The Most Likely Reason You Suck at Teaching and 7 Not-So-Easy nor Immediate Ways of Improving It

Are you a budding new teacher, so fresh from your training course that the certificate is still hot off the press? Then first, let’s address the ten-ton pachyderm in the room — you suck at teaching. That’s why you clicked on the link, right? You don’t like your classes, and they most certainly don’t like you. Why would they? You’re not particularly attractive. You’ve got the personality of a cow. Spittle gathers in the corners of your mouth when you talk and your breath smells like rancid onions. If you think that’s bad, you should hear what your students say about you behind your back.

Perhaps you think this is overly direct. Hyperbolic. Even insulting. And you’d be right, but unfortunately it doesn’t make the point above any less true. If you’re new, you’re just not good. It’s okay. A good proportion of experienced teachers aren’t that good either, so don’t feel that you’re alone. Awareness is the first step.

‘But wait,’ you say. ‘Not me. I’m different. I paid attention during the training course and took notes. I’m going to set the class on fire with my English-teaching prowess.’

If this is you, it’s time for an ice-cold bath with Dunning and Kruger:

Dunning Kruger

If, having perused this graph, you identify with the ‘Valley of Depair’, pat yourself on the back as you’re already ahead of the curve. This is precisely where you should be.

If, on the other hand, you feel confident you know what you’re doing, look closely at the summit of Mt. Stupid. That’s you up there, the Edmund Hilary of TEFL. The best advice I can give you is to reiterate the simple observation above, that if you’re a new teacher, you suck. But that advice will fall on deaf ears because not only do you suck at teaching, you don’t even know that you suck. Nobody at the top of Mount Stupid knows where they are. At least the people in the Valley of Despair are aware of their own suckitude. Not you. You’re special. You’re on the wrong side of the Dunning-Kruger effect. And you’re not alone — the slope is littered with the carcasses of teachers who glimpsed their own inadequacies and didn’t survive the fall.

So this post is only for those lying there helplessly in the Valley of Despair. If that’s where you started out, congratulations. If you’ve fallen there from the lofty heights of stupidity,  welcome back to Earth. Let me help you claw your way out of this hole you’ve landed in.

But first, more bad news. Becoming a better teacher, like everything else, requires hours and hours of repetition, hard work, and trial and error before achieving anything close to mastery, if there is such a thing. If you came here for a quick-fix guide to being awesome in a classroom, you’ll have to kindly look elsewhere. The only thing I can do is point out the weaknesses most new teachers have at the outset, and perhaps provide some signposts to keep you moving in the right direction whilst avoiding some of the obstacles and pitfalls you’ll likely encounter.

So, without further ado, let me introduce the most likely reason you suck as a teacher:

You’re boring. 

There. I said it. I know that’s tough to hear, especially after your mom’s told you your whole life how special you are. You’re some kind of special, alright, just not the kind that works in a classroom. Think back to when you were a student. Who was your favorite teacher? Why? Who was your least favorite teacher? Why? Chances are the word boring is going to crop up somewhere in your thoughts.

As a student, nothing is more deflating than walking into a class knowing you have to endure hours of your teacher’s limp dishrag of a personality. A good question to ask yourself is whether you would want to attend one of your own classes as a student. I know I wouldn’t.

But aren’t we fighting DNA here? Aren’t boring people irrevocably boring? To some extent, perhaps. Not everyone can be Gordon Ramsey, but we can certainly learn something from the more charismatic people we’re jealous of.

Here are 7 useful guidelines to ensure your lesson isn’t one long drool-pooling snooze-fest:

1. Be energetic.

Seriously. Bring. The. Energy. Chug a coffee or mainline a Red Bull or snort a pile of sugar if you have to. Do whatever it takes. You can’t expect your students to bring energy into the classroom; you have to provide it for them. At the end of your class, you should be pinging and so should your students.

If you’re teaching in a private language school, your students may have been at work or school the whole day and they’re studying on top of an already busy schedule. You’re fighting nature, here. People are going to be exhausted and reluctant to put in more than the minimum amount of effort required. It’s up to you to snap them out of their malaise.

2. Have a sense of humor.

How could you, yes you, possibly be funny? I was wondering the exact same thing. But you don’t need to be Jerry Seinfeld; you need to be Rowan Atkinson. Remember that if you’re teaching EFL, your students won’t get your witty repartee or observational brilliance (lol). What they will get is physical humor. Slapstick. Mr. Bean doesn’t need to say a word to get people to understand and laugh at his shtick.

The point is that students will be reluctant to contribute if the they’re learning in an oppressively serious environment. Students need to see mistakes not just as inevitable, but necessary for learning. This is especially important in cultures where mistakes are considered a loss of face. Students need to overcome this fear, and humor is possibly the best way. Be self-deprecating. Laugh at your own mistakes.

3. Be entertaining.

If you stick around long enough in the biz, you’ll hear the term ‘edutainment’ bandied around in disparaging terms. It typically refers to teachers who do nothing more than play stupid, education-less games in their class with the sole objective of killing time or garnering positive reviews from students. While this does happen, students typically see through teachers who offer nothing more than an hour’s worth of hangman. That leaves the ‘edu’ out of edutainment.

Edutainment, to me at least , is the art of generating interest in something that’s not inherently interesting. Perhaps the theme of your lesson is clothes. Yawn.  Edutainment means taking a boring book exercise and acting like it’s the most interesting thing they could possibly be doing. You have to sell your lesson and the activities within it through the sheer power of your own enthusiasm.

What if you’re neither a naturally enthusiastic or entertaining person? What if you’re introverted?

4. Develop an alter ego.

You can’t be introverted in the classroom. You just can’t. It’s boring. It’s embarrassing. It reminds everyone of their own insecurities. You need a split personality. Take every quality you wish you were (start with good-looking and intelligent) and make it your classroom persona. Develop a Superman to your Clark Kent. Project confidence, even if you feel none. Fake it til you make it.

5. Give a shit, or at least pretend to.

Nothing is worse than a teacher who looks like he or she would rather be somewhere else. Teaching isn’t your calling? No problem. Act like it is. Why would your students care about a lesson when it’s painfully obvious that the teacher doesn’t? The classroom isn’t the place to be sullen, brooding ruefully over pathetic life choices. You have the rest of your sorry existence for that.

6. Develop fun, engaging and educational activities.

Here’s the best part. Perhaps you are an indolent, ill-humored and uncaring introvert. There is still hope. Not much, mind you, but some. What you lack in personality you can make up for in content. What you need is to acquire and stockpile weapons of mass instruction — activities. Ask your colleagues. Read books. Scour the Internet for foolproof activities that even you couldn’t screw up. You don’t have to be entertaining or interesting if your activities are. It certainly helps, but it isn’t absolutely essential.

Have some fun activities? Great. My final point.

7. Keep activities short and sweet.

What do Lost, The Office, Happy Days and the Simpsons all have in common? They all went on way too long. If you want to maintain interest in activities, they can’t drag. Aim for no more than five minutes. Break up longer activities into shorter, more manageable activities.

You don’t want your students to feel totally settled at any one point. Keep them on their toes. And just because they’re enjoying the activity doesn’t mean it’s the wrong time to end it. Remember the true secret to showmanship — always keep them wanting more.

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