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Tips for Surviving as an ESL Teacher | by Rita Fitchett

I’ve now been living and teaching with York English in China for just over 3 months. I can’t quite believe how quickly the time has flown by. Here are my 5 tips on surviving as an ESL teacher!

When I arrived in China, I had no teaching experience. The one thing that resembled teaching experience, was my time au-pairing two (rather spoilt) boys when I was 18. I made up lessons on the spot, and knew nothing of lesson planning, grading my language, or about any interesting activities for kids! No wonder they (and I) were bored out of their minds! That experience, I admit, put me off children and the idea of teaching for a few years.

1) Everyone has a first day

The most important thing is to remember that everyone has been in your position. Everyone has had a first day. Everyone has been in your shoes. This is especially true at York, where new teachers are coming to China throughout the year. There will always be someone that is newer than you!

I was so nervous in the days and weeks leading up to starting teaching. Moving to a new country, going into a new job, knowing no-one and fearing that I would get the child terrors. These were just a few things lurking in my mind!

It took me a while to remember that on day 1 at any new job, you’re not expected to know anything. Just show up, be nice, participate, and be willing to learn. That is all you need to do. And for those arriving from different time-zones – try not to fall asleep!

surviving as an ESL teacher

2) Sharing in Caring

Sharing is caring. Something I try to instill into my classes. But in this post, I mean sharing between teachers. Don’t be afraid to talk to the other teachers at your school or branch.

Everyone has the ‘lesson plan writing blocks’. When I started out, I had the irrational thought that I should already have a bunch of activities on my mind, and that I shouldn’t have to ask anyone for help. How silly that was. I soon realised that it is silly to just ‘suffer’ through lesson planning in silence.

Surviving as an ESL teacher means talking to your colleagues. Share resources, share activity ideas, share behaviour management tips. Share, share, share. Surviving as an ESL teacher will not happen if you don’t share.

Even just talking through ideas can help. For instance, one of my colleagues needed help with a vocabulary activity – I started chatting and chatting away (not really knowing what I was saying, as per usual), and ended up coming up with a new activity which I have since used countless times in my classes. My kids LOVE it. Had my colleague not asked for help, I wouldn’t have been able to make up the activity! Win-Win!


3) Don’t Re-invent the Wheel

As a new teacher it can sometimes feel overwhelming. You have lots of new kids to get to know, new processes to become familiar with, plenty of lessons to plan, and your sanity to keep a hold of. Don’t spend endless amounts of time trying to come up with new, complicated activities.

Over time, you will undoubtedly get bored of the same activities, but for your first few weeks and even months, grow your confidence, get to know your kids and see what they like and don’t like.

Once you’ve had time to get used to lesson planning and are now able to get through them quicker, you can easily start exploring new activities that your kids will enjoy. I teach the same course to 4 classes, and they all have very different characters. I have to tailor activities to each class to get the most out of them. Some love the active games where they are up and wandering around. Other classes enjoy the activities where they are sat with board-game like tasks.

Take your time and use the fail-proof, tried and tested activities. And, again, talk to the other teachers! Use their wisdom!

surviving as an esl teacher

4) Laugh! Kids just wanna have fun!

Laugh, laugh, laugh! I’ve found that my most successful classes are when the kids and I are joking and having a good time. Children, especially the children in China, have a lot going on at school. The last thing they want is to be in a very school-like atmosphere. Let them relax a bit and enjoy themselves. It’ll be far more enjoyable and rewarding for you too. Believe me!

I have one particular class where we have a lot of jokes and ‘banter’. Well, as much banter as you can have with 10 year olds that can’t really speak that much English….! I join in on their jokes, and I am relaxed with them in class. Children bounce off your vibes and that really affects the class. Be positive, and they will be positive too!

esl teacher

5) Don’t Stress!

If things don’t go well in class, your kids are being naughty, or you can’t thing of any good activities, don’t stress. It is totally normal for things not to always go well. I’ve had classes where I’m not feeling well, my kids are bouncing off the walls, and my activities have just failed.

Accepting those days and moving on is part of surviving as an ESL teacher.

When you’re in that situation it can feel that all you want to do is just curl up in the corner of the classroom and hold your head in your hands. That is, obviously, not something a teacher can get away with. Take a couple seconds to breathe, take a step back and remember that it is not the end of the world if your lesson doesn’t go to plan. The kids will still have been exposed to plenty of English and that in itself is the reason they are there!

surviving as an esl teacher

Rita is our British teacher at our Ping Dong branch. Read more of Rita’s journey as an ESL teacher with us here – “How I Ended Up in China”

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