An Honest Attempt: Teaching Young Learners

Written by  July 1, 2016

Word to the wise: Teaching children is not for everyone.

Nicolas stood up from his chair, lifted it by the seat and threw it across the room. A cruel smile stretched across his face, and he screamed, a bloody warrior cry reverberating against the classroom’s naked, white cinderblock walls. Then he walked over to Maria and stomped on her foot.

Daniel, Nicolas’ best friend, began tearing pages from his notebook, folding them into triangles and flinging them at the other girls. As I tried to play traffic controller, Daniel’s cell phone rang. A string of expletives escaped his mouth. “It’s my mom,” he said. “I have to take this.” He left the room. At least he was speaking English, I thought.

I have yet to discover the cause for this particular outburst; we were only playing charades, practicing our animal and outdoor vocabulary. “Thunderstorm” is a tough word to pronounce, I realize. But I didn’t quite expect this response.

My brief stint at teaching children concluded after 12 weeks. My friends would offer me a few phrases to use, to demand—at minimum—three minutes of attention at a time from this group of seven-year-olds. (“Parame bolas” resulted in wide eyes and half a moment of silence, but lost its affect by the second use.) In the end, I wrapped up this part-time job with the same chat with Nicolas’ father that we’d had the week before. But now Maria’s grandmother wanted to know why the boys were such bullies, and how we could separate the class. The institute’s director was nowhere in sight. She hadn’t come in today.

This formula for disaster left me feeling more like a babysitter (or a violence prevention counsellor) than an actual TEFL teacher. 

In Medellin, private language institutes are known to charge students extravagant prices, pay teachers poorly and provide few resources. It was a rare Saturday morning that I wouldn’t find the speakers broken, the projector missing—altogether ripped from the suspension on the ceiling—or the teacher’s guidebook absent from the shelf (there was only one available for each level, so we couldn’t take it home for lesson planning). This formula for disaster promises interesting classes, which left me feeling more like a babysitter (or a violence prevention counsellor) than an actual teacher. My classroom management strategy involved downing three cups of coffee outside of the school, just to reach my students’ level. Note: Teaching children is not for everyone.

Although I added the “young learners” component to my TEFL certification, I have no practical experience with early education. The class was basically handed to me; Nicolas and company had already worked their way through three teachers in four months. Teacher retention wasn’t looking so good. Given Nicolas’ weekly outbursts—and the unrealistic expectation that I teach the Present Perfect tense and Passive Voice to 12 seven-year-olds in a two-and-a-half hour class on Saturdays—it was time for me to go. I don’t normally consider myself a quitter. But I can say that I gave these darlings a valid shot. And my reflexes improved every week. On my last day, I intercepted six paper planes and expanded my toy car collection to five.

When I took this job, I ignored several red flags. I’m open to unbinding job opportunities (no matter how ridiculous the prospect) and taking on challenging classes to gain more teaching experience. At this point in my life, I have the luxury of viewing every “career decision” as temporary. But here are a few notes you may want to be cautious of when accepting a job, even if it’s only part-time. Don’t be like me; be selective.

Language Institute Red Flags

Few connections between teachers. When I met with the director, no teachers were actually present in the school to share their experiences or opinions. Ask around for other teachers’ points of view before saying yes.

Poor teacher retention rates. Four different English teachers for one class in six months is information a director might try to conceal. Ask to speak with the former teacher over the phone to at least gain an understanding of where he or she left off with the course material (and any insider information about the job that they can provide).

Unreliable technology. Internet access, a projector and speakers are often taken for granted. But YouTube sing-along songs and videos do wonders to retain attention after a soda and cookie-filled snack break. Make sure that if a laptop and working speakers are promised, that they’re always available.

Limited or no classroom resources. Can you take the teacher’s book home with you? Will the school provide copies of activity pages, or will you have to pay for them yourself? When working with kids, a closet full of games and toys comes in handy (especially when can’t rely on students to come prepared with even the basic crayons and paper). With few or no young learners’ resources, be prepared to get creative with an endless list of resource-free games (“Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” only lasts so long).

As with any prospective job, be cautious when considering a contract. But if you walk into a seemingly relaxed, paid-in-cash gig like I did, you may want to reconsider, although the risk might seem low at first.

I’m glad I gave this kids’ class my best effort. But ultimately, I learned that I lack the personality to keep up with such energy, and the will power to play goalie. The students would probably (hopefully) do better with a different instructor. Seven-year-olds might not be my ideal age group, and that’s okay. I’m learning to be honest with myself about my strengths and weaknesses when creating classroom success for everyone—students, parents, and myself included. I’m still not sure how I should address curse words when they come from the mouths of children. . .but, as they say, some things come with time.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Caroline Cassard

Caroline Cassard is a travel and food-enthused English language teacher from the U.S. Excited to explore Latin America and beyond, she scavenges for vegetarian meals and attempts to pick up the local language between classes.


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