I thought that a one month TEFL course and the fact that I am a native speaker of English would be enough to equip me to teach English. As I started to teach in Nepal, and later in India I slowly learnt many lessons myself. The most important lesson I learnt was to be genuine and honest with the students. Teaching is not simply about entertaining the students, but guiding them honestly and directly through the maze of learning ahead of them. As a teacher we are imparting more than just knowledge, we also impart wisdom. As we stand in front of a class day after day the children witness our behaviours both good and bad. The teacher has the task of showing them how to learn effectively, and so the teacher must look to herself (I use this to mean both genders) first and at the methods she employs in developing and presenting both the lessons and herself.
Just as the students witness our behaviours, so we too witness theirs and there is a place for correction; bad habits are more easily corrected at a young age than as adults. For example, a young tree can be supported to grow straight, but if it is not supported it hardens into its own shape and cannot be straightened later. From my experience correction is best done wisely with advice and without judgement, giving the student responsibility for choosing their own behaviour. Of course, this requires one’s own wisdom (and a great deal of patience) and when I am unsure of the correct approach I talk with a respected teacher, or consult the Bible which is full of good guidelines for life. I am teaching in a Buddhist monastery, so the wealth of knowledge here is incredible from highly developed minds. I keep to a limited source of knowledge and avoid asking everyone so as to avoid my own confusion. Between Buddhist philosophy and Christian scriptures there is much good advice on life skills.
Patience is another great lesson. I heard a TEFL teacher tell of her first teaching experience racing through the text book, then later realising it was too fast. I too have been guilty of becoming frustrated when students don’t work according to my lesson plan. Students, it is true to say, have lesson ideas of their own and in a class of 15 students there are 15 different ideas floating around (I am fortunate to teach small class sizes). What is the purpose of teaching? I think it is to direct the students’ learning, and this may take five minutes or five lessons. The teacher cannot know how well a new class will respond or learn. I witnessed another teacher walk into the first class of the morning and start with ‘What was wrong with you all yesterday?’ after a bad test. They had not met the teacher’s expectations. I had them second period and the mood was very low.
Another lesson is that students are not machines; they are human. They have good days and bad days. I took an idea from a video I watched and begin every lesson by greeting each student personally with ‘Good morning. How are you?’ I start by teaching a standard reply, and once they become used to this, we play with it to introduce ideas like ‘I’m on top of the world,’ or ‘I’m under the weather.’ Students can be very honest, and may sometimes say ‘I’m homesick’ or ‘I’m lonely’, and this reminds me that they are human and that they are dealing with more than just an English lesson. Simply recognising their feeling is enough; I don’t have to fix them in any way. It allows me to engage directly with eye contact with each and every student and gauge the mood of the class up front. Maybe one student isn’t engaging today, or another is overflowing with energy. Every day is different. I too get lonely and homesick sometimes, and I take responsibility for dealing with those feelings so that I don’t project them onto the class – I think this is very important.
A beautiful lesson I learn almost daily here in the monastery school is that of compassion. If a student is low, the others will often care for him gently, maybe simply by sitting with him, or by trying to engage. As a teacher I could force this child to study, but I choose not to. That day the student’s mind is closed. Tomorrow will be another day and I will greet him in the same way as I do every morning. ‘Good morning. How are you today?’ And I will listen to his reply.
Rereading what I have written I know there are many more things that will spill into my head as soon as I click the ‘send’ button and mail this to the web site – practical teaching tips, grammar tips, and life skills are all the domain of the TEFL teacher.
Knowledge is important, but wisdom is more so. Ultimately teaching is not about the teacher; it is about the future of the students. The students should be the winners in the teacher-student relationship. I started teaching a year ago and I soon realised that my English grammar knowledge was not great (actually it was rubbish), but I am seeing that wisdom is a great asset. I don’t necessarily follow the ‘correct methods’ although I do look at them; I follow my instinct, I listen to wise advice and I listen to the students. One year on and it seems to be working.
Anna Greenwood took the TEFL qualification last year in Kathmandu and has been working mostly voluntarily since in Nepal and now India. Her main experience is in Buddhist monastic schools in the two countries. She finds the work very rewarding and is encouraged when she hears the students pronouncing words in ‘BBC English’ and when she sees them enjoying writing and speaking their own dramas.