How To Ruin Your ESL Classroom In 10 Easy Steps

by Published

Mr. Feeny might have made teaching look easy, but the reality is working as an ESL teacher abroad is an incredible, exhausting, and humbling experience that allows you to see the world while forging very real connections with children all over the world through their education. You obviously want to do the best job possible, so here are 10 easy ways to ruin your ESL classroom (a.k.a. DON’T do this).

Students doing a group activity in a classroom

Pay attention to the local culture, and adjust your expectations and lesson plans accordingly.

1. You Don’t Prepare

I speak English, so I that’s all I need to teach it. Right? WRONG. Working as an ESL teacher is a very real job, and it requires very real work. You have to dedicate time to preparing for your classes just as you would for any other important assignment or job. This can mean hours of preparation for your lesson plans.

Yes, your students will notice if you’re unprepared, but even more importantly, if you don’t enter the classroom every day prepared to put your best foot forward, how can you expect your students to? 

2. You Ignore the Culture 

As an ESL teacher, you have to be prepared to leave your own culture’s customs at the classroom door. What is normal in a Western classroom might not work in a non-Western country, and by learning how students typically learn in your host country, you’ll be able to better tailor your lesson plans to best fit your class.

You have to embrace more than just your students’ learning style; dive headfirst into the deep end of your host culture! Understanding the history and traditions of the country you are living in will help you cater to your students’ needs, but also give you a richer experience as a teacher.

This extends beyond the scope of teaching. As a guest in another country, there may be some customs you disagree with or make you uncomfortable. Just remember that things like race, gender, or sexual orientation might be issues better tackled in conversations with your friends and family, rather than in the classroom. If you insist on taking a stand, it might be frowned upon.

For example, if you are a woman teaching in India, don’t roll up to the classroom wearing cutoff shorts and a t-shirt, even if you’ve seen teachers in other parts of the world dressed casually and you believe in a woman’s right to express herself. Follow the dress code and learn to live with customs different than yours so you do not cause difficulties for yourself in your daily work. Be culturally competent, please.

Young man standing in front of small class of young children leading an activity

Make learning fun! Mix it up and avoid “canned” lesson plans.

3. You Use “Canned” Lesson Plans 

Bueller...Bueller...Bueller…? Your ESL certification program most likely gave you excellent examples of lesson plans and ways to approach your first classes, but when you’re boots-on-the-ground, it’s important to keep things fresh and less repetitive. Every student learns in a different way and at a different pace, and your classroom might not react to your pre-packaged lesson plan like you thought they would. Monotony is your enemy. 

It’s ok to deviate from your game plan, especially when working in a culture that is completely different from your own. Schools in South Korea, for example, typically rely on memorization and repetition as their main teaching method, so you might be better off instructing your classes through lectures, rather than visuals.

Are your students struggling to understand the context behind their vocabulary words? Try showing them English language cartoons or movies so they can put images to the words they’re learning!

4. You Forget Why You’re There 

Teaching English in another country will be an enriching and incredible experience for you, and that’s great! However, don’t forget why you’ve come all this way. It’s important to not get caught up in your own adventure and treat your students just as another potential blog post.

Take your work seriously and remember not to just do it for the Insta; you’re there to teach and help your students better themselves through learning a second language.

It’s also important to be careful of how you document your experiences while abroad. It’s understandable for you to be excited to share the work you are doing, but don’t design lesson plans or classroom activities specifically to take pictures of your students for your friends and family back home. Not only are they minors whose photos shouldn’t be posted on the internet without their parents’ permission, your colorful art project is not doing anything to help your students learn English. 

5. You Don’t Go With the Flow

No matter how hard you work, or how much you prepare for the unexpected, things won’t always go as you planned. Things in your classroom might get chaotic, your ESL program might have difficulty finding a teaching placement for you, or maybe you just have a hard time adjusting to living in a new culture.

Living and teaching English in another country can be challenging, but you’ll maneuver those sudden twists and turns more easily if you learn to be flexible and not let these difficulties completely overwhelm you. Just keep swimming, and everything will turn out alright in the end.

Classroom full of young girls in Laos

Try to cater lessons to students’ interests and keep them engaged.

6. You Refuse Help & Support

Teaching is not a solo sport, whether you find your support in your fellow teachers, your friends and family, or in the community around you, it’s ok to reach out for the help of others. 

You can also consider participating in an ESL program that not only helps you secure a teaching position, but also offers additional support and mentorship from the program itself and your community of other teachers.

When you’re not afraid to ask for support and guidance, you’ll do better at your job, making sure your students’ needs are always first priority.

7. You Expect to Change the World Overnight

There’s no denying that teaching ESL is an incredibly rewarding experience that will shape both your life and the lives of your students. However, you can’t expect your students to have that “aha!” moment right away (or at all). Teaching is a slow and tedious process that requires patience, and not all of your students will become fluent in English right away.

You should also accept the fact that not all of your students will be excited to learn English and, just like the kids in your home country, will be bored, rowdy, or difficult. That’s okay! Kids will be kids, whether they’re in the suburbs of Chicago or the classrooms of Prague, that’s part of being a teacher. It’s okay if you don’t reach every child on a deep level, so long as you do the best you can with the time and tools you are given. 

8. You Don’t Learn the Native Language 

Many ESL programs or schools abroad do not require you to know the native language of the country you will be teaching in, but putting in the effort to learn it will help you both in and outside of the classroom. By learning your host country’s language, you’ll be able to communicate more effectively with your students and fellow teachers, as well as have fuller understanding of the differences between their language and English, so as to better instruct them. 

Learning the language of your host country will also put you in the shoes of your students, who are struggling to learn English. It’s okay to have a few moments get lost in translation; you’ll be able to appreciate the work that you are asking them to do, as well as, of course, be able to fluently haggle with market vendors for that perfect pair of shoes. 

9. You Ignore Your Students’ Interests 

So you’ve crafted a beautiful lesson plan on mountain and hiking vocabulary and your students aren’t interested at all. This can be frustrating, but keep in mind that if you’re teaching students in a densely urban city, they might not have as much of a connection to your nature-themed lesson plan. Instead, to get them excited about learning, ask them what they’d like to learn. In countries like Brazil or Peru, where soccer (or fútbol) reigns supreme, your students might be more interested in learning about the English words for sports and activities that they do in their day-to-day life. 

You are, of course, always the teacher and the authority figure, but it’s ok to take some directives from your students so they can have a more rewarding experience. Figure out what’s important to them, and try to build lessons around that.

You can learn from your students just as much as they can learn from you. 

Class photo of students sitting at desks

Make meaningful connections with your students.

10. You Lose Your Passion

There’s no denying that teaching ESL abroad is a difficult and draining job. Not only are you teaching children (a challenge no matter where you are!), you are also teaching children who do not speak the same language as you, in an environment that is completely unknown to you. Away from everything that you are comfortable with, and from your friends and family, many ESL teachers understandably burn out. 

It is absolutely fine if you struggle sometimes. This does not mean you made a bad decision in becoming a teacher, or that you are not doing a good job. Take a tip from your classroom and take a “time-out”; go on a hike with friends, call your mom back home, indulge in a big bowl of ice cream. 

Your students will know if you’ve lost your zeal and drive for teaching, and they won’t learn as well because of it. Even when the going gets tough, just take a moment to yourself and remember why you are here.

Your time as an ESL teacher can either be magical or an #epicfail. Make sure that it’s as rewarding for your students as it is for you by following these tips, bringing your love for teaching English and your love of exploring other countries with you every day to the classroom. As a wise woman (and fashion icon) named Ms. Frizzle once said: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”