Sharing yourself with students – reflections on teaching my first ever ESL classes

It was the first week of class at Sunduck Middle School in Seoul and the students were giddy and excited to see me: their new American English teacher. I looked the part: I was wearing a tie and was standing in front of a very professional-looking (or so I thought) PowerPoint with a question and answer game. I was beaming a confident smile that hid how completely terrified I was. It was my first time in front of a classroom ever.

The “Me” Game

The question and answer game was all about me. When I asked my co-teachers what I should do for the first day of class, they told me to do something fun and introduce myself. I talked to a few other new teachers from Canada and America who were teaching at different schools around Seoul and they gave me some ideas. So I slapped together one of the most narcissistic and yet boring PowerPoints I’ve ever created: questions about which state I’m from, what my mother’s name is, my favorite food, etc. Students worked in teams to answer these boilerplate questions about me. After each group said their answer, in a complete sentence shouted in unison, I awarded points to the teams that got the correct answer.

And that was it – I just moved on to the next question. I didn’t go on to talk about what my mother is really like, how she can bake great apple pies, or about the best places in my hometown to get pizza, my favorite food. I just gave a point if they answered “a) Joan” or “b) pizza” and moved on.

Was this game stupid?

In retrospect, the game wasn’t too terrible for someone who had never had any training in any kind of teaching whatsoever:

  • it got students discussing ideas (“what do you think the answer is?” – although I’m sure they weren’t saying that in English)
  • it used simple questions suitable for their level
  • it was at least slightly interesting
  • it was competitive

But it was so self-centered and yet so superficial and fake. My mom’s name is Joan, but so what? And my favorite food isn’t even pizza – sure, I love it, but is it my favorite food? I couldn’t say.

I would never do this type of activity as a “getting to know your teacher” activity again. It’s just too cringeworthy. I might tell my class my mother’s name or talk about my favorite food, but I’ll bring it up in a more natural way (more about that later).

Questions about me

I did the “questions about me” game with the lower-level sixth grade students at Sunduck. For the seventh and eighth grade students, who were at a decent level of English, I did two different activities.

The first activity was listening to and then answering questions about a solipsistic monologue that I delivered at a speed that my co-teacher later told me was way too slow.

The second activity was having the students write three questions they wanted to ask me.

Then I went through the class of about thirty students one-by-one and they each asked me a question. Similar to the PowerPoint game, I didn’t really expand on my answers. This was partly because I thought they wouldn’t understand a longer explanation (maybe, but why not just try? A little more language input can’t hurt), but actually I think the reason is that I didn’t want to share too much about myself.

I answered the boring questions, the ones that were similar to the questions on my PowerPoint. But I wasn’t prepared for a few questions. I was asked if I had a girlfriend, and luckily I could truthfully answer “no”, because I would’ve been too embarrassed to answer all the follow up questions. And I was also asked about my age.

At the time I was twenty-three and very self-consciously aware of how young I was, especially compared to other teachers. As a completely new teacher, I was nervous about coming off as a young, inexperienced pushover (which, of course, I was). So when I was asked about my age, I told the students that it wasn’t polite to ask about age in America.

And that’s kind of true. But not really. My American and Canadian friends, who were teaching the same types of classes around Seoul at the same time, told me that their students asked them about their age too, and they answered without a second thought. They weren’t nervous about saying how old they are, and why should they have been? I was just insecure about how young and inexperienced I was, and I didn’t want to show that to my students.

How much I share now

These days, I work with adults instead of middle school kids. So naturally I behave much differently around them.

I have no problem telling my students how old I am and how long I’ve been a teacher. And I realize that’s probably because I’m older and more experienced now.

I don’t do a big presentation about myself at the beginning of the semester and I haven’t  since my first ever week of teaching. In the first class of a semester, I’ll tell them my name, and they might find out a few things about me during an icebreaker activity that I participate in alongside them. That’s about it.

But I still share way more of myself than I did when I first started teaching. I just do so gradually and spread it out throughout the semester.

The best way to do this is to use things about myself in examples.

Instead of just telling my students that my parents names are Joan and Mike, I might use their names as examples of how vowel letters don’t always correspond to vowel sounds (both names have two vowel letters, but they’re only one syllable each).

Or if I’m having my students give a presentation on a trip that they took, I’ll give an example presentation about a real trip I took somewhere. Usually, my students are interested and ask more questions about it, which leads to even more sharing.

These ways of sharing are interesting and applicable to learning. They help my students feel closer to me while helping them to understand something we’re doing in class. And I don’t feel like I’m beating them over the head with information about me, me, me. I’m doing it with a purpose.

I don’t share as much as some of my colleagues. I’ve worked with some teachers who tell their classes about everything going on in their lives. And I’ve also worked with some teachers who reveal very little. It’s all up to your personality.

For me, I’ve learned that I like to share myself with my students, but only in certain contexts. I don’t like to have a class all about me, like those classes at Sunduck Middle School. But I’m also more comfortable answering different questions about myself these days because I’m more experienced (and frankly care less about what students think about me).

How much do you share about yourself with your students?

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Sharing yourself with students – reflections on teaching my first ever ESL classes

  1. Hello Kristian, and thank you for this story, it gave me food for thought. I’ve actually been pondering on how much we should share as there is a tendency in adult students (I teach at a college) to learn better if they feel involved and when you tell them about your experiences, I guess, they can see that the language they learn from books stretches far outside and beyond the classroom and becomes functional. Still there is a question, how much personal information should we give to remain within the ‘teacher-student frame’ as many people can think and that might be natural, in some way, that when you share stories from your life, sort of invite them to participate in it.
    What do you think?

    1. I agree completely: connecting with students by sharing is so beneficial for helping students make connections with the language.
      As for the question of “how much” – obviously teachers need to follow the rules as set by the institution they’re working within first. But after that, a lot of it is up to the teacher’s personality and how they define that “teacher-student frame”. Some teachers be able to be very friendly, share a lot, and still maintain an atmosphere of diligent learning in their classes. But others might need to create some distance between themselves and their students to command respect and create a learning environment.
      Now I’ve got some food for thought! Thanks for your question.

  2. Since I work with kindergarteners, questions are par for the course. Thankfully, I’m very comfortable answering their questions, and it does form a stronger bond between us. I never teach classes just about me, although I will sometimes volunteer information about myself. But I’m always up for answering questions!

  3. Of course, another benefit of teaching kindergarteners is that “23” doesn’t seem young or inexperienced at all to them….just widen your eyes slightly and half-whisper it, and they will think you’re as old as the hills!

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