Some Thoughts on Teaching English as a Foreign Language

Condensing 7 years of experience and insight into 7 minutes

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As of September this year, I have been teaching English as a foreign language for seven years. I began in Prague in 2009 and continue teaching to this day in western France. Before that, I did intensive TESOL training in Chicago during the summer of 2007, before the economy collapsed.

But that wasn’t really real training. Learning to teach requires practice, preferably with actual students. Theory will only take you so far. I learned this firsthand later that year when I was called back up to Chicago for an interview with a corporate language school in Japan.

It sounded like an interesting opportunity! But the reality of matter was far less appealing.

Have you ever participated in a group interview?

They’re one of the most awkward and uncomfortable social interactions imaginable.

There were six candidates in total. Most had traveled at least some distance to be there. I myself had traveled 5 hours by train. My friend Lyle said I could crash on his couch for the weekend, which was great! Except he lived on the north side of Chicago near Belmont and Broadway, so that meant I needed to take the metro to reach the meeting downtown in the Loop.

I brought a suit with me that had cost entirely way too much money. After I got overdressed to impress, Lyle helped me tie an unwieldy Windsor knot, and I was ready to roll.

The candidates waited in the lobby until we were brought into a conference room by a burly Japanese guy wearing a dark blue suit with pinstripes and stylish glasses. Let’s call him Ken. Waiting for us within was a Caucasian middle manager with a mustache and brown hair. The less said about him the better. There was a brief video presentation about the company and what life is like in Japan. Up to this point it was pretty straightforward.

Then, Ken gave a demonstration of their method in order to teach us Japanese. I remember almost nothing, and I could try to describe it, but trust me when I say it was the teaching equivalent of this:

That is to say: a lot of sizzle with no steak.

Admittedly, it seemed impressive at the time. But Ken’s approach seemed too rigid, too scripted to actually be effective in the classroom.

When we received the invitation to the interview, we were instructed to be prepared to give a 5-minute teaching demonstration of our own.

To any potential TEFL recruiters: this is stupid.

It’s one thing to discuss methodology, techniques, previous training, and experience during an interview. It’s another thing entirely to ask someone to give a teaching demonstration; except instead of really teaching, you have to pretend to teach English to your fellow candidates.

I decided beforehand that I was going to “teach” fruit vocabulary. I stopped at a supermarket the day before and bought an apple, an orange, and a banana and kept them in a brown paper bag. I’m not sure how I thought this would last five minutes.

Sweet Christmas. What an embarrassment. There are few things that are more inane than giving an apple to a person you know speaks English, saying the word “apple,” and then watching as their face contorts into this rictus of stupidity like you just asked them about flight times to Portugal in Ancient Greek. “Uh, a-a-ple?” Then looking up at you like you just spontanteously ejaculated on their face. It was awful.

The other demos weren’t much better. If you put people in a position to fail, they will, time and time again. Afterwards, we were escorted back to the waiting area. Perhaps ten minutes later, Ken and Mr. Mustache came out with sealed envelopes that we were requested to wait to open. They explained that within the envelope would be an invitation to participate in the next round of interviews or, basically, a “Thanks for playing” letter.

We took the elevator down to the lobby and tore open the envelopes. I breathed an almost audible sigh of relief when I realized I wasn’t being invited back for another interview. I wouldn’t be going to Japan, but I was all right with that.

That night, we celebrated my failure by shotgunning Pabst Blue Ribbon and playing “Peace Frog” by The Doors so loud the neighbors called the police.

Fast forward two years later to Prague. I received a month of intensive training, including several hours of hands-on teaching practice with Czech students. It was a revelation. Who knew actually doing the job prepared you for the real thing?

That said, I wasn’t a particularly great teacher at first. Though I took a speech class in college, I was never very comfortable with talking in front of other people. Surely you know the formula: public speaking + anxiety = overactive sweat glands.

After my first 15-minute practice lesson, I was a soaking mess. My relief was palpable, not only because I survived, but because I gained an important insight.

Your most important asset as a teacher is being able to think on your feet.

Lesson plans can be wonderful things. They help to organize your objectives and provide a sense of structure to the class. Without them, your students might think you’re just flying by the seat of your pants.

But lesson plans cannot entirely account for times when a particular activity or exercise bombs with your audience, or when a student asks you to explain, a propos of nothing, the third conditional and you start to feel like Dubya trying to explain what tribal sovereignty means.

Having the ability to adapt and change course on a moment’s notice is crucial. I imagine those business productivity gurus call this trait agility.

Languages are living things.

They’re constantly evolving. If they’re not evolving, then they’re most likely dead.

The goal of teaching a language is to strive for a balance between accuracy and fluency. Often, when trying to speak a new language, the mind constructs the perfect sentence in your mother tongue and then tries to transpose it to another language. The results are generally less than stellar.

The reason why has to do with how people are taught when they’re in school. In France, the traditional method of learning English meant doing exercises and translations. They had years of English training with almost no practical speaking experience. No speaking!

That’s crazy. The most effective way to learn a language is to speak it. My girlfriend’s father said it best when I first arrived in France and spoke just a few words of French. He said, “Parler. Parler. Parler. I realized that if I wanted my students to make real, tangible progress, I’d need to flip the script.

Plan ahead, but develop organically.

Every class is unique. Every individual brings their own experiences, culture, preferences, ideas, and sense of humor to the table. The key is to take advantage of that. Get your students to think on their feet. Surprise them. Ask them unusual questions. Have them tell you embarrassing stories, like the one I told above.

I apply grammar on an as-needed basis. This depends on a student’s level. If you are teaching a grammar point, have them tell you what the rules are. How do we form the present perfect tense? Why is it used? Okay, now how do you use it?

Use their examples to expand the conversation. Think of exceptions to the rule. There are always exceptions.

Digress. It’s the sign of a good conversation when you need to ask, “So, uh, what were we originally talking about?”

I encourage my students to imagine English as a bucket of Legos. You can build whatever the mind imagines. But, the basic rules of physics still apply. English is no different—without structure, language collapses into unintelligibility.

Have fun.

Last week I had a conversation about the absurdity Donald Trump, the archaic rules and vocabulary of baseball, discussed faith and family with a Jehovah’s Witness, and showed a video of the Micro Machines guy, John Moschitta, speaking more than 500 words per minute.

I also enjoy spontaneously breaking out into song. In fact, yesterday I began singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” because once upon a time I was falling in love and now I’m only falling apart. During group discussions or individual exercises I’ve been known to play Prince.

Over the last 7 years of teaching I’ve met a lot of people. Many of these people already know at least some English. They even know a lot of grammar—or, at least more than a native speaker usually does. Do they lack vocabulary? Naturally. Is their pronunciation off? From time to time. Do they have bad habits? Without a doubt.

But, more often than not, their biggest issue is confidence.

I’m over-generalizing here, but my job is about 10% scheduling, 10% grammar, 40% conversation, and 40% psychology.

It’s impossible to snap your fingers and magically speak a second language, unless you’re John Travolta in Phenomenon. It’s a heady task, requiring countless hours of studying and practice. It requires motivation, but it’s difficult to be motivated if you don’t have any confidence.

Language is our single greatest achievement.

It’s the ultimate tool. If you’re here on Medium, you already know about the potency, pleasure, and power of words.

So it makes me proudest to be a teacher when a student of mine feels comfortable and confident enough to stop thinking too much about grammar or the perfect translation. To realize you don’t need to know every single word. To stop worrying about your accent or whether you’ll sound stupid. To relax and let the words flow like water.

Then, it’s possible for two people to not only communicate, but to build entire worlds together.