22nd August 2017

A teachers' survival guide for the first week of school

By Laura Wilkes

The start of a new school year is often a daunting time for teachers and learners alike. Even if you’re returning to a teaching post you know well, it’s likely that you’ll be assigned new groups of learners and possibly different materials to work with. Whether it’s your first teaching job or just another semester, the following tips will help get you through one of the toughest weeks of the school year.

Be prepared

If you’re in the fortunate position of knowing which groups you’ll be teaching and the coursebooks you’ll be using then use this to your advantage to plan ahead. Outline your scheme of work for the first term and plan your lessons and materials for the first couple of weeks. If you’re waiting for classes to be assigned and for coursebooks to arrive, then you can still plan for the first week by focusing on tasks that will help you:

• Set expectations / Classroom rules
• Establish routines
• Get to know your learners
• Assess their level and needs
• Equip them with essential language items

It will take a few lessons to identify your learners’ needs and tailor your lessons accordingly, so build flexibility into your lesson plans. Think about how you will extend tasks for learners who finish early as well as a few activities you can use if you’re left with extra time.

Set expectations

‘Don’t ever smile.’ This was an unhelpful piece of advice I received from a teacher when I started my own career. As a naturally cheerful person, I dismissed this advice as ridiculous and out-dated. Although I still hold this opinion, I can admit that my approach of trying to be the fun teacher was not effective either. My learners were quick to misbehave because I bypassed setting expectations to focus on getting learners engaged in the subject. I was also too hasty in praising every answer learners got right instead of praising their effort and the good behaviour they exhibited.

My first year taught me that classroom rules need to be established on the first day and that praise, whether it’s verbal or in the form of a smile, needs to be earned. Positive classroom behaviour takes time to cultivate, so it’s worthwhile setting aside time to establish and reinforce rules, review expectations at the beginning of lessons. This will save time in the long term as it will train learners in the behaviour and habits necessary for them to engage in activities effectively. Positive classroom behaviour and habits can be promoted in the first week by:

• Creating a classroom contract with learners
• Creating posters that display rules and expectations
• Practicing routines with your learners e.g. lining up when entering and leaving the classroom.
• Creating groups that each have a responsibility e.g. group A is responsible to distributing and collecting in the textbooks

Get to know your learners

Make learning students’ names and using them a priority for the first week. Encourage learners to do the same by using name games and interview tasks that will help everyone to get to know each other. This will help reduce the anxiety that everyone feels when stepping into a new class for the first time, as well as build rapport in the group. If you have a lot of names to memorise, then try:

• Using a seating plan or map – note students’ names and where they sit
• Getting learners to create name cards to display on their desks
• Noting key details next to names on your register
• Noting how challenging names are pronounced and practicing these
• Creating a jar of names that you can use to call on different students to share ideas in class

Identify learner needs

Even if your learners are grouped by level, there is always a range of abilities in each class. In my experience in teaching in China, it was not uncommon to meet learners who lacked confidence in speaking but were strong writers. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to use the first week to identify learners who need more support and those who need greater challenge. By identifying these learners early on, you will be able to plan differentiation strategies that will keep these learners engaged and progressing at their own pace. To support you in identifying your learners’ needs, try:

• Talking to fellow teachers about how your learners perform in their classes and differentiation strategies they use
• Setting tasks in class that assess skills in week one e.g. to assess writing skills, learners can write an introductory letter to you, or describe how they spent the summer holiday
• Monitoring and taking notes while learners work on tasks. e.g. Who works well-together? Who is hesitant to speak? Refer to these notes to inform your following lesson plans.

Immerse learners in language

Whether you’re a language teacher or using English as the medium of instruction to teach another subject, immerse learners in the language you want them to develop. I remember this best because of my language teacher in college who spoke in French throughout her classes. Even when she spoke to other teachers in the department, she used French.

This was effective because she employed the following strategies from day one:

• Limiting her teacher talk e.g. she used teacher talk to model language, drill pronunciation, model instructions/rules, and to praise students.
• Supporting grading of language with visuals, gestures, props and realia.
• Equipping learners with essential classroom questions and phrases in French e.g. What’s this? How do you spell ____? How do you say ____? I don’t understand. These were displayed on colourful posters around the room and reviewed at the start of each lesson for the first two weeks.

A small space in the corner of the classroom was reserved for English and this was rarely used. The teacher would move to this space to use English to answer any high-level questions learners had about the language as well as to tell us any important details about the exams.

Pace yourself

Be patient as it’s going to take a while for everyone to get into a routine, including yourself. Manage your expectations for you and your learners with regards to what can be achieved in the first week. There’s a lot to manage, so don’t worry if things don’t go as smoothly as planned - you can always adjust your plans accordingly for the next lesson.

Maintain a steady pace with regard to your stress and workload. Timetables, to-do lists and calendars are a few examples of useful resources you can utilise to manage your workload. Focus on simply completing tasks on time and preventing work from piling up to avoid burn out.

If you'd like to join our first professional development sessions for the 2018/19 school year, check out our training calendar for upcoming English language teacher training workshops in Hong Kong.

Laura Wilkes, teacher trainer, has worked in a range of TESOL settings over the last 8 years, from teaching students of all ages in China, training teachers in Russia, to developing and facilitating online courses for TESOL staff across the world. In addition to her teaching and training experiences, Laura trains teachers enrolled on Trinity CertTESOL courses, as well as observes and provides feedback as part of the Trinity DipTESOL teaching practical block.  Laura holds a CELTA and a Diploma in TESOL, achieving distinctions in both the Phonology and Teaching components. Recently, Laura graduated from her hometown University of Leicester with a distinction for her PGCE in Learning Technologies and continues to research ways in which teaching and training can be enhanced through technology.