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What We Use in China

Teaching English in China to Young Students-Part III


Part Three: Mind-set and Classroom Management

Developing the Proper Mind-set

You should project an aura of authority and confidence when you are teaching. Even young students can pick up on, and will exploit, insecurity.

Confident teachers don’t need to swagger to prove the point: They have an aura that students detect. That aura is one of "command presence." An aura of command presence says, “I’m in charge here and I know what I’m doing.” It is confidence that is rooted in competence, not false bravado or pride.

Know this: Everyone wants you to succeed, from the students, their parents, and the administrators. Your biggest enemy in the classroom is almost always your own lack of self-confidence. Remember the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

A final thought on attitude, take your job seriously and learn the craft, so to speak. The skills of a good teacher will be of value to you if later in life you are in business where meetings and presentations are important. At its heart, teaching is about engaging people. If you can do that well, you will have an advantage in life.

On Being a “clown” or “dancing monkey"

While you may employ humor or even comedy in your class, you are not hired to be a clown or an object of ridicule. If a teacher believes he is expected to be a clown, then he either misunderstands teaching, comedy, or both.

There are great, highly compensated “edutainers” out there like Bob Mowad. These are skilled pros that can blend comedy and learning together seamlessly and the only thing they are regarded with is awe and respect.

Consider this: Absolutely no learning can happen unless you have the attention of the learners. If you bore them and they tune out, then there is zero possibility of your succeeding in teaching them anything.

What blend or style you use should be one you are personally comfortable with. I know some teachers who are introverted by nature, but when they step into the classroom, they are utterly dynamic.

One rather shy teacher shared with me the secret to his fabulously funny and effective classes. “I just see it as a show,” he said. “I imagine myself an actor playing the part of a terrifically funny teacher. When the class ends, I walk out the door and become me again.”

First, Do No Harm

Like the Hippocratic Oath sworn by physicians, “First, do no harm," new EFL teachers should be guided by the principle, “First, don’t scare the children." Many students have never seen a foreigner before, so many of us, as foreigners, are really big and scary to them at first.

A new teacher, we’ll call him Tim, stood merely two meters tall and was, ahem, “very strong." Okay, he was actually rather fat. He also had a somewhat unkempt, longish beard. Tim began his first ESL class by throwing open the door, making a rapid entrance, while bellowing a hearty, “HELLLOOO CHILDREN!!”

Three things immediately happened, none of which Tim desired or expected. The entire class froze in fear, a little girl ran shrieking to her mother at the back of the room, and one little boy noticeably and copiously wet his pants. It was not a stellar beginning.

Give students their space at first and let them warm up to you. Tim now enters a new class by slowly peeking around the doorway. He acts frightened and quickly pulls out of sight. He does this a few times, as if he is shy. Then he slowly walks into the room, keeping the wall to his back (keeping maximum distance from the students). He smiles slowly and softly says, “Hello. My name is Tim” Tim’s class starts are now a success.

Small Do Not's

Don’t initially push students to participate. Ask them twice and if they refuse, simply say, “That’s okay, maybe later”. Then it is time to break out a tool from the teacher’s bag of tricks – stickers! Give stickers to each child who participates. Quite soon, you’ll see most of those non participators eager to earn a sticker too.

Don’t leave your teaching material unattended in class on break or between classes. You may return to find unflattering sketches of yourself drawn with your markers on the walls. Don’t stand in front of what you expect student’s to read. It sounds self evident, but novice teachers are forever asking students to read something from the board that they are standing squarely in front of.

Don’t use those neat little metal collapsible pointers with the little cone shaped tip. The tip quickly disappears leaving a nice sharp point looking for an eye to gouge out. The best pointers I’ve seen are these collapsible “light sabers:” sold everywhere in China for a few Yuan. They include an illuminating light inside you won’t need. They are big, colorful and safe. Also, removing the plastic spine from those inexpensive clear document protectors yields a nice plastic flat pointer.

Big Do Not's

Don’t touch children on the face or head. It is considered disrespectful.

Never, ever, touch or show disrespect towards the red scarf you see some students wear. It is a sign that they are members of the Shao4 Xian1 Dui (少先队, the Chinese equivalent of the former Soviet Young Pioneers). The red scarf should be treated with the same deference as the Chinese national flag and is not to be considered an acceptable substitute for a blindfold in classroom games.

Do not speak Chinese in class, especially if you are fluent. I’ve known a few teachers who were fluent in Chinese. They would argue that speaking Chinese in class facilitated their teaching English. They were quite convinced in their opinion.

Now, meanwhile, here is a conversation taking place between the students' parents and the school receptionist:

Parent: Why am I paying your school for a real English speaking teacher when all he does is speak Chinese in class?

Receptionist: But,..

Parent: I can go to any Chinese school for half the price. If I hear another word of Chinese in class I’ll be demanding my money back—and so too will the other parents!

If your school is committed to the communicative or natural approach to teaching English, you will undermine their approach by speaking Chinese in class.

The only exception to this is the word shen ma, meaning “what". This is because Chinese teachers use this in cloze exercises, for example: “The boy is riding a shen ma, shen ma?”. In this case the “What, What” is intended to elicit an answer from the students and you may use that word in that limited context to help cue them.

Classroom Discipline

Discuss your school discipline policy with your administration. Get a copy in writing if at all possible and study it carefully.

Within the framework of the school’s policy, or absent any guidance, develop escalating levels of discipline that are uniformly and consistently in force.

Don’t ever strike or manhandle a child. Unless a student’s actions place another student in immediate danger of severe bodily harm, there is no reason to ever get physical with a student.

Make sure you and your Teaching Assistant see eye to eye on how discipline will be administered in your class. Your TA should detect and correct most misbehavior before you are even aware of it.

Always begin with Oral Correction. Make quick, concise corrections. Example: “John, stop talking.” Not, “John, I’ve told you several times today to stop chatting with your neighbor.”

Some teachers use a “three strikes, you're out” policy as a way of dealing with chronic misbehavior. They write the student’s name on the board and draw three marks. Each time a student misbehaves, the teacher erases one mark. The crux of this method is that misbehaving students know exactly what sanctions will be imposed and what will trigger them.

Ending Your Class

Be punctual. Another class might be waiting to use your classroom. For this reason, it is a good practice to have your students ready to go one or two minutes before the class ends. Use those one or two final minutes of class for a high energy fun activity, e.g., song, chant, guessing game or TPR.

So, you teach your first day of class and all is going swimmingly well, (that probably won't happen if you're a novice, but lets pretend it does) and you near the end of your lesson plan with pride. You then glance at your watch and discover you have taught your planned fifty-five minute lesson in twenty-two minutes! What to do?

That’s when you go to Plan B, i.e., the extra material you wrote on the back of your lesson plan in case this happened. Suppose you didn’t write a Plan B? In that case, start your lesson over again from the top and loop it though. The students will benefit from the review and you’ll teach it better the second time around.

As you become more experienced, you will develop a store of “Instant Mini-Lessons” that you’ll keep in your head, at your disposal if you need to fill a small gap of time.

Don’t forget to erase the board for the next teacher to use. You don’t want to start off annoying your colleagues by leaving your mess for them to clean up.

Prior to going into your closing activity, have students gather up their books, check their desks, and put on any coats and jackets. If you have a TA, she should walk behind the class looking for anything left in desks prior to the close of class.

End your class with a short, fun, high energy activity. When students exit your class with big, excited smiles, it’s icing on your teaching cake.

Post-Class Notes

As soon as you finish class, make post-class notes. You may only have a few minutes between classes, so create a shorthand method. One that works well is put a check mark next to items that went as well as planned, a dash (—) next to things that went so-so or could use more foundation building or better execution, an inverted “U” (Ω) for things that went poorly, and an X  for things that you didn’t have time to do. This takes only seconds.

Next week, when looking at your lesson plan, you’ll know what was done and how well it went. If time permits, jot down a few comments to help with next weeks planning, e.g., “need more work on days of week."

Solicit Feedback

If you ask your TA, “How was my class?”, you will almost always be told, “Very good.” Instead, ask, “How could I make my class better?”

Because Chinese are often reticent to give direct criticism, many teachers never learn they are doing poorly until they suddenly find themselves out of a job. The best way to measure your success is with student numbers. If your classes are steadily bleeding off students, or your classes are closing for mysterious reasons, that’s your cue to get your game together fast.


Restock flashcards and any shared materials so that other teachers can use them. Keep your work area tidy and well organized. Write your name in big letters and tape it to an easily visible area on your desk so that staff can leave messages or packages addressed to you.

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