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Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with Dean at dean@reachtoteachrecruiting.com, and he’ll let you know how you can start participating! http://appetiteodysseys.wordpress.com/2013/11/05/teaching-and-learning-are-hand-in-hand/

At my first ESL posting in Kutaisi, Georgia, I considered myself a strict educator. But you know, the fun kind. I knew that games and activities were great ways to teach young learners and I had high hopes and dreams of doing just that. But, being in a developing country,  I didn’t have the best setting to implement any idea that I had, let alone a game or activity. Not only was there a lack of supplies (I was willing and did purchase many supplies for activities), but the infrastructure was lacking. There was no discipline. There might have been rules, but there were no consequences. If there had been consequences, there was no one to enforce them.

Georgian teachers were all about trying to be their students friends and making sure their students liked them (not sure of the success rate). This of course led to teachers not having any authority over students. The teachers would then become frustrated when students didn’t take notes or participate or disturbed the class. Students didn’t respect the teacher and there were no consequences for disobeying . Yelling, screaming and slamming of books was the teacher’s solution to gaining students attention (or trying to, most students would start chatting away again immediately after the initial startle factor wore off. Even if the teacher was still staring directly at them. Cheeky, cheeky.)

Then there was the way Georgian teachers had been taught to teach. Teaching for Georgian teachers was through utilizing rote memorization, worksheets and reading. And not much of the latter two. They didn’t fully comprehend the idea of fun activities, sparking creativity, or playing games to keep children interested while learning. OK, so some Georgian teachers really benefited from their non-Georgia co-teacher and soaked up all sorts of activities and teaching tools, but most had a hard time opening their minds to new ideas themselves.

Not the best setting for my ability to learn what works in an ESL classroom. A good view on what doesn’t really work for sure, but I didn’t get many inspirations and when I did, they went down like a flaming airplane with a bunch of flying monkeys holding on…don’t know where that came from. My saddest lack of success was my over Christmas “journal” idea. I found colored construction paper (I think I had to buy it from another American teacher), I bought blank white paper, a stapler and stickers. I then made 16 different colored journals for my highest ability students, the 6th graders. The assignment was to write OR draw pictures of two days over Christmas break. Not to difficult. When I presented the idea the look on my coteacher’s and student’s faces was incredible. The were all so excited and couldn’t believe how cool these little books were. I was really excited. I thought I had hit it on the nail. Nope. Came back from Christmas break to only 3 of the 16 students having anything in the books. The rest seemed to have been burned for heating.

Anyway, enough of those depressing and dream-crushing memories, on to where I really learned what to do. My next ESL assignment was in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic (Carlsbad). Here I worked for a private company that sold English lessons by native speakers to schools. Flashcards, songs, videos, coloring sheets, word-searches, activity books and more. All at my fingertips! I began my year as if I were in Georgia, with a strict, rather sever outlook on the lessons. Instantly I had to mend my ways. I was dealing with super little children who had no clue what I was saying to them.

I stopped trying to be a teacher and became an entertainer. Songs, silly faces and use of puppets became my standby. Students were interested, engaged and entertained. For the really young students, I was basically a dancing, English-speaking clown that they loved (I was often mobbed by little hugs) and the chant of “english, english, english” as I entered the room.

Of course my older students wouldn’t have much respect for me if I came into the classroom with a crocodile puppet on my hand singing about colors (although I did try to fit songs that had certain grammar structures in them into lessons….didn’t last long). No for them, the entertainer had to be mixed with a teacher. We would start with a warm up or recap of last weeks lesson ie. tossing a ball and answering basic questions about the day or weekend. Then a new topic would be introduced, maybe a worksheet, and then of course games. Speed games, team games, matching games, all types were tried. Some kept and used again, some tossed out as uninteresting to students. I think even my adult lessons appreciated some of the games we played, and of course the rewards for correct answers!

At all levels it seemed to be about mixing education and English practice with entertainment. I realize this can’t work in an everyday setting, but in my weekly lessons, it was the best way to go for already-school-weary students. Sometimes I resented having to be a clown for the little students. Sometimes I hated having to rack my brain and imagination for new games and then new spins on old games. It was exhausting, but it was worth it.

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