A life­long friend of mine has been a teacher her entire adult life. Before coming to Puerto Vallarta she shared her secret to being a good teacher. “Act like you know what you’re doing,” she told me. My experience these last for weeks in the classroom has proved her words to be true.

 

What surprised me most about the teaching practicum is how the students expect this to be true as well. They walk into the classroom more or less ready to accept that their teacher knows exactly what she is doing. A student’s quickness to look to me for answers, confirmation, and explanations struck me immediately. It’s an awesome responsibility and one that is basically the teacher’s to squander if they are not careful.

 

This attitude has made me realize the importance of preparation, of familiarizing myself with the curriculum, making sure that I, too, understand the directions, so it’s clear what exactly is expected of the students as I guide them through their workbook exercises.

 

During the training I learned, much to my delight, how to parse a sentence using the correct grammatical terms, that the key to recognizing the perfect tense is knowing there is some form of the verb “have” in the clause, and the subtle differences between the five conditionals. All these are important to explain in class, but I also learned that fiddling with the CD player for minutes on end can derail a class faster than you can say, “This would have been a great class, if only the teacher knew how to work the equipment.”

 

Before teaching practices, I thought my years of studying French and Spanish off and on would be an asset to me as an educator. This has proved to be true. As a language learner myself, I understand the challenge these students face in acquiring a language to the level where you can actually have an easy conversation with a native speaker (as opposed to filling in the blanks in a workbook in which all the answers are there if you have been paying attention.) In fact, with its emphasis on L1 only, EFL curricula is more challenging than the various French and Spanish text books I’ve studied over the years, since those texts always gave the directions in English! At least at the earliest levels….

 

I plan to spend the weeks before my first full­time teaching position reviewing the training manual, my class notes, the peer­ and trainer feedback, and mastering the verb tenses so that I can regurgitate the rules in my sleep. With this review and a whole lot more class room experience, I think I can refine the skills necessary to meet my friend’s criteria to being a great teacher: I’ll not only act like I know what I’m doing, I WILL know what I’m doing.
After taking the TEFL training course, I will forever have a much greater respect for teachers everywhere.  Teaching students to speak English as a foreign language may sound easy, but there are many factors that impact the excellence of a TEFL teacher and the overall engagement of their students.

 

The practice teaching component of the TEFL training course was in my opinion, the most interesting.  I learned that I love to perform and entertain as a teacher.  I depend primarily on the use of visual materials such as magazine images, the use of drawings and graphics on the white board in various colors.  My final lesson was with a group of beginner level students, in which I implemented fruit and candy to teach the words “fruit”, “candy”, “sweet”, and “delicious”.  I was able to get the student’s attention when I pulled fruit and candy from my pockets and lobbed them across the classroom.  Incorporating colorful, three-dimensional props help students relate to and interact with the lesson.  Teachers who deviate from the book in creative ways gain instant respect from their students, if lessons are entertaining and relevant to their culture and interests.

 

Another great tool that was used in the lesson above was cognate words.   Creating lesson plans around cognates allows for seamless translation from L1 to L2.  Students gain confidence by recognizing the word first in their native language and then being able to easily read it in L2.   My level 1 students were able to learn fruit, candy, sweet and delicious in a matter of minutes, as the words in Spanish are almost identical.

 

I also learned the value of introducing interesting and sophisticated words to the class.  This keeps students enlightened and makes the lesson meaningful for every day use.   The objective of every class should be to get students excited about speaking English and to give them useful words and phrases to feel confident communicating with others.  Considering this, it is equally as important to know your student’s comprehension level and abilities.  We want to introduce words that are stimulating and challenging but not at the expense of confusion and frustration.  Know what is appropriate for the class level and what is relevant to their needs.

 

Another way to build self-confidence in students is to have them actively participate in a lesson.  I try to incorporate some type of physical movement in each class whether is be students standing up to read a composition or simply walking up to the board to help with a written exercise.   Every opportunity students get to practice English dialogue with their peers will be helpful to their development.

 

One of the greatest challenges I encountered in classroom management was navigating the pace of a class with various learning speeds.   With practice and observation, I learned how to give broad instructions to the class and then dividing my attention evenly between individual students making sure no one was left behind.  It is important to ensure that faster learners are being challenged and slower learners are not frustrated.  Allowing the fast learners to help their slower peers is one method of keeping the class spirit positive while maintaining forward momentum.

 

Overall, my teaching style is collaborative and creative.  I make use of positive encouragement, praise and rewards to motivate students.  I approach each lesson as a performance.  It is a chance to entertain students and make learning fun, stimulating, and memorable.  One of my favorite high school Science teachers, Mr. Fougere, taught us about Mitosis by having a candle lit dinner with a model of a plant cell.  I hated science but I will never forget about how plant cells reproduce.  It was entertaining, stimulating and memorable.  I hope to leave this sort of lasting impression on the students I will be working with.
When I arrived here in Puerto Vallarta I had many preconceived ideas about both teaching and living in a foreign culture. The past weeks has taught me that the idea that both would be easy was hubris in many respects.

 

Despite the fact that I have been speaking English all my life years and also in spite of the fact I have an above average mastery of the language, I had forgotten the “whats” and “whys” of grammar just not the “hows.” Teaching the nuts and bolts of grammar required me to relate material to students in a way they could understand when in some cases I didn’t understand it myself.

 

I now understood that I would have to relearn things from grade school in order to be effective as a teacher. On the positive side this deepened my empathy toward my students. I admired there undertaking of this challenge.

 

Something that I did know going into this endeavor was the importance of the teaching practicums. I had experience presenting detailed information to groups large and small but I never had any critical feedback that I could use to improve upon. This feedback has helped me a great deal in my efforts to develop my own personal style and to become ever more effective.

 

As I improved in one area, I discovered my shortcomings in another. For instance, when using the student workbook I proved to be highly proficient because of the clear outcome that this type of work provided. On the other hand, my initial attempts at teaching grammar points proved to be less successful. Apparently I wasn’t being clear enough in my examples and my explanations.

 

I was able to use this feedback to move forward, become better at this skill, and discover what I needed to work on next. I find it hard to comprehend how a person could teach without these hours of practice with actual students. I know I will be better at my craft because of those hours.

 

My deficiencies in my knowledge of Spanish created some hurdles for me both in teaching and in adapting to the culture in which I was now living. At times I found it frustrating attempting to communicate with some locals about basic things. I could only imagine some of the frustration the students must have felt when tried to explain simple concepts with words they did not comprehend.

 

However, as my time here went on that continued exposure to the pasts of the Spanish language I didn’t know brought rapid improvement in my understanding. I supposed this was how the concept of teaching English as a foreign language worked. I was fortunate enough to see this in the classes where I taught the same students for several days in a row. I believe this is an extremely important aspect to the teaching practices that would have left me less able had I not been able to do them.

 

One other thing I never expected was the level of joy that I felt when my students grasped and then used the concepts of the lessons I taught. Receiving joy from helping another person achieve their goals is something everyone should experience. I believe it would make the world a kinder place because it illustrates how much we are all in this together.

 

My final thoughts on this experience are profound for me. I did expect to enjoy learning to teach English and experiencing life in a place that was very different than what I had known. What I did not expect was the level of personal growth it has caused me to experience. My desires to help others and to make a positive impact in their lives is more pronounced than I could have ever dreamed. Surely my time here will continue to impact me well into the future. I know I will be forever grateful to have had the opportunity to make this a part of my life’s experiences.