Things to Know Before Teaching Young Learners

Here is a list of things I wish I knew before teaching 3-12 year old students:

1. Patience
You have not known time to slow down until you have watched a young child slowly erasing an errant letter, only to misspell the word again. You will wait for aeons while beseeching the class to stay awake as a student blends an unfamiliar word. You will hear the ticking of the clock stop when you ask about the past perfect tense despite having covered it last lesson. Nothing will test you like the student, who, after sitting quietly for five minutes, will ask you which page you are on again.

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2. Germs are inevitable
Children will sneeze into your open mouth and wipe snot on your pencils. Practicing the /th/ sound without any front teeth results in a spitfire explosion. You will have to teach three year old’s to blow their noses and wipe their drool off the table. My low points have included a boy wetting himself then splashing about in it barefoot, and a girl who pooped in her chair giggling about her dark secret. The trick is to keep tissues handy, spray Dettol on every surface and dollop blobs of hand sanitiser before every meal.

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3. Be comfortable going off-script
When I started teaching, I soon realised that my lesson plans could not predict the bizarre things that my students might say. I always try to be fair and consistent, but occasionally I’m caught off guard and need to ad lib. These situations are usually where something inappropriate needs to be flagged, for example, when a four year old announced to the class that she likes sexy bras or when a primary student wrote ‘Jackass’.  Maintaining a straight face is essential.

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4. Improve your memory
I see my students for 90 minutes each week and have taught over 200 of them over the past eighteen months. Using their names in class is vital to build a productive learning environment. I remember teachers at school calling me by my twin’s name, and after that they were dead to me. It wasn’t easy, but I mastered tricky names such as Qin Zhen, Sze Yuan or Jia Xuan, and tackled the problem of having three boys called Jayden all in one class. If you need name cards at first, do it. Of course, the students can have a momentary lapse too.

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5. Bladder control
When I first started, I believed that asking the pupils whether they needed the toilet was sufficient. Apparently not. I soon learnt that the younger children best respond to “Pazureen?” which is unspeakably crude. Yet this one isn’t just for the students. It is a cruel paradox that you need coffee to survive and water to maintain your voice, but you are forbidden to visit the toilet for five hours during back-to-back lessons. I have cut many impromptu parent-teacher meetings short as I scurried to the ladies’ room.

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6. Avoid labels
I am flabbergasted by how many stereotypes are reinforced at school by the adults. Words like ‘shy’, ‘slow’ or ‘naughty’ are words that I actively discourage, as they only serve to perpetuate that behaviour and stunt progress. I prefer to encourage the children to feel confident in the classroom and express themselves. Stoking the curiosity of students is more important than stifling them. We still learn everything we need to, just with some room for improvisation. As one of my favourite teachers from high school once told me, “It is better to have character than to always follow the rules.”

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6. Volume control
I try very hard not to shush my students. After all, it is my job to build their confidence in speaking English. I cut down my talking time by playing Charades a lot and drawing on the board to elicit answers. My magic charm is a downloaded Volume-o-Metre that has a mystical effect on the class. The only problem is remembering to adjust it for every task, as the more perceptive children love to point out that we’ve been in silent ninja mode since the spelling test.

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7. Comedy
There is nothing quite like hearing a class giggle at a pun, or gleefully correcting you when you say something intentionally silly. I try to bring characters into the classroom wherever I can, with a mischievous frog that teaches the children prepositions as they describe where she is, to Superman who appears during grammar to help us remember to add ‘s’. I make up funny stories and add silly lyrics to songs. Making learning fun and accessible should be your priority when you plan, and pulling a variety of Jim Carrey expressions can be helpful when you are trying to minimise your talking time whilst steering the students towards the correct form.

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8. Listen to those little voices
It can be tempting to stay wholly focused on the learning outcomes and leave no space for tangents or potentially confusing ideas. However, if we can spare some minutes I allow the children to take control and ask questions that aren’t related to the topic. Gaining a glimpse into their developing minds is a privilege, and it also gives me enough firsthand material to do a comic weekly round-up here.

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If you’re a fellow teacher, what advice would you give to those considering this job?

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. If I were to give advice to any budding young learner teacher, I would say that you have to enjoy kids. Should someone dislike being around kids, then this job just isn’t for you. Another piece of advice: smile and be fair to all the kids.

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    1. Great advice. I was told not to smile by other staff members but I ignored it – I try to encourage my students to enjoy learning. Being fair is a challenge, especially when you have children with ADHD who cannot physically sit still for 90 minutes. I’m all for equity over equality, although I’m strict with my three principle classroom rules:
      Always raise your hand to speak
      Be respectful to others
      Challenge yourself!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Rosie says:

    Committing that many names to memory is no mean feat! I was in a similar situation to you when I was teaching in Lyon – I saw most of my students for 90 minutes a week, and taught about 200 students across various classes each semester. Then Christmas came along, and all my classes changed and I had more names to learn! I feel you on the bladder control, too – I used to teach 7 hours of classes back-to-back one day a week, and it was testing at times!

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    1. There have been a few instances where there has been an error in the register and the child has been too embarrassed to correct me. I was calling one child by the wrong part of his name (there are often several names for my Malay students), and it wasn’t until I met his mother for a PTM that I discovered the mistake! After that, I have always been careful to ask new students for confirmation the first time I meet them.
      Also, 7 hours is torturous – how did you manage it?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rosie says:

        Whoops! I guess when you have so many names to remember something like that is bound to happen to one student. I honestly don’t quite know how – it was just brutal timetabling by the admin staff! I used to have one class from 08:00 to 09:30, then a break of 3 hours, and then classes non-stop from 12:30 to 20:00. Luckily most of those classes were really cooperative and nice to teach. If they weren’t I think I’d have been tearing my hair out!

        Liked by 1 person

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