Podcast: Becoming a Teacher - Success for New Teachers and Mentors

Training as a New Teacher

Becoming a new EFL teacher is almost as hard as learning a new language.

Challenges for TEFL Teachers and Mentors

We look at typical challenges that new teachers face, consider strategies that teachers, mentors  and academic managers can use to overcome these and help you decide if TEFL is right profession for you.

Becoming a Teacher: Success for New Teachers and Mentors - Transcription

Ross:  Hi, everyone.

Tracy:  Hello, everyone.

Ross:  Tracy the other day was on "The Guardian" and found this. What was it? Was it an article about someone who is a teacher?

Tracy:  Yeah, why he chose the profession.

Ross:  It had this cool quote about learning to be a teacher.

Tracy:  "I don't look back on my first four, five years of teaching particularly promptly, learning the ropes, experience of those. When I mentor student teachers now, I always use the analogy of learning to drive as a good comparison for teaching. At the beginning, you clutch tightly on to your steering wheel, your lesson plan. You see nothing else."

"Everything outside of that is out of your control and terrifying. Soon, you begin to relax and look down the road a bit. Later, everything seems natural. Nothing faces you. Experience is the only thing. You grow into yourself. You become a teacher, eventually."

Ross:  This got us both thinking about our first couple of years in teaching. Is there anything you remember in particular in your first year of teaching?

Tracy:  The first time I was in the parents' meeting, and I faced maybe 40 parents in the same room. That's the first time I spoke to so many people in my life.

Ross:  That's pretty scary.

Tracy:  [laughs] Yeah. What about yours?

Ross:  One of the things I remember is a first time I got a complaint and being sat down and being told someone complained about this thing, and being surprised and shocked, and then sad and all those different things. I also remember the highs as well, like after teaching a class and walking home afterwards and going, "This is awesome."


Ross:  Today, we want to talk about what it's like becoming a new teacher. We had three questions.

Tracy:  The first one, what are typical challenges for the first year teachers?

Ross:  Second, how can new teachers overcome some of the challenges that they face?

Tracy:  Lastly.

Ross:  How do you know if a career in teaching is a career for you?

Typical challenges for first year teachers

Ross:  Can we talk about one of your parents, because when you think about teaching, you think about being in the classroom with students. I think there's a lot of things that surprise you when you are new teacher. Definitely, one of the things I think, it's having to deal with parents. Do you want to tell us about that?

How did you deal with that thing, of being in front of the room in front of 40 parents?

Tracy:  I think in terms of teaching in the classroom, I've seen people teach and I did practice in the public high school. I don't think that's the difficult part. It just need more time to practice. In terms of dealing with parents, I didn't see any teachers dealing with parents. I didn't have any training on that.

I was just thrown into the swimming pool, and then learn how to swim by myself.

Ross:  Let's just say that by the time you graduated from university, you've been a student, for something like 20,000 hours. You already have a really strong idea of what it is to be a teacher, what a teacher does. Of course, you only see the classroom stuff. You never get to see the parent‑teacher meetings.

Tracy:  I remember the first parents' meeting, there were 40 or 45 parents sitting there. I need to give them the speech. After that, which was even more scary, the parents individually talked to me and asked me, "Oh, how was my child?"

Ross:  Was it little Jimmy?

Tracy:  Yeah, or something like that. At the very beginning, I just thought I'd be direct and tell them all little Jimmy did really bad. The parents' reaction was either really happy or very inactive.

After a while, I observed some experienced teachers, they always started asking the parents questions, so I copied that. For example, did little Jimmy at home watch English movies? How often did he read English textbook at home? I just showed them the scores for listening, reading, speaking, or whatever. They can see actually is a clear evidence why their child didn't do really well in the different areas.

Ross:  Thinking about that, one of the biggest challenges in teaching is realizing that you don't have to know everything and you don't have to be talking all the time. I can remember my first year. I'm thinking you have to stand up and explain all this grammar to students when really you've just learned grammar from a book seven minutes before you walked into the classroom. Really, it's very similar to what you were saying with the parents where the best way to do it is actually just come in with some questions, and ask people, and then show them some examples.

Tracy:  Ross, you mentioned that the first time you got complaint from people, you were shocked. Can you tell us more about it?

Ross:  Yeah, I think so. Well, I can just remember one time feeling almost betrayed, teaching this group of adults and using the occasional Chinese word with them and one of the students complaining. I think why I tend to do then was go, "Oh, no, I'm such a bad teacher." I think it's one of those things, about what were where saying couple a weeks ago as you can't please all of the people all of the time.

Of course, sometimes you're going to get complaints. I think it's good to think about it and think, "Well, how could I've done that better?" For me, I found out almost like a little bit depressing thing to happen. I think, for new teachers, it's going like, "Well, you got a complaint but it's not the end of the world. It doesn't mean you are a bad teacher. Everyone gets complaints, so don't feel too bad about it."

Tracy:  We won't be perfect, especially at the beginning. Just be prepared and react to it, and make some changes.

Ross:  Yeah. Remember something else really interesting that happened in that first year? I only realize how interesting it was five years later. It was my first ever class of teaching adults, and about halfway through the course, I gave the students a questionnaire. I asked them, "What do you like about the class? What do you not like about the class? What would you like me to change in future?"

I got some feedback from the students about what they liked and didn't like. Remember, I told you one of the things before the students said, "I signed up for the English class, not a gym. Stop making me run around."


Ross:  I think it's because I'm so used to teaching kids. That was good feedback. Anyway, I remember my director of studies saying to me, "What are you giving them the survey for? That's such a waste of time." I stopped doing it.

I guess four or five years later, I was doing my diploma in TESL teaching practice. After at the second or third class, I gave the students a questionnaire. "What do you like about class? What do you not like about class? What would like me to do differently in the future?"

I realized I'd come full circle and that my initial instinct about what do with other students was correct, ask them what they want, ask them what they like. Listening to some bad advice got me to the wrong thing for four years.

Maybe another challenge is in deciding between your instincts, what you feel is the right thing to do, or maybe what you learned on your TEFL course. What people in your school or institution are saying? I think for new teachers, you've got a lot of very mixed messages, from either like your own experiences as a student, from your manager, from the textbook.

I think it can be a very, very confusing time for people to know what is the right thing to do.

How can new teachers overcome challenges they face?

Ross:  We talked a bit there about some of the challenges we had as new teachers. What were some of the things, Tracy, that you find useful?

Tracy:  Useful?

Ross:  Yes. Did you not have a mentor that was really good, that really supported you?

Tracy:  Yeah, I had a really, really good mentor the first year. Each week, we had meetings. She listened to my concerns first and asked me, "What do you think is the best way to deal with it?"

Ross:  She sounds really good.

Tracy:  I was always being honest and shared what I thought is the right thing to do and what is wrong to do. She never said, "No, don't do that." She said, "Oh, you can try this next time and then we can talk about in our next meeting." I really appreciate she wasn't that kind of mentor who just gave me a lot of rules and I have to follow.

It gave me a lot of space to experiment, develop and to find out about myself. She was there to support me but don't want to be the person to control what I'm doing. Even now, the reason I think I am a growth mindset person, I think because of her.

Ross:  I think that's great. I remember not really having anything at all. I remember never really being observed. I think until I did my diploma, I'd only been observed once.

Tracy:  Really?

Ross:  Yeah. One of my favorite teaching book actually is called, "Professional development ‑‑ The Self as the Source," and it's Kathleen Bailey, Andy Curtis, and David Nunan. The whole idea of the book is how you can develop without someone having to come in and tell you what you're doing right or wrong.

Awesome book. I didn't get observed by anyone really. Something I started doing in my first year, which I find really useful was to going to observe other teachers in same school as me. In fact, you always got something useful from it.

I remember something that...and it influenced me always from then on, this is teacher and the students would say, in Chinese, "Teacher, teacher." He would say, "My name is not teacher." The students go, "Oh, sorry. Ben, or Teacher Ben." He would reply to that but he wouldn't reply people calling him teacher. I thought that's so cool.

It's such a good marketing as well, right? Kids go home and the parents go, "Tell me about your teacher." If they actually say your name, that's much better marketing for you, isn't it?

Tracy:  Yeah.

Ross:  I think you always get something out of observing someone else.

Tracy:  It just reminds me of my Team‑Teach program. I started with around 15 teachers. Each week, they would have one hour and doing Team‑Teach. They can decide the topic and the area they want to focus and they have to keep each other feedback. The following weeks, they have to implement what they talk about.

Ross:  Did you have an example of an area that people talk about?

Tracy:  For example, like, "I don't want to repeat the same thing like 50 times in my class." It's just a very natural for everybody to say like, "OK, right." When they are doing Team‑Teach, when one teacher is not teaching and they are trying to give the other teacher a sign, maybe raise their hand or maybe use some symbol when teacher said the word like, "OK."

The teacher realize, "Oh, actually I need to be aware of my language. I'll be more..."

Ross:  Almost like an interactive observation there, isn't it? I think, so often observations we have to wait until the very end of the class before we get people the feedback.

You mentioned at the beginning the thing about learning to drive. When you learn to drive, you don't drive for an hour. At the end of it, the driving instructor says, "OK, you messed up this. You didn't look at in your rear‑view mirror..."

Tracy:  That's a problem.

Ross:  "...you shouldn't this, you shouldn't this." They tell you as soon as it happens. They tell you every time you're making a mistake, and they help you get better. That cycle, the time between getting the feedback and being able to apply it when you are learning to drive is a few seconds. Whereas, when you are learning to teach, it's often a few hours or a few days.

How do you know if a career in teaching is right for you?

Ross:  You've been teaching for like 10 years, right?

Tracy:  Yeah.

Ross:  Me too, roughly. When you first started teaching, did you think you'd still be involved in teaching 10 years later?

Tracy:  I think so. What about you?

Ross:  Definitely not. I just planned to come and teach for, I think, about six months. Just planned to go and travel.

Tracy:  I think a lot of teachers are like you. That first year, they really don't know if you like it or not. Maybe just for traveling purpose and see how it goes.

Ross:  Some people fall in love with it. Did you know, I used to be a civil engineer before? I think I wanted to be civil engineer because I thought it would be creative. You'd have lots of autonomy to do new and interesting things.

Tracy:  What's your work, like building anything?

Ross:  It was just like designing stuff. I think the problem with it was you design a tiny, tiny part of one building. You really didn't feel that you have very much independence or creative output.

Tracy:  Maybe you build a wall, in the whole building or something like that.

Ross:  Something like that. Whereas, what I really, really enjoy about teaching was that there was a huge amount of autonomy which I thought was great, a lot of independence. It's very creative. You get to make all your own materials. No two lessons are ever exactly the same. I think that best thing of all about is helping people get better.

Tracy:  To be a teacher, you need to be really creative, like you said the autonomous.

Ross:  Care about people. I think that's the most important thing. You have to really care about your students.

Tracy:  I think this profession have a really high requirements for people.

Ross:  You know how I love to quote Penny Earle, right?

Tracy:  Yes. I know, go on.

Ross:  I'm going to play Penny Ur quote, about how she says, "You know if a career in teaching is right thing for you."

Penny Ur:  My secret criterion for who's a real teacher. I think if you can say, I get my yes moment from when a student learns something, and I really feel that they got it, particularly, incidentally, the students who are slow or difficult to find it.

The moment when they make that breakthrough and they can speak English, or they've succeeded in a task, they've done something, that's real teaching.

Ross:  I remember deciding why within three months, this is awesome, I want to keep doing this. I remember having an argument in a bar with my director of studies. He said to me, "I bet you £1,000 that you're not involved in this industry in 10 years." It's almost 10 years.


Tracy:  You need to find him.

Ross:  I know I need to find him and get my money back.


Ross:  I think that's one of the really sad things about this industry is...I think outside, a lot of people still have this impression of it, that it is something that people who want to travel as one of our...

Tracy:  Colleague, he says at the very beginning, he was a traveler who teaches. Now, he became a teacher who travels.

Ross:  That's certainly what happened to me.

Tracy:  Another thing that's about satisfaction, because I think within one hour from the start into the end, you can see people develop so much, right just 60 minutes. Some other job maybe not. You have to wait until, I don't know, a couple months or even years.

Ross:  I'll come back to that civil engineering thing that I said earlier, that I was in that job for a year. It was like two years or three years later before anything that I was working on got built. It was almost like three years turn around, between working on something and seeing the result of your labor.

Advice for first year teachers

Ross:  Tracy, if there's any first year teacher listening to this, what advice would you have for them?

Tracy:  Don't be shy, just try.


Tracy:  Don't be shy. Just don't be afraid of asking questions.

Ross:  You mean to the colleagues?

Tracy:  Yeah, to the colleagues or to your mentor. If you really don't know, don't pretend and just try. Sometimes even something you saw, it doesn't mean it will be working in your class or for your students. Just try it. If it failed, so what? You'll do it again and try something different. Always bear in mind, there is no golden rule.

Ross:  Except, don't be shy, just try.

Tracy:  Bye, everyone.

Ross:  Bye.


Transcription by CastingWords