Tips for your first week teaching English in Cambodia

Every year, we see up to 100 newly qualified TEFL teachers enter the classroom as volunteer English teachers for the first time. Some are eager, some quietly confident; others need a little encouragement and guidance.

Here are a few of the things we tell them:

Don’t plan extensively before meeting your students. Its tempting to sit down and plan out your first weeks or month, so eager are you to be prepared and give great lessons. But it could all be for nothing when you meet your students! They may be completely different to what you expected; in ability, age, or attitude. Plan activities and games to break the ice and get introduced, but dont even open your workbooks on the first few days; not until you’ve learnt names, spoken to students as individuals, and gauged their ability level.

Learn your students names! For the first days or week, most students will find their teachers bumbling efforts to pronounce their names hilarious; but after a couple of weeks, if the teacher still cannot remember names, it becomes disrespectful. At CWF, new volunteer teachers are not just learning around 60 new students names, but those names are also unfamiliar to our ears. It shows caring, commitment, and professionalism to put some effort into learning student names, even if you still have trouble pronouncing them! Call the roll aloud every day, call students by name whenever addressing individuals, and dont be afraid of getting it wrong. Learning names can be great ice-breaker activities to show students that you’re not afraid of being wrong, and nor should they!

Here are some ideas for learning names quickly!

Dont even open your workbooks on the first few days; not until you’ve learnt names, spoken to students as individuals, and gauged their ability level.

Put on your stage persona. In many ways, teaching is like performing in front of an audience, thats why it can be so nerve-wracking! Develop your classroom presence to use exaggerated gestures and expressions, the inflections in your voice more enthusiastic, to communicate non-verbally, and keep students engaged and motivated. Its all about showing your students that the classroom is a fun, safe place, where making mistakes is Ok. Use your classroom persona to make students comfortable through exaggerated mannerisms and tone of voice.

Establish the rules, together. At CWF we have some general rules that we encourage teachers to enforce, but its best if the students themselves have a hand in establishing them. Ask the students “What makes a good classroom experience? What makes a bad classroom experience?” Make a list together on the board, and use them as the basis for your rules. Should they answer mobile phones in class? Should they speak when others are speaking? Should they be late? Why? Why not? You can guide the conversation to particular points you’d like addressed. Setting down the rules early, together as a class, will make them easier to enforce later.

Have reasonable expectations of yourself and your students, dont set yourself up for failure!

Ask short or Yes / No questions. Asking students open ended questions in their first interaction with a foreigner can be intimidating, especially for lower level students. Instead of “Where are you from?”, try “Which province are you from?” or “Are you from Phnom Penh?” Being able to answer simple questions will build students confidence, and let you gauge their fluency. Do they want to elaborate? Great! But theres no pressure to do so, not yet. Ask short or Yes / No answer questions to allow students to successfully engage in a conversation with their foreign teacher on their fist day.

Don’t be too hard on yourself! Teaching is difficult, as any experienced English teacher will tell you. Some of your classes will bomb, some of your activities will not go as you envisioned, and your students will stare at you with blank expressions (often!). This is normal! Have a plan, be prepared to improvise, and remember that your students are as nervous as you are. Have reasonable expectations of yourself and your students, dont set yourself up for failure!

By focusing on introductions and breaking the ice in the first few lessons, almost all of our freshly minted teachers come bouncing down the stairs after their first classes, overflowing with enthusiasm from successful lessons. They share stories of friendly, interested students, of successful activities, and reflections on how to make it even better next time. The nerves of just hours before are replaced by eagerness for their next sessions.

Most of all though, they talk about how hard its going to be to learn all those names!

Interested in teaching English abroad, but feel like you lack experience and training? Start by volunteering in Cambodia, start here!


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