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Teaching English Abroad Without Experience: Is It Possible? How?

Teaching English Abroad in Madrid

By Andrea P., Auxiliar de Conversación in Madrid 18/19.

When I first came to Spain to teach as a language assistant, I didn’t have experience teaching English abroad, or at all.  I had run some workshops for adult colleagues through my job at the state health department. But I knew all too well, standing up in front of a class was a different beast altogether. If I said I wasn’t intimidated by the prospect, I’d be lying. I was excited about the opportunity but also felt insecure about my lack of experience. Luckily, you CAN be a good English teacher without any formal training. Here are some tips for the first timer.

1. Review Basic English Grammar and Verb Tenses Ahead of Time

“Work as an English teacher, you say?  Easy!  I speak English and have my entire life!  I’m kind of an expert.”

While there is some truth to this way of thinking, teaching English abroad isn’t that straightforward. Would you be able to come up with an example on the spot of the present continuous?  Past perfect? probably not. We may have mastered all these tenses and grammar structures throughout our lives and use them automatically and effortlessly, but most wouldn’t be able to call them out by name. As language assistants, we are not expected to teach these tenses but we need to practice them with the students. You will feel way less blindsided if you do a quick review prior to starting at your school.

2. Consider a Cheap TEFL Course

Unless you are 100% certain you want to pursue teaching as your new vocation, you don’t need to drop hundreds of thousands of dollars on a TEFL certificate program. I recently completed an online 160-hour TEFL course that I bought for $39 on Groupon.  It wasn’t mind-blowing or especially rigorous like a CELTA or Trinity TESOL would be. But it allowed me to look at things in the classroom differently, and most importantly fueled my creativity and motivation. While this certificate wouldn’t allow me to work in other European countries, it is a ticket to many jobs across Asia and will help me as I continue my teaching adventures in Spain. I may not stick with teaching for the rest of my life but for now, it’s a great way to see the world and do something meaningful. You don’t need a certificate to teach in Spain but if you’re feeling unprepared, it might boost your confidence!

3. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

As an overzealous new teacher, you might be set on creating all of your lessons and activities from scratch. While this is completely doable, it’s also a big-time investment.  When I started, I thought that I needed to make my own materials and activities if I wanted them done right. The truth is, teachers have been around since the beginning of time and there are tons of wonderful ideas, materials, and even full lesson plans that already exist, tried and true.

4. Explore Some of The Many Resources on The Internet

There are some really great *FREE* resources available for all kinds of lessons, spanning all ability levels.  Some of my favorite sites include:

Some Teaching Resources

  • ISL Collective

This site has thousands of worksheets, video lessons, and projects for you to use after signing up for an account. The great thing is, most worksheets are downloadable in Word format and can be changed and adapted for your learners.  While I don’t recommend relying on worksheets in your classes, they can be good for checking in between activities. You can also get creative and complete them in teams to break away from the monotony of individual, silent work.

  • British Council

The well-respected British Council runs a website packed with resources for teachers. You can find lesson plans, grammar guides, and articles on teaching theory explaining how to introduce language points to students.  For a class with 3nd ESO, I had to prepare a lesson on emergencies and how to contact the emergency services. I found an entire lesson related to the topic on the website with PowerPoints to practice. I found vocabulary and audio clips of pretending calls to emergency services that tested the students’ listening skills.  Of course, you can always add your own ideas but pre-made plans are giant time savers.

  • GoNoodle

Although I haven’t used this resource of late (I don’t think my high schoolers would appreciate it!), other assistants who work with primary school-aged children rave about it.  Students can dance and sing to simple songs that will help get that energy out and prepare them for learning.

Others for Games and Activities

A favorite among the kids, this site takes popular songs in English from YouTube and blanks out portions of the lyrics to test listening skills.  Many people are motivated to learn a language through music or film because it’s fun and relevant.  The kids especially enjoy singing along.

This website has videos for many different age groups and levels. Students watch the video then take the quiz (I usually do this as a group) to test their listening comprehension.  In a small group with some of my 15-year-olds, I showed a clip from Friends where Joey joins an ESL class in order to meet a pretty girl. The language was easy enough for them to understand and the content was funny, so they followed along quite well. Bringing media into the classroom is a good way to spice up a lesson.

My students love anything competition-based.  One of the popular ways to practice grammar points with my 1st ESO class (the youngest kids at the high school) is to split the room into two groups and project a game from this website on the screen.  The games have interactive graphics and quirky sounds and they cover a wide range from beginner to more advanced levels. This portion of the lesson can get quite rowdy but sometimes that is the best part!

Common Ones Turned into Teaching Tools

  • Slideshare

In reference to the previous point in #3, Slideshare has a large collection of user-made slideshows on nearly every topic. While I’m often tempted to put together my own presentation, I’ve actually found some really great ones covering different topics. From Thanksgiving in the US to American football to a biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Again, you’re free to add your own materials or photos after the initial presentation. But don’t overlook the heaps of time you’ll save tapping into resources created by other teachers and students.

YouTube isn’t just the best place to watch cat videos, it’s also filled with things to complement your lessons. With my primary school classes four years ago, I often would use a Pixar video to practice different verb forms by stopping the clip and asking questions. These types of videos are short enough to keep their attention. They provide enough material to work on many different types of activities for all levels.  Think: describing words, telling a story, memory game, writing an alternate ending… the list is endless with a little creativity!

5. Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help

One of the most important things to remember is, you are not alone. Your English coordinator at school is the first point of contact for ideas that have worked with past language assistants. Additionally, try to connect with one of the many auxiliar facebook pages. There are country-wide groups, Comunidad groups, city groups, and even program groups (ConversaSpain has got you covered here!). On these pages, you can consult with colleagues, many of whom are veterans, from classroom management to lesson planning ideas. I have found several great lesson plans perfect for teaching English abroad on these pages that turned out to be a hit with my students. The groups function as an active and supportive community for language assistants, both new and seasoned

6. When in Doubt, a Smile, Enthusiastic Energy, and Flexibility Will Get You Far

Anytime you’re working with children, you need to be prepared for anything.  Sometimes you’re going to see your lesson plans fall apart for a number of different reasons. Even the most well-thought-out plan can crash and burn for various reasons, some out of your control. The first rule of thumb is this: don’t panic.  It’s not just a learning process for the kids, you’re learning, too. In these moments, do your best, stay positive, and keep smiling. Teaching requires a certain amount of flexibility to jump to the next task if you see the current one isn’t working. Initially, this may seem daunting, but you’ll get a hang of these snags very quickly. Soon enough will be a pro at averting classroom crisis.

In Summary Teaching English Abroad

The idea of moving to a foreign country to teach English with no experience can be daunting.  However, many resources and supports are available to help you get on your feet and gain confidence.  Teaching English abroad is extremely rewarding and even at the end of a tough day, you’ll be left smiling thinking about the wacky things your students have said or the wonderful progress they’ve made.  But the benefits don’t stop once you’ve left the classroom!  Living in another country is a fantastic opportunity for personal growth.  You can learn about the language and culture, make friends with locals, and explore beautiful historical sights often from the comfort of your own city or town.

So, what are you waiting for?  Don’t miss out on an experience of a lifetime! Become an Auxiliar de Conversación.

7 Responses

  1. Great tips. I love learning different teaching styles from the teachers here in the schools.

  2. I love these tips. I am currently a language assistant so I am going to use some of the methods you mentioned. I actually use ESL Games quite often with my students. Thanks for sharing the rest of them.

    -Jael Garner

  3. Great tips. One of the games I like playing with my primary school children is “Hangman”. I feel it really improves their spelling skills, and correct pronunciation of the letters. They love it too also because it’s me against them (the whole class)!

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