The Peace Corps offers us the opportunity to apply for a TEFL certificate from the experience of our time teaching. In order to receive the certificate I should submit a detailed lesson plan and a reflection of my teaching. The following is my teaching reflection from my time in China:
“When I first joined Peace Corps China I had limited teaching experience, particularly related to teaching English as a foreign language. I had previously had some experience as an English tutor for Hispanic migrant workers in Florida, as well as my teaching internship in a middle school. These two experiences helped direct me in the beginning of my teaching in China, but did not prepare me for the challenges I faced as a teacher here.
Some of the challenges I faced were how to teach large classes, the maturity level and attention span of my students, multi-level classes, beginner level students, expectations of the students and of the school, and how to prepare my students for their future (i.e. what topics were necessary to teach my students and what English ability would are they expected to have when they graduate). These are just a few of the questions that were immediately brought to mind my first semester in China, and I am just now beginning to answer them.
My teaching experience here has been fulfilling in that it has given me a lot of insight into my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. I have realized that one of the biggest challenges I face is with classroom management, discipline and consequences. I struggled to find the right punishment that didn’t cause my students to lose heart, but rather challenged them to better themselves. I found three solutions to my troubles.
The first is realizing what I can and cannot deal with in class. Every “issue” might not be possible to solve, but most could be if I am adamant about it. I realized that speaking a little Chinese didn’t bother me as long as they were speaking on point and were prepared to answer questions on the subject when asked. On the other hand, laughing at other students when they made a mistake is something that I cannot tolerate. I realized that if I tried to correct every little thing students try to do I would drive myself crazy, instead I should choose a few things that truly disrupt the flow of the class or present obstacles to my teaching and goals.
The second is consistency. If a student is not behaving appropriately in class I should reprimand him/her every time, not just once. Failing to do so, I realized, would result in my students behaving worse because they, maybe, wanted to see what they could get away with.
The third is knowing students’ names. This may seem a simple task, but with 500-700 students each year it presents a difficult feat. The solution was nametags. At the beginning of every class I would hand out the students’ nametags (this also provided a simple way to see if students were attending class regularly). During class I could call on students by name to answer questions—or if they were being disruptive to call their name to quiet down. After class I would pick the nametags back up. I also used this method as a way to assess participation in the class. When students answered, or attempted to answer, my questions I would mark their nametag with a star. At the end of the semester if a student didn’t have any stars I would lower their grade. Being able to call out the students for participation reasons, and for discipline reasons, was a key moment in my classroom management problems. After this, along with my first two rules, my classroom management problems disappeared.
Another lesson I learned during these two years teaching was on the structure of the class. When I first started teaching I thought that students would respond well to a class that had the same pattern every week. But I realized that this was only true to an extent, and was also a deterrent for some students. Some students found the pattern monotonous. Knowing what to expect before it happened made some students tune out during parts they found irrelevant, and tune back in for parts they thought were more useful or to their liking. Some students, however, appreciated knowing what we would be talking about and what things they could expect from class. I realized I could appease both students by giving students a clear syllabus and expectations in advance, but changing the structure of my lessons each week. The students that liked to feel prepared could do so by looking over the syllabus I taped on the classroom wall, and the students that liked each class to feel different appreciated that my lessons never followed the same pattern.
I also learned how to do without. The school that I have been teaching at for the past two years doesn’t have access to technology, getting copies made is a headache, and students have trouble to remember basic things such as bringing a pen and pencil to class. Though technology would enhance my lessons, not having it didn’t hinder it. I learned to make do without it by relying on visual aids that I could bring in, coming to class extra early to write on the board and making copies that I used in every class. I also made use of small groups.
Small groups became an easy way to have students practice, especially considering the large class sizes. My first year I would have the students form different groups every week as needed. I soon realized that this wasted a lot of time because some students would wander around for a while choosing their small group. The first semester of my second year I assigned students groups they would do activities with every week and would sit with every week. For some this was difficult. They didn’t feel comfortable trying out English with students they were not particularly close to. So, my last semester teaching I let the students choose their own groups. I informed them that several of their grades would be based on group performance, so they should choose wisely. So far this is the better choice. Students are willing to work more when they are in a comfortable environment, which they are in with their chosen groupmates. I have also heard more students attempting English than I heard last term.
Using small groups also made teaching multi-level classes and beginner level students easier. Students would be able to help each other and guide each other throughout the activities. In order to help those that struggled more in the language I wrote all directions clearly on the board (since students reading ability was better than their listening). If there were some words or directions that were complex I would ask a student that understood to help explain to those that didn’t. Having clear instructions, and being able to read new vocabulary words is important for those that are at a beginning level. I also used activities that could easily be more challenging for those that could handle it, and easier for those that couldn’t, for example, having more open-ended questions that allowed for deeper discussions and/or more simple discussions.
With regards to teaching I try to teach using different multiple intelligences. In the short time of class it is not always possible to reach every intelligence group, but throughout the term I try to provide students with chances to use different abilities so that all students have a chance to show their strengths. I have used games and activities that use artwork, singing, movement, outdoor activities, small group talking, large group talking, reading, writing, listening, debate, imagery, music, and more. I think this is crucial to teaching. If I spend every class lecturing, or every class doing role plays then not every student will benefit. By changing the activities I give every student the chance to connect with the language and the class.
I also try to teach relevant information. My first year I just taught what I thought was important to know about English. I didn’t consider that learning how to discuss a certain topic wouldn’t be helpful or interesting for my students. At the end of every term I asked my students to write an evaluation on the class and on my teaching. My first semester I asked very vague questions, trying to leave the door open to new ideas, but the answers I got pertained mostly to my physical appearance (“I like your smile.” “Maybe you can try a new hairstyle”). Obviously these aren’t helpful for improving my teaching. My second semester I chose more specific questions and my third semester I chose very specific questions that steered students to only respond in reference to classroom related things. All of these evaluations have helped me to improve my teaching, see my strengths and weaknesses, and to better meet the needs of my students.
In order to better meet my students’ needs I always tried to make time to have personal interviews with students. Talking to them one-to-one has helped me to understand their background, their needs as students, and their goals, plans and paths in the future. All of these are important for teaching. The majority of my students will be preschool and primary school teachers in the future, so knowing how to describe food in detail isn’t necessary, but knowing food in English is important. Once I realized my students’ goals, their future plans, and the expectations they had from the school and society (pass the CET-3, maybe the CET-4, and if I am really lucky the CET-6) I altered my lessons to meet them where they were.
Through this process I also began to understand my students’ maturity level. This is a difficult characteristic to describe. Some volunteers describe our students as immature, but this isn’t true. On the surface the students seem to act similar to middle and high school students in America, with the giggling, not bringing things to class, forgetting to do their homework, asking to use the bathroom, etc. Besides this the students have a great understanding of responsibility to each other, to their teachers, parents and society. They understand the expectations they have from others. So in this respect they are quite mature. But due to the fact that most students have only focused on studying for their entire lives and haven’t been given the chance to explore, they do lack in maturity for their age-mates in America. I realized that I couldn’t approach my class as I might if I were teaching in a college in America, but I also couldn’t treat them exactly the way I treated my middle school students in America (though they seemed to act the same way). I had to view them in a completely new way and not compare them at all. In this way, just seeing them for the way they were—mature in some ways, and immature in others—I was able to better meet their needs in the classroom.
During these two years I have learned a lot about myself as a teacher. I feel much more confidant stepping into a classroom than I did two years previously. I understand better the ways to approach classroom and lesson planning. I have learned more about what works and what doesn’t work, and that what works for one group of students doesn’t necessarily work for another group. Teaching is about being flexible and open to change. I think I am much more prepared to teach English as a foreign language than I was two years ago. “