Disclaimer Part One: Although this write up is specifically aimed towards teaching ESL in Asia, it can easily be applied to teaching anything, anywhere. Most of my comments and suggestions are aimed to help you deal with large groups of people who have their attention focused on you and what you are saying, and how to make this as painless and effective as possible.

Disclaimer Part Two: I am not a certified teacher. I have no qualifications whatsoever. My comments and suggestions are based on my own experiences only and are not rooted in any theories, known techniques or approaches whatsoever. Take this how you will, but know that apparently I am a good teacher and, for the most part, get a great deal of enjoyment out of it.


1. Be prepared

This might sound silly, but too many new English teachers think that walking into a class and knowing how to speak English is enough. This just won't cut it. You need to know what you are talking about, specifically the part of grammar that you are going to tackle that lesson. No one will expect you to be an expert on everything, but whatever the topic happens to be for that day, you need to be able to answer any questions that might come up. This means reading up on it beforehand, understanding the terms used to explain it and how to work with it. Lastly, not everyone learns in the same way and you should be ready and able to explain the new point in at least two different ways.

You should likewise be prepared emotionally and mentally. Some days are better than others, and you might spend the five minutes before you start your lesson dreading it, wishing you were about to do anything else. There are, however, no time outs, little room for error and no delete button. The moment you enter the classroom you are the focus of attention. There is no escaping it, you are the star of the show and as the leading lady (or man) you have to be focused on your role. Your students, whether they are 4 or 84, are counting on you. If you bomb, they will remember it

Finally, you gotta look good. By this I mean, the slob look doesn't go over well in Asia, nor in many other places as well. You don't need to be a primadonna, but appearing neat and professional will take you a long way.

2. Be organized

A man walks into a bar and...duh...

This is as much for your sanity as well as your students. First and foremost, you should have a lesson plan written out. This is a kind of road map, telling you where to go and when. It will help you to know how much time each activity should/might/can take and how to best utilize your time. This mini-itinerary, whether it is a detailed 5 page report or 5 sentences scrawled on scrap paper, will prevent you from standing in front of the class with no idea what you had intended to do, like a bad comedian stuck in the middle of an act.

Everything you bring into the class with you and any material you plan on using should be neatly organized somewhere close to you. There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to find a page or a handout with 20 pairs of eyes staring at you, waiting. It makes you look bad and should be avoided at all possible costs. This also means having your materials (handouts, notes, markers) prepared and organized. Be anal, no one will accuse you of it, and your students will be thankful that they don't have to watch you fumbling and swearing under your breath as all your notes cascade onto the floor.

3. Never let them see you sweat

Following the suggestions above, should make this easier. You need to be relaxed and calm. Never let a class, no matter how large it is or how intimidating the students in the front might appear, stress you out. You will gain the trust and respect of no one if you freak out or lose the plot. A large part of maintaining control over your students is showing them you can control yourself. Would you have much faith or respect in a teacher who muttered nervously while incessantly wiping sweat off his forehead and talking to his feet? Probably not.

In Asia, where loss of face leads to embarrassment for everyone involved, you must, at all costs, avoid it. Never, ever, ever admit to your students that you don't know the answer to a question. You will lose their trust and respect and they will forever doubt you. It may seem sneaky and dishonest to avoid a question, rather than just admitting ignorance, but the ends here justify the means. Believe me. I admitted I was uncertain about a grammar point in one class and the following day the students spoke to the school director and I was, well, booted from the class and almost my job. Mark my words!

Firstly, if it is a question on the topic, you should have prepared yourself for it. But, let's say you had other things on your mind and didn't educate yourself on the uses of participle clauses in enough detail. Your first instinct might be to lie or make something up. Don't. It will come back to haunt you. Instead, give the question to the class. There is a chance that someone might be able to answer and you can appropriately laud that student for saving your reputation. If you get no takers, act disappointed in your students and assign it as homework. Lastly, go back and read number 1. Occasionally, however, you come across students who ask unnecessary and exceedingly difficult questions. By this I mean questions that are completely unrelated to the topic at hand and that you have no hope of even beginning to answer. Simply state that the question will be answered in future lessons, when the subject comes up and that, it being unrelated to the material being discussed, will only serve to confuse other students.

4. Let them know who's boss

You plan the lesson, you give the marks, you are the one standing in the front of the class. You rule. This doesn't give you the right to behave like a tyrannical dictator, but it does mean that you call the shots. You need to make certain from the get go that everyone is aware of this fact. Whether you are working with 4 year olds or adults, it is important that you set boundaries. You will be tested, by adults as much as by children. Do not be intimidated or afraid to enforce rules; allowing yourself to be bullied by your students will most likely cause you to break Rule #3 and furthermore, will prevent you from being able to actually teach.

5. Don't do too much

You will be surprised to find the difficulty with which your students learn certain new material. It is important to understand and remind yourself that English is completely alien to your students. It is backwards and upside down in comparison to the language they were born into and is far more complex. Heck, even the system of writing is completely different. Most Asian languages have few, if any, verb tenses. Basically, what you might think is simple and second nature, might take great effort to teach. It is important that you don't attempt to throw too much information at your students in one class, thereby overwhelming and possibly discouraging them.

Don't overestimate how much ground you can cover. The present perfect tense, for example, is usually taught over several lessons and is only fully explained in higher levels. It's not something you are going to teach in one lesson. This is where patience plays a big role. You must have it, scores of it, as your students stumble and struggle through new material. As well as not covering too many grammatical topics, it is also important not to attempt too many activities. You should always keep your classes varied and creative, but not to the point where you are changing gears every five minutes.

6. Talk at the level of the class

I have been attending an exceptionally interesting course in organic chemistry.
I study science.

Initially this will seem very forced and awkward to you but it is absolutely vital. First and foremost, since verb tenses are such a big part of the English language, know them. Next, never use a tense that your students have not yet learned. For example, if you have not yet covered the present perfect, say I went to Italy last year rather than I have been to Italy. They might still hear have as a possessive modal and maybe they haven't even covered past participles, which makes up the second half of this verb tense. This might limit you in many ways, especially if your class is at an elementary level, from saying a lot of things that you want to say. Be careful, likewise, with your vocabulary.

Speak slowly and clearly. Until your students reach higher levels, their comprehension is going to be greatly dependent on the speed and articulation of your speech. Often you might find yourself sounding like a robot during class and repeating the same phrases until you feel your blood boil. An undesirable side effect you might experience is speaking at the speed of sound when you get out of class and into the bar with your friends after work . You learn to understand rapid fire speech quickly, as well as how to tame it, with time.

Finally, to ensure that your class is, metaphorically, on the same page as you, ask lots of questions pertaining to new material. You require this kind of feedback to get a sense of how much of the new topic is understood by the majority of the class, to see how much of it is sinking in. If you have spent 5 minutes explaining the formation of the passive and then get a room full of diverting eyes when you ask the class to change a sentence into this new form, you know you need to go back and try again. Do this as often as possible. You can throw out a question to the class in general or direct it at a specific student (perhaps the one scribbling pictures of Pokemon or staring out the window wistfully).

7. Be Culturally Attuned

While the pros and cons of keeping the monarchy in Australia might be fascinating for new immigrants to that country, the subject might hold little appeal to children in a rural Indonesian village. Choose your material carefully, taking into consideration the religious, cultural and historical background of your students. Controversial issues might make for interesting discussion, but never overstep your boundaries.

Never assume that something is known or believed. My students in Cambodia had never heard of The Beatles or Elvis, they didn’t know how to find Africa on a world map and they had no experience with credit cards or bank machines. They also couldn't tell me if Bob was a man or a woman from reading the name. These were all things I had to take into consideration with everything I did, from choosing material for the class to preparing exams.

Finally, attitudes towards the role of men and women might differ from what you are accustomed to. You might be teaching somewhere where men and women do not interact with one another or, more inexplicably, fear each other, and mixed pair work might not prove very productive. I only had to threaten my teenage students with making each one of them sit next to the opposite sex in order to achieve absolute silence and attention. As a female teacher, you might have to be more careful with the way you interact with your male students. Ditto for male teachers and female students. What might be appropriate in one place, might be rude, insulting, a major faux pas elsewhere. Be aware.

Asian students also like to work in groups. Dividing your class into teams might prove more effective than having students work individually, especially in competetive games and exercises. If you are teaching a mixed class of students, perhaps immigrants from various nations to Canada, you will have to deal with very different group dynamics and plan activities accordingly.

8. Speak Less

In actual fact, in language teaching, you should be speaking very little. You should view your role in the classroom as a facilitator, rather than lecturer. You are in the classroom to help your students acquire a language. The understanding, practice and perfection of that language is up to them. You simply establish a framework within which to make it simpler for them to do just that, an arena within which they can develop their skills with confidence. This might mean explaining a grammar point for several minutes and then coordinating several activities during which your class practices it. There are many ways to minimize your teaching: let students write answers on the board; put questions to the class instead of answering them yourself; get students to review grammar points; allow students to correct each others mistakes. As much as is possible, put the learning back into the hands of your class.

9. Perfect your People Skills

I am having problems with my hard dick.1

It might be difficult at times to avoid, but you should refrain from laughing at mistakes as much as possible. In Asia specifically, it usually takes students a long time to work up the courage to speak in class and bursting into hysterical laughter, or even just smirking, might set them, and you, back months. I've actually had to leave the class while faking a cough to avoid this. Laughing at common mistakes, which do not single out a student, but are made by the majority of the class, is encouraged. This will help your students to see that they are not alone and to understand some of the humor in saying:

I was walked by the dog.
or
My teeth are falling out.

Be friendly. Smile, be approachable, be gentle, be nice. I don’t mean reinvent yourself as Barney like character, but being arrogant, rude or obnoxious will get you nowhere. This type of attitude will only hinder learning and generate mistrust. You want your students to feel comfortable with you and this means being approachable.

Involve each and every one of your students as much as possible. This means making eye contact, using names and, honing in on quieter students who might otherwise shy away from participating in the class. Give each student the same level of attention, making everyone feel a part of the class. When writing examples on the board, use your students' names. The sentence Frank fell in love with the penguin might have a different effect if you replace the name Frank with the name of your class clown or troublemaker.


The above points will help you to be an effective teacher. The points below are the icing on the cake. These are the things that will win your students over, make them love you and remember you forever. More importantly, English is often forced on students, and believe me, they hate it as much as you probably hated learning languages as a child. A little bit of fun will go a long way and it will make the experience less painful for them and, in turn, you.

10. Don't be a bore

Don't make the experience any more painful by being dull. I'm not suggesting you walk into class in a clown suit, but I do encourage you to think outside the box, or in the case of English teaching, outside the book. Use warm up activities at the beginning of class that are enjoyable while they review old material. Use competitive games when practicing new grammar points. Always end the class with a bang, so that students leave feeling like they've had a good time AND learned something.

Try to make your students laugh. Make fun of English grammar. Make fun of yourself. Tell bad jokes. This establishes a more relaxed atmosphere and one which will make learning more enjoyable. Your students will look forward to class rather than dreading it and they will actually pay more attention than if you were just spewing out rule after rule. Humor will encourage your students to get a feel for the English language, away from its intricate rules and confusing grammar.

11. Creativity and Flexibility are vital components to your success

You will eventually develop a set pattern in each of your lesson plans, but never shy away from trying something new, whether it is a game, activity or method of teaching. Never stagnate. This might mean using resources outside of those provided to you by your employer. There is a wealth of ESL/EFL material on the Internet that you can use. Talk to your peers, they probably have some great ideas as well, especially if they have already taught the material you are working on. Pick your own brain; you've probably got ideas that you just aren't willing, or are afraid to, attempt.

Try incorporating the world into your lessons. Bring in newspapers and magazines. Take your class outside if possible or to see an English movie. If you can't, the least you can do is rearrange the classroom. Instead of neat rows, where each student is looking at the back of another, change the formation of the desks into a horseshoe shape so that all the students are looking at you or are working in groups. Better yet, get rid of the desks altogether and get your class moving around the room and interacting with one another as if they were at some social gathering.

Those strict rules of education are begging to be broken!

1Student meant to write: I am having problems with my hard disk.


Got any additions, tips, hints, ideas I missed? /msg me! I am more than willing to add to this and eager to hear your suggestions, comments, complaints, reminders, dismissals, arguments. I wrote this because I am returning to teaching after several months off and in mental and emotional preparation.

Special thanks to Gritchka for assiting with prep and anthropod for some additional input.

First posted on my blog

There was a brief period in the eighties when certain teachers of EFL began to get ideas somewhat above their station. Trainee teachers on diploma courses would be asked to (yawn) list-the-roles-of-a-teacher, and come up with 'friend, counsellor, knower, nurturer, facilitator, guru'. No, they didn’t put ‘guru’, I made that bit up, but you get the drift. We were to have ‘impact on our students’ lives’, not merely teaching them English, but freeing them from inhibition and leading them to self-actualisation. Or something. The young, thrillingly alert female vivacities at the Bell Schools began to get instruction in the Alexander Technique, that they might have the poise of ballerinas, and some of us got it into our heads that we must enter the classroom with bliss-bestowing hands, as if guiding students towards satori rather than Cambridge First Certificate in English. Such ghastly egotism was soon punctured. Students by and large just want teachers, and respond more to straightforward professionalism, friendliness and the immediate relevance of what is being taught, rather than to ‘people skills’ and attempts to liberate the inner wotsit. I mean, let’s all of us come off it.

Very occasionally, though, I have wished I had some hard knowledge about dealing with difficult or disturbed students, rather than vague ‘humanistic’ crap aimed at infantilising the ‘normal’ ones. In 1988 in Cambridge there was Sery, a young man from South Korea who sat in lessons head down, covering his book with heavy black hachuring. If he wrote anything, it was never more than self-castigation, even if it was supposed to be a letter asking for information. The inconvenience of his shut-off, gloomy presence in class was nothing compared to what his landlady was enduring. Sery had covered his bedroom windows with black bin-liners and thrown a blanket over the reading lamp, almost causing a fire. Any attempt to communicate with him failed, as he would not maintain eye-contact or respond with more than murmured monosyllables. Eventually he decided he wanted to go to Canada. Naturally, we thought this was a very, very good idea and encouraged him in it, and soon he was out of our lives and somebody else’s problem. Did we handle him well? I don’t suppose we did, but we were right not to try. I still have no idea what, if anything, I or any of us could have done to help this lad.

Ten years on, in Athens, we have Irene, which you must pronounce not to rhyme with ‘styrene’ but as ‘Irini’, each vowel as the ‘ee’ in ‘weep’, so that it sounds beautiful rather than frumpy. Irene was about nineteen and a trainee on my course for neophyte teachers. The other course participants, all ladies, were a lively, talkative and opinionated lot, but Irene sat in silence doodling skulls on her notebook. At breaks, she stood aloof from the others with their coffees and cigs and banter, glowering at the floor. I asked the secretary to call Irene’s mother, to see if she might explain a few things.

‘What did she say?’

‘That she’s got a problem.’

Yeah, well, thanks a bundle, mum, we’d got that far. Irene failed the course, but there’s a happy ending this time. The centre director and I sat with her and dragged out of her that she had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – a condition I had not then heard of – which meant that the input sessions for her must have degenerated into the enervating, meaningless echoing of an indoor swimming bath. The time and persistence required to extract this information showed how shaming her family believed her condition to be and what a burden they were making of it. Irene did the course again, with the understanding that she would leave the room whenever she felt overwhelmed with information. One day, in teaching practise, she made a brilliant job of the warm-up stage of a lesson, and was visibly chuffed to bits, which was a wonderful sight after her earlier angry and defeated demeanour. The Hollywood version of this would have simpering violins, soft focus, trembling lips and moistly sparkling eyes, but you know, sometimes it really is worthwhile.

Finally there was Matthew, an Englishman resident in Greece for many years and a participant on the first RSA Diploma I taught there. He had a girlfriend who ditched him and married another man. Matthew went into a profound depression. One Sunday he came to my flat to sort out a few problems with the wayward electricity, which stopped and started, lights switching themselves on and off as though the place were haunted. It was obvious that absolutely everything radiated misery at him. ‘God, this wall…’ he muttered as he hooked up my answering machine. When he had finished he leaned against the way too thin glass of the French windows and put his hand straight through it. He gave a short bark of a laugh as though this accident confirmed his view of the worthlessness of life. A month later he was dead. His ex-girlfriend was in hospital the day after giving birth to her first child. Matthew went to her house and rang the doorbell. The husband answered, whereupon Matthew produced a hand grenade, pulled the pin and blew himself and his rival to Kingdom Come. If you are wondering how he managed to get hold of a hand grenade, well, nothing is impossible in Greece for anyone who has the money. Some time before Matthew had sold off most of his possessions because, he said, he was leaving Greece for good. I know now that the few thousand drachmas I paid for his desk-lamp, spot-lights and dumbbells had contributed to the fee for the hand grenade.

Of course, cases in which one’s trainee teachers combine suicide with murder to spite their ex-girlfriends are relatively rare, and I don’t expect to come across many more. Back in the Neolithic I wrote a comment on the feed-back form of a young trainee teacher who treated his students with the high-handedness of a French traffic cop. ‘Never underestimate the pain students bring to a classroom’. I think the twenty-eight year old me probably felt quite smug with himself for handing down that bit of advice, and if it makes me wince a bit now, it’s at the po-faced manner in which it was vouchsafed rather than its content. Maybe I ought to have said ‘you and your students, just like everybody else, are mammals with holes at either end and a personal history of being treated well and badly and of doing the same to others. So stop being such a bossy sod.’

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