By Josh Butterworth , Teacher in Phetchabun, Thailand
It’s Monday morning and you feel great. Wow. You spent Sunday evening preparing some awesome lessons packed with fun games and interesting activities, you’re excited for first period and know it’s going to be a good week. You can’t wait to walk into the classroom and see your students, shiny new board pens holstered in your pocket ready for action. Sitting at your desk in the cool airconditioned office, the smell of coffee and some indistinct Thai breakfast linger in the air, you smile at your co-teacher as she walks towards you. But, the news she brings wipes that smile away, “today, online”. What? All that preparation to teach in the classroom, creating games, practicing vocabulary presentation, making worksheets, printing worksheets, and 200 baht on the best board pens you could find, only to find out you’re online, five minutes before class at that. Thirty students in a classroom, present physically if not mentally, is a completely different prospect to thirty (probably significantly less) on the other end of a computer screen, cameras off, mics off, and most likely catching up on some sleep or their favorite Korean drama, rather than listening to you talking about grammar. Blah. Blah. Blah.
Being prepared for onsite & online
The difficulty getting online students to reply to your questions is akin to the challenge you might face trying to get your cat to walk on a lead, down a busy street, surrounded by dogs. I will admit, I am somewhat exaggerating and have had many successful online lessons, students do reply and it is possible to have some fun as well. But, you need to be prepared. I learnt the hard way last term, teachers and students alike fell victim to the constant flipflopping between onsite and online classes, due to COVID (as well as indecisive management, but we won’t go there). It also works the other way as well. Prepared for online class, in your arsenal you have a gorgeous PPT, interactive games and an engaging lesson plan, only to be told five minutes before kick off that you’ll be teaching in the classroom. The initial shock of learning you will have to face real students rather than pixels on your laptop screen is daunting, but once overcome, it is actually less of a challenge to adapt from online to onsite teaching rather than the other way around. As long as you have a few engaging games stored in your head (more on that later) you can deliver the same content, minus your lovely PPT, adding more charisma and energy to have a successful lesson. Hopefully you will not face the same flipflopping that I did, and will know in advance if you are online or not, but it is always good to be prepared for both. I will share with you some of my tips, tricks, games and advice that should prepare you to teach onsite, online and everywhere in-between.
Firstly, I would like to talk about something that bridges the gap between online and onsite teaching, a technique that can be used for both. Ok, maybe it’s a little rich calling it technique, teaching style might be more accurate. Before coming to Thailand, my teaching experience was solely with primary school students, onsite when I lived in China and online in 2020 during COVID when I was in the UK. I found that the best, if not the only way to get a response from my students, to get them to engage and overcome their fear of getting answers wrong, was to be a little bit silly myself. Silly, energetic and never taking myself too seriously. A joke at my expense always guarantees a laugh and makes students feel more comfortable. I was worried on discovering that I would be teaching 17- and 18-year-old students in Thailand, adults, or not as I later found the case to be (they act a lot younger than their age). How would I adjust my teaching style that I had practiced for years? Well, I didn’t, and my new students responded really well. I must say that my way is far from the only way, and I do know many foreign teachers who have success in their classroom without using this style, adopting one that is more traditional. More teacher and student than learners together. You will quickly discover your own teaching style, but I really believe that a bit of fun, and an ability to step away from being a figure of authority, can help you get more from your students who will warm to you quicker and be less likely to misbehave. They will not fear you or speaking up in class, if you make calculated mistakes, they will see that it is ok if they are not perfect. I found this teaching style to be particularly helpful when teaching online, all your students are looking at is a screen, so, it’s crucial to bring it to life with energy and comedy, not just grammar and tenses. Try it! Silly. Playful. Energetic. Fun. And human, somebody who makes mistakes. Also, don’t be afraid to learn from your students, whether it’s a bit of Thai or something about their favorite phone game, they really appreciate that.
Discipline and classroom management concerns many teachers, new and old alike. Before facing bad behavior in the classroom and discovering for myself the best way to deal with it, I was worried too. From my experience, other than light chatter (annoying but not disruptive), I haven’t had any trouble in 90% of my onsite classes, and 100% of my online ones. It’s important to say right of the bat that shouting and getting angry or emotional is going to do far more damage than good. Yes, it may shock younger students into place, but it also negates everything I discussed in the previous paragraph. It is crucial to keep your classroom as a safe space, where students feel comfortable enough to speak up and make mistakes, that is the only way they will learn. If students see their teacher lose it, the classroom turns from a comfortable space into somewhere hostile. As for older students, they will lose all respect for a teacher who loses his or her cool. They know that foreign teachers do not have any real authority to punish them, so a teacher who raises their voice or displays hurt in response to the actions of a student or students, will only encourage the perpetrators to continue doing so. Again, I have not had to deal with many difficult classes, but when I have, they were all met with smiles, patience and calmness. Making it clear to the students that their misbehaving does not bother you in the slightest, is key. An ‘it’s your time you’re wasting’ attitude seems to be met first with confusion, but then understanding, usually leading to students correcting undesirable behavior. I know, becoming angry and even upset with misbehaving students is sometimes unavoidable, but you must try your upmost to keep this knowledge from them. Then, calmly, patiently, waiting for your students to stop whatever they are doing wrong, use comedy as your next tool. And then what? Yep, yep, yep. Tell me more! How funny are you! Finished yet? Keep your cool. Be patient. Display indifference (providing the behavior is not severe or harming other students). Make a joke of their behavior, render it uncool, take it off its pedestal. I believe doing this will help you, as it did me, on the rare occasions you may have to deal with students misbehaving.
As I have already mentioned, bad behavior is not an issue you are likely to encounter in online classes (because the students prone to misbehaving aren’t going to show up), but class participation is a challenge that you will need to learn how to overcome. Next, I will focus on online teaching and share a few things that have helped me get the most out of my classes.
Wait for students to arrive – During my first week of online classes, I had no idea what I was doing. Starting teaching on the dot and continuing for the whole fifty minutes, was simply unsustainable and unnecessary. These days, I start teaching between five and ten minutes after class is due to begin. A select few students arrive on time, especially in the better classes, but the majority come late because they don’t get a break between one period and the next. This is the same for you, ending class a little early and starting a little late (bearing in mind I am always ‘in’ the classroom on time) will give you and your students time for a drink or loo break. I greet students as they arrive and say, “hello students, thanks for coming, we’re just going to wait a few minutes for everyone to arrive, feel free to get a drink or go to the toilet”, then I mute my microphone and get on with some marking until enough students have joined the class. Smiling all the time of course, don’t forget your camera is still on. I also message the class group chat around five minutes in, to nudge those who are on the fence about attending. And when it comes to the end of class, I wrap things up between five and ten minutes before the scheduled finish time. Providing your school is ok with this, I advise you to do the same.
Energy – Straight out of the gate, it’s important to keep your energy levels high, this can be difficult when it’s 38 degrees outside, but do your best. Showing your students that you’re excited to see them, to teach them and that you’re interested in the lesson content will, hopefully, encourage them to get involved. I won’t go over this too much because I covered it in the third paragraph. Just be enthusiastic, loud, silly and funny to keep your students entertained and therefore participating.
Warm up games – Playing an easy and fun game at the start of each class for five or ten minutes will serve as a catalyst for student participation later in the lesson when it’s most important. Students thrive off interaction with you and their classmates first, lesson content second. Warming up with a game will encourage students to get involved in a no pressure, lighthearted and fun situation, once they realize that nothing bad happens when they speak, they will be more inclined to continue doing so throughout your classes. On trawling the internet, at first, I struggled to find online ESL games, but they are out there so search high and low. I will share a few with you that I have had success with in most of my classes. The key to a good game, especially during your first few lessons, is one that is interesting and makes students think, but requires minimal speaking, ideally one-word answers, short sentences at a push. Don’t expect students to blast out a monologue, even if it is within the safe space of a warmup game. So, here are three games to try.
Show me – This game is great because it doesn’t require the students to speak, at all, yes, you heard it right, no speaking. What it does do is encourage class participation. In the entirety of my time teaching online in Thailand, I have only had one student whose camera was on for the duration of class, and this only occurred on a handful of occasions. This game requires students to turn their camera on for a brief moment as they show you different types of objects that you have requested. Show me something, yellow! Something orange. Something triangle. Something that smells bad. Something that tastes good. Something from the kitchen, and so on. Get creative. Keep it simple for the less able or younger students but think outside the box with your higher ability classes. It is unlikely that the whole class will participate, but it is a fun way to see, albeit momentarily, into some of your students’ lives. It’s also a great way to see who’s willing to get enthusiastically involved, and, it’s a laugh. I’ve seen some pretty weird things playing this game.
Two truths and a lie – We all know this one, somebody says three sentences, two of which are true, one is a lie, others must ask questions and guess which sentence is the lie. This game is a great way to introduce yourself during the first few weeks with your new class, drip feeding your students information about you. You could even play it alongside another game, keeping it short. I would not recommend getting your students to create their own sentences, unless you give them ten or fifteen minutes as a class activity. Their English ability, creativity and lying technique is usually not good enough to think of something effective on the spot. But, students are always interested in you, so this game is a great way to get them thinking, asking questions and seeing what assumptions they might make. Keep it interesting, not too complicated and fun, encourage students to speak to each other and conduct the game in a conversational manner.
Name five – This is my favorite game to play online, although I’m not convinced my students share my enthusiasm, they probably hate it due to the fact I’ve made them play it so much, but it is a great way to get them speaking and gauge their knowledge of different subjects. Provided it’s played in moderation, students really enjoy it. The beauty of this game is that students are only required to say one word, they are in fact limited to one word per round, otherwise the top students, or student, will rattle off five in a row. I say a category. Colors. Pets. Body parts. Counties in Asia. Cities in Europe. Types of weather, and so on. Students shout out words in that category, until we have five. I take on the role of horse racing commentator as I egg students on for the next word, celebrating each one like a goal, and the fifth like a 90th minute winner in the world cup final. Be sure to tweak the difficulty of categories for classes of differing abilities. In my opinion, it’s a super fun game that always wakes me up, hopefully it has been doing the same for my students and will do so for yours in the future.
Up for more tips and tricks? Here’s part 2