There are a number of elements that have to come together to make a good teacher. Some people are just naturally good at this profession. They don’t think about it, don’t analyse it, they just have a natural presence and authority and understand how to teach without thinking much about the process. I am not one of these people. Here are my tips to hacking the teaching system.
I hack systems. I know that sounds bad, like I’m a computer hacker or something, but in reality it means that I have a knack for understanding systems that humans put in place and combining the different elements to make my behaviour and outcomes fit those systems.
I know that sounds overly analytical, but this is my break down of how it works – lets learn the teaching system.
As I said, there are a number of different elements that come together to make a good teacher and a good lesson. Firstly, you have to understand and take into account your employer’s expectations. This includes understanding the curriculum, taking note of what statistics your employer uses to determine a teacher’s success, and knowing what standards they use when observing your work. So, the first is the book and the language you should be teaching, obviously include that. Second might be the retention rate of your lessons, otherwise known as the number of students who keep coming back to the school through different levels. It also might include the reputation you bring to the school and what the parents are saying about you. Finally, it’s about the evaluations, the comments your boss makes and the things he or she wants changed and your willingness to work on these weaker areas of your practice.
The second element is the exams, which are integral to the teaching system here in China. To make good lessons, to ensure that your students pass, you must understand what is in the exams. Everything from spelling tests to the tests at the end of each level. If you understand what is in the test and what your students must say to pass it than you can focus your lesson better on the knowledge and skills they need to have. In York, for example, there is a focus on phonics and student’s abilities to decode words using the graphemes from the York system. Make sure your students know this really well. It’s always a good idea to try to stretch your students beyond the curriculum and the proscribed structures, but make sure they understand what they need for the tests first.
The third element is the parents. This can be difficult for you to get information on, as many of them will not speak English and so must communicate with you through the Chinese staff. However, asking regularly what parents are saying about your lessons, their child’s progress and even asking for suggestions during parent classes can help you incorporate their wishes into your lessons. Always keep in mind that although it is the students who actually take your lessons, it is the parents who are paying for it and who want them to be there. Their expectations and concerns matter too.
Next comes the students. To put it bluntly, your students are probably not very interested in working hard and getting pushed to do more, think more or understand more. This is particularly relevant to the younger students, but can be applied generally to any level. Students in China are busy. They have long school days and numerous other classes and commitments and a lot of the time they are tired and have little interest in learning English for its own sake. They want to have fun and they want to get good marks so they don’t get into trouble with their parents. That’s part of your job as well, to make it interesting and fun for them so that they enjoy coming into class. Keep these aims in mind, balance their need for fun with the need to learn and your lessons will be a pleasure both for them and for you.
The Teacher’s Assistants have their own requirements for foreign teachers as well. A good TA is a wonderful thing. They are the translator between you and the parents and you and the kids. More than that, they are the translator between you and the very different culture that is China. They also work extremely hard and have very heavy workloads and part of your job is to make sure you aren’t making things more difficult for them. Listen to them. They have seen hundreds of classes and know what works and what doesn’t. They also know the students better than you ever can because they can talk to them. So if they make a comment or a request then try your best to honour it. Remember at all times that it’s a partnership and ensure that there is good communication between you and all of your TA’s at all times. They are a valuable resource in every way for your English lessons.
Finally and perhaps most importantly is your own expectations. Everyone wants to be good at their job. When you put time and energy into such an enormous undertaking as moving overseas, you want it to be successful in every way. And you will have your own meanings of what success means. Perhaps it means that your students pass, that both you and they enjoy the class and learn from each other. That’s fine. As long as you are clear about your intentions and your standards, then you can work towards them. Get clear. Decide what you want from your classes, from your students and from your job. Strategize what you need to do to achieve those goals, what you would need to see from your students to indicate that you have met them. And work hard to get it. You won’t be happy unless you do.
This is a very basic guide of what makes a good lesson. There will be other elements as well, of course, unique to each school and each system and each teacher and perhaps even to each class. But the important thing is understanding that being a good teacher means more than just showing up and speaking English in front of a class. It means analysing what you are doing, what you could be doing better and listening to the people around you and learning. Always learning.
Gayle Aggiss was a former teacher of York English, originally from Australia.