Teaching on a Gap Year: Tips and Ideas

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Written by: Lucy Jane Ayad

Teaching in a foreign country is one of the best things you could possibly do on your gap year. Many do so with a TEFL certificate, but this is not always compulsory. We spoke to the gapyear.com community to get some first hand advice from those who have been there and done it, so have a read and begin this amazing journey.

Teaching tips from Jess Fitch, who has taught in Botswana

  • Before you go, see if you can spend a week in your local school. Try to find out what age-group you’ll be teaching, and then write to your old primary or secondary school, tell them what you’re doing and ask for a week’s work experience with a similar age-group.
  • Observe lessons, listen to kids read, pick up ideas for exercises, arts and crafts, games and songs, watch how the teacher keeps the kids interested and stops them misbehaving, and generally just get yourself into a kid frame of mind. Plus, you get to hang out in the staff-room… weird!
  • Take a well-stocked pencil case including Blu-tac, scissors, Pritt, Sellotape and felt tips – all handy for making worksheets and wall-displays. If you’ve got room in your rucksack, take fun stuff like brightly-coloured or shiny card or paper, silver and gold pens and loads of stickers. It will be worth the extra weight – this stuff is like gold-dust to kids in poor areas. I remember the pride on my kindergarten kids’ faces when they stepped out into the playground each wearing the gaudy crown that they’d just made… one of the high points of my gap year!
  • The hardest lesson of each day was kindergarten – a classroom jam-packed with four-year olds who didn’t speak a word of English. Here’s what I learnt from the experience… If you’re teaching little ones, don’t expect too much from each lesson – teach things in tiny, bite-sized sessions. Don’t be afraid to repeat lessons several times – this helps them to learn, and young kids love repetition – remember Teletubbies? Songs with actions are fab (think Heads, shoulders knees and toes) as are old-fashioned kids’ games (like What’s the time Mr Wolf). Think what you can do to make songs more educational – e.g. I drew lots of big pictures of farm animals and when it got to the relevant bit of Old MacDonald (‘and on that farm he had a…’) I held up a picture and got the kids to shout out the name of the animal.
  • I got my older kids to write about their lives – their school, their families etc. I made their little essays into a book along with some of their drawings and sent it to my old primary school in the UK. They sent back a similar book all about their own lives. This was a great exercise and really exciting for both schools.
  • Think about simple ways to make lessons more active. E.g. when teaching prepositions I brought in a box and an apple and got the kids in turn to come up to the front of the class and put the apple ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘under’, ‘behind’ (etc) the box.

Teaching in a school in Africa

Teaching tips from Philippa Rayner, who has taught in Peru

  • One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to contact the school you are going to before you go to speak to any TEFL teachers that are already there. This is a great way to understand the workings of the school, the culture, what problems they encountered and any that are yet to be resolved that you may face!
  • There are hundreds of ways to deliver your lessons. You need to know what age group you are teaching, whether you are seeing them during the normal school day or at an evening class as this will help you determine what level to pitch your lesson at. Interaction with your class is the key and whatever means you can use to bring positive interaction is great. Using coloured paper and glitter may not have the same effect on a group of 18 year olds as it would on a Kindergarten class so be absolutely clear what age group you are teaching and make full use of your spare time planning lessons carefully.
  • If you are off quite soon and won’t have the time to do a TEFL course, the best advice I can give you is to look at Europa Pages site and go out and buy The Lady Bird Book of spelling and grammar.
  • The key is keeping your class motivated and keeping their attention. You will need to make sure you have provision to buy some teaching materials – also take with you some marker pens. The Lady Bird Book of spelling and grammar and some card to make flash cards. Photos and magazines are also a great aid.

Teaching tips from Lizzi Milligan, who has taught in Belize

  • In my experience in Belize, art and creative writing were not part of the curriculum. With a class of six-year-olds, I made a large map to go on their wall. I gave each child a different building (e.g. police station, shop) and got them to draw it and write three sentences about what happened there. If you show them coloured card, crayons and Pritt Stick, you’ll have their mesmerised attention for a long time. If you are very creative, get the kids involved in a mural – great fun, could be educational and you’ll leave a lasting impression!
  • Don’t just ask a question or ask for a response from the whole class because there is a high chance that the slower kids will just be following the lead of the brighter ones. Get each child to come up to the front and write something on the blackboard or come up with their own idea. To begin with they will be petrified to speak in front of everyone but in time they will get used to this.
  • It might sound obvious but the more time you spend with the kids outside the classroom, the better! If you know their names, they are more likely to respond to you. And if you do fun things with them as well, you can use the trick of -‘if you don’t concentrate now, there won’t be any ring-a-ring-a-roses in lunch-break.’
  • So useful if you haven’t had time to do an organised lesson plan. Going through the gingerbread man and getting them to write their own versions complete with pictures is a guaranteed life-saver! The songs are equally as useful, especially with the little kids who don’t know much English. ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ is always a winner! And ‘grandmother’s footsteps’ will keep them quiet for ages (especially with the bribe of a prize of sweets!)
  • This is probably the most important thing. There are excellent books, available in high street stores, with hundreds of ideas for lessons. Sweets and small games are great as prizes as an incentive for the best picture or the best creative story. Maps and educational posters are great for the walls.

Teaching tips from Alex Tarrant, who has taught in South Africa

  • Don’t speak more than you need to as the kids won’t understand most of what you are saying!
  • Use lots of games, songs etc. Think back to nursery rhymes and games you enjoyed when young.
  • Much easier to just show kids how to play a game rather than giving a long-winded spoken explanation.
  • Use a carrot and stick approach. For the ‘carrot’ use incentives such as rewards (stickers always go down well) for good behaviour. For the ‘stick’ be tough – voice and body language are all you really need (be confident, the kids can smell fear!) but you could also use a whistle or some other noisy item to get attention.
  • Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance! Put the effort in and you will find it much more rewarding and enjoyable.

Teaching children

Teaching tips from Kathleen Smith, who has taught in Mexico

  • Although the whole lesson should be planned and given in English, it is very helpful to have a basic knowledge of the language of the country in which you are going to teach. This is particularly useful for discipline and explaining topics that would otherwise be very difficult to explain using just pictures or other props.
  • Everybody is nervous before their first lesson! The easiest way to calm the nerves is to realise that most people are interested in what is different. Having an English teacher from another country not only gives your students the opportunity to learn the language, but also to learn about you and your way of life. This gives the students motivation, and makes your job that much easier.
  • When planning lessons, always have extra work prepared just in case you complete the original plan with time to spare.
  • The whole lesson should be given in English so that the students become accustomed to hearing spoken English.
  • A brief revision of the previous lesson at the beginning of each new lesson helps students remember what they have been taught and accelerates learning.
  • When using repetition learning (making the students repeat a word after you), make sure that each student gets a chance to speak; it is very easy for those who are struggling to get away without practicing if the rest of the class are speaking at the same time.
  • Using props such as pictures, maps and games is a great way to teach, both with children and adults. It makes the lessons more fun and gets the students’ attention. Once the students have a good base of English, acting out plays is a great way to practice and develop their speaking skills.
  • Have confidence in yourself! Even if you think you are making slow progress, just listening to you speaking English on a regular basis is a huge help in the development of your students’ English language skills.
  • Be patient!
  • Animation! Children love to see you embarrass yourself. Getting down on the floor and doing an impression of the wild animal you are trying to describe to them will stick in their memories for a very long time! After the first few times, the embarrassment wears off and the ‘acting’ becomes a part of your role as a teacher.

Teaching tips from Dan Moore, who has taught in India

  • Preparation is very important; I was once told if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
  • Always have a back-up lesson plan; a song and/or a game up your sleeve can save the day and win over your students.
  • Make the lessons fun: in an hour-long lesson get theory out of the way in the first 15 to 20 minutes and then plan an activity, game or song to practise the theory.
  • Practical English: think about where and who you are teaching; what are the situations where your students will use their language? Make your lessons useful in everyday life.
  • Smile and have fun. Your students will warm to you more quickly, you’ll have a better time and their learning experience will encourage your students to study further.

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