Becoming a private English teacher
Although I’ve graduated in Fine Arts, I started working as a private English teacher by giving remedial work to primary and secondary students.
In fact, I hadn’t planned becoming an English teacher at that time. I was encouraged by my eldest sister to start teaching and I am very grateful for her. Without noticing it, she pushed me through a wonderful and fascinating career.
As I had no experience then, I started giving classes to one student only; I will call him “Gustavo” in order to keep his privacy. I can tell you I was a bit anxious and worried as I always considered teachers very responsible and persuasive professionals. “Gustavo” would come to my classes and trust me as a guide, a facilitator or even a “doctor” who could prescribe miraculous formulas to help him overcome his difficulties. That’s really a great responsibility!!!
However, I could also feel like helping people who didn’t master the language the way I did and being an upper-intermediate student made me aware of a chance I would have to study the language more deeply. Without taking part in any teacher’s training or learning any methodology, I had to start teaching by myself “listening” to my good sense and experience as a student. Therefore, I began sticking to an idea that has helped me in my practice, since the very first class I gave: “PUT YOURSELF IN THE STUDENT’S SHOES”.
I could learn beforehand that “Gustavo”’ s mother would like him to take remedial classes in English with a private teacher, due to his low grades at school. According to his mother, he was really having a hard time at school and she wouldn’t like him to fail the 5th grade. The place he was studying was a very well known and strict school in São Paulo.
The teachers there were too demanding and the students had to work really hard in order to follow the course.
I was told that in the 5th grade, the coordinators separated the classes into two groups: one with students who had notions of English and the other one with students who were already studying in language schools. Gustavo belonged to the group which had never studied English and it seemed the school didn’t give a chance to that category.
He was facing difficulties as his teacher took it for granted that the students in his group had already got the ability to master basic concepts of the language.
Based on this information which I got by talking to his mother and to him, I decided to plan a strategy to help him survive and “fight” against that pressure he was suffering.
I became his partner, a more experienced student who would join and try to understand him in order to help him become “stronger”, a “higher achiever”.
First, I asked him to show me all the tests he had done so that I could analyse the kind of exercises the teachers there asked him to do, how they evaluated him and in which parts he was making mistakes.
By doing so, I planned lots of extra exercises for him, explaining to him how to build up sentences, questions, learn new words, making associations, etc. At once I could notice he was a shy student, and most of his doubts were kept because he was afraid of asking his teacher at school a question about the subject. He didn’t feel comfortable in that class and solving his doubt in front of his classmates would embarrass him even more.
I remember making him do lots of exercises with previous explanation, of course, and could help him trust me and in what I was telling him to do. Gustavo was so amazed by what he was doing that he got very proud of himself by counting pages and pages of intensive practice and noticing he was learning.
Words fail me to describe the way I felt when I saw him at my gate with a huge smile on his face waving his latest test at school with a “B” marked on the top of the first page!!!!
BINGO!!!!! Not only had my strategy worked but also had provided me with lots of students from that school: Gustavo’s friends and colleagues who had already gone through the same problem.
Gustavo was my very first student and my potential client, my “advertising agent”!
That’s why I keep telling my teacher-colleagues when I run courses for them: “Don’t worry if you have only one student…he/she may bring a thousand of students for you!!!!!! If you deserve them!!!!!”
Then, teachers usually ask me “HOW?” How can I deserve the students I have? How can I make them interested in my classes? How can I make them achieve good results?”
Avoiding the “take it for granted” approach can be a first step. We can’t expect students to behave , to enjoy or to want something without previous research about their interests..
For example, if the aim of that school where Gustavo studied was to teach students English, it failed. Most children in those classes looked for remedial work outside the school. It seemed the educators in that school even encouraged students to do so. Their philosophy was “this is our programme…you have to follow it no matter what!”
This inflexibility caused a respected reputation for that place, however, where people started believing that as the course they ran was very demanding, students would come up with the best results. It is amazing to see how lots of schools work like this!
I am not advocating that teachers should be lenient and forget principles such as discipline and hard work, but what I mean is that professionals should be more aware of what their students need and want.
Becoming a private teacher has helped me listen to my students more carefully, to their fears, anxiety and frustrations. It helped me get closer to them and elaborate from tailor-made approaches to more general strategies that might be useful to other learners.
“Putting yourself in the student’s shoes” is one of the best techniques I’ve ever learned in my teaching experience. Once you try to put yourself in the students’ place, you learn from them what they expect from the course, what they need to do so that they can achieve what they want.
In Gustavo’s case, for example, I became a kind of coach for him, to prepare him for a big task: learn English grammar in order to survive at a big and “respectable” school. And we did it!!!
From my experience, I can see professionals missing great opportunities with their students for lack of learning from each other and identifying clear goals.
Processes sometimes become even a burden because the dialogue between teachers and students is not clearly set. Teachers think about “A”, students think about “B”, coordinators think about “C” and sometimes it’s difficult to work on a common goal if the members speak different languages or, what is worse, don’t speak to each other at all.
Speaking a language has a lot to do with the ability to communicate and trying to teach it without much communication among the members involved can bring failure, too much pressure and disappointment.
However, if teachers really want to listen to their students and figure out solutions to possible problems, there might be a way.
If teachers really understand their students, and in spite of having a larger group can identify each one as a person and not as another number on their class roll a great step ahead can be taken.
Have a nice class!
Maria de Fátima