gained confidence through years of experience, it has taken a long time (eight years now) to get to where I can teach without getting stressed out about it.

I am by nature a quiet, soft-spoken person. I don't know whether it's a good or bad trait, but it certainly makes teaching more difficult. Loud and opinionated people have an easier time. I envy teachers whose voices are naturally loud. If only I was loud, obnoxious, and boorish- teaching would be much easier!

So first of all, I had to learn to speak very loudly. (Quirky tip for teaching English: Pop your ears before class, so that your voice will sound normal to yourself. Actors do it before going on stage.) You also must be aware of the timing of your speech- the speed and the length of pauses in your speech.

In my first year, a Vietnamese teacher who was helping me in class gave me this tip: when doing choral repetition of vocabulary or whatever, don't pause between words. I was doing it too slowly, pausing for a second between words. It made the students feel bored. Now I keep up the pace; I'm starting to say the next word when the class is right at the end of saying the previous word. There is no pause; it keeps the energy up.

And when I do word-guessing games with the class, I try not to have pauses between words, and I keep the pace up so the class doesn't get restless. I have seen teachers who give the class a word to guess and after they finish that word the teacher thinks about the next word, takes a while to write the next word, meanwhile the class is fidgeting...

In general, always keep your sense of humor front-and-center. You don't want to become a clown, you don't want to just be an entertainer, but you do need to keep it fun. Sometimes I tell a joke or say something completely absurd, just to find out who is awake.

Also back in that first, difficult year, a foreign teacher at my school saw that I was struggling with this issue. We chatted about it a bit in the teacher's room and then I went to class. To my surprise, and the students', five minutes later he opened the door and walked into my classroom wearing a full-face wolf mask and carrying a telephone. I was like, uh, come on in. He sat down in the back of the classroom and for about ten minutes pretended to be talking to me on the telephone. It was really bizarre. He wanted to get me to loosen up, and to show me that we could stretch the boundaries of our role as teachers.

You have to constantly sense the level of energy of the group. Teaching English is more like facilitating group therapy, or being a party host, than what you normally think of as teaching. You're constantly sensing the needs and desires of the group, leading them through activities, ready to change if it's not working.

Some students will always complain about being bored; it's their way of avoiding the hard work of learning a second language. Some classes, especially classes of young teens, will never be entertained enough. You could bring in Britney Spears and Michael Jackson to sing a duet for them, and they would still just sit there and roll their eyes and complain, "Teacher, boring!" It's really annoying. You do your best.

Try to keep a balance between different types of activities in one class session. l usually have 90-minute classes and I try to keep a balance between me talking to the whole class, students interacting with each other, students listening to something, playing games, etc. At my language-center job the usual class starts with 15 to 30 minutes of me talking with the whole class, then 15 to 30 minutes of the students talking in pairs or groups, then 15 to 30 minutes of listening exercises, and then 15 to 30 minutes of game-playing or some other activity.

Also balance the types of activities from class to class. I'm talking about the activities you bring to class that are outside of the class textbook or regular curriculum. Give the students an information-gap activity one day, a game the next day, some music the next day, group conversation topics the next day, etc.

In general, don't think of yourself as a teacher, especially when teaching at an English language-center. Teaching at schools and universities is a little different, and teaching TOEIC/TOEFL/IELTS is certainly different. (When students say they're bored in TOEFL class I just say, hey, what do you expect- this is TOEFL. Of course it's boring!) But language center students also have a job or go to school and the English class is extra. They are tired and you need to help them stay awake.

Think of yourself as a talk-show host, a group-therapy leader, an inspirational speaker, not as a teacher. Be entertaining but don't go overboard; don't try to be Mr. Bean, but keep it light, keep it moving, and keep up the pace. Smile a lot.

Stop by David's blog to read more about Teaching English Abroad in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: www.LivingInSaigonVietnam.Blogspot.

David has been teaching English in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam since 2001. Stop by the blog: www.LivingInSaigonVietnam.Blogspot.com

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