I had not been a teacher before – well not like this – so this was a totally new experience for me but one I did not feel uncomfortable with. I generally feel comfortable working with people and teaching oral English gave me a real outlet for my creativity, something previous jobs had never done. However it was a little daunting in those first few days to see sixty-five expectant faces looking curiously at me; all trying to work out what I was saying but the welcome of the children was fantastic and this helped me soon to feel at ease.
The start of any new job is always going to a difficult period, a time when you are settling into new routines and finding your feet, and the first few months for me were no different. The most difficult part however was for me to regulate my voice so the children had a chance of understanding me, and for them to get used to my voice. In the early days they probably understood very little but as time went by, they got much better at it and now I am constantly surprised about what they pick up on, often when I make a throwaway remark. However, I still use the practice of writing down my questions on the board and any other words or sentences I am dealing with; to add to this I will quite often ask students individually if they understand.
A steep learning curve
I must admit, I don’t think I made a very good job of teaching in those early months because it was a period when I was finding out what worked and what didn’t. I made loads of mistakes but I always to tried analyse what I was doing in an effort improve my teaching.
Of the many things I have come to know about teaching in a classroom with such large student numbers, is the number of students who will not be paying attention at any one time. There are the obvious ones who are playing with their mobile phones, doing their homework, reading books or looking at themselves in a mirror and then there are the few who see the classroom as an opportunity to sleep. To add to this number there the talkers, who are clearly not listening to you but conversing with their friends and then there are the less obvious ones, who are gazing into space and perhaps looking totally bored. These are the obvious non-listeners but there are also those who look like they are listening but are really away with their own thoughts. So the number who are actually listening at any one time can easily be less than half, especially for the low ability classes.
The problem is that for many students, they either have no interest in oral English or find it so difficult to understand all of what is being said and therefore cannot keep up, and this can easily cause their mind to wander. Of the former there is really nothing that can be done, except to try to make the lessons as interesting as possible and hope that perhaps they take an interest. Regarding the latter group, those whose English ability is poor and so cannot keep up; this is a difficult problem for the teacher. It is not possible to pace the lesson for the sake of the slowest, nor is it good to pace it for the brightest; the answer is to find a level which is somewhere in the middle but it can be difficult to know exactly where is the middle. The certain thing is, as an English teacher in junior or middle school; you are never going to capture the attention or interest of all, especially with such large numbers. What’s more in the situation where there is only one forty-five minutes session a week for each class, you have little chance of really helping them improve their spoken English. I believe the best you can hope for is to fuel their desire to not only keep learning but to take a real interest in the countries where English is the first language. I think this is such an important point because language in isolation is really meaningless. Language requires a country and countries are made up of people with their particular ways and habits. Introducing customs, traditions, sports, games and idiosyncrasies of English-speaking people into a language lesson will bring the lesson to life and grab the attention of the students.
So this is a brief account of my experience of teaching oral English in China but what about your experiences as a student being taught by a native speaker? I’d love to hear from you; whether your account is good or bad. Perhaps even if you’ve been taught by me? Let me know what you thought – good or bad!