Triumphs and Tribulations of a Part-Time English Teacher

As both my flight to Japan and my inevitable first day of work in Japanese schools draws closer (less than a week away!) I’ve been thinking — and reminiscing — about teaching ESL. If I could jump back to late evening of the first Monday in November 2013, I would search for a frazzled girl who was nervously pacing her adopted city streets and giving herself a pep talk before going to her very first class as a teacher; I would stop her and I would give her the following advice: “Dear, poor part-time English teacher, stranded abroad. Welcome to the profession of blank stares and glazed-over eyes. Welcome to class periods of awkward silences and zombie students. Welcome to the job you’ll both cry and laugh over. You’ll love it, I promise.”

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From November 2013 through April 2014, I taught English conversation classes at EPITECH, a small computer science and technology university located in Strasbourg, France. It was two classes per week, each lasting two hours. A maximum of 10 students could sign up for each class. These kids were all meant to have a “high language proficiency,” meaning I could skip over all the nit-picky grammar and teach all the fun stuff. Easy, right?

I received no training. No textbook. No syllabus. No real indication of the language ability of my students, which ended up being all over the place. Nothing. My boss simply said, in his very best broken English, “Go teach ze boys how to speak!”

…Yeah. As you can imagine, that’s a pretty big request. 

I scrambled to invent an introductory lesson plan based on my previous experiences of language classes and, shaking, I walked into my first ever class as a teacher.

I was thrown to the sharks. My students were all guys my age (18 to 21 years old) and they made it clear that they thought my class would be a joke. The tremble of my voice as I introduced myself made everything worse. I heard quiet jokes in French start to circulate the room. “Pull yourself together, Karen!” I thought to myself. “These guys are like dogs–they can smell fear.” After a quick mental pep-talk, I snapped into focus and started passing out a short article for the Frenchies to read aloud and discuss.

Lesson learned #1: Readings and discussions are a failure, no matter how necessary they are to teaching. My students would sigh heavily, complain loudly, or just glare at me whenever I passed out an article. You would think that I had given them a 200-page philosophy textbook. And I tried so hard to find interesting readings. Science, new technology, social media, culture, food, sports, travel: all were topics that bored my students to tears. Seriously, I came to doubt that they had any interests besides video games and sleeping. The worst trials, though, were the times I tried to generate a discussion in the classroom about the reading: the results were always awkward silences where I was left frustrated and the guys just sat there without speaking, checking their phones or staring down at their desks (avoiding eye contact), waiting for someone else to respond. Chinese water torture, my friends.

After a disastrous attempt to prompt a lively discussion, I felt myself flailing in my very first lesson! The daydream that I had savored leading up to that first class–a daydream where I walked in, day 1,  a miracle-working, outgoing, and fun teacher that all my students loved–quickly faded in the wake of this reality check. Even worse, I seriously underestimated how long two hours actually is, so after I ran through my crummy lesson plan, my students ended up playing a very long round of Pictionary.

Lesson learned #2: Games are generally a success. They’re fun for the class AND for the teacher. Jeopardy, Taboo, Pictionary, What Would You Rather cards, Boggle, 20 Questions… all played with pretty positive reactions. I also became a little more creative with the games, coming up with a Clue-based murder mystery for the students to solve (they actually loved that one), playing Mafia with the class (very good for EPITECH’s conversation focus), and creating a few worksheets of riddles and logic puzzles for the guys to solve in groups. I also started to end each class with a tongue twister to work on pronunciation. I’d even split the students into groups and time them to see which team could correctly pronounce the phrase the fastest.

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One of the Logic Puzzle Sheets that I made for my students. We were working with idioms or phrases used in the English language. For example, #1 is “down payment.” Can you get all 15?

Lesson learned #3: Competition is a huge motivator. Any time that I could turn something into a contest, I would. They were too old to bribe with candy or stickers, but my French students would actually put in effort to speak English if it meant beating their classmates.

After months stressful, semi-successful lessons–including moments of triumph, and moments of bitter defeat–I learned the most important thing about ESL: only a few students actually care about learning English, and you have to give all of your effort to teach for them.

Starting January, two friends named Loris and Julien started consistently signing up for my classes. They would sit in the front row and they would answer my questions in the midst of resounding silences. No one else in my EPITECH classes cared about learning how to properly converse in English. The guys were in the classroom each and every week for the sole reason that they had to be there. It was a requirement for them. It was a grade. It was an obligation, and nothing more, so my students were going to fulfill it with the least amount of effort and energy extended possible.

But Loris and Julien were different. They had goals of working for U.S. tech companies, and they needed to perfect their English. When they saw me becoming downcast following a string of unsuccessful lessons, the two reminded me “Teach for the students who care. The rest don’t matter.” So I started asking for their advice in planning classes, and soon enough, I had gathered a loyal group of students who wanted me as a teacher (or at least they tolerated me enough to consistently sign up for my classes instead of someone else’s).

Another major thing changed in January: I started to relax more into my role as a teacher. Having everyone’s eyes on me didn’t bother me so much. My voice became stronger. My lesson plans became less stressful. Lazily perhaps, I began including screenings of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in each week’s lesson plan. If anyone was asking, my ESL-logic was that American television shows provided great listening exercises and introduced students to a diverse range of accents. My real reasons for including such TV shows? They ate up a whole half-hour of each 2-hour class, plus my students loved watching them.

I also started taking my classes to one of Strasbourg’s local Irish pubs. My boss was totally fine with this: he even encouraged class periods spent in “informal” settings such as pubs or bowling alleys, as long as the students were speaking English and having fun! And as everyone was above France’s legal drinking age, it was no problem. My students and I would sit together at a huge table, sipping beer (for me, a Bailey’s on the rocks) and chatting (mostly in English) for the whole two-hour class time.

Now, I would bet $1,000 that none of my bosses in Japan will let me take students out to a pub for class!  (As the drinking age in Japan is 20 and I’m set to teach high school, it would actually be illegal).

By mid-April, 2014, I was actually sad to leave my EPITECH students. After six months of teaching, I had learned more than classes at the Université de Strasbourg could have ever taught me. And as a teacher, I had improved! Was I the best ESL teacher my students had ever encountered? Nope! Absolutely not. I can promise you that I was still a little shy, that I was still soft-spoken, and that all of my lessons always had a bump or two that stressed me out.

At the same time, though, I was no longer close to bursting into tears at the end of a rough day. My skin grew a little thicker. I broke my vow of English-only, and burst into rocky French after I had overheard one too many complaints en Français about an activity; it was absolutely priceless, watching the realization dawn upon the faces of some of my more mischievous students that, yes, I HAD understood them for the past month. And the moments of victory increased.

So I know, my poor past teacher-self, that this profession of teaching English as a Second Language will be both hilarious and disheartening. It will defeat you in a hundred different ways. Sometimes your students will whisper to each other about you in the language that they think you don’t know; sometimes a student will storm out of the classroom because he doesn’t want to participate in the activity you had planned. And I won’t lie: it sucks. There’s a feeling of failure that settles in your very marrow, and you carry it around for weeks.

Yet, there will always be a moment of shining success which encourages you to continue on. There will be an awesome lesson after which a student will walk up to your desk and smile and say “Really great class. Thank you.”  You will dance a little on your way home, I promise you. And every trial to get to that point, every stressful moment, every ounce of effort, will have all been worth it.

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