Tips for Getting Through Your First Week in the EFL Classroom Abroad

Thai students in school uniforms

When I was getting ready to teach my first week in an EFL classroom abroad, I must admit I was terrified. Not having much experience teaching non-native English speakers and living in a foreign country, everything suddenly seemed stressful.

Luckily, a fellow teacher with several years experience in Thailand gave me some tips about how to get through my first week teaching. Along with some things I’d already figured out myself, they really helped.

If you too are worrying about getting through your first week in the EFL classroom abroad — don’t. Let me tell you, it’s much easier than you think it’s going to be and, frankly, it’s also a lot of fun. Follow these quick tips, and you shouldn’t have any problems at all.

Arrive early to school – The most important thing about getting through your first week in an EFL classroom abroad is to arrive calm, cool and collected on your first day. That usually means getting to school early.

I scout out the school a couple of days beforehand, taking the bus or taxi I will normally take around the same time of day, so I know how long the journey is going to take and how to get there.

Once at school and still with plenty of time before your first class begins, get a cup of coffee and start getting to know everyone — the other English teachers, the local staff, the school administrators and any of the kids you see walking around.

Be sure, to also find out about specific school procedures and what you’ll be responsible for every morning, as you may have homeroom, be required to attend the school assembly, or be on ‘gate duty’ to greet students and parents.

Also, make sure you know where your first few classes meet and find the classrooms. That way you can arrive at them early instead of rushing in five minutes late because you couldn’t find the room.

Your very first class – Don’t plan on getting much achieved during your very first week in an EFL classroom abroad, or any of your classes on your first day if you’re teaching various groups of students.

That’s because your students will be so excited they have a new foreigner in the school, all they’ll be capable of doing is telling you their names and how old they are.

Combined with your unfamiliarity with non-English names, and your first class will have finished before you know it.

Day two is when the real work should begin. Day one is for getting comfortable with each other, starting to get to know everyone, and having some fun.

Plan a game for day one – On my first day in any new classroom, the only activity I plan is a game. That’s because, once introductions are finished with and your students are all excitedly chattering, there is no way they’re concentrating enough to learn anything serious.

Put your students into teams, and play a quick game using a simple grammar point or easy vocabulary. Your students will love is as it will show you are a teacher who will be ‘fun’, and you’ll still feel like you achieved something.

Besides, studies show most EFL students retain more information from playing games than from just about any other activity. The Internet TESL Journal has some excellent games if you don’t have any in your repertoire yet.

Learn your students’ names quickly – One thing I always find makes it easier for me to teach in any new classroom is to learn all my students’ names as soon as I can. That’s why I take a camera to class on my first day and I take a photograph of each child, writing down their names in a notebook as I do so.

Then, during breaks, on the bus going home, or over coffee in the evening, I look at their photographs and pair them up with their names. My students are always amazed at how quickly I know who they are, and it definitely makes it easier when it comes to classroom management.

Sit in on other classes – If you’re new to teaching abroad, or if you end up at a school that has a completely different way of teaching EFL than you’re used to, it can be beneficial to sit in on another teacher’s class. I usually ask a couple of fellow western teachers if one of them wouldn’t mind if I sat in on one of their classes, and I always find someone who will agree.

Just an hour in another teacher’s classroom can give you a great feel for the school and the students, and teach you some tips about what to do in your own classroom. In return, I usually take the teacher out for lunch or an after-school beer as a thank you, which also helps with making friends in the staffroom, and the faster you do that the better.

The rest of the week – Create detailed lesson plans for the rest of the week, making sure you understand every subject you are teaching that week, and every grammar and vocabulary point.

When preparing, write down more examples than you think you may need, as you’ll often discover students find it more difficult to understand than you expect them to. Remember, they are not native speakers so, even what we would term as ‘simple things’ in the English language can sometimes be difficult to grasp.

In the seven years I taught in various schools in Thailand, I didn’t teach at one school where my first week wasn’t fun. Just go into it well prepared and enthusiastic and you’ll soon find you’re having so much fun, the first week is flying by and it really wasn’t stressful at all.