This blog consists of tips, experience and wisdom – some of it my own, some of it second-hand – that I wish I had put into action in my first year of teaching.
I am a hypocrite though. I didn’t do a single one of these things in my first year.
I would have done a better job with my students, had a better relationship with students’ families and been better company in the school staffroom, had I done a few of these things.
1. Gather ‘evidence’ about your students
After your first lesson in China, a parent or someone at the school may ask for feedback about a student.
On this occasion, I’d say it's OK to give a diplomatic, low-information answer (“It’s early days to give detailed information, but I’ve got a good feeling about them”).
Perfect Phrases for Classroom Teachers, by Christine Canning Wilson, has more all-purpose responses which should satisfy the more persistent ones for the time being.
You can’t honestly be expected to come up with anything more insightful than that after an hour with a student, especially since that hour might have been your very first as a teacher.
But this defence won’t hold for long. After a few classes, parents might expect more. It’s your job to have something useful and insightful to say.
Invest in an exercise book. After each class, write a short note about every student you can.
In the early days, nothing is too banal: What do they look like? What were they wearing? Which classmates do they seem to like or dislike?
Make notes about your students, says teacher Alex Moore.
At this stage, it’s all about giving yourself something to remember about them, turning them into a recognizable character in your mind.
As soon as you can, start making comments about their academic performance. Is their vocabulary wider or narrower than the others? Do they follow instructions straight away, or wait and follow what others are doing? How good is their pronunciation?
Keep this up for at least the first month, until you’re confident you know enough about each student as an individual.
2. Make homework matter
Your school in China may have a rule about how often you should give homework. Once a week, per class, seems to be the norm.
If it’s a requirement, the temptation is there to see it as an exercise in box-ticking. Just jot some workbook page numbers on the whiteboard, or hand students a barely relevant photocopied worksheet as they file out, and you’ve covered your backside for another day.
Then, when students come back for the next class, you’re so caught up in planning and delivering today’s lesson, you’ve forgotten what the last homework was. You take it in, say thank you, pile it up in the corner of the room, and never mention it again.
Fight this temptation. Don’t forget it, and certainly don’t bin it, at least not in front of your students! I’ve seen this happen before.
If a task is worth assigning as homework, it’s worth marking and giving some feedback about. Do anything else, and you’re basically wasting students’ time, and they’ll catch on to it.
In The Practice of English Language Teaching, Jeremy Harmer points out that “many school and college students have a number of different subjects to contend with, and English homework sometimes gets put to the bottom of the pile”.
This is certainly true in the high-pressure academic world Chinese students inhabit. If your language institution in China is extra-curricular, and not linked to any particular formal examination, you’ll already have an uphill struggle to get them to take your homework seriously.
If you don’t look at their homework soon after the class, it will slip further down in the pile and disappear altogether.
But even if you do mark it and return it, you’re only one person in their lives, probably one of a dozen teachers they encounter on a weekly basis. In order to get them to take homework seriously, you’ll need to involve other people.
That’s where the next two tips come in.
3. Chase up missed homework
Watch the video below and arm yourself with a clipboard of your own. Keep a record of who does and doesn’t submit homework.
Tell students “Hand that in next class” and mean it. Threaten to contact their parents or the headmaster if they turn up without the homework a second time. Then actually do it.
In the movie Iron Man, Tony Stark says the most powerful weapon is “the one you only have to fire once”. In a culture like China, where parental expectations are high, family contact can be that weapon.
If you choose a different sanction, be similarly firm and consistent, and keep that line of communication with home open. The important thing is that late or missing homework – like all misbehavior – must have a consequence.
4. Give your students the peer-marking habit
“But Alex, I don’t have time to mark 10/20/40 pieces of homework per class per week”.
I don’t know your working conditions and I don’t know your routine, but I’m going to assume that’s true. Marking is hard work. And lonely, time-consuming, often boring work.
This is why you should get your students accustomed to peer marking. If you have a projector, show the previous lesson’s homework page on the board and elicit the right answers question-by-question in front of them.
The students can mark their own work, although I only recommend this if you trust them to be honest with you, their parents and themselves about how well they did. I think it’s preferable to have them swap papers, pub-quiz style, and mark each other.
If you’re worried that a student who did badly might object to a classmate knowing their marks (and, possibly, broadcasting that fact to the others), there is a solution.
You can anonymise the papers by covering the students’ names with Post-it notes, and rotating the papers around the classroom after you’ve gone through each question.
Students' names can be covered by Post-it notes during peer marking.
Whatever way you do it, the result is that the students have shared the right answers and had the chance to see their own work corrected. Just not by you.
Peer marking doesn’t mean you can sit back and take a 10-minute nap while the students do the hard work. It just means you have a different – hopefully more interesting, and certainly more useful – job.
While the marking process is going on, walk around the classroom and glance at the students’ papers to identify any widespread recurring problems. This will give you ideas for later revision stages.
Finally, never accept this excuse: “I've done the homework but it’s at home”. No. Sorry. No sale.
Even if it is true – and I’m prepared to believe that it’s true at least sometimes – you have to let them know that it’s not good enough.
As you start teaching, you’ll find yourself accidentally quoting teachers from your own schooldays, and not just the ones you liked. One gem I found myself spouting in this situation was: “Bringing your homework back to class is part of the homework.”
Get your students believing it. And believe it yourself.
Do you have any homework habits? If so, please share them below.