I started teaching Spanish and ESL when I was 21 years old. Since then, I’ve worked at two schools: one at a progressive, private pre-k through 8th-grade school as a Spanish teacher and the other teaching adult ESL at our county’s adult education program. When I reflect back on my first two years as an ESL teacher, two huge memories stand out.
Reflections of a Beginner ESL Teacher
- During my first lesson teaching Spanish A to 7th grade, my assistant director observed me the entire time. My voice kept squeaking in Spanish/English, scratching out of nervousness, and thinking: “I’m not an adult. No way I’m a teacher. I’m just presenting. HELP ME.”
- During the first year, I landed a second job teaching ESL to adult immigrants, only to have three horrible surprise observations by our principal followed by a non-renewal letter sent to me at the end of the year. Devastated, I thought that my teaching career was over.
Flash forward in time, and bam — it’s Year Six. I got the help I needed and my career wasn’t over. Back then, I didn’t know the things I’m about to tell you. Below, you’ll find what I know now about second language teaching in elementary/middle schools, universities, and adult education programs.
1) Get a Curriculum
To be more “individual-centered,” some schools and adult education programs will “teach to the student, not the textbook.” They will let you look at the curriculum (but not use it) and ask you to make your own. If you are an ESL teacher rookie in this kind of school, grab a used textbook and follow its order and recommended activities (plus your own) for the first three years. It’s also useful to find a used syllabus to adapt in partnership with this technique. A veteran teacher may be able to teach without following the textbook’s sequence, but you certainly cannot without any experience.
2) Be Concerned With Your Image
The way we see someone affects our perception of them. Age, gender, and culture may be adding to your lack of credibility before students and colleagues even notice you have zero experience. In that case, you have to obsess over your image. Dress more conservatively and professionally than your colleagues. Do not skip or be late for any meeting, deadline, or task. Come in early and stay late. Always be asking yourself “How can I show that I care?” Do not give any indication that you are slacking during this time — it will work against you.
3) Develop Yourselves Professionally
Teaching is an art and you know nothing about it. Learn. Learning about teaching methods combined with real-life experience will work wonders as you combine theory with practice, plus the administration will respect you all the more for it. You will find space to vent, but also space to be encouraged. My teaching really began to take off once I enrolled in graduate teaching classes part-time (plus it funded my Master’s)! I will never forget all the advice I received from veteran educators at teaching conferences.
4) Check Your Attitude
You will want respect, but there is a right way and a wrong way to earn it. Treating your students with respect will earn their respect, but rudeness will make them despise you. Secondly, good teachers know the difference between being a jerk and pushing their students. Pushing your students at the right level aided with patience, encouragement, and dedication is different than being arrogant, distant, or not understanding. Check your attitude constantly. Your attitude will determine not only your respect level but also the atmosphere of your classroom.
5) Prepare to Fail
Teaching is an art you learn as you teach. For example, babies don’t learn to walk until they try to walk. You will suffer from classroom management, lesson planning, getting along with colleagues/parents, and even burn out — and that’s all okay. You will walk away from a school that isn’t the right fit and get removed from grade levels that aren’t appropriate for you personally. Furthermore, you might not be hired back the following year. I speak with the past in mind, as all of these things happened to me during my first two years of teaching.
6) Fail Forward
I was wrongly told that getting a non-renewal my first year as an ESL teacher was a death sentence to my career. This led me to believe I would never get hired again. Instead, I told myself “I clearly didn’t know how to help these adult English Language Learners the way I wanted to. So I’m going to do something about it.”
Realizing I needed more training, I decided to go back for my Master’s in Foreign and Second Language Education so I could be the absolutely best-trained teacher my students could hope for. It worked. The years of teaching at two other adult education schools and two universities were the success I had dreamed of. I just needed to learn from my mistakes and learn from hard times.
My final memory from my first two years of teaching sums it all up perfectly. Our school had weekly staff meetings, and, being progressive, they liked getting us to do professional development in creative ways. One day, the art teacher passed us all of the paints and said “Paint what’s on your mind.”
I painted a tree with tiny flowers just starting to blossom — that was me. I labeled it “Creciendo/Growing” because that’s what I was doing with my students — growing.
Hang in there, new ESL teacher. “Creciendo” is beautiful.