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Beginning your online ESL teaching career is exciting — and also intimidating. Much like starting any new job, you want to make sure you approach it the right way and avoid making errors. When teaching, simple mistakes are often more impactful than in other lines of work because you’re working directly with students who trust you and are eager to learn from you.

In that light, today we’re taking a look at common mistakes ESL teachers make and how you can avoid them.

Mistake #1: Letting too much emotion and expectation slip into your lessons

Being a good teacher of anything — ESL included — is all about how you relate to your students.

You have to meet your students where they are. No matter how many times you’ve gone over this material in your life, or how elementary it may seem to you, this is their lesson. The student is the one signing your paycheck, and if they feel pressured or otherwise unappreciated, progress is greatly slowed and the odds that you will lose the student increase dramatically.

Once you’ve worked with a student for a while, you will get to know their learning style, speed, and level of commitment. Once you have an understanding of these things, you’ll be able to plan better for each lesson and not get ahead of yourself (or the student).

From another angle, you don’t want to get overly emotional or sentimental in your lessons. While it is important to connect with your students and build a bond between the two of you, it is equally important to maintain an air of professionalism. At the end of the day, the student is your customer, not your friend.

There’s nothing wrong with being proud of a student’s success, and to express that to them. But as happy as you are to see their progress, there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed.

Think of Karate Kid — as close as Mr. Miyagi and Daniel LaRusso become, Mr. Miyagi never lets his guard down as a leader and a teacher. Whether or not you bleed on the inside, you must always maintain discipline.

Mistake #2: Not getting to know your students

Much like anyone you deal with at work, the relationship between you and your students is nuanced. There are multiple layers to it, often beginning with one that can sometimes be tough to crack: cultural differences and boundaries.

Your job will be made much easier by spending time on these facets:

  • Learning their personal goals. Each student is learning English for their own reasons. Maybe they’re a college student wanting to improve their standing in the job market. Maybe they’re a child being encouraged by their parents to learn English, as is often the case with platforms like VIPKid.  Or maybe they’re planning to travel or move to an English speaking country. As their teacher, you need to have a firm grasp on what they want and provide them an outline for how you’re going to help them get there. I suggest taking some time in the first couple of lessons to talk through end goals with each student, and incorporate those into your approach for each lesson.
  • Understanding their cultural background. Different cultures learn in different ways, this much will become very obvious to you very quickly. But equally important is your understanding that societal norms that each student is accustomed to vary greatly from what you may be used to– particularly if he or she is from a different part of the world as yourself. Remember, in many places, civil rights aren’t where they are in most western countries and men and women may be more or less inclined to ask questions or express themselves. The more you can do to make your student feel comfortable and valued the better. A good course of action is to always tell new students that they can ask questions at any time, and ask you to go back and re-explain anything they struggle to grasp.

-Not remembering personal details like their family members, and not taking the time to learn what is important to them

Mistake #3: Inconsistencies in the lesson plan

but I won’t beat around the bush here — it shows if you haven’t taken the time to prepare for class. Let’s say you have one lesson totally figured out from start to finish. You have a solid lead to the material, have mapped out how to best present it to the student, and even have a set of exercises for them to work on.

The next week, that same student shows up and all you have is a video for them to watch. Videos are great — unpreparedness is not. Is the student prepared for the video? Have you watched it yourself, or used it in other lessons?

Students thrive when they know what to expect. Although material changes, the format of your lessons should remain as consistent as possible.

  • Try to allow for questions at the end each time
  • Start lessons with a quick review of prior material or homework. If possible, incorporate some of the words or phrases learned in the prior lesson into the beginning of your conversation in the next class.
  • Try to schedule similar amounts of material, time for teaching, and time for the student to review, into each lesson. It also helps to maintain the same format each time.

At the risk of sounding overly redundant, the bottom line here is consistency: if you start a lesson by reviewing an assignment, then move into new material, and close with questions and assigning studies, work through this same order each time.

Mistake #4: Not giving your students enough talking time

This is a big one that even experienced ESL teachers often find themselves committing. Yes, you are the teacher and, for all intents and purposes, the master. But no one wants to be preached at for an hour.

It’s much tougher to focus, take notes, and feel comfortable when the entire lesson consists of little more than a teacher throwing knowledge at the student. Think about the last time you were having a conversation with someone, only to find yourself waiting and waiting for your chance to chime in.

It’s frustrating as all get out!

This frustration is compacted in a learning environment because unlike in many casual conversations, the student actually wants to remember everything being said.

They don’t want to barge in with a question. They also don’t want to feel lost or like they’re falling behind. As an ESL teacher, one of the most important skills you can develop is the ability to take well-placed pauses during your lessons. You can ask if the student has any questions or needs clarification on something. You can also just pause for a moment, giving them a chance to process the information and get through any notes they are taking.

This also gives you a chance to check your notes and make sure you’re not skipping over anything important.

Mistake #5: Finishing a student’s sentence

This one is straightforward, but you’d be surprised at how many ESL teachers have fallen into the terrible habit of correcting their students mid-sentence.

Often, a student will struggle to develop a well-formulated sentence to respond to a question or observation. It is important that you don’t rush them — give them time to think and time to pull their answer together. No matter how broken their sentences are, let the student answer to the best of their ability. Once they finish, THEN you can comment and make corrections or suggestions.

Let’s break down why finishing a student’s sentence is a horrible practice:

  • It interrupts the student’s thought process. Maybe the word, phrase, or whatever it is they’re struggling to say was just about to click — and then the teacher ruins it by saying it themselves.
  • It creates an unneeded air of expectation. If the student doesn’t feel comfortable making mistakes, they aren’t going to feel comfortable taking risks. And when they don’t take risks, they aren’t going to progress. The classroom — even a virtual one — is supposed to be an open space free of pretention and judgment.
  • It switches the flow of conversation from the student back to the teacher. During a lesson, you have your time to teach, talk, and direct. Equally important is the student’s time to process, comprehend, and regurgitate. By interrupting, you’re stealing their moment. Plus, it’s just plain rude.

Thanks for reading! If you can avoid these common mistakes ESL teachers make, your lessons will be much smoother and your students much happier. 

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