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Preparing Yourself for TEFL

Doing TEFL in a foreign country is a great way to travel and experience a culture long-term, but sometimes it’s easy to get excited about the travel aspect and forget all about the teaching. If this is your first time teaching, you might be a nervous wreck. Completely normal. I was, too. Turns out I’m alright at it, and you likely will be, too, if you get your head in the game before heading over. There is really only so much you can do to prepare yourself for the classroom - teaching involves a lot of learning by doing - but these five things will help you land on your feet while benefitting your students as well. 

A little disclaimer: all 3.5 years of my TEFL experience were spent at a language center in China. I know a little bit about how it works in other Asian countries, but keep in mind I’m writing this with my China bias in the way. 

1. Actually earn your TEFL certification.

Most English schools in Asia, and really throughout the world, require you to at least have a TEFL certification of some sort. However, some of these courses are so easy you can blow through them in a weekend without really paying attention. I know of some people in China who didn’t take a course at all and made a certificate in Photoshop. This is just going to hurt you in the end. Of course, a 120-hour TEFL course is not going to be the same as a degree in TEFL, but these courses do give you the fundamentals of teaching theory and will help you in establishing goals and the metrics for success in your classroom. 

2. Choose the right school. 

Now that you’ve got your TEFL certificate, it’s time to find a school! Rule #1: question everything. Do not blindly jump on the first offer that you see. Different schools have different standards and a little bit of research can make the difference between a memorable experience and a living hell. Ask for a contract, read it, then read it again. And again. Ask to speak to some of their current foreign teachers, and if they refuse to let you, run and don’t look back. If you get caught up at a bad school that treats its foreign staff like dirt, then you will be miserable, and this will bleed into your classes. 

3. Prepare games and other resources.

Entertainment first, education second. This is unfortunately the case in the majority of Chinese language centers. You could teach the most thorough lesson on possessive pronouns possible, but you'll still get complaints from parents and Chinese staff if their kid isn’t having fun. This is something I’ve learned to adapt to, placing an emphasis on the lesson first but using games that practice the content as a reward once we’ve learned the fundamentals. There is no shortage of websites dedicated to TEFL resources, but I have compiled some of my most popular games in this little ebook if you’d like to have some tried and tested tools at hand before entering the fray. 

4. Learn some basic classroom commands in the local language. 

I generally have an English-only policy in most of my classes, but this can be very difficult with the younger students. Four-year-olds have barely learned Chinese, let alone English. Knowing some basic commands in the local language like “be quiet”, “sit down”, and “stop” can be useful if you are trying to establish control over a rowdy class. Knowing how to use Chinese with the children has come especially in handy when I’ve had local co-teachers who are physically present but mentally checked out. As you become more fluent in the native language, resist the urge to use it as a crutch in the classroom - your students’ lessons will suffer for it.

5. Have zero expectations.

Bootcamp will not prepare you for a war zone. Once you arrive, prepare to encounter wildly different education standards from your home country. Some of my school’s books were clearly not written by a native English speaker, and the usefulness of several activities was questionable. The way testing is handled completely baffled me - no one can score below an 80% because “their parents will be mad”. Angry parents don’t pay to sign their children up for next year, do they? Oh, and if you teach in a Chinese public school, prepare to see corporal punishment in action. What to do about all of this? In the grand scheme of things, nothing you do as an outsider will change anything, and that is something you have to be prepared to accept. 

Learn, Adapt, Improve

I will be honest, there is a 99% chance your first few classes are not going to be amazing, especially if you’ve never stood up in front of a classroom before. Don’t be discouraged. Teaching is not something you can replicate in a vacuum. Learn what works  in the classroom and what doesn’t, adapt your lesson plans to your students’ needs, and never stop trying to improve. If you decide to phone it in and do the same things in your class over and over, your students will definitely notice. They are way more perceptive than you would think! But they also notice when you are going the extra mile, and that’s what will keep them engaged and learning.

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Survive TEFL | Some Advice & 50 Fun Games
In 2013, I moved to China to try my hand at something I never thought I'd do: teaching children. I was terrified before that first class, but it feels completely natural to me several years later. I've tried to encapsulate some of my knowledge into this little ebook, as well as a few games to play in the classroom for those new TEFL teachers out there who may be similarly terrified.