How to be a Good TEFL Teacher?

How to be a good TEFL teacher might not be what you think!

So, what does it take to be a good TEFL teacher?

I can tell you that when I started out, my idea of the qualities you need to do the job weren’t what they are now. Or at least the things that I thought were vitally important have slipped down the list and been replaced by things that weren’t even on it! Based on my experience, let me tell you how to be a good TEFL teacher.

As a novice teacher of 23 years of age walking into a room full of Japanese high school students in Osaka, I thought it was all about knowing the grammar. And of course, no one knows grammar from the get go so I was bound to fail. I also thought I always needed the answer to every question! Another fail. Then, there was the plan. Stick to the plan, stick to the plan! Then everyone will go home satisfied. My third fail!

Now I can look back and realise how naïve I was. If you’re a teacher starting out, here’s some wisdom from someone who’s been in the business for 20-odd years. Be a people person. If you don’t like people you probably shouldn’t be a teacher. Harsh but true. I love people. Especially the tricky ones! I enjoy the challenge of working out how they tick. And that’s why I enjoy my job.

Be flexible

Yes, you may have a plan. But you following your plan may be more for you as a teacher, rather than the student. You may enjoy the predictable nature of a plan and be fearful of the unpredictable nature of going off piste. But some of my best lessons have been the ones that were student-led. It’s hard to break up a lively discussion and get back to modal verbs if everyone is engaged and interested. As long as it’s in English of course!

Be a good listener

This leads me onto listening. Listen to your students. Also listen to the real message. I have come to realise that when a student says something is ‘boring’, this often means it’s ‘difficult’. Then it’s our job as teachers to help in this tricky area and make it more accessible. And by listening rather than just instructing, I have learnt so much about the world from my students.

As the Dalai Lama once said, ‘When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.’ This might actually be worth saying to your dominant students as well!

woman smiling TEFL

If you don’t know something, resist the urge to make it up

Admit it and say you’ll find out for next lesson and make a note to actually do so. There is nothing worse than a teacher who gives a quick, unresearched answer which turns out to be completely wrong. Students will lose trust in you. For those of you who don’t like this level of honesty, try, ‘That’s a great question. We don’t have time to go into this now so let’s look at it next lesson.’ This will give you time to study it.

Having said this, don’t simply chuck grammatical knowledge, the ability to answer questions, and good planning out of the window! But understand that this will come with experience. The first time I stood in front of a class I felt like a fraud. Back then we weren’t taught English grammar at school, so I was completely reliant on what my French teacher had taught me indirectly via this second language. My advice is, work hard and 'fake it till you make it'.

After all, it’s what everyone else does when they walk into their first job! 

teacher presenting TEFL

Written by Lucy Holmes. Lucy is a TEFL teacher, materials’ writer and author of Talking Images: idioms. She has lived in Italy and Japan and taught English for twenty years. As well as teaching, she writes for Macmillan and OUP, and is currently working on her second book.

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