How to Teach when You’re Not a Teacher

Teaching English abroad? Let me guess – you’ve never taught a classroom full of rambunctious teenagers before. Scared yet? Don’t be!

When I began my assignment as a Language and Culture Assistant in Córdoba, Spain, I had virtually no teaching experience. The first few months were tough, but with some patience, humor, and the endless online ESL resources, I finally lost that panicky expression in my eyes and actually started to enjoy my job.

So here are some tips and tricks for you to blow your students’ minds with how much English they’ll be learning (and blow your own mind with how great of a teacher you’ll become!)*

*Small caveat here: these materials are aimed toward older learners in the late middle school and high school level. 

Make-your-own activities are your best friends.

As an ESL teacher, you’ll often find yourself assigning countless lists of vocabulary words. It’s no surprise that this can get dry pretty quickly. So instead of simply reading off the lists, make your own crossword puzzle instead. There are hundreds of different puzzle generators online, so shop around for the one that you like best. They’re insanely easy to use and not only teach the kids the words and their definitions, but can also be used to practice that pesky English alphabet.

When it’s time to review for an exam or quiz, one of the hands-down best activities is Jeopardy. I know, you’re thinking can it be so obvious? The answer is yes. The competitive nature of the game can awaken the Eye of the Tiger in even the most checked-out of students as they separate into teams and try to best each other with their knowledge retention. This make your own Jeopardy game was the quickest, easiest way to ensure a lively and productive review sesh. (Prizes at the end are optional… a good education should be the prize in it of itself, right?)

Talk about what you know. 

When I started teaching at a private academy in the evenings, I was given an Oxford textbook and told to teach out of it. The only problem? Two pages of a textbook didn’t fill up an hour long class and half of the students consistently forgot the textbook, if they even had it at all. On that day, I still distinctly remember thinking “I am so not qualified to do this” as I stared out at the curious faces in front of me.

I had some extra class time to fill, so I began talking about what I knew. I talked about Virginia and the East Coast, I talked about American holidays, I talked about cities in the United States. For every little lesson I gave, I’d create a one-page worksheet with pictures or important words so that the kids would remember. The advantage that you have as a foreign teacher is that almost everything you have to tell these students about your homeland will be interesting. In my own experience, I found that many young Spaniards were fascinated with the United States and were eager to learn anything I could share.

One of my favorite activities I ever did with my students was the “Folktale Lesson.” The agreement was that if they finished all of their homework on time, I’d share a different American folktale in the last ten minutes of the class. We talked about the classics: Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, Coyote, etc. After a few of these stories, I had a few of the students come to the front and prepare their own folktale to share with me about Córdoba, Spain. (All in English, of course).

Interactive exercises: #win 

There’s a popular saying – don’t tell, show. Learning through experience can be a powerful tool for students to stay engaged and understand the material.

For example, instead of giving a presentation about the important points of the Industrial Revolution, let your students experience the effects of Industrialization by playing The Urban Game. They’re given a giant sheet of paper and are instructed to draw in houses, shops, and factories in stages until eventually there is no space left on the sheet and too many people and pollution in the town they’ve created.

There are lots of activities like this out there and they’re a great way to get the students excited and thinking about the lesson.

Get creative.

The sky is the limit! Trying to teach verbs and adjectives? Create your own Mad Lib and let the students fill in the blanks! Worried about boring vocabulary? Have them write their own plays or cartoons using those words.

One of my proudest moments was the “Jobs” video project. In our English class, we had a unit about the various elements involved in Jobs: think careers, interviews, proper attire, etc. To spice things up, I came up with a list of the stages of a job which included everything from job hunting to the first day to getting fired. We divided the class into groups and assigned a stage to each of them. Each group wrote their own script and filmed their short video and at the end, I edited them all together and presented the final “film” to the class. It was rewarding to see how the students took ownership of the material and produced something that they were proud of it.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a massive online network of general ESL resources for teachers. If you are ever in need of some ideas, I’d highly recommend checking out this site, or searching for whatever fits your needs!

Good luck and happy teaching! 🙂

What are some of your favorite teaching hacks? Comment below!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. I really enjoyed your post! Thanks for all the ideas and congratulations on the Jobs video project (my favorite one) 🙂


    1. I’m glad you found it helpful! Thanks for reading and good luck!!!


  2. I’ve gone from creating everything to following a text book with strict guidelines at the same establishment. Also, the criticism of not being qualified is nerve wracking and I think a betrayal.


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