The World’s Best “English Teaching in Asia” Tips

(Just 3 – Especially When You Don’t Speak the Same Language)

You’re about to head into a job where the unknowns go beyond your place of work. At other new jobs, you clock out and the majority of your stress is gone until your next shift starts. Teaching in a foreign classroom, however, means that the unknowns continue even after you’ve left your classroom. You’re in a brand new culture, and the newness just keeps coming.

You want to perform well on the tasks laid out in your contract, but the mental tax and communication barriers seem to put otherwise simple obstacles under a magnifying glass. The bad news is that the mental drains of teaching in a foreign classroom are mostly invisible and piled on top of each other, too. The good news is that these drains only take slight adjustments to your teaching style and once established, do a lot of heavy lifting for all your future lessons. The hardest part of putting the following tips into practice is establishing the attitudes and routines around them, which just takes consistency over time. Once they’re in place, you’ll find that even the most rambunctious students do well with consistent classroom expectations and classroom management practices, as long as they can readily see how they benefit everyone.

The World’s Best “English Teaching in Asia” Tips (Just 3 – Especially When You Don’t Speak the Same Language) 1

Tip #1: Don’t Beat Yourself Up Over an Underwhelming Start

If I could go back in time to tell myself something after my first day of teaching abroad, it would have been that no matter how badly the first day, week, or month goes, a teacher will still be able to build comradery with his or her students. Communicating across cultures is always going to be a challenge. Unless you’re born with something most teachers aren’t, it’s a skill you’re going to spend your first semester fine-tuning day in and out. You’ll quickly find that miming alone will not get you very far.

It’s understandable. You want to be that star teacher that wins your students over from the get-go. They walk in, you smile at them, and all the communication barriers that stand between your English and their Chinese magically dissolve into a seamless lesson that goes down in history.

In reality, however, there is no amount of preparation of Chinese ahead of time that will completely prepare you for the language barrier between you and your students. The fact that you’re reading this article signifies that you are already planning ahead and making those first two months easier than they would have been, but from day one, you will still need to be prepared to encounter big, glaring communication holes and obstacles that you weren’t anticipating during the course of the lesson. It’s just something that comes with the job.

It’s important to create a mindset of building yourself up (celebrating personal lessons learned) instead of berating yourself during the struggle. Your students aren’t the only ones learning here; you’re also being exposed to brand new skills each day you show up. There are so many difficult aspects of your job that will wear you down over time, so being your own cheerleader from the get-go will help you get to the end of your workweek with more energy to spare.

How you can immediately get started on this:

  • Lighten the mood by watching videos about teachers talking about their biggest mistakes, toughest days they’ve ever taught, or lessons they learned the hard way. Or load up on teacher memes that make light of the headaches of teaching. The worse you know it can get, the less of a nightmare the first day will feel. I personally wish I had found the world of teacher memes sooner than I did, since it felt like tapping into a support line in its own way.
  • If you’re a results-oriented person, log your teaching by weeks or days. Even if it’s just one liners, you can write how you felt at the end of the day, major communication obstacles, discipline hurdles, personal successes, or teaching revelations. You don’t notice how quickly you improve until you look back on those hurdles and revelations that suddenly sound so simple and laughable. The more regularly you log, the sooner you’ll be able to note and take heart in the progress you’re making.
The World’s Best “English Teaching in Asia” Tips (Just 3 – Especially When You Don’t Speak the Same Language) 2

Tip #2: Let Routines Carry Most of the Weight So You Don’t Have To

What happens when your students show up to class? Do they put their things in their desks and take out homework? How soon after the bell rings do you start instructing? What order do you follow for turning in homework, teaching new material, taking questions, breaks, activities, games, assignments, and examinations?

Aim for consistency between these elements of your lessons so that your students have distinct points they know to look for. The less mental energy they spend guessing how you will start, finish, and transition between activities and assignments, the more they focus on the new material in their day. That being said, you will spend your first 1-3 months fine-tuning how detailed of a routine works for your classroom size, grade level, and specific student groups.

In the beginning, don’t be afraid to tweak as you find out what does and doesn’t work for you and your students. What might work for one set of students might not work at all with another period, even if they are the same grade. On the surface, a routine may not seem very relevant to communication but I’ve found that not having one in place causes teachers and students to wade through many conversations that don’t contribute much to the classroom.

How you can immediately get started on improving routine in the classroom:

  • If you’ve already started teaching, look at where in your lessons you tend to have the most difficulty garnering student attention or participation. Usually, you’ll find these difficult moments following ones where there is no routine to guide them to the next part of the lesson. For example, maybe you find that each time you replace a regular game with a new one for Game of the Day, you lose all control of the class by the time the game finishes. One way you could enlist the help of routine here is to attach a low-to-medium focus activity that always follows the game. For example, if their favorite type of vocabulary worksheet always follows the game of the day, students are mentally prepared for some focus time after the fun.
  • If you haven’t started teaching, think about how much focus each part of your lesson requires from your students. Try to arrange your routine so that the Heavy-Focus (HF) activities are in the beginning of the lesson, with short, Low-Focus (LF) activities in between. For example, HF1 LF HF2 LF LF BREAK HF3 LF HF4 LF LF.
The World’s Best “English Teaching in Asia” Tips (Just 3 – Especially When You Don’t Speak the Same Language) 3

Tip #3: Teach Your Students It’s Okay to Communicate Misunderstandings

Without a clear, easy, and embarrassment-free way to communicate to the teacher that students do not understand instructions or new material, it’s easy for a classroom atmosphere to develop that feels more like a one-lane road than a give-and-take learning process. Students don’t want to embarrass you when they don’t understand your instructions, and they certainly don’t want to embarrass themselves when they are having trouble with new lesson material.

On top of that, the collective nature of most Asian cultures tends to put uniformity on a pedestal. This works great when implementing routines since you don’t need many students to participate before remaining students jump on the bandwagon, but can be a hindrance when getting students to speak up. Communicating misunderstandings is a pillar of communication, especially in a high-stakes setting where students know everyone around them is watching and waiting to correct them; teachers, parents, principals, and especially peers.

How you can immediately get started on creating more student confidence around misunderstandings:

  • Avoid phrasing questions like, “Does everyone understand?” or “Does that make sense?” Yes/No questions like this encourage a silent majority, whether or not that majority understands what you’ve just said.
  • Do a brief follow-up (understanding check) immediately after each new lesson, such as, “What do you think is the hardest part of this lesson?” and pick one or two raised hands before moving on. For example, Student A might raise their hand and say, “Use the ‘-ing’ is hard.” You might continue that by asking why, or asking a volunteer in the class to explain their own understanding of the tense to their peer, even if it’s in Chinese. I personally keep a no-Chinese policy in my classroom after my students have reached A1 level, but I always waive the rule during the Question part of the lesson, so that peers have the opportunity to help each other reach a place of understanding.
  • Do a brief follow-up (understanding check) that happens immediately after you’ve given new instructions for an assignment or activity they are not familiar with. For example, “Who can tell me what we do first? And then?” or “If (Student Name) is done, what does he do next?” These questions reinforce what you’ve just said if students actually did understand, and don’t put anyone on the spot for not understanding. A silent, slack-faced student will speak for itself.
  • Praise students for “good questions.” That is a great question, John! Oh, you’re right Sally! I need to teach this part more! Even if this solicits eye rolls in the beginning, every student is secretly glad they got away with being vulnerable in your classroom.
  • Do not tolerate when peers belittle each other. In my classroom, I have a discipline system in place based on tallies. Five tallies are where discipline action is taken. If a student belittles his or her peer, I quietly head to the board where his or her name is written, and add a tally beside their name. They already know that belittling is wrong, and is a form of bullying. I don’t have to pause my class for something so minor, but I have still quietly reinforced an accepting classroom attitude.
kids reading

Teaching students who don’t have the same native language as you will get easier as you learn the basic vocabulary to manage your classroom and these three tips will set you up for a classroom that mentally drains you as little as possible so that you can focus on the other aspects of the learning curve that is teaching. I can’t emphasize enough how much of a difference they make, and with so little relative effort too, compared to learning the Chinese language.

However, I don’t recommend them as a replacement for learning the basics of the language, since nothing will be as helpful as meeting them halfway in their native tongue. Starting on the language and these tips at the same time will help set up your classroom for success as you and your students work together on a communication style that works for everyone.

About the Author

Liann is an educator based in Taipei, building and studying the most efficient and enjoyable ESL methods based on social/emotional and divergent learning. Outside of professional ESL development, she also works in design.