By Todd Persaud
Teaching English Abroad?
How My Problems Are Your Problems
I used to teach private English lessons.
And wherever I was, no matter if it was a student in Mexico or a student in South Korea, I found one-on-one lessons to be draining and exhausting, because it's actually very difficult to put all of your attention and all of your concerns on to one person. Do you feel the same way?
How Private Lessons Drain You of Everything You Got, And What You Can Do About It.
“Really Teacher, One more Time.”
It's almost like being in a relationship, a kind of a marriage, except you never feel any form of satisfaction.
But it's all encompassing and it's all absorbing when you're teaching another person one to one, because very often what needs to happen is you need to really surround yourself with that person and focus on the different elements of who they are and what they want to be and what they want to get out of your classes. Very often you're monitoring them, you’re charting their progress, you're making sure they're getting as much as they can out of your classes, and you're giving the most value for the time that they give to you.
This is ideally how it should go. For me, I don't like wasting time (because I’ve already wasted a whole bunch of it). I don't like wasting other people's time. And when I teach a class one-to-one, this is crucial because I’m expending my life force to help this person. It’s intense. Not even my parents get this level of attention, and they still pay my bills.
Why Students Need English (And How to Use this Knowledge to Prepare an Entire Semester)
For many people, English is institutionalised in their culture and their society, and very often students can't even pass university without passing first an English exam milestone before being acknowledged as an “educated” person. This is before even getting a paying job! Think about how good American fast food workers have it now!
So very often English is institutionalised in the major culture and people feel the pressure to learn it whether they want to or not.
The main goal for you as the teacher is to figure out what it is that they want or at least what it is that they think they want and to just give more of that to them. It’s good practice for owning a baby, no one ever knows what they want.
I’m reminded of my own lessons with Vietnamese.
I currently live in Da Nang and I have a Vietnamese teacher and very often my Vietnamese teacher gives me exactly what I need every week. I've been working with him for almost a year now. Our classes are not as structured as the way I used to do it myself in my English classes. It's usually just I tell him throughout the week what is bothering me and what vocabulary I need to learn. We then review those words, use them in sentences, and ultimately try to get me back into thinking in Vietnamese as much as possible. And then he lists the words that I wanted to use for the lesson, and he gives me the translations. And then I basically practice those words throughout the week. And then, of course, new problems come up where I have to then repeat the process all over again. And on and on. We only go for 30 minutes, and it’s usually enough, considering the totality of the rest of my life which demands my focus and attention.
But very often you do need to figure out what it is that the student wants and just give that to them.
It sounds easy, and sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t because as we all are aware, the metaphysical world where ideas are floating around and taking shape sometimes take different forms, and sometimes students think that what they wanted was something else entirely different. This is why you’ve got to make the students shoulder the responsibility for the lesson. Because playing the guessing game and then repeatedly disappointing your private student could very well send you to the asylum. Or at best lose you money and time!
The Single Best Way to Not Be Totally Exhausted by Your Private Lessons
You have to have a structure, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t algebra and then engineering. Feel free to be a little loose.
At the same time, you've got to be prepared for flexibility to be able to just be willing to tailor your lessons week by week to what your student wants. So that could be a very exhausting process, but I will say that one way that I found to kind of not make one-on-one lessons so absorbing is to basically always keep track of what the student wants and to actually give them surveys or question sheets or even just ask them. Find ways of always keeping up to date with them and making sure that you are understanding what it is that they want to get out of their English classes and ultimately their acquisition of the language. And keep your focus on that, with goals in mind, and objective ways of achieving those goals. For more information on goal-setting, I especially recommend the book The Energy of Money which not only defines what “goals” actually are but changes your thinking about goals so that you find them enjoyable to achieve! Really check out this book for more information.
Most of the time, if you just ask what the student wants and you give it to them, that is probably the easiest way to be able to make the classes more manageable because ultimately, you're just mirroring back whatever it is that they want to learn and that is usually better than trying to guess what it is that they want to learn or trying to assume that you know better than they do, which is always an exhausting process. And let’s face it, you’ll never know what they want, so why fight it? Just give up and let them win, it’s good practice for marriage.
It's always better to ask the students what it is they want to learn and then to keep reminding them why you're giving certain activities to them, always linking it back to what it is that they want to learn. Here’s a phrase you can practice: “Lee, remember when you said _____________? Well, that’s why I’m giving ______________.” Practice this sentence over and over again and prepare it for your private lessons, wherever you are in the world.
For example, if the student wants to be able to pass a test, it’s simple. You can just buy a book, and look at the activities in the book that are geared toward preparing the student, and you could also give the student more responsibilities such as giving them homework so that they can study certain areas of English and then have them bring in their own questions for the following class, the way my own Vietnamese teacher has me build my own vocabulary. This, by the way, requires no lesson planning on your part because you're giving the student the full responsibility that is really on them to learn for themselves. And this is what I call “No Work Teaching!”
For supplemental material, I highly recommend Shayna’s English classes, Espresso English. Interestingly enough, although it’s paid, most of my students don’t mind the fee because Shayna is incredibly soft-spoken and patient. She also speaks more clearly than I do so that the students get the best of both worlds—they get Shayna’s soft-spoken and comfortable speaking patterns, combined with my constant monitoring of their progress and it just works! So if you always wanted to be a certain kind of teacher, well now you can be through this course.
You can't be in anybody else's head. Let’s get this basic truth out of the way right now. Unless you have telepathy, do you? If so what am I thinking right now?
You can't be in anybody else's shoes, either. We all trod this path alone. No matter what that poem, Footsteps may say.
So, the best way that I have found to kind of make classes less absorbing and less taxing on your energy—since the basic act of trying to do this will swiftly kill you, and we all want the slow death right?
—is to really put the burden of responsibility back onto the student and to make them constantly aware that they are the ones that are controlling their futures, not the teacher, contrary to what the overall education system of the world would have you believe. And I do mean all education, because they are all the same, they are just speaking different languages.
A Basic Philosophy to Carry with You Throughout Your Teaching Career – This Will Save you Big Time!
Work smart, not hard. I am constantly learning this lesson and every day I’m meeting more and more people who have learned to do the same, even better than me! And if you happen to be one of these types of people, we should meet for coffee, and bring them because we should all share information. You know I need it.
Because as much as I have enjoyed teaching, I don’t want to do it until I croak. Do you?
I want to be able to enjoy life instead of constantly being on someone else’s hamster wheel. Unless that hamster wheel belongs to a hot supermodel, I’d rather be sipping coconuts under a palm tree in Vietnam.
Life is just too short, folks.
Private lessons can be a drain, but they don’t have to be. To make it less stressful, give homework, always link activities to what it is that the student wants to learn for their own goals, and always ask them repeatedly what they want, at different points in the semester.
Here are some great questions for you to consider asking your students:
What else do you want to learn?
What are you going through right now that we can go over?
Did you do the homework?
Who let the dogs out? Really I need to know. It’s been too long.
Most importantly, always make the relationship a partnership, a collaboration, rather than something adversarial or even worse, you being the disseminator of knowledge because that’s just exhausting. And you don’t want to burnout before getting that long awaited tan under a palm tree, do you? Just make sure you put on a little sunscreen, I’d hate for you to get burned.
About Todd Persaud
TEFL Teacher, Author & Horror Musical Writer
TEFL teacher by day, horror musical writer by night; Todd Persaud escaped the glamour and bright lights of New York City, in the pursuit of adventure, romance and some money to make it all possible.
For safety during his foreign adventures, Todd equipped himself with a M.A. in Forensic Psychology, a B.A. in Criminology and a MA in Applied Sociology. These along with his BFA from New School University gave Todd a fighting chance to deal with students in five different countries so far.
These colourful experiences and dry, yet helpful insights about teaching English abroad can now be enjoyed in his new book: The TEFL Re-education Program: Your Satirical Journey