I have always
dreamed of thought about writing a sexy listicle post about the 6.36 things you absolutely need to do in the first class as a teacher, or at least an English teacher, or at least as an EFL teacher in Korea, or as a university instructor in Korea, or something. Alas, I never quite managed to do it and this post will not be it. I intended to do it before the term and to have my post be the go-to post for every teacher starting a course ever. I’d then receive much fanfare and praise and hits. Delicious hits. But again, I never wrote the post. So here I am a week after my term started simply sharing some things I did last week. I fear much of what I am sharing is standard stuff that most teachers might just do naturally but I am also hopeful there might be something interesting or different for teachers to think about. Anyway, most listicles are crap anyway, aren’t they? My other concern is that perhaps much of what I am talking about here is too contextualized to my teaching situation(s) and might not offer much for readers. If that is the case, please accept my apology along with my invitation to share some different ideas and perspectives. So, yeah, what follows are some things I did in my first classes last week along with some associated thoughts.
- make sure students knew what they needed and wanted to know about the course and schedule
“It’s in the syllabus” is a common refrain and lament from teachers but the fact it is there doesn’t always mean the info finds its way into the minds of students. While trying my best to avoid lengthy teacher fronted explanations of things in the syllabus I also tried to address any questions students had about the course and how it will run. Students knowing these things obviously makes things run more smoothly, right?
One specific thing I did in one class was give students a card and ask them to write down what questions they had about a) the course and b) me. I prepared my answers to these questions while students were doing something else and delivered short speeches where these were addressed.One thing I have done in the past is to make a little quiz (scored and included on the final score!) based on the information in the syllabus. This can help make sure everyone reads it.
- share something about myself
I remember one training course a while back where my colleague and I thought we did a spectacular job setting up the first day of a long course with a variety of activities. I still think we did well but I know we forgot one small but important detail. We didn’t have any chances to let the participants know about us. As they day was winding down this seemed to be an issue for a few participants. They really wanted to know who we were and felt that knowing info beyond our names would help break the ice. I think this is probably important to students everywhere but I also have this feeling it is more important in Korea. I think students want to know who the human that will be teaching them is. I think many teachers, quite rightly, feel the concern about talking at length about themselves but I do also think it can be important and helpful to carve out a time for this.Above I already mentioned answering questions students asked in a short speech. Something else I did in another class to list a bunch of questions related to what we might want to know about someone in the first meeting and then inviting students to ask me any of these they wished.
- use students’ names as much as possible
This is mostly just for me, for practicing and learning.In every class I made a chart with all the names and looked at as necessary when I talked to students. I also studied the chart and quizzed myself when student were doing other things.
- have students talk to more than 2 classmates
This was to help the group dynamics develop and also to keep things a bit fresh(er).Some of the activities included a built in info-gap in that each side of the room had different information. This required a new partner to share things with and gave more chances to talk to people they might not otherwise have talked to much that day (whether they knew that person well or not.)
- have students express their personal goals for the course and reasons for being there
“Why are you here?” can sound like an overly philosophical question but the answers can be elucidating. From my view, it can be nice to know who is taking the course out of interest and who is taking the course because they have to. I think it is also instructive to see how well students’ personal goals match with the stated goals of the course.I used some (I guess relatively) standard needs assessment forms and questions. Something else I did was have students complete a checklist on how comfortable they feel doing certain things in English. This provided a nice chance to hear about their comfort levels but hopefully gave the idea, “Hey, it is ok not to be comfortable with all these things at the start.”Another thing I did was ensure that these “Why are you here?” and “What are your expectations?” questions were included in the activities on the first day (whether in group or pair work or short introductions from students to the rest of the group or through writing.) Through seeing and hearing responses to these I was able to get a clearer idea of the students, which should help me in future decisions.
- address students’ goals and expectations
Collecting students’ expectation and goals is important but I also think we want to address them in some way. I am not saying this has to happen in the first class. Sometimes students’ expectations don’t match those of the course. I think it is important to deal with these early on so that the surprise and disappointment factors are lowered. At the same time, I think it is nice to let students know they are in the right place for certain things, too.I took a few minutes to highlight both what I saw as the connections and disconnections between what students expressed as their expectations for the course as how I saw the course. If some things were simply not part of the course or were unrelated I made sure to mention it. I also mentioned some things weren’t part of my original thinking but that we could potentially find room for some things. I also thanked students for sharing (what seemed to be) their candid expectations in the hope that this would keep the lines of communication as open as possible throughout the course.
- create chances to see students’ abilities in the areas we will be focusing on
This might sound like a no-brainer but I wanted to mention it here because I thought it was super helpful. I was able to gather some information about the students and their backgrounds and goals and everything else in other ways but I also wanted to see them performing in situations similar to what I’ll be expecting in the course. So, by setting up activities related to the focus of the course I could get a much better and clearer sense of the students’ abilities and the range of abilities in the group.
- flex my language muscles
This could also read, “Flex my grammar muscles.” I did my best to show my new students that I know my shit. I also did my best to show there are plenty of tricky points my extremely high level students will need to work on and think about throughout the course. Of course my mission was not to introduce defeatism but to show there are very real gaps that will be addressed in this class. Of course I also tried to convey a sense of confidence and knowledge in English points. I think in Korea there is a widespread belief that all “native” teachers only know the language but don’t know the finer points of it and don’t know anything about grammar. I do my best to dispossess my students of this myth in the first week.One way I flexed my grammar muscles was to have a worksheet filled with common confusions their predecessors had experienced and then create some chances to think and talk about corrections and reasons behind them. I think my explanations help create the
illusionidea I know what I am talking about when it comes to English language.
- try to make the first lesson worthwhile time from an English learning standpoint
This might seem related to the above point and it might even be. I think point 8 is about the image of the teacher and this one is about the takeaway for the students. I think it is important to give students something they might not have known about or thought about previously in the first class. I believe this sets things up well for future classes and helps encourage “buy in.”
- give a taste of what a regular class will look like
I think spending the whole class time on logistics or on setting up the course without giving students a chance to see what the class will be like is not ideal. I like to give students a chance to catch a glimpse of how the usual class will go, for both their peace of mind but also to help the decision making process on keeping or dropping the course (when this is possible). I think students might feel resentful if the first class is very different from the rest of the classes and they were in some ways fooled into taking it.It is a completely separate point but I have heard of some teachers in colleges making the first day of class as challenging as possible so as to weed out a certain type of student. This is not something I have seriously considered but I think there might be something to it, especially when student evaluations are weighted very heavily. Perhaps it might not be a bad thing to help a few students make up their mind about the course and not take it.
- finish class earlier than the full time allotted
For me this is about fitting the expectations (and custom?) in Korea. I still remember my first college class in Korea many years ago. I had 3 hours of things to get through in a 1.5 hour class and students were shocked and burned out by this first lesson. I have now learned to ease into thing and not take the full time in the first lesson. There might be some folks out there that would call this lazy or a dereliction of duty but for me it is a nice way to start the term. (Note: One class with another instructor immediately before mine went right down to the wire and nearly over in week 1. I might need to re-examine my thoughts on this issue.)At the start of class I said, “I have good news and I have bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” Regardless of what students said I told them the class would not take the full 3 hours and said it in the appropriately excited or apologetic tone. Then, when I was asked for the opposite news I said the same thing with a different tone.
I didn’t do…
- group norms activities
This is maybe interesting or hypocritical as I have suggested this is very important before but in my particular context(s) it didn’t feel like something I needed or wanted to spend time on in the first day. Small classes and what feels like a general lack of issues on these areas is what stopped me from doing it last week.
- name learning activities
The reasons for this are mostly small classes and students already knowing each other’s names. I didn’t see the point in spending much time on something that would mostly be useful for me (and something I can get my head around through other ways). I think in other contexts it is hugely important.
Please note that the “Didn’t Do” section here refers to things that I’d sometimes do or might like to do but didn’t do this time. There are plenty of other things I’d generally choose not to do. Primary among these includes reading the syllabus aloud or giving students a task-free time to read the syllabus on their own.
Looking at the lists above, what would you not do? What else do you try to do in the first class? What other things do you keep in mind for first lessons with a new group?
- @AnthonyTeacher wrote a very nice post where he talked about some of the things he did and didn’t do in his first class.
- In one of my classes today (the second week) I had four brand new students today who were not there last week. That was interesting. It did create some opportunities for the students who were there last week to be informants on what went on and how things are supposed to go.