I’ve always considered myself a flexible person, able to adapt and roll with the punches. Still, when my school asked me to teach weekly 90-minute classes to a 12-year-old (whose level of English was unspecified before our first lesson) I got a bit nervous. Actually, I got very nervous. Preparing and teaching my first class made me re-examine everything I thought I knew about dealing with so-called young learners.
I’ve taught children between the ages of 6 and 12 before. I’ve never been a huge fan, but I actually remember some rewarding moments and bonding with my students (the older the better). However, I’ve never taught a child on a 1-on-1 basis. I’ve always dealt with bigger or smaller groups, which definitely was a struggle in terms of discipline, but made playing a myriad of games easy and natural. It wasn’t a big challenge to keep the group occupied and it wasn’t difficult to provide entertainment.
Now, I was facing a completely new situation: 90 minutes with just one student. Whose level of English and his entire history of learning the language were a mystery (parent-school communication breakdown, classic). Here’s what made me particularly worried before this first lesson:
- Finding out about students’ interests and favourites is one of the keys to making classes interesting and relevant. Some kids are more vocal and outgoing than others and when you teach a group you’re likely to meet at least one student who’s going to share such info. Chances are other students like the same thing and they will liven up. Or they hate it and will let you know too. Still, somebody will be the first one to share their preferences. What if my student is naturally shy, not very talkative, can’t think of anything in particular he likes in terms of music or TV? There won’t be any peers around to take the heat off him and an innocent conversation about his favourites might turn into an interrogation.
- How can I make a 90-minute session interesting? It’s not easy having an adult’s attention for this amount of time, but it’s usually the student’s decision to take the course so they will persevere. I haven’t yet heard of a 12-year-old who’d ask his parent to sign them up for a language course. The last thing I wanted was for my classes to be a much-disliked chore or, even worse, a punishment.
- A group of children might be noisy and hard to control but they can also cooperate and play together. Teaching one student either means eliminating all pair work or becoming your student’s classmate. How ready am I for boardgames and such not as a moderator but as a player?
- A 12-year-old is absolutely unpredictable. Is he still more of a kid or more of a teen? Would he rather play or have a conversation? What should I expect in terms of his personality? What if we simply don’t click?
Before the class
I started preparing my first class knowing practically nothing about my future student and feeling very uncertain about how to proceed. I knew that no matter how many different activities I prepared, I’d have to adjust the course of the lesson as I went (90 minutes of playing it by ear? Sign me up, not exhausting at all!) and hope for the best.
I decided to make this first class all about getting to know my student as a person and assessing his range of vocabulary and grammar. I planned:
- an icebreaker where using wh-questions we would both get to know each other better (using a worksheet and a dice, which I luckily have)
- a quick can/can’t activity focusing on sport
- a Do you like… survey
- Scattegories-type game
- a quick movement activity to check his knowledge of prepositions (put the pencil under the table etc.)
- something of a Hail Mary pass: a song (chances of choosing a song your student will mock are big but I remember songs being super popular with my group of 12-year-olds the previous year so I took the risk. I chose Rude by Magic! )
Trying to cover all my bases I also made some copies from a workbook (English in Mind) secretly hoping I wouldn’t have to use them and I’d manage to keep the first lesson light. And so I went to teach my mystery student.
After the class
At the risk of not sounding modest, let me say the first class went really well (apparently my student’s mom thought so too as she called the school to give them some positive feedback) My student turned out to be a really sweet 10-year-old (have I mentioned parent-school-teacher communication breakdown?!) who enthusiastically and eagerly participated in the lesson. He tried really hard to remember things which he’d learned at some point in the past and actually seemed to enjoy himself during the class (especially when it was my turn to place the pen in various spots around the room!)
Here’s what worked great in the class:
- choosing activities which helped me learn more about my student (and him about me!) were spot on. I’d advise anybody preparing their first lesson with a child whose English they know little about to focus chiefly on finding out about their likes, dislikes, and favourites. There is plenty of vocabulary to be revised or taught here, the dialogue comes out natural and meaningful, and the knowledge we gain at this point is invaluable to establish a great rapport with the students and to prepare future lessons.
- My class relied on written exercises pretty heavily, but I’m glad I diversified as much as I could think of: there was a dice game, moving around the room, playing an improvised cloud game on the board, and listening to a song. I wouldn’t say that the time flew, necessarily, but I didn’t notice wandering eyes, fidgeting, foot-tapping, and more familiar sounds of a person being bored.
- I decided to go big with colourful worksheets and visuals which I think was the right decision. I don’t think it matters whether the student is a boy or a girl, everybody appreciates neat materials. I can’t imagine giving black and white copies (unless they were colouring pages!) to a kid, especially since I CAN make color copies. They add some variety to the lesson, are pleasant to revisit, and more memorable.
What I know I need to work on:
- Slowing down my speech. I speak fast in every language and I need to make a lot of conscious effort to control it. I need to remember that my 10-year-old probably won’t stop me each time he doesn’t understand what I’m saying (like and adult would do).
- My chicken-scratch handwriting. My board work has never been my strong suit and I know feel more motivated than ever to improve it. I think this post from the blog ELT planning is going to be really helpful. I haven’t worked with an actual blackboard in ages, so my eye-hand-piece of chalk coordination is really poor, as exemplified by the pictures below:
- Being aware I truly set the tone in this classroom. There is nobody else my student could take the cue from (which is a relief as far as naughty classmates who provoke mischief go) and it’s my responsibility to stay upbeat, enthusiastic, and friendly during the class. I feel like I did a pretty decent job during the first class, but I’m aware it’s really hard to keep it up for the whole school year. Not letting our mood affect what we do in the classroom is a huge challenge, and I feel it’s even more important working with children than it’s with adults.
At this point, I’m actually looking forward to my next class, I already have some ideas about what and how I’d like to teach and I’m excited about doing more fun activities (yes, I think I’m capable of playing games with my student!). I might have let my initial success carry me away and I’ll change my tune after the first month. Still, what I’m happy about is the fact that something I was genuinely worried about turned out to be a positive, refreshing experience. I’d never say teaching young learners was something I’d like to focus on, but I’m glad this opportunity fell into my lap and I’m curious to see what this course will bring.