First of all, did you notice the ‘pun’, also known as a ‘play on words’, in the title? Hopefully, you did, as I attempt to offer some good advice about the initial class with a new student. Anyway, let’s proceed…
I can hardly imagine how much time and energy I spent travelling between classes in the 15 years I taught in classrooms and meeting rooms, whether they were in Thailand, Italy, Spain or indeed London, England (I don’t recommend the latter, it doesn’t pay the rent!). Therefore, the first thing you could do, either as a teacher or student, is rejoice at the opportunity now afforded to have language classes from the comfort of your own home, office, or wherever you choose to do it. I’m a Psychology major so I tend to look at things from that angle as well as the practical one. I believe they are of equal importance so will address both here.
Firstly, let’s consider the situation. As a teacher, you are about to come ‘face-in-face’ – in a manner of speaking, since I imagine most classes use video – with a person or people (depending on if it’s an individual or group class) you’ve never met before who comes from and/or lives in a country or countries you may well have never been to. The school has given you some information about their needs, objectives and level but beyond that you don’t quite know what you are going to get. This is of course true from the student’s perspective as well but since a good teacher should always appear pleasant, upbeat and cheerful, the student can justifiably take it for granted that they are not going to meet a grumpy educator.
If this is an adult class, the teacher should not have to entertain the students and make things into games in the way that they would when teaching a young learner, but adults still have a little of the child in them and nobody wants a dry and boring class, particularly if it’s the first one. In addition, it is very important to appreciate the trepidation involved in learning a language, particularly if the student’s level is quite low and they don’t feel particularly confident comprehending and expressing themselves in this new and strange language. Quite apart from the language issue, you also don’t know if your new student(s) is/are by nature an introvert or extrovert, quiet or gregarious.
Another thing that should be factored in in terms of comprehension is that the student(s), even if they have been exposed to a reasonable amount of English, may not have encountered your accent before. Just as Spanish comes in many different flavours across Spain, South America and beyond, English too is subject to many different accents. Think about it- there are all the regional accents across the U.K, plus Ireland, all the diverse areas of the U.S.A., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and many others.
All of which is to say that teachers should make a big effort to make the student(s) comfortable. Additionally, if you factor in the psychological data about first impressions and their importance, it’s important to plan the first class carefully and try to make it a success. Most people tend to respond to and attach importance to visual stimulation so it’s also important that you look presentable on top of your ‘teacher smile’ (don’t make that smile too fake though, they can spot it a mile off!).
Rewinding back to the days before the class, a good tip is to send the meeting or general invitation in advance (depending whether you’re using Skype, Zoom, Teams or the other options available) so as to give the student(s) time to connect with you, ensuring no problems when the appointed time comes. I sometimes send an introductory email in advance as well, making sure it’s very friendly and, if I know they have a low level, perhaps adding a comment that I’m sensitive to the difficulties of learning a new language and will endeavour to make the classes fun and enjoyable. Perhaps this reflects my tendency to give too much information, but an elementary student I did 40 hours with told me later in the course that she’d really appreciated this note and it had calmed her understandable nerves before the first class.
In terms of material, ice breakers are essential, both from a practical and psychological standpoint. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that starting with a long list of verbs and their infinitive/past simple/past participle forms will not fill your student with excitement and wonder at the linguistic journey they’re about to undertake, whether or not they have the ability to stifle the inevitable yawns that will follow. Grammar is of course important, and in fact I am something of a grammar geek myself, but in my opinion everything should be framed within speaking and communication, especially at the start. There are a myriad of materials available from the school and of course from the internet, and you will already know some of their areas of interest from the initial questionnaire so definitely focus on those and keep it light-hearted and fun.
Finally, I would like to talk about group dynamics, should you have a class of more than one student. At this school, the group sizes are small, but some principles apply regardless of the number of students. Sometimes they will know each other well, sometimes only slightly and sometimes not at all. Therefore, you must very quickly establish a good atmosphere among your hungry learners.
One obvious thing is to ensure that they know each other’s names, and a nice activity to do this is for them to ask each other basic questions (or more complicated if you know they have a high level), addressing each other by name as they do that. Another important thing is of course to try and give them all equal attention and not let one person dominate or hide away. I tend not to interrupt unless absolutely necessary, but as a teacher you have the power to choose who you elicit answers and information from. A good class dynamic is absolutely fundamental to a good course.
So there you have it, a few useful points to consider and action. Some of the ‘old hands’ among you teachers will surely know a lot of the above already, but as new faces join our glorious profession they might appreciate some of these tips, as will new students of course.
Good luck to all!