How to survive your first TEFL job

Travelling for a TEFL job
What can you expect from your first day teaching, your move to a new country and your new employer?

Starting out in TEFL can be at once exciting and terrifying. In the middle of your TEFL course, talking with your fellow trainees about your travelling and teaching plans, you’re filled with a sense of adventure about what is to come, where you might go, what you might see and experience.

After that come job applications and interviews, accepting a job, doing all the things you need to do to move to another country, and finally taking the plunge, getting on that plane and starting life in your new TEFL job. When you arrive you’re feeling exhilarated, overwhelmed, excited and apprehensive all at the same time.

Your adventure has started, and you’re about to put into practice everything you’ve learnt on your TEFL course. We’ll come to the actual teaching part of the job in a moment. First though, what can you expect from the move and your new employer? Are you on your own, or will someone be there to guide you through settling into a new country, culture and job?

Your new school

The level of support you get from your new employer will vary. In a lot of developing countries there is often a very good network of support if you’ve taken a job in a language school. Someone will probably meet you at the airport, show you around the city or area, go with you to the supermarket the first time, take you to the police station to stamp forms, send someone to fix your burst pipes, all the time dealing with language barriers for you along the way.

If the school provides accommodation you will be able to just walk in the door and unpack, rather than arriving in a city and spending days searching for an apartment. You may also be living with other teachers, often very near the school, which provides an extra measure of support as well as a feeling that you are all in the same boat.

I experienced this kind of support in my first teaching job in Jakarta. The school’s administrative manager met me at the airport, bought me some food, took me to the school to show me around and then to my new house, where I met my two housemates and found out everything else I needed to know from them. In my first month there the school organised and paid for a visa trip to Singapore.

In English speaking countries and most of Western Europe you will most likely be expected to sort things out for yourself in terms of getting to the country, finding accommodation and sorting out a lot of the paperwork and visa necessities. The type of support network I found in Jakarta is often much less evident. The experience will probably be more like starting a new job in your own country – away from the job itself you’re pretty much on your own.

Whether the school itself gives you a lot of or not much support though, other teachers are goldmines for practical advice. They were all in your shoes once and more often than not will go out of their way to provide reassurance and practical, actionable advice about living in that city and country, dealing with the ways of your new school and employers, and of course teaching (more on that later). Use this valuable resource – they will tell you how things really work and what it’s really like.

Get to know the school and how it works

Other teachers may be your most reliable source of information, but most language schools also provide some kind of programme of induction training for new teachers. You’ll probably meet the staff, have a tour of the school, learn about the curriculum and types of courses you will be teaching, the course books used, administrative tasks, methods of assessing students, how to use the photocopier and so on. There may also be some training workshops, particularly if the school follows its own methodology. This kind of induction for new teachers may last an hour, a day or a week. Use the time to ask questions and get a feel for where you’ll be working.

The first day of work

So what about the first day of teaching and the first lesson itself? With everything else to think about and get used to – new culture, new apartment, new friends – the actual teaching part of the job may actually be the furthest from your mind, even on the morning of your first day of work. When I arrived for my first job in Jakarta, I had 4 days before I started work. I knew that first lesson was looming, but it was, to be honest, still firmly at the back of my mind as I went out and about in the city with my new housemates and fellow teachers.

But come Monday morning, I was jolted back to reality and faced with the prospect of planning 4 lessons of 1 hour 20 minutes each. This was about as much teaching as I’d done on my entire CELTA course, and this is probably the biggest shock of TEFL training versus your first TEFL job. The relative luxury of having hours to plan and re-plan a single lesson is gone. No matter how good your TEFL course, nothing can really prepare you for the reality of teaching a full-time schedule in your first job.

On that first day in Jakarta, lessons started at 3pm. All I wanted to do was get into the school as early as possible and plan them. My housemates though wanted to go and buy a TV for our house, then get back in time to get to the school for 1pm to plan. “That’ll be plenty of time, don’t worry” they said. But worry I did, wholly un-comforted by their laid-back reassurances that two hours would be enough time to plan four lessons.

So how can you survive that first day shock? First-day nerves are probably magnified in any kind of teaching job, where, as well as dealing with all the regular new stuff, you have to cope with being thrown in front of classes full of students and trying to remember your concept questions, error correction techniques, classroom management ideas and lesson procedures all at once! Here are a few ways to manage the shock:

  1. Plan the lesson well

    Spend as much time as you need preparing your lessons. If you need to plan them the day before, that’s fine. Trust the lesson procedures and techniques you learnt on your TEFL course. Go over the plans several times until you’re confident that you know them inside out. As I said, you’ll quickly find that spending this much time planning every day is not realistic, but it’ll certainly help on your first day.

    Here’s a guide to TEFL lesson planning that may help.

  2. Over-plan with some extra activities

    Have a couple of activities up your sleeve in case you find yourself finishing before the end of the lesson (nerves and inexperience can throw timing out quite easily). Don’t worry too much if these extra activities don’t exactly fit into the overall theme of your lesson – it’s better to over-plan even at the expense of a cohesive lesson, than to finish 10 minutes before the end and panic. The more you teach, the easier timing will be to get right.

  3. Talk to other teachers

    Ask another teacher to take a look at your plans and give you some constructive suggestions. If you’re not the only new teacher starting that day, take comfort in the others – compare your plans and share your nerves.

  4. Arrive in your classroom early

    There’s nothing worse than arriving in the classroom at the last minute with all the students already there and waiting, especially in your first lesson. So give yourself time to get everything prepared, the seating organised, and your materials laid out the way you want them. Then take a few deep breaths…

  5. Break the ice in the first lesson

    Let your students get to know you a little. This breaks the ice and gets everyone relaxed. One way to do this is to put some one-word facts about yourself on the board and have students guess the questions that these facts refer to.

  6. Act confidently in front of your students

    When you arrive in your TEFL classroom for the first time (and probably the second and third…) your palms are sweating, your stomach is turning and you have a heart rate of 120. But the great thing is your students don’t know it’s your first ever class. Although it’s easier said than done, try to get off to a good start with a confident voice and a smile. Your students will pick up on your confidence, even if it is an act, and this in turn will start to give you actual confidence.

  7. Don’t feel you have to answer every grammar question

    What happens if, in your first lesson, a student throws you with a question about the present perfect, when your lesson is all about first conditional? Well, you don’t have to answer everything as soon as it’s asked. Just tell the student that this is a good question, and you’ll give them an answer in the next class. Then make a note of it, go and research it so that you’re well prepared for the next class, when you can take the student aside and give her the answer.

  8. Don’t be hard on yourself if the first class goes badly

    If things don’t go according to plan, don’t worry. This happens to all teachers, even those who have been teaching 20 years. It’s all “part of the learning experience””- a cliché which happens to be very true in TEFL. Getting your TEFL certificate didn’t make you superhuman overnight – the first few months (even the first few years) of your job are really a continuation of the learning you started on your TEFL course. So it’s perfectly normal when not everything goes right straight away. If you embrace this, are prepared to learn, use advice and ideas from other teachers, then you’ll be fine!

Read next: How to make a career out of TEFL

Keith Taylor
Keith is the co-founder of Eslbase and School of TEFL. He has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years, in Indonesia, Australia, Morocco, Spain, Italy, Poland, France and now in the UK.

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