How to Teach English: Small Stuff that Actually Matters

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Teaching: the small stuff that matters
How to Teach English

Hiking the Appalachian Trail: Ounces = Pounds

Little things add up, is what I discovered thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail way back in 2004–you really should sweat the small stuff. Ounces = pounds, and when you’re carrying all your crap on your back, it actually matters. Every-single-step, you regret packing those extra things and you anxiously await the next trash can when you can get rid of it.

(A wee bit of an aside, but for a hilarious account of hiking the Appalachian Trail, check out Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail).

How to Teach English: Pay Attention to the Small Stuff!

When you’re teaching English, if you can do the little things right, the end result can be happy students, progress made, smiling faces all around, and ultimately good evaluations at the end. Or you can do all the little things wrong and have a pretty bad semester with non-participating students, frowning faces, and bad evaluations. The small stuff matters.

The Small Stuff to do Right

Be in Class Before Students

Nothing looks less professional than someone who rushes around after the students are already in the class, struggling to get the PPT fired up and all their papers out.

Contrast this to someone who is prepared by the time most of the students are there and is able to personally greet each one as they walk in the door, in a relaxed, zen-like kind of way. Remember serenity now? This will be quite difficult to maintain when you’re all rushed and stressed before class even starts.

Where are you Going? When are you done?

People like to know what’s happening so write up a little schedule for the day on one side of the board, and leave it there for the entire class, or have it as the first slide of your PPT for students to see before class starts. Of course, this assumes that you have a lesson plan (some university teachers in Korea I know do not, disturbingly).

(Speaking or conversation classes, this will be your new go-to site: ESL Speaking. Trust me.

Avoid Dead-Time

Avoiding dead-time requires some organization but it’s reasonably easy to do. I will never, ever write more than a few words on the board while the students are waiting. I come early and try to write most of the text I’m using for that class before they get there.

This means I usually do the grammar/vocab lesson first or second in my lesson plan. Or, if I do it in the middle, I’ll get the students working on something and then do my writing on the board. Dead-time can be hard to recover from, because your students lose their focus.

Better yet, just use a simple PPT if your classrooms have computer consoles. I use Google Drive for mine.

Don’t Hide Behind the PPT

Teaching is about relationship; it’s not about flashy PPTs. Students just want to make a connection with you and with each other and have a place where they feel safe and welcomed. Never forget this.

Names are Important

If you can’t memorize all the student’s names, get them to use name-tags on their desks. It’s better than saying something like, “Hey…you…what is the answer?” Here’s a post where I talk about using name-tags in my classes.

(A whole book filled with ESL Speaking Games and Activities, guaranteed to make your classes better: 39 No-Prep/Low-Prep ESL Speaking Activities: For Teenagers and Adults).

Eye Contact

Try to scan the entire class within a 20 second period of talking, So you’ll make eye contact with each student 3 times in one minute. Most teachers have a dead-spot that they just don’t look at for some reason. For me, it’s usually the first and second rows on the right and so I make a conscious effort to fight against this every class.

Never Put People on the Spot

This is a big no-no in Korea and in many other parts of Asia too. No ones like to feel shame because they didn’t know the answer. To avoid this, I’ll always give the students some pre-practice before I elicit an answer, either by doing some writing in their books, or speaking with their partner or in a small group. Of course, comparing answers with a partner before doing it in front of the whole class is a great strategy to use.


I actually get a surprising amount of comments from the students on my evaluations about how they like my big smile because after all, who doesn’t like a friendly teacher?

Microphones for 20 Students? Why?

A little mini-rant for today. Whenever I go into classrooms that only have 20 or 30 desks filling up the entire space, there is always a microphone that has been put to obvious use in the immediate class before me. Like it’s actually sitting on the podium, turned on and I always wonder why. How you interact with the students is part of the small stuff that matters when teaching.

Don’t the Students Hate it?

Who actually has such a small voice that they can’t project it enough for a class of 20 or 30 people? Does anyone actually just stand at the podium and lecture the entire time and think that that’s what teaching is? Does anyone actually like holding a microphone in their hand for 75 minutes?

Most importantly, do students actually LIKE listening to a voice that is microphone projected, with a low-quality sound system and crappy microphone? Seriously, I occasionally make use of the speakers for a few minutes to watch a short video or do a little listening thing and they annoy me during that short time, such that I even refuse to use them for more than 4 or 5 minutes each class.

Learn more about Teaching English to Beginners

What About the Big Stuff?

Of course, put plenty of time into considering the big stuff before your course starts. Curriculum design, evaluation, textbook selection, etc. But once the course starts? It’s all about the small stuff, so do it well and make your life in the classroom as awesome as possible.

How to Teach English: Not so difficult after all!

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What do you Think?

What are some of the small things that matter when teaching English? Leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts.

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