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Rising to the challenge

Survival skills for the modern teaching environment


Kendall Peet

The job of a private language school ESL/EFL teacher is a difficult one. Perhaps the main reason
for this can be traced back to economics. The world is changing quickly as capitalism and the
accompanying need for English spreads. Old models are giving way to the new, and, indeed, the
very nature of the classroom is undergoing a major transformation, with the student being replaced
by the customer or client, the teacher by the manager, and the pre-planned curriculum by a needs-
based programme developed on a week-by-week or day-by-day basis. Schools, run as businesses,
have necessarily adopted a bums on seats policy, which often places the teacher in the difficult
position of teaching a class separated, rather than united, by age, sex, background and, most
importantly, English ability. The question that we as teachers now ask ourselves is this: How can I
put this lesson together so as to keep everyone happy, knowing that one unhappy customer is
enough to have me sitting in front of the DOS or school director trying to explain why I was unable
to do the near impossible? This article seeks to answer this question, in brief, by examining the
reality that awaits the ELT professional in the 21st century.

Adapting

Heraclites, the fifth-century Greek philosopher, said that you cant step twice into the same river,
and this is especially true of the modern ELT classroom, where the only thing constant is change.
Rarely does a week go by when there is not some change made that affects your class, be it the
arrival or departure of students, a last-minute room change, or, indeed, as seems to be an ever
more regular occurrence, a complete revamp of your teaching schedule that has you deposited,
sometimes quite unexpectedly, in front of a fresh group of faces. This situation demands of
teachers a high degree of flexibility, adaptability and not a little patience. Teachers must be
prepared to go at a moments notice, to deal with last-minute changes, and always to smile in the
face of adversity. If you can develop a laid-back attitude toward dealing with school administration
and what goes on outside the classroom, accepting the reality that you are an easily replaceable
cog in a money-driven machine, then you are well on your way to becoming a successful teacher.

Empathising

Assuming that you do manage to overcome the administrational headaches and reach your
designated classroom complete with teaching material and aids, you are now faced with the
arduous task of educating; arduous because the students are not always best prepared to learn.
This point is especially true of adult evening and weekend classes where the students are often
mentally, if not physically, exhausted after a long day or week at work. In this situation it is
important to be able to empathise with your students so as to be able to satisfy both their
immediate and long-term needs. It is through the process of trying to understand your students, to
see the world and the class through their eyes, that the greatest chance of transferring knowledge
can be realised. Empathising with your students helps to open up a two-way communication
process and this in turn helps establish an effective context for the language you are teaching.
Empathy leads to mutual understanding and this is a very good point from which to begin the
process of teaching.
Planning

In planning the class you will need to address such issues as selecting appropriate material and
classroom management. The former requires an astute insight into the inherent needs of the
students, understanding often better than they themselves do what it is that they pre-desire and
post-value, whilst the latter asks of the teacher some awareness of classroom dynamics.

Managing

Timing is essential, as is pace. Teachers must work dexterously to build up the synergy of the
class, whereby students participate and contribute. Without commitment by the students to the
concept of active participation, as encouraged and facilitated by the teacher, there can be little
result other than that which is achievable from passive learning, which is by far the slower road to
English proficiency. The teacher must take into account the strengths and weaknesses of the class
and exploit these to advantage. An important point here is movement: keeping the class moving
and working in different-sized groups, always with different combinations of students, so that each
activity appears as something fresh and interesting.

Motivating
One final point that needs to be made concerns the importance of the teacher as a motivator. Ask
any teacher what the key factor is in determining whether or not students make steady progress
and they will tell you that it is the level of student motivation, particularly in terms of time spent
studying outside the classroom. If a teacher is to be effective, time outside the classroom must be
utilised: two to six hours of classroom time is of little consequence in what is potentially a 126
waking-hour week. The greater the amount of time that can be spent using one of the four skills of
English, the greater the expected rate of improvement. Teachers, therefore, must find ways to
mobilise their students into action beyond the classroom if the kind of results that are possible are
to be achieved.

It is fair to say that the task facing the modern ELT professional is not an easy one. Indeed, one
might say that the odds are stacked against success. However, the rewards that come from
teaching are significant, and it is this which ensures that the pool of teachers available to fill the
ever-increasing number of positions appearing will continue to grow. To meet the challenges of the
21st-century classroom, teachers have to balance out a variety of roles: educator, manager,
motivator, counsellor and cultural ambassador, to name just a few. In this regard it may be said that
teaching is an art, and like most arts demands a lifetime of commitment to perfect. It is a challenge
that is not to be taken up lightly.

Kendall Peet currently teaches at Isik University in Turkey. He previously taught at International House, Istanbul, and
has also worked in South Korea and Thailand. He is interested in student-centred learning, and the development of an
approach to teaching that encourages increased learner autonomy.

This article first appeared in English Teaching Professional, Issue 37, 2005. It is reprinted here by permission of the
copyright holders, Pavilion Publishing and Media Limited.