Lessons learned as a 1st semester TEFL teacher

By Felecia Chatman
May 12, 2016

I have one complete semester of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) under my belt. This semester has been eye-opening.

I’ve learned so much from other teachers and colleagues about teaching here in China, which has its difficulties, but I’ve learned different coping mechanisms to help. Below I’ve listed some of the lessons I’ve learned in my first semester as a teacher in China.

Felecia Chatman TEFL
My Chinese counterpart Cleo and her daughter

 1. Get to know your Chinese counterparts/colleagues. Building guangxi (relationships) is very important to becoming integrated into your community. By taking time out to learn about your Chinese counterparts, you can experience China through their eyes. They can help you with the language and learn about the community you live in. Also it’s a great opportunity to practice your language skills; even though you might not be good at it, they see your effort and appreciate you for trying. In China, relationships are a big deal here, so it’s key to learn the names of people who you work with and see on a daily basis, and even get to know them outside of school. If you ever need any help, they are more than willing to assist you. 

2. It’s okay to say NO. Okay, so I know this seems like the total opposite of building relationships, because how can you connect with people if you’re always turning down their invitations. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that you do not have to accept every offer from everyone because you are a foreigner and everybody wants to get to know you and your life story, especially when they find out that you’re American. You can pick and choose what you give your time to. By all means, if you have papers to grade and lesson planning to do, DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT go out with colleagues or students. Take care of your priorities first. I know, especially here in China, it can be hard to get out of some situations, but remind them that your priority is to be a teacher and in order to be the best, you must handle your business, but that you would love rescheduling so that you will have time to spend together.

3. Be patient with yourself and students. Patience is a virtue and you will need a lot of it working with students and people who speak English as a second language. Sometimes it can be very frustrating living in a country where you can barely communicate in the language, and on top of that you teach a language that your students barely use to communicate outside of your classroom. I’ve learned to be patient. Learning a new language is like riding a bike: at first, it’s hard because you keep falling off and making mistakes, but you must get back on every time you fall off. Also, I think what’s helped me is empathizing with my students when they have trouble speaking English, because I am studying Chinese. I encourage them to try their best and give all they have. 

4. Always have back-up activities. Oh my gosh, this is a big one. It’s so important to have back-up activities and lessons for your classes because you never know what can happen in a short period of time. I’ve gone into a class where I thought a lesson would take longer than expected and my students went through it quickly; luckily, I plan back-up activities/filler activities. A filler activity is just an activity that can be done in a short amount of time. Sometimes I have seven to 10 minutes before the break bell rings and I don't want to start another part of the lesson because it would take too much time and the students will forget, so I use a filler activity. For instance, during English Pronunciation class, a great filler was using tongue twisters or a "Stand Up, Sit Down" activity.

5. Plan out your semester ahead of time. This is self-explanatory: If you do not want to be in a disarray your entire semester, I suggest you have a semester plan for your classes. You do not have to stick to this plan exactly, but it will help, especially if you do not have a textbook provided by your school. 

6. Think on your feet.  As a teacher, sometimes you will face the difficulty of teaching students at different learning levels. This can be challenging because you want to make sure that all of your students understand the material you teach. This is where differentiating/modifying your lesson planning comes in. Since all of my classes have mixed levels of students, I must constantly modify my lessons to make sure that I am not losing my lower-level students but that my teaching style is high enough for my higher-level students who are better at speaking English. 

7. Have "me time"! This will save your life. Some days you will wake up and just not feel up to doing much. You will want to hide in your shell because it’s a “blah” day. When you get overwhelmed or everything just seems too much, having some “me time” is great to revive your spirits. Get enough alone time to gather your thoughts or not think at all about the cares of this world. I hope this has given you a little insight into my first semester.

Felecia Chatman

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