First Day of Class: Before, during and after | Teach English Abroad
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The First Day of Class Teaching ESL/EFL Abroad

What to do and not do – Before, during and after

by James Parmelee

English teacher setting study Rules on firsts day of class

All parties – students and teacher included – are just a little nervous on the first day of a new class: the students because they don't know what to expect and are afraid of being unable to perform, and the teacher because he or she doesn't know what kind of collective attitude the students may possess towards learning, and how much of themselves they will be willing to invest in improving themselves.

The teacher should, of course (in one sense), know better than to feel anxious, because he or she has probably "been there and done that" numerous times in the past. In another sense, however, the teacher, like an actor performing before a new audience, really cannot know in advance how receptive the students will actually be, at least of their own accord. There are ways, though, to virtually ensure a successful class from the very first day, and that is what we will be discussing here.

First things first. A successful first class begins before it ever meets; i.e., a placement exam has been given to the students to group them in a class of a similar knowledge and ability level; a textbook and other study materials have been chosen; and a teacher has been selected for the class who is experienced and successful with the given level of students, or at least has been trained to know how to teach them well, even without prior experience. If any of these elements is lacking, the teaching is not likely to be very successful, and the students may not be happy no matter how well the teacher may teach.

Given that the above conditions have been met, a conscientious teacher is likely to arrive with plans for teaching the first two or three lessons, probably along with some supplementary material (and realia to bring conversational situations to life), which of course is exactly the correct procedure.

Now, however, is the time for caution! Read and heed the following instructions about what not to do on the first day of class:


  • Start right in teaching. You and the class need to get acquainted and bond with one another first.

  • Begin speaking in your students' language, if it can be avoided (in other words, if they are above beginning level).

  • Correct any conversational errors at this point.

  • Give more attention to the brighter or more outgoing students than to the others.

  • Spend too much time talking about yourself, especially your personal life.

  • Criticize the book that has been selected by your school for the class! If this is not your favorite textbook, or even if you hate it, you must not at any time allow your personal attitude to be known!

  • Introduce yourself briefly. Smile and be modest, while at the same time assuring the students of your qualifications for, and interest in, helping them. Answer with a smile any questions relating to your marital status, whether you like Thai food and Thai people (if you are in Thailand!), etc.

  • Clean up your native accent to make your speech as understandable as possible. Do not speak too fast, but also do not speak unnaturally slow. Never speak "pigeon English" in order to the understood. And never stop joining sounds in a natural way between your words and syllables, as otherwise your students may understand only you, amongst all the other English native speakers they will meet!

  • Take your time and get thoroughly acquainted with each member of your class. Find out brief personal (but not too personal!) information about each student. Learn the students' names and how to pronounce them and take brief (and non-distracting) notes about the conversational strengths and weaknesses of each one, while also finding out and noting down what English problems each student feels he or she has.

  • Find out the various study objectives the different students may have, and show very briefly how these can be met during the course.

  • After getting acquainted with each student, promise them exactly what they will achieve in their course, if they apply themselves and do the homework you assign.

  • Introduce and describe in a very favorable way the course book(s) they have been given (despite any feelings or reservations you might actually have to the contrary, as mentioned above). Show how, with your help, their materials give them all the information and tools they will need in order to be successful in improving their English and achieving their objectives.

  • LAY DOWN YOUR STUDY RULES NOW! You will need to establish a set of rules that your class needs to follow, and you must do this now! We might compare this procedure to that of interviewing someone to work for you. In doing that, you describe the duties the person would have in doing his or her job, and these duties would, no doubt, be found acceptable by the job applicant. However, if you hire the person, and later ask him or her to accomplish certain duties not described at the job interview, you may receive a small amount of cooperation at first, but will eventually be told in no uncertain terms that such work is not part of their duties (in other words, they will feel they are being imposed on)! The following are some of the rules you may wish to lay down to your class:
    1. Speak only in English, unless it's absolutely necessary to speak in your own language to find something out.

    2. Answer teacher questions directly, instead of conferring with your colleagues first, and be assured that you will have ample chance to do work in pairs and small groups during which you can do a minimum amount of conferring, if necessary.

    3. Do the homework assigned, and turn it in on time.

    4. Don't be afraid that an answer might be wrong. No one will laugh if it is, and the teacher will not be unhappy. In fact, making mistakes is often how we learn best! (Then you, the teacher, stick to your word, and make sure you always react as predicted.)

    5. Ask questions if something is not understood. The fact is that if a given person has a question (whether he or she asks it or not), the chances are other students will have the same question, and would also like to know the answer. Thus, the person daring to ask it will not lose face.

    6. Try to avoid telling the teacher that you understand something, just because you are afraid of admitting you don't. (This actually should not happen, however, as you the teacher will know to elicit the given conversational skill – showing whether it has been understood or not – rather than depend on asking students if they understand. Certainly, more often than not they will assure that you they do understand, even though you have trained them not to, and when they don't understand at all.)

Finally, If you have a bit of time left over, introduce a small part of their first lesson, explaining exactly the purpose of it, do a few communciations incorporating the skills demonstrated, and give them a very short homework assignment.

Be upbeat and positive! At the end of the class, try to build some excitement for future classes. All of the above are reasonably good rules, and are intended mainly as guidelines for you to establish your own. If you follow them well, you will have bonded with your students on the first day of class – which is actually what that first day is intended to accomplish!


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