Written by Dr. David Shaffer
The new school year is quickly approaching. This means that, for many of the tens of thousands of English teachers in Korea, they will soon be walking into classrooms and facing new students for the first time. Whether you are a new teacher or a veteran at the job, walking into a class of new faces for the first time carries with it a heightened degree of apprehension. Briefly mentioned here are a few pointers that can help prepare for that fretful first day (or days) of class to make it more comfortable for the teacher and more rewarding for the students.
The First Impression
First impressions go a long way, and nowhere have I found this to be truer than in Korea. Before the teacher has finished walking into the classroom and uttered their first word, most students have already mixed the cement, poured it, and are already letting it harden. Once an impression has hardened, it is difficult to change, so the important thing for the teacher to do is make a good first impression. For starters, be well-groomed and well-dressed. If you’re not sure what this means in the Korean context, look to your coworkers as examples. Students may be aware that Westerners often dress more informally than Koreans do, but this does not mean that they will value this informality in their new teacher. When you do begin to speak, do it in a pleasant voice with a pleasant smile.
The single-most important thing that new students are interested in on the first day of class is their new teacher. You could give them a monologue of who you are and what you do, perhaps accompanying it with a slideshow of photos; but since they need more speaking practice than their teacher, I always like to turn this into an activity. Call it “My Star,” call it “Who Am I” – what the activity involves is the students asking the teacher yes-no questions with words and numbers selected by the teacher as prompts. For younger learners, you can put the prompts around the points of a star drawn on the board (see graphic); for older learners, you can just place the prompts on the board. Elicit questions from the group that incorporate one of the prompts: “Is your name Berlin?” “Do you have two cars?” “Were you born in 1971?” Older students will be interested in your “credentials,” so including prompts related to your teaching experience and qualifications is useful. This activity is also a good first opportunity to determine the proficiency level, or levels, of your students.
Another big question mark that the students will have is about what type of format the course will take – lecture style, which the students are used to, or will it involve actual reading, writing, listening, and speaking? If you are of the communicative approach and task-based learning bent, you may want to explain pair work and group work, and the learning benefits they provide. The students will also want to know exactly what they have to do to get a good grade in your course. It is important to make this clear: will they be assessed on discrete-item tests, project work, effort at skills improvement, show-and-tell presentations, extra points for “good-job” stickers, or attendance?
From the first day, you will want to set out your class rules and make them clear to the students. You may wish to negotiate some of the rules with them. If students feel that they have made the rules, they will be more inclined to follow them. Whatever the rules are, for them to work, you must always stick to them, and stick to them equally for each student. I always present my “class no-no’s” on the first day in the form of a guessing game, having the students guess what my four main things not to do in class are. This ends up being a good way to explain some important points about the course. They will invariably guess “No talking” and “No making mistakes,” to which I can explain how I want them to speak in English and how making mistakes is a useful part of the language learning process. The reply “No being late for class” gives me the opportunity to explain my attendance policy and tell them to enter quietly if they are late, rather than wait outside for the class to end. (By the way, my four no-no’s are no eating in class, no drinking (except water), no phones ringing or being used for non-EFL purposes, and no wearing hats in class.)
Probably the best thing that a teacher can do to heighten their approval rating is remember a student’s name and pronounce it correctly. And probably one of the most difficult things for a non-native Korean-speaking teacher to do is remember all their students’ names and pronounce them intelligibly. To help you with the names, you can do a little first-day writing activity. Pass out an index card to each student and have them write on it their name, student number, and at least one interesting thing about themselves. Collect the cards and ask the students to email you a photo of themselves. Later, you can print out the photos, attach them to the student cards, and review the cards as you would vocabulary cards until you have the names memorized. Your students will love you for it!
You will likely want to do more things during your first class hour, but there just isn’t enough time for everything. Plan to spend a couple more hours on beginning-of-course activities. You will want to get to know your students better. It is good to spend some time doing this, possibly through an activity. You will want to find out the students’ language levels and their wants and needs. You may do this through a needs analysis survey or possibly through class discussion. But most of all, you will need for the students to believe that you have their best interests at heart. And to do this, all you need to do is show them that you are sincere in helping them to improve their English skills as much as they possibly can.
David E. Shaffer is vice-president of the Gwangju-Jeonnam Chapter of Korea TESOL (KOTESOL). On behalf of the Chapter, he invites you to participate in the teacher development workshops at their monthly meetings (always on a Saturday). For many years, Dr. Shaffer has been a professor of English Language at Chosun University, where he has taught graduate and undergraduate courses. He is a long-time member of KOTESOL and a holder of various KOTESOL positions; at present he is national president. Dr. Shaffer credits KOTESOL for much of his professional development in English language teaching, scholarship, and leadership. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Gwangju News.