When we first begin teaching English in Japan, it’s easy to think of the teachers who inspired us in our home countries and want to emulate them.
Unfortunately, teaching English as a foreign language doesn’t work in quite the same way.
Even with the best intentions, new teachers make the same mistakes time and time again.
Here are 10 of the biggest mistakes new English teachers make, and how to fix them.
1. Over explaining the grammar
English is hard to learn, and your students will constantly remind you of that fact! Your job as a teacher is to break down the complexities of this language, into digestible chunks that your students can gobble up. There’s no use telling the students “Hey class, today we’ll be working on the present perfect tense. We’ll be using the verb form ‘have’ plus the past participle as a form of the present tense”. Unless you want to lose all of the students within the first few seconds of the class.
Instead, provide a simple framework on how to use the grammar, with examples and easy-to-understand exercises for practicing. For example: Draw a timeline on the board, mark when you first came to Japan, and mark now. How long has it been? 3 years? “I have been in Japan for 3 years”. How about speaking English? Draw on the timeline when you started speaking English, and mark now. How long has it been? 20 years? “I have been speaking English for 20 years.” How long have you been awake? Mark it on the timeline. “I have been awake for 6 hours.” Students will hear the language, match it to the visual aid, and grasp the concept. You have just taught them how to correctly use the present perfect tense. Simple.
2. Not owning the class
Quite often, you’ll be teaching in a room with an L1 teacher, that’s a teacher from the country you’re living and working in. In this situation, it’s easy to defer to their teacher for everything, but that’s not why you’re here. You’re here to teach! So own the classroom, prepare your own unique materials, and teach in your style.
If the students see you look at the L1 teacher for reassurance every few minutes, you’ll lose their respect. To get around this, check with the L1 teacher BEFORE the class starts. Give them a copy of your worksheet, tell them what game you’ll play, and run through any practice dialogue together.
3. Not being prepared for the unexpected
What happens when the projector decides to stop working in the middle of the class? How about if you can’t get the internet working to show the video you were planning? What about if the students finish the work a lot faster than you expected? Do you have a mild panic attack while you try to think of something, anything, to fill the time? No, of course not. You’re a well-prepared English teacher with a locker full of games and activities to draw from. Come up with a pool of vocabulary practice games, listening activities, online tools, and review activities. Always be prepared for the unexpected.
4. Lack of classroom management
We all want to be the cool, fun teacher. But that only goes so far with maintaining discipline in the class. Give the students too much leeway and they’ll abuse it. It’s important to set and enforce classroom rules early on. Students speaking over you? Stop speaking until they finish. One disruptive student? Make them stand up, or better yet, ask them to answer an English question on the spot. The fear of being asked a question will quickly make them stop disrupting the your lesson!
One trick is to spend some time at the start of your first class laying down the law. For me, I always say “In this class, we only speak English. No Japanese.” And I am strict with it! The first student who speaks Japanese must stand up for 1 minute, the next student for 2 minutes, the next for 3 minutes. By the end of this first class, students only speak in English. Leave the shouting for the other teachers. You’re in the unique position of being something of a novelty, and students will want to listen and follow your rules.
5. Not giving simple, clear instructions
There is nothing worse than preparing a fun game or activity for the students, spending time explaining the rules, and then as soon as you say “Go”, just a wall of blank faces are staring back at you. Make sure to use words and expressions they’ll understand, and always demonstrate what you want them to do.
If you want them to play a simple board game, literally show them how to roll the dice, move their character token, and what to do when they land on each space. Teach with actions, not words.
6. Avoiding technology
One of the newer theories in education is “gamification”- basically, that students learn best when they’re having fun. And you know what students enjoy? Playing on their phones, watching YouTube, and making TikTok videos. So, why not do that in the classroom? In my classes, the students make videos, send Instagram messages to their idols, and play online games. Most students, in most countries, in most age groups, have their own school tablets or laptops now. Don’t be scared to use them!
It might take some time to get used to technology like Google Classroom, Kahoot, or Jamboard, but the students will love it and the time and effort invested into learning it will make your job so much easier in the long run.
7. Overloading the classes
Every class should follow a simple 3 part structure: Engage, Study, Activate - That’s one activity to get the students interested and able to relate the content to themselves.
- One activity that practices the target grammar.
- And one activity that focuses on communication and fluency.
That’s it! You don’t need a 10-part lesson plan with 3 different games, 2 different worksheets, and a listening test at the end. Each class should have a clearly defined goal that can be met in the simplest way possible. Keep the teaching part short and sweet, make the studying interactive and fun, and have them produce something relevant to them.
8. Talking too much
The more time you spend speaking, the less chance the students have to try for themselves. Unless you’re explicitly running a listening practice, try to pivot from the teacher speaking, to getting the students speaking. Instead of giving the students the answers, practice elicitation (that’s drawing the answers out of the students). Try asking leading questions, and work with the students to help them produce the right target language.
A really basic example is this:
This is obviously a picture of a cat, but I want the students to do the work here. Instead of just telling the students “This is a cat”, I could ask “What’s this?” or “This is a dog, right?” I know it sounds simple, and that’s because it is.
9. Too much writing
Every student hates writing essays. And every teacher hates marking them. One of the perks of being the foreign teacher is we can often pass on the long writing activities, and leave that for another teacher to deal with. A key reason that you were hired as an English teacher, is so that the students can have a chance to practice speaking with a native speaker. Don’t fill up all the lesson time with reading and writing tasks. Instead, focus on communication. Use games and activities where the students interview each other, or answer questions for points, or they have to ask you questions to progress. Anything that makes them verbally produce the language you’re trying to teach them.
10. Not including a personal touch
What do you have that other teachers don’t? For me, I have photos of my family’s Christmas dinner, stories about summer holidays spent in the south of France, and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of The Lord of the Rings. What unique personal knowledge and experiences can you bring to your lessons that will excite the students?
We’re not only English teachers, but we’re cultural ambassadors too. Love football? Great, include that in your worksheets. Good at crafts? Fantastic, make activities that involve a craft element. Enjoy cooking? Perfect, show students a video of you cooking your favorite meal, and have them record a video of their own. The kids will love this extra personal touch, so use it as often as you can. Avoid these mistakes, and you’ll have classes that you AND the students enjoy.