Monday, December 19, 2011

Tips for Teaching English (in Ukraine and beyond!)

My early Christmas present to you, dear readers! (Ahem, specifically those who also teach English.)
Caveat: these are based on my teaching experiences in Ukraine over the past 4 months and loosely on previous teaching jobs in other countries during the past 5 years. I hope you will find these useful when working with beginning to advanced literate adult learners.

Rule #1: "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." -General George Smith Patton, Jr.

You'll be surprised by your students....if you give them the chance to prove themselves to you. Who would have guessed that the vocabulary of the beginner in the back row included "magic wand" and "wizard"? Who would have guessed that the gym rat wanted to talk about Kafka's The Metamorphosis? Leave room for free expression. Incorporate some creative activities into your lesson.

That said......

Rule #2: Always, always, always make it clear what you want done.
If you're getting frustrated because students don't understand the activity, it's probably your fault. Instead of just leaping into an activity, it needs to be clearly modeled. You can't just say "Okay, look at question 3. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live?" and expect people to start shouting out creative and grammatically correct answers. Try this: warm up to it by pulling out a world map, brainstorming together a list of the best/worst places to live, modeling it yourself (If I could live anywhere, I would live in Antarctica), WRITING IT ON THE BOARD (If I could ____, I would _____), and then asking the question. This way students have been exposed to the grammar and country names before they have to answer. Your activity doesn't have to be quite as elaborate as this, but always think about it from the student side: if someone was expecting you to answer this question in French or Korean, what kind of help would you need?

Rule #2.5: Why?
If you need to inject some humor or thoughtfulness into the lesson, or simply need to use up some time, use this word: why. "Why do you want to live in Antarctica?" This not only reinforces basic grammar and vocab they already know, it gives the students a chance to express themselves (see Rule #1).

Rule #3: You actually might not be the problem. The bad apple and the perfect storm.
I would say that 80% of the time your problem classes can fixed by taking the time to model things slowly and clearly or by using more interesting activities. But student rosters are like weather patterns: sometimes the elements combine just so and a perfect storm is formed, ie, they all hate each other! Also, people can have a chip on their shoulder- you're the wrong gender, you're not like their old teacher, you're the wrong age, you don't have the right accent, etc- and there's nothing you can do about it. Sometimes the rest of the class is strong enough to overcome this student's grudge, but if you're not careful a rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel.

Rule #4: Remember how frustrating it is for adult learners.
Funny is good. Fun is better (usually). Silly all the time is bad. Even if a person talks like a child, they think like an adult. Many adults freeze up with the fear that you might think they are dumb, and therefore their insecurity translates into stubbornness and unwillingness to participate. This happens with D's relatives in the states: they're well-educated in Russian but sound so simplified in English that they sometimes prefer to come off as rude rather than try to understand what you're saying. If someone in your class is constantly whispering "What's the teacher saying? I don't understand anything!" whenever you ask this person a question, it could be that they just don't have the skills to respond....or it could be that they don't want to sound like a 5 year-old in front of you. Don't give up on this person. Adapt your lesson. Provide enough context so they can feel confident. (See Rule #3) Also, use current world events, local politics or history, and pop culture when possible so that students feel like there's some relevance to what they're doing....which brings us to Rule #5.

Rule #5: The Real World
Make your lessons relevant. Language is like math. There's a point in learning it if you can use it; theoretical knowledge will only get you so far with the majority of the population. Additionally, language and culture go hand in hand. You need one to view the other. Use songs, speeches, idioms and news clips when it's possible.

Good luck! And when the going gets tough, remember these magical formulas:
Good teaching is 1/4 preparation and 3/4 pure theater. -Gail Godwin
9/10 of education is encouragement. - Anatole France (the other 1/10 is entertainment!)


  1. If we continue quote picking, I like this one:

    [QUOTE]The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. ~William Arthur Ward[/QUOTE]

    Your classes were exciting! :)

  2. Hi,
    So, I am an American and would like to teach English in Ukraine.
    What companies do you recommend for being reliable, help teachers with visa (permit), and a fair pay?

    1. Hi! Which city are you interested in? Currently I don't know of any schools here in Kharkov that help teachers get a work permit. Try checking around on Dave's ESL cafe job/forum boards and If you have the resources, come to Ukraine for a short visit- you'll be able to interview at lots of schools, talk to their teachers, negotiate for pay, etc.
      Keep in mind that the major hiring season is August-September, although in big cities (Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa, etc) you can probably find an opening year-round.
      Good luck to you!