If you are reading this and you are a teacher, chances are you either work in the TEFL industry (i.e., the network of mainly private institutions which offer language courses) or for a “regular” school, where pupils and students go every day to learn all sorts of subjects, including languages.
I have recently transitioned from the first to the second type of environment, and therefore I find myself facing challenges that are very different from the ones I used to tackle before. In addition to having to adjust to the new type of job, I have realised that all the teacher training I have gone through in the TEFL industry (mainly Cambridge CELTA and DELTA, but also a long series of individual workshops and conferences) has not equipped me for some of these challenges. In this post I am going to briefly summarise what these are.
Lack of motivation
The first and foremost difference with the environment I used to work in is the learners’ lack of motivation. In private language institutions, most if not all leaners have strong motivating factors to be learning a language, and therefore only need to be kept motivated by the teacher. Whereas in the public education system, learners are there because they have to, and a disheartening amount of them would rather be anywhere else.
This means that, before even thinking about teaching the language, the teacher’s job is to make the learners feel at ease, and to try to find ways to tap into the students’ interests and lives in order to find what could motivate them. As anyone can imagine, this is extremely difficult, especially if the teacher sees a class of 20 students twice or three times a week at most.
I am personally finding this the most frustrating and most demanding part of my new role as class teacher.
Compulsory education is generally structured by age rather than by ability level. This means that classes can include a huge variety of levels. I find myself teaching classes of learners who range from A0 to B2, and who have a variety of learning needs and difficulties. This makes the job of differentiating the tasks and texts I present to the learners much, much harder than I was used to.
There is a lot of literature on this, as this is one of the most discussed points of formal education. However, I still find it difficult to tailor my lessons to the needs of all the learners in class, hence my lessons sometimes end up being frustratingly difficult for some and unbelievably boring for others.
Of course being a class teacher means the responsibility for the education of the learners in my class lies almost entirely on me. It is my job to motivate them and to make them responsible for their own learning. It is also my job to find ways to make sure that all learners develop their language skills at the best of their ability.
This is something I had only partially felt while working in private language education, as I would often see learners only for a limited amount of time, and therefore it was easy for me to blame their lack of language skills or practice on their class teacher. Now that I am the class teacher, I understand how wrong I was.
Of course, this also has a positive twist: I feel like I am making a difference much more than before. I teach learners for a whole year or longer, I can see their progress and help them develop not only as language learners, but as responsible citizens. This amply repays for all the difficulties and hard work the job of class teacher entails.
In conclusion, I have come to accept that I will not be able to help some of the learners in my classes. Some of them are way past help, or have many other problems in their lives that I can completely understand why English is at the bottom of their list. However, I feel like my job is to not give up on them, to do my best day in day out to make them feel that I care, and to help them foster skills and abilities that will make their future life better — or at least easier.