My first term teaching was a disaster. It was many years ago but I remember it vividly as painful, awkward, and at times, frightening.
I had started my first EFL teaching job in October in a large language school in Athens (my first trip abroad). From the outset I decided that I wanted to be like my favorite teacher at school: I was going to be a good “friend” to all my students; they were going to love me like I’d loved my teacher; they’d respect me and they’d learn from me.
I would be the real teacher in the Dead Poet’s Society. I’d be an inspiration, an enabler, a pied piper who would lead my students through the darkness into enlightenment!
But of course anyone who’s ever taught in the real world can probably guess what happened in that very first term of mine: come December I was shouting and screaming to keep control; I was in tears after some lessons and more than once I had to hide myself in the staff toilets to try and compose myself before walking into the next battle.
I understood with painful acknowledgement what kind of person I was: I was soft. I was weak. I was a pushover.
The students knew it and so did I and guess what… the students won. They just walked all over me and I had let them and now with the end of term in sight I was ready to chuck it all in and give up teaching for good.
Along came the Christmas holidays.
I flew back home to be with my family for a few days and tried to forget about the howling mob of teenagers who had made fun of me in the final lesson, playing ridiculous pranks which they thought were funny but which saw me fighting to hold back the tears so at least I wouldn’t break down in front of them.
My parents had always been against me going abroad to work and I just couldn’t bring myself to tell them that it had been a mistake and they’d been right all along. (My mother pointedly told me more than once about my old boyfriend who was working in a great job and was destined for high things at the local headquarters of a major insurance company.)
So instead I pretended it was all great even though as the days passed and Christmas came and went the idea of getting on an aeroplane and flying back to those monsters was growing even darker in my mind.
Two days before I had to leave I was actually sick. All I had done was open my suitcase and began to put in a few clothes when the nausea hit me and I had to run to the bathroom and later pretend to my mother that it was nothing.
But back in my room I finally came to a decision: I would hide. I’d never return to the school, I’d throw away the return ticket and find some sort of work at home even if it meant that awful insurance company and my old boyfriend.
My favorite teacher when I had been a student at school was Miss W who taught English Literature. I loved her. She was always so calm, so quiet, and always so much in command.
I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed her lessons. She was one of those true teachers who made learning enjoyable and whilst we might have grumbled about other teachers and boring lessons, we never did about hers.
In fact, she was the reason I wanted to become a teacher. I wanted to be like her… but back then during those Christmas holidays I realised that I had failed and let her down.
So the day before my flight back was due and before I told my parents of my change of plans, I decided to visit her. We had kept in touch after school and although she had retired by now, we still exchanged letters every now and then.
Somehow I wanted her to know first so I took the bus to her street, walked to her house, knocked on the door and when she opened it I couldn’t stop myself but burst into tears.
Over the next couple of hours I told her everything. It was a relief just to be able to talk and I most certainly did that. She sat there so patiently as I told her how I had ruined everything, that my time at university had been a complete waste, how the students hated me, how I was the worst teacher that ever there was, how my chosen career was a sham, how I had been fooling myself and those around me for years, how…
And then she explained it all to me. Carefully and patiently (as she always was) she told me the truth.
I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t just me.
She told me that every teacher feels like I did when they first start. She told me that during her first year she thought seriously about giving up teaching.
“But we loved you and enjoyed your classes,” I insisted.
“You don’t remember the first class you had with me, do you?”
I shook my head.
“I walked in and you were all shouting and playing around. Your best friend was giggling away and practicing her dancing. I think even a couple of the boys were trying to carve their names on the desks. And I thought to myself that I have to take control here.”
And then she explained it to me. Children, she said, need boundaries. They need to know exactly where they stand. They need to know what they can do and what they can’t do. And a teacher has to set those boundaries if the students are to learn. Children don’t need a friend in a teacher, they need a guide and a leader.
“I clapped my hands loudly and did not move or smile for several minutes. I was hard with you. I moved you all about to different seats so you couldn’t be with your friends. The moment someone said something I gave them one warning and then if they continued I punished them. No favoritism, no niceness. I was tough with you all. Very tough. No talking. No messing around. Nothing. I had to let you know who was in control in that room. I had to set the boundaries.”
But I didn’t remember that first lesson because it had worked. Because in a few short lessons we knew exactly where the boundaries were with Miss W and we could happily go to those boundaries and know we were on safe ground but woe betide anyone who stepped over them.
I spent a couple of hours with Miss W that afternoon and it saved my life.
The New Term
When I returned to school after Christmas I’d made a plan of action for every class and I was a different teacher and no one was going to stop me.
Miss W had assured me – and she was right as always – that a new term was a time for new beginnings. Last term did not count; this was a new start and so I began again.
- I made detailed lesson plans which left nothing to chance and which left no single minute free. There was never going to be a moment in a lesson where I was having to think on my feet for something to do. The students would not have time to mess around.
- I walked into the first lesson with each class did not smile. I did not laugh at their jokes. I was not friendly. I did not ask them about Christmas but got down to work immediately. There was no chit-chat, nothing. In my classroom it was work and work only.
- If there was any behavior problem, no matter how small or trivial, I gave a warning. If it was repeated then the student was sent to my DoS’s office. End of.
And do you know what? It worked. It really did work.
Almost overnight it changed and now I had the classes under control. Later on I occasionally made a joke or went off-topic onto something lighter but when I wanted to I could bring the students back to work immediately. The students had their boundaries and they knew what they were and what was allowed and what was not.
And then I began to enjoy myself. And my students did too and that has led to many years teaching for me with some wonderful, wonderful experiences.
And the most curious thing is that a few days ago one of my old students messaged me on Facebook to say how she was now teaching and how she wanted to be like me but how she was having problems and… well you can guess the rest!
Jenny taught English for many years around the world. She is now looks after ICAL TEFL online.
To read more about keeping discipline in your classroom, see our section on TEFL Classroom Management.