Grammar for Beginners

The ‘beginners’ in the title refers more to you, rookie teacher, than your students. We both know that you know absolute dick when it comes to grammar. You know when it’s right or wrong because you’ve been using it your whole life, but can you explain to elementary students exactly why ‘you suck at teach’ is wrong? Hint: gerunds after prepositions. You do know what those are, don’t you?

All snark aside, grammar scares the hell out of a lot of budding new teachers. They don’t remember learning the rules (if they learned them at all), and their greatest fear is being put on the spot: ‘Teacher, what is simple past?” Imposter syndrome runs deep in the veins of noobs, as it should, because let’s be honest, that piddling TEFL certificate didn’t make you a teacher.

Imposter syndrome

The good news is that rules have very little place in the classroom when it comes to actual teaching. Nothing is more yawn-inducing or drool-congealing than seeing a board filled with rules. Students aren’t going to remember them, at least not in the time you have to teach. What will likely happen is they grab their pencil and start mindlessly writing down what doesn’t need to be written down. That’s what their books are for.

So, all of this is to say that, yet again, the enemy here are words and explanations.

Here’s the dictionary definition of simple past: “The simple past tense, sometimes called the preterite, is used to talk about a completed action in a time before now. The simple past is the basic form of past tense in English. The time of the action can be in the recent past or the distant past and action duration is not important.”

Yeah, fuck that noise.

So how do you teach it? Here comes a dead horse to beat…

beat a dead horse ‘Do you like that, Ed?’ ‘Nay.’

Show. Don’t tell.

Write this on the board: “Yesterday, I go to a restaurant and eat rice.”

Ask your students what’s wrong with it. Typically there will be one or two or even more that already know the rules anyway. Elicit from them. Use your students’ collective knowledge. It’s more memorable than explanation.

Now fix the mistake. “Yesterday, I went to a restaurant and ate rice.”

T: “Why ‘went’ and ‘ate’?”

Ss: “Because ‘yesterday'”

T: “Yesterday is past, present or future?”

Ss: “Past.”

T: “Very good. We have to change the verbs for the past.”

Now show them a timeline. Ask them to identify where our sentence should go.

simple past timeline

Now elicit a few more past time expressions and write them on the board. “Yesterday, last night, two days ago, last week, in June.” Start using these time expressions wrongly and have them correct you. “Last year I fly to Thailand on holiday.” “I have eggs for breakfast this morning.”

Students should begin recognizing that verbs in the past much change. They didn’t need a rule to tell them this. They came up with the rule themselves through pattern recognition. This is the difference between ‘revealing’ them the answer and ‘telling’ it to them. Again, show. Don’t tell.

Think they got it? Awesome. Now reinforce it with an activity. Tennis, anyone?

Find Someone Who…

Find Someone Who (FSW) is a classic activity that most teachers come across when they’re still finding their feet in the classroom. The heart of this activity is interaction, getting students out of their desks and communicating with each other. Best of all, it can be tailored to almost any theme and ability.

FSW works best if it’s broken up into several stages, each of which is its own little activity. Let’s assume this is one of your first lessons in an elementary level teen or adult class. Typically, the first units of EFL books will begin with basic ‘getting to know you’ questions and answers. You’ve finished the material in the book and you think your students have got it. Perhaps the book already included a pair speaking activity where students interview each other with these questions. Great. Now let’s really get them using it.

STAGE 1:

Write on the board:

Find Someone Who...”                      Name:                                              

  1. was born in Beijing.
  2. is 25 years old.
  3. has 2 brothers or sisters.
  4. lives in Dongcheng District.
  5. has a pet.
  6. likes pop music.
  7. is a doctor.
  8. drives a car.

The first stage of the activity will be putting students into pairs and having them come up with the questions they’ll need to ask. Students will inevitably misunderstand this part of the activity and will immediately begin trying to ask and answer with their partner. It’s important to know they’re asking the correct questions, so make sure this part of the activity is solely focused on that. How can you make it clear that’s what they should be doing? Model it of course. Model the hell out of it. Write some of the questions on the board.

Teacher: “With your partner, think of (or perhaps write down) the questions you will ask. For example, number 1. ‘Born in Beijing.’ What question should I ask?”

Students will probably sit there in silence at first because they don’t really know what you’re asking.

T: “I want to know where you were born. What question should I ask?”

More silence, most likely. Start writing the question slowly to elicit the rest of it.

T: “Where…were…you…”

A smart student at this point probably understands what you’re driving at and will be able to complete the question.

T: “Where were you born? Very good. Now number 2. ‘is 25 years old’. What question do I ask?” Start writing it again. “How…old…are you? Very good. How about number 3?”

Don’t fret about modeling two or three times. The imperative thing is that students are clear about the intention of your activity, otherwise it’s a waste of time as some will get it, some won’t, and then you’ll have to walk around reexplaining what you thought you’d already made clear.

T: “Now work with your partner. Think of the questions you will ask.”

Depending on where you’re teaching, students may have a compulsion to write down every single thing that you put on the board. It’s important to break them of this habit because not only is it time-consuming, virtually everything you put on the board will already be in the book anyway. What you really want is communication.

Give students a few minutes to come up with the questions they’ll be asking, then elicit and write them on the board. If you’re lucky and you have a computer/projector, you can just open Microsoft Wordpad and type the questions to save time.

STAGE 2:

You have the questions written on the board so drill, baby, drill. Drill it a few times. Exaggerate the intonation. Be funny. Break them into different groups.

STAGE 3:

Tell students the point of the activity. That they will need to walk around asking questions until they find someone for whom the statement is true. Many students will misunderstand this part and just walk around asking questions instead of looking for one who answers ‘yes’. So how do you make the intention clear? That’s right. Model the shit out of it.

T: “You will stand up. Walk around and find someone. For example, number 1.” You ask  Student A, “where were you born?”

Student A: “Shenzen.”

T:  You ask Student B, “where were you born?”

Student B: “Guangzhou.”

T: You ask Student C, “where were you born?”

Student C: “Beijing.”

T: “Great!”

Write Student C’s name next to number 1. Then perhaps model number 2 if you think they’re still unclear.

STAGE 4:

The fun part. Students actually do the activity, but only after you’re sure they’re crystal clear on the instructions. At this point you can walk around, participate, or perhaps jot down some common errors that you’re hearing. Don’t forget to set a time limit. Six to eight minutes should be enough.

STAGE 5:

Feedback. Ask the class a few of the questions. “Who can drive a car? Who likes pop music?” What were those errors you overheard? Were they grammatical? Pronunciation? Now’s the time to fix it.

STAGE 6:

Extension. Don’t let a good opportunity go to waste. The students have collected data about their classmates so exploit it and turn it into a speaking activity. With a partner, they’ll report what they learned.

S1: “Chen was born in Beijing. Zhang Wei likes pop music.”

S2: “Li Wei can drive a car. Zhang Li lives in Dongcheng.”

Final thoughts:

There are a billion Find Someone Who topics and grids out there on the web, but a common mistake (made out of laziness or ignorance, both in your case) is to just print out a random topic, hand it to your students and say ‘go’. This isn’t good enough. Take your time. Exploit it. Make it relevant and make sure your students know what they’re doing before they do it.

The best FSWs are often made on the fly. Is your lesson dragging? Probably. You do suck at TEFL, so stop what you’re doing and think of a way to do a FSW; just try to tie it to the theme of your lesson. FSWs are a great way to get students up and active and actually using English. By breaking things up into stages, you have several built-in mini-activities, all of which encourage even more Student Talking Time and keeps the lesson flowing. It’s also possible to make it competitive by letting students race against each other to finish their list first. Be creative. Tweak it. Above all, make it fun and interactive.

The Classroom

Congratulations. Somebody actually hired you. You’re well on your way to becoming an actual human being rather than just some basement-dwelling, parasitic slob living off your parents. I didn’t think you had it in you.

Perhaps you’re already in country. Have you seen your school yet? Toured the facilities? Been in a classroom? The equipment and facilities in the TEFL world are so varied that a (boring) book could be written about all the configurations. Suffice it to say that while you can change your lesson and activities, it’s much harder to change the equipment you’re given. You can only work with what you’re given and what works in one classroom may not work in another.

Blackboard or Whiteboard?

Why anyone would use a blackboard when there’s such a thing as a whiteboard boggles my mind. There’s literally nothing you can do on a blackboard which you can’t do on a white except perhaps break your writing utensil and leave cocaine-like piles of dust scattered around the area. Whiteboards aren’t only cleaner, they’re also decent media for your projector, so if you’re working off interactive software, you can use a market to write answers, highlight, underline, circle…basically everything you’ll want to do in the program.

How big is the room? How many desks?

The games and activities you plan are constrained by class and classroom size. Do you want a mingle activity? A board race? What if there’s physically no room? Can you move desks outside the classroom? Do you have enough space to move desks for pair and group work? You’ll need to see your facilities before planning a lesson.

thai-school-class

Google images says the above image is a Thai classroom but I suspect it might be Burmese due to the shit (thanaka — a sandlewood paste) on their faces. Regardless, the above classroom isn’t atypical for the region. If you find yourself with such a setup, first slap yourself in the face for signing up for that, then quit your job and head to a real school. I jest, but in all seriousness, many teachers make such classrooms work. Just know that all the fun and games you’ll want to play are limited by the physical space.

modern classroom

That’s more like it. In the classroom above you’re limited only by your imagination. Need small groups, pair work, or maybe you need the floor wide open? No problem, just move the desks into whatever configuration suits the purpose. The flexibility afforded by the facilities here gives you far more latitude and creativity in terms of lesson planning. The room probably even has air-con so you needn’t worry about sweating through your shirt and bogging out the class with your rancid onion body odor.

The point (which I’m belaboring so even you can grasp it) is that form (facilities) dictates content (activities). So do yourself a favor and make sure you know what you’re (literally) walking into.

Scam City.

So you think you’re ready to take the plunge. You’ve got your crisp new passport with nary a visa inside. You’ve got a country chosen. You even managed to grasp the impenetrable depths of an online TEFL certification. Look at you, big shit, thinking you’re on top of the world. Hold your fuckin horses.

Have you done your research? I mean, really done it. Have you talked to teachers working at a school you’ve got your eye on? Have you talked to administrators? I’m not trying to scare you, I’m just watching your back to make sure you don’t fly to China only to end up bound and gagged in a tub of ice water with stitches where your kidneys used to be. Joking.

The world of ESL is littered with the remains of teachers who were chewed up and spit out by unscrupulous schools who said whatever you wanted to hear to get your dumbass into their classroom. Not a few of these scams, unsurprisingly, come from China where it’s not just products that are fake, but also classrooms and Apple stores along with the employees working inside. Not joking.

Generally, scams can be sniffed out by anyone with even a rudimentary bullshit detector. But I know you, dear Millenial. Perhaps the peach fuzz on your upper lip is keeping the sour stench of lies from reaching your nose. Well bust out the wax because we’re about to get raw.

Pertinent questions to ask:

  1. How many contact hours per week? How many hours are you required to be at the school?
  2. Is there homework and/or exams to be marked?
  3. Are lesson plans required for submission?
  4. What is the max class size?
  5. Can you see some pictures of the facilities?
  6. Does the school have a photocopier?
  7. How often do you get paid? What’s the tax rate and who’s responsible for paying it?
  8. How long are the lessons?
  9. What materials are provided for the lessons? Are there books or are you meant to design your own curriculum?
  10. Do you have access to a computer/projector in the classroom? How will you conduct listening lessons? On a tape deck? (If yes, fucking run).
  11. What benefits do you get for signing a year contract? Health insurance? Housing? Meals? Be specific.
  12. Can you talk to a teacher currently working at the school? (Tough to lie your way through this one.)

Finally. And this is really important so make sure it gets through your thick skull. Never, ever, forever never does the school ever need your fucking passport except to get you a visa. Don’t give it to them because they want it ‘just because’. If you’re getting a visa, fair enough. If it’s for any other reason, well, enjoy your ice bath.

Where should I go?

Maybe you’re in the grips of a debilitating depression (I would be too if I were a young Millenial with no path forward).  Maybe you hate your wife and job and have finally decided to take a pro-active role in your mid-life crisis. Or maybe you just want to see the world. Whatever your situation, you’re finally ready to take the plunge and go abroad. The question, of course, is where to go.

The good news is that most countries don’t speak English. Close your eyes and spin the globe and you’ll probably land on a country where you can teach. Hell, you can even teach English in your home country to immigrants and refugees, though as of early 2018 the immigrant market in America is decidedly precarious, especially for those from executively-described shithole countries. Far better is it just to go to the shithole directly. That’s really what this is about, anyway — seeing the world.

Some people choose their country based on lifestyle. Love the Latin languages and lifestyle? You have almost the entirety of South America at your disposal. Want to live like Hemingway in the 20s? Head to Europe for a bohemian lifestyle. Want to give something back to the world? Go to Africa and volunteer.

Or maybe you’re in it for the money. No shame in that. Most are. If so, you’ll probably want to start in Asia. Thing thing about Asia is that there are lots of Asians. I mean, lots. The market is is vast and varied, almost overwhelmingly so. And most Asian cultures place a premium on education. Your typical East Asian, Confucian-influenced families would give up food for education if that were the only available option (only a small hyperbole). Think Korea (the sane one), China, Japan and Vietnam.

There’s also Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia which rank high on popularity but just under the above countries in terms of salary. Thailand in particular is a sought-after destination, offering world-class food on the cheap and no shortage of ridiculously beautiful islands for travel. Of course, the popularity of these countries means schools can offer lower salaries and benefits since there’s always a well-stocked pool of teachers willing to make a pittance for the lifestyle.

So what can you expect to make? And what benefits? It really is location dependent and how good you are at sussing out the right school/situation.

In Thailand, for example, you can expect to start out at between $1000-1,500 a month with the school offering accommodation whereas it wouldn’t be difficult in Korea to find work for double that. Again, much of it is how much research you do and how well you sell yourself. Join expat groups on Facebook, email schools, find teachers working at those schools and email them. No school should shy away from referring one of their teachers to you as a contact.

It’s increasingly common to hire teachers directly from the home country. There’s an interview done via Skype or Facetime, then an offer (or not, if you’re the awkward loser I think you are). This might be the best way for someone who doesn’t feel comfortable just turning up and going job hunting. Often these schools can help arrange visas and work permits before you come which makes things (relatively) hassle free.

The Mecca of ESL, however, is in the Middle East. From Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates, the highest-paying jobs can be found (not coincidentally) where oil is found. The living and teaching environments can vary widely, whether it’s living on a compound in Riyadh or a luxury apartment in Dubai. These jobs tend to go to the highest qualified and most-experienced ESL teachers, those who have done the job so long they’ve had no choice but to make a career out of it. Most of these jobs are salary-based with paid accommodation and flights home, the drawback being of course that you have to live in the Middle East.

In all these locations, you’ll find every type of teacher. From those with no direction (like you), to career teachers to overweight sexpats only working enough to pay for the next round of drinks and bar fines. Some teachers are all three of these at various points, transmogrifying, progressing or regressing, a fascinating spectacle of evolution or devolution that never ceases to amaze, and it is this that’s the hook, the selling point, the drug that keeps teachers chasing the dragon — living abroad is never boring (even though you probably are).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, though few, there are still pitfalls to be avoided. The flip-side of the spectacle and novelty of moving to another country is that there are people looking to capitalize on the naive and thick-skulled (i.e. you). It’s just a matter of knowing what to look for.

What you’ll need.

I’ll spare you any further abuse (who am I kidding, no I won’t) which you deserve for choosing a useless major. The good news is that (somewhat ironically I think) your degree isn’t as useless as you think. The schools you’ll want to teach at require at least some proof that you’re not a total ignoramus. And while a degree is certainly no proof of that (I have one, after all) it’s good enough for them.

It should be mentioned that it’s entirely possible to teach without a Bachelor degree. Some schools are willing to accept whatever talking head they can find, so long as that head is talking in English. But we can do better than middling pay at a disreputable school. You’re a talking head with a degree after all, right? In addition, many countries now make work permits for expats conditional upon having that piece of paper, as if studying poli-sci somehow made you worthy of a job. I won’t tell them if you won’t.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it’s often easier to find work if one has Anglo Saxon-toned skin. Many places have misguided notions of what a ‘Western’ person is and their association of whiteness with English would be nothing other than racist if it weren’t mostly borne of naivety. And while you can rightfully rage against the unfairness of this, it exists nonetheless. However, despite all this, and with the caveat that this is only personal experience talking, the world is changing. In the past decade, I have seen schools in several Southeast Asian countries go from a whitewash to hiring every hue of the skin tone rainbow. Yay for diversity.

While I’m talking of work permits, let me add that you’ll want to collect all the required documents before you leave because once you’re in country, sending something to or from your home country becomes a serious pain in the ass. How do you know what documents are necessary? Check the laws for whatever country is stupid enough to let you in.

Typically required are:

A police check, both state and federal (for US citizens). Ahh, a trip down memory lane. 2 underage consumptions, one charge of identity fraud (fake ID required to buy the alcohol for the previous 2 offenses), disorderly conduct (alcohol is a hell of a drug) and a slew of (mostly sober) traffic violations. You should be alright, dear reader. We both know you’re too boring to have a rap sheet.

University transcripts: besides written proof that you studied bullshit, many schools also want to see how well (or not) you managed said bullshit. I’m sure they’ll be floored by the A you got in ‘Cultural Studies’.

A teaching certificate. Don’t shit your pants, it’s not what you think. As crazy as it sounds, reputable schools will want you to have at least a modicum of training. There are many programs out there, some of which can be done either in your home country or destination, or even better yet, online. Google TEFL or CELTA and you’re on your way. They’re cheap and easy enough for your broke and dumb ass.

Your documents will typically need to be notarized and/or translated, so check the laws of wherever it is you want to go. Make sure you get as much of it done as possible before you depart.

Depending on your destination you may want a battery of vaccinations, more to assuage your mom’s worries than anything else. Unless you’re riding trannies bareback in some Bangkok parlor, you shouldn’t have to worry about anything more than your mundane cold or flu. Mosquito borne illnesses are rare and the prophylactics are often worse than the actual disease. The ones for malaria in particular are infamous for their bizarre side effect of making people mental. Google it if you don’t believe me.

There are typically Facebook groups for expats living in your destination, so check with them for any hard-to-come-by creature comforts. Many of the things you take for granted might not be available overseas. Like Funyuns. What the fuck…

Last, don’t forget your childhood teddy or blankey or whatever you hug at night to make you feel safe without mom around. Homesickness is inevitable and while FaceTime can certainly help, there’s nothing quite like a tangible piece of home (unless of course the only real thing you have are scars from your stepdad’s beatings).

Finally, though it goes without saying, I feel compelled to say it because it’s your dumbass I’m dealing with — don’t forget the most important, unAmerican thing you can’t do without: a passport. The only question is, where should you go.