First Ever Lesson

In a first of a weekly series, follow us and Professor Fury recount his experiences as an ESL teacher in China. He’ll cover English teaching, culture, and life as an expat.

Anyone who has ever taught has had a first ever lesson and I am certain none will ever forget it. No matter whether you are confident or shy, young or old, used to public speaking or not – the prospect terrifies at least somewhere on a scale of 1 to 10.

This is the tale of my first lesson. Age 54, experienced in public speaking, a confident male who had held positions in many different fields, most in positions of authority. But none of them in education. I was armed only with my online TEFL course (which whilst useful teaches nothing about the art of teaching) and the weekend contact course (which does), I faced the prospect of standing in front of my first class.

Trepidation? Yes, it was not only a new employer but a whole new career. I had arrived early at my university because I do not welcome surprises and I wanted to get to know my way around and what the job entailed before being let loose in a classroom. Sadly the last of those eluded me until the day before I actually had to “walk the walk”, when I was finally given my coursebook for the next day.

I had though after two weeks finally gotten my sea-legs. I knew where most things were and how to get to town on the bus without needing to call for help to get back. Nobody told me I would be teaching freshmen and my classes wouldn’t start for 10 days due to their statutory military training. I was enjoying having an immediate paid holiday but champing at the bit for my coursebooks.

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When I was finally presented with my coursebook, the day before the most memorable lesson I ever taught, I spent four and a half hours preparing a lesson plan for a ninety minute class. As a middle-aged man, I had walked away from my old life in the UK and I didn’t want to screw this up. Exhausted but safe in the knowledge that I had a lesson plan to beat all lesson plans, I went to bed.

I should probably have downed more pijou because sleep was a scarce commodity that night. I woke many times, wondering what I had missed in my planning. In the morning I revisited the book and my lesson plan and mentally taught the class, which was to happen after lunch.

I didn’t, couldn’t, eat. Instead that class got taught time and time again in my imagination. It HAD to be perfect!

And then it was time to walk down to the teaching blocks. Every step took an eternity and every step brought fresh doubt. And suddenly I was at the foot of the entrance steps to the Foreign Language Centre. Stairs never looked so daunting.

My class was in room 401 South. As I climbed, the self-doubt came flooding in. What if they have been told this is my first ever class? What if they misbehave? Worse, what if they don’t understand me or even don’t like me??

By the time I had almost gained the 4th floor the inner me, the confident part, grabbed me by the brain and said WHOA!

Look at yourself! You are more than twice their age. You have white hair. You LOOK old and experienced. They will think you have been a teacher forever. Get a grip!!

And so I did. I stopped at the top of the stairs by an open window and composed myself by smoking a cigar, running over in my mind the lesson I was about to deliver like a fire and brimstone preacher in an Evangelical church in America would. Oh yes, they would talk about this on campus for years to come! Or so I hoped………..

The moment the bell sounded I sprang into action like Superteach. I bounded into the room with a bellowing “Good afternoon!” (which was greeted with an equally enthusiastic response) and took up my position behind the rostrum. I scanned the room slowly and deliberately and then retrieved my books and papers from my bag. Secretly I was composing myself.

I then introduced myself to them, smiling all the while. Once my introduction was complete, I invited questions. In my naivete I had not realised there would BE no questions. Not then, not ever unless I learnt to get them to do it. That is the way of it in China.

So, floundering with inexperience but hiding it well, I decided to start my lesson. After all, more than four hours preparation had armed me with ample ammunition to last until end of class.

“Ok, let’s turn to Unit One” said I, and at that point I glanced down at the students nearest me.

Things were about to go terribly, gut-wrenchingly wrong.

All the students had foolscap sized blue books yet mine was A5 and orange. How could this be? Ok, of course, simple, the teacher’s book is different because he has the answers, right?

Hmm. Unsure, I asked them to excuse me for a moment and stepped down from the dais. I approached a girl and asked if I could look at her book. Opening it at Unit One the only words I recognised were “the”, “and” plus other frequent words used in English. The rest was utterly unfamiliar! I had been given the wrong book! Worse, I had spent half a day preparing a lesson that even after seven years in China I have yet to give!

I confess it threw me slightly but as Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army always said – Don’t panic! Don’t panic!

I can quite imagine a young person straight out of university being stymied by this but age has advantages. I merely laughed and explained to the class what had happened, asked if I could borrow the book just for that class and asked the monitor to take my redundant copy to the book store after class and bring me back the correct one.

The class became a delight once I realised nobody could blame my lesson plan. I was free to do whatever I wished and indeed I did so.

So my advice for first timers is sure, prepare your lesson plans. That was the only one I ever did but I always read the material and know what I am going to do. However if someone was to throw a book at me I have never seen before and tell me to teach Unit Nine I will not even blink.

TEFL at university is more about actually getting your students to speak in English than anything else. Get them speaking and their English will improve in any event. Above all, remember you are older than them (even if only by a small margin) and you are the native speaker and font of all things English. Never lie to them if you don’t know the answer, be honest and go and find out for next class. Chinese students are notoriously quiet but they are also fabulously kind, as I found out. But that’s another story I shall tell another day!

About the Author

Professor Fury is in his early sixties and has been teaching in universities in China for seven years. He has been a ships officer, salesman, manager, company director, engineer and truck driver in the past  and so has a wealth of stories and experience to impart to his students.

He has been to 47 countries so far and visited more than 400 cities around the globe. Antarctica is the only continent he has yet to experience but there is still time!

He has so far volunteered at every school level in China, appeared on television several times (including taking part in a Spring Festival Gala show) and his ambition is to be allowed to retire in China when the time comes. His latest party piece is playing Santa for whoever asks!

4 comments

  1. Epic delivery! Great respect. Truly great, confident way to start. More than that a good moral to live by. “Almost poetic” I thought to myself while reading this post.

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  2. I did not yet start teaching, and I do feel that panic. I feel as if it is the first time ever I am to teach. The thing that I trust is my love for what I do; and by this I mean teaching. So I just feel torn in between.I am pretty sure the trouble will go away;

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    • There is and will be some panic. It does help to have some things in your pocket to play or do with people if something happens. Just fall back on this thought….you are the teacher and can pretty much woo them with little things, knowledge, idioms, silly words, etc. With some lessons under your belt, the feeling does get better! They are worried to do good also! Cheers.

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