Here’s What Your ESL Students Think When You... 

by Jennifer Bangoura

When you sign up to be an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher abroad, you likely imagine yourself standing in front of a classroom teaching a group of students hanging on to your every word. Maybe you can feel how eager they are to learn or improve their English for personal or professional reasons. By the time you’ve taught a few classes, you will have a good idea of who your Topangas are and which ones are going to give you a hard time (your Erics and your Seans). You will know which student will help you arrange your classroom before or after your lesson and which one would rather be anywhere but in class, learning English.

Teacher writing on chalkboard while student texts

Classes should be interesting, relevant, and keep students’ attention.

What is harder to imagine is what your ESL students really think about you. Depending on where your teach abroad adventures take you, you may find yourself in a culture where it’s not only frowned upon to share honest feedback with your teachers, it may be forbidden! Whether getting to know what your students really think about you is discouraged or explicitly against the rules, we’ve put together a list of what your students probably think of you as an ESL teacher. While the descriptions we share below aren’t always positive, knowing how your students perceive your actions can help you become a better teacher.

You might think you’re a Ms. Honey, but come off as more of a Trunchbull to those more troublesome students, hey, you can’t please everyone! So, let your curiosity get the best of you, just this once, and find out what your ESL students really think about you when...

1. You are on time, or early, for class every day.

Time, and how it is perceived around the world, is a constantly shifting notion. In Western cities, like Washington, D.C. and New York City, time is money and the earlier you show up to an event or meeting, the better you will be perceived by your peers as someone who is reliable, trustworthy, and dependable. However, in many other countries, this constant focus on punctuality and deadlines just doesn’t hold the same value as in other places.

As a first-time teacher abroad, when you scold your students for being tardy, by a minute or two, they may perceive you as rigid or unaccustomed to their culture. They also might just think you don’t have a concept of the true value of time, and that it’s often well spent outside of the classroom.

In order to address this potential perception, talk about time with your students soon after you begin to teach them. Your students will not only gain a valuable lesson as they learn how to communicate seconds, minutes, and hours in English, you will also gain a deeper insight into the cultural values placed on time in the community or country where you live. Knowing what your students think about your punctuality might not change when you arrive in your classroom or your feelings about timeliness but it will change your understanding of their feelings about time - and that’s what is most important.

Highlighted sections of a textbook

Lesson plans should contain variety- not just textbooks and grammar!

2. You leave the ruler in the drawer and the dunce cap in the corner.

Whatever your views are on corporal punishment, the reality is that it is practiced in a number of countries around the world as an acceptable form of discipline, both at home and in the classroom. As a foreigner teaching ESL in another country, it is unlikely you would feel comfortable practicing corporal punishment in your classroom, which might take some of your students by surprise.

Initially, your students may think you are weak for not correcting difficult behavior with a spanking or rap of the knuckles. However, if you develop alternative methods for recognizing, and correcting, poor behavior, your students will soon think what a creative, and sensitive, teacher you are (Hello Ms. Honey). There is a way to establish your credibility while avoiding beating your students; it’s up to you to create appropriate alternatives!

3. You bring snacks to class everyday.

A bunch of bananas for a counting lesson. M&Ms for a class on vocabulary related to colors and sharing. Cookies for a lesson on shapes and flavors. By the third or fourth lesson involving snacks as a teaching tool, or a reward for good behavior, your students will start to think you’ve got a thing for gastronomy.

If you’re teaching English abroad in a country like Morocco or México, where the cost of living is low, it might be hard to pass up delicious fruits and vegetables as you prepare your lesson plans! While your obsession with snacks as a teaching tool likely goes beyond spurring the local economy, your students will perceive your behavior as generous and as something a teacher who goes above and beyond their call to duty. They also might think you have a lot of money and that you’re spending it all on treats!

4. You will not tolerate plagiarism or cheating.

Whether it’s copying an entire set of answers from the internet or using their buddy’s homework to guide their own responses, you will, sooner or later, encounter students who plagiarize or cheat. When students learn that this kind of behavior cannot be tolerated in your classroom, they will surely think you are rigid and not up to speed with how things work where they live. Cheating and plagiarism just might be an accepted reality, especially if you’re teaching in a country like Thailand where it’s the norm.

As an ESL teacher, it is your role to underscore the importance of original thought (and citations) as a way to absorb the materials you are teaching and for your students to embrace the opportunity to learn on their own by completing their assignments without copying the work of other people. This is sure to be a touchy subject wherever you teach English, so it’s best to talk with former or current teachers in the country where you are headed to see how they addressed similar situations.

While you want to be liked as an ESL teacher, you also want to engrain the value of independent thought and work so students are equipped with the tools they need to thrive in the world of work after your class.

Preparing class notes and backpack

Be prepared, but leave room for flexibility

5. They see you outside of the classroom.

It’s bound to happen. Your apartment is only a few blocks from your school and many of the shops you frequent are run by parents of your students. Yes, dear reader, you will one day run into your students outside of the classroom. When they see you in your street clothes or haggling over a bag of fruit in the local market, your students will likely think you are brave to explore a new culture on your own. They will marvel at your independence and ability to (somewhat) seamlessly navigate the local bank, post office, and the curmudgeon on the corner who you have, over time, gotten to greet you even though he refuses to greet anyone else in the neighborhood.

Take pride in these moments as your students get a glimpse of the “real” you outside of the classroom. As they humanize you, they will gain a deeper appreciation for your efforts as an educator and how much you have to work both inside and outside the classroom to be a great teacher.

From punctuality, to corporal punishment, to snacks and everything in between, what your students really think about you will have a direct influence on how your ESL lessons are received. At the foundation of all of the tips shared above is an ability to not only communicate your lesson plans, but to also remain aware to how your teaching style, and lifestyle, are perceived by your students.

When your days start to feel too long and you feel overwhelmed by the amount of work on your plate or the comments students are sharing about your teaching style, remember that the one quality all ESL teachers have in common is patience.

Knowledge is power and what you do with what you know can make or break your experience as an ESL teacher abroad. Make the time to study up on local traditions and teaching culture before you teach abroad so you can have the greatest impact possible once you arrive. While you might not have to change your teaching style, at least you’ll be equipped with the knowledge you need to run an effective classroom!