Starting off on the right foot in a new English-teaching job

16 02 2015

It’s the beginning of the school year in the Southern Hemisphere and many teachers are starting their teaching profession or re-starting in a new school or language institute. My experience as a leader in a large ELT institute that hires around thirty new teachers each semester has shown that there are certain attitudes, dispositions and behaviors that can help a teacher guarantee a smooth beginning in a new institution. Here are a few tips that might be useful:

back to school - courtesy of samarttiw at digitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of samarttiw  @ freedigitalphtos.net

  • Know your institution’s approach to TEFL and pedagogical principles

This may sound obvious, but not every teacher is careful to address this upfront with their leaders. Many things are taken for granted. We all know that ELT is by no means an exact science with definitive scientifically proven laws. Heated debates about use of L1 in the classroom, corrective feedback, TTT versus STT, focus on grammar, pre-established learning outcomes, what variety of English to teach, just to name a few, are constant in conferences, social networks and professional and academic journals. Each institution adheres to certain policies, principles and practices related to the these aspects and many other relevant ones, and a new teacher needs to know what these policies, principles and practices are. Students who enroll in specific ELT institutes do so with a certain set of expectations based on what they know about the language program, so it’s important that a new teacher be cognizant of how the program views these controversial issues and that they adhere to the principles and policies set forth by the institution, even if they don’t agree with them. Of course, learning institutions revisit their policies, principles and practices all the time, and new teachers will have the chance to contribute, but I believe that the first semester is not a good time to do so. Learn and follow the rules before initiating a discussion to break them!

  • If possible, observe a few classes taught by senior teachers

There is no better way of knowing how a program really works than actually observing a teacher in action. It’s the best way to see how the pedagogical principles adhered to by the institution are actually implemented in the classroom and how the students respond. However, don’t just observe a lesson and leave. Make sure you take notes and talk to the teacher later on, clarifying issues, asking why they did what they did or didn’t do what you thought they could have done. It’s a great way to get to know the real culture of the institution.

  • Know who the key people are

As an Academic Superintendent, I’m not teachers’ direct contact, especially in the first semester. Of course they all know me and I make it a point to participate in the pre-service training to establish rapport with the group, but when the semester starts, we have limited contact. I have to say that I really admire the ones who say hello to me when they pass by my office, rather than pass by quickly hoping to be unnoticed or pretending they didn’t see I was there. It shows a certain level of maturity and agency. Some even go out of their way to see me. To me it conveys the message “I know who you are and I want you to acknowledge me here”, which I think is very positive. It’s also very important that new teachers know and treat their Academic Coordinators and Course Supervisors (the terminology can vary from institute to institute) by name and also make it a point to be seen by them. Besides, they need to know who the support staff is and call these people by their names. They are the ones who can really help teachers out on a daily basis and being friendly with them can be a life-saver.

  • Create a Professional Learning Network

Make sure you identify the colleagues with whom you have more affinity and establish a professional and even personal relationship with them right away. This network should ideally comprise colleagues who are also starting in the institution, so you can support each other in your new journey; colleagues who started not long ago and from whose successes and challenges you can learn; and more experienced colleagues, who can be your peer mentors and help out whenever you have a question or problem. Nurture you PLN by being in constant touch with them, sharing ideas, and asking questions. Don’t just take but also give!

  • Use all the digital tools available to communicate with leaders and colleagues and stay informed

Being well-informed about everything that is going on is crucial and can save you time and energy. Be sure you check your work e-mail and other digital communication resources used by the institution frequently so you can always be aware of what’s going on. It’s very difficult to keep track of the wealth of information out there these days, so use a system that will guarantee that you won’t forget meetings, test dates, and other important commitments. You can use a traditional notebook / planner, or a digital calendar or productivity app. If you know you are a disorganized person, seek help from a colleague that you know is very organized. If you receive an e-mail with information and are not sure you understand it, ask for clarification. I really like it when teachers respond to my announcements with concerns or queries on aspects that were not clear. It shows they are paying attention and care.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Asking many questions is not a sign of insecurity as many may think, but rather, a sign of interest and commitment. Asking questions frequently is much better than never asking and making wrong assumptions that will lead to unnecessary failures. Never assume things for yourself. Ask! Try to predict problems and ask colleagues and superiors what to do in case they occur. If you have a problem with a student, don’t try to solve it by yourself. Count on your leaders’ help.

  • Dress appropriately

In Brazil, especially, dress codes are a fuzzy area. Skirt and dress lengths can be “flexible” in some work places, and the heat invites women to wear strapless, low-cut, or naked-back tops and flip-flops.  Men might be compelled to wear Bermuda shorts. Are these appropriate in a school? Of course not, but where do we draw the line? You will never be wrong if you follow some simple principles. First of all, don’t dress too casually. Business attire is not required for teachers unless they teach in-company, but worn-out jeans and a sloppy t-shirt are not adequate, either. Go for business-casual if you are in doubt. Then you can start observing how the teachers around you and the Coordinators and Supervisors dress so you can feel what the institute’s “dressing culture” is and fit your personal style into it. In our institute, we are very clear about what teachers should and shouldn’t wear, but even so we see female teachers in dresses that are too short, or dresses and blouses with long cleavages. We find this unprofessional and it makes us very uncomfortable to have to address this topic with an adult professional. Believe me, how you dress says a lot about how you respect the institution and its rules and policies.

  • Focus more on understanding than complaining

Unfortunately, some new teachers are immediately identified as “complainers”. Why? Because they complain about everything that is new to them or that doesn’t go according to their expectations. It’s natural, for example, for new teachers to get a not-so-convenient teaching schedule the first semester or to end up having to teach ages or levels that they have no or little experience with. It’s not always possible for the institution to accommodate 100% of teachers’ needs and assign teachers to all groups at the same time. Of course, you can and should express your concerns to your leaders, but make sure it doesn’t come across as a complaint. Also, never say “At X (former job), they did Y” as a way of comparing and showing that they know how to deal with the problem better. Maybe you’re right, but it doesn’t help establish a good relationship with your new institution!

  • Find a right balance between showing your professional experience and being humble

In our institute, we hire teachers with a lot of experience in other contexts, which is really positive. It’s natural for these professionals to stand out from the crowd naturally, and most of the times they don’t even need to make much effort to do so. Just the way they act, how they express themselves, and their inherent self-confidence testify to their experience and expertise. The problem is when they make it a point to keep emphasizing how accomplished they are and reminding everyone around them that they are highly experienced, sometimes even looking down on the more novice colleagues and/or demanding a more favorable teaching schedule. In meetings, they want to show how much they know, so they end up talking much more than anyone else. This draws the more inexperienced colleagues away and creates unnecessary antagonism with the senior teachers in the institution. Be humble and allow your experience to speak for itself. Listen more than you speak at first, and start expressing your opinions and knowledge little by little. This will get you much farther, I can guarantee.

  • Get involved in extracurricular and social activities

We carry out a number of extracurricular activities in which teachers can volunteer to participate. Some examples are Halloween parties, workshops for young learners, Spelling Bee, etc. We also have social activities such as a Thanksgiving luncheon and a Teacher’s Day party. I’m sure other EFL institutes have the same types of activities. Try to be as participatory as possible so you can really become part of the staff and be seen as such. This also helps you become fully integrated and know more colleagues.

These are just a few tips that I hope will help you begin an excellent relationship with your new institution and everyone in it. Do you have other tips you’d like to add to my list?

Obs: This post was originally published in richmondshare.com.br

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