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Classroom Culture 101: Setting up Your Students for Success

Happy September to everyone! I love this time of year—fall leaves, pumpkin spice everything, and going back to school. Most children in the US would probably disagree with me about the last one, but even as I child, I was the weird kid who always looked forward to the new school year. I loved the smell of my new notebooks, the excitement of seeing my classmates, and the thrill of learning new things. (I think you’re starting to see why I became a teacher.) Despite my enthusiasm, I was also somewhat nervous too about how everything would go. I always had so many questions in my head. What will my class be like? Will my teacher be nice? Will I like my classmates? Will they like me? These thoughts and feelings swirl about in the heads of all new students, I think, and especially in the minds of ESL (English as a Second Language) students or ELL (English Language Learners.) This group of students has additional concerns of adjustment and connection to others as well as its most pressing question: Will I understand anything at all?

These questions and fears I discussed above are not isolated to children. Adults who come to the US or any other English-speaking country are also apprehensive when beginning English classes. Some don’t have a strong academic background from their country and aren’t sure how well they will measure up to others. Some are shy about speaking to people they don’t know. All of them are wondering whether this class can help them adjust and move forward in their lives.

So, how do we best prepare students who come into our classes? How do we set them up for success? One key piece of preparation that is often neglected is explaining how classrooms work in the country where they are studying. It sounds silly and unnecessary, but it’s vital to student comfort and understanding. In my own experience, I’ve found that students from other countries are often confused at what is happening in a US classroom—especially in those classrooms with a focus on adult education. Let me explain to you what I mean.

Imagine that you show up for your first day of work at a new firm. You’re wearing your best suit and are focused—ready to work. You open the office door and you see…complete chaos. Instead of sitting at their desks, people are gathering in small groups or racing around the room in some sort of competition. Your boss is leading his sales team in a game of Jeopardy. No one uses formal titles. Everything is fast-paced, and at the end of the day, you’re not entirely sure what happened or whether you accomplished anything at all. Though this is a far-fetched description of an actual office environment, it’s not too far off from the impression some students have of an interactive, communicative classroom.

For any of you who have taken a course in CELTA or a TESOL certificate, you probably learned about the communicative method of teaching. In this method, the focus is on getting students to speak as much as possible. There are lots of games, partner work, and discussion. Error correction is done, but is generally focused on a very specific target. The idea is that a relaxed ESL classroom makes it easier for students to feel more confident and to actually use the language. This method differs drastically from some teaching strategies used in other countries.

Classrooms in a number of countries are bastions of organized discipline. The desks always face forward. The teacher talks; the students listen. The students speak only when called upon, and then they must stand up in front of everyone to give an answer. Punishment for incorrect answers and for disobedience is harsh. Language practice is based upon repetition and memorization. Homework is complicated, lengthy, and frequent. Learning isn’t fun, and it isn’t supposed to be.

When faced with the contrast between their traditional classroom environments and the communicative classroom found in the US, many students feel somewhat confused. Instead of taking a class, they feel like they’re in some sort of strange social hour. So, they spend at least the first few classes feeling very uncomfortable-unsure of what’s really going on. Some students fight against it. They complain to the teacher about the format, refuse to work in partners, and request lots of written book work so they can do “real learning.” Some students go to the other extreme by ignoring homework assignments, talking over the teacher, and spending class chatting in their native language. (Younger students in particular tend to go for the latter.)

Many of these issues can be avoided if students are introduced to the culture of classrooms in the country at the beginning of the course. You can begin with a discussion of schools in their countries and use the discussion to introduce aspects of classrooms in the country where the student is studying. As part of your introduction, give students an idea of what to expect when it comes to class format, your teaching style, and your expectations. It also helps to explain the benefits and purpose of your specific teaching method. The communicative method, for example, gives students more opportunities to practice speaking. In addition, it’s important to distinguish the actions that are OK (speaking in English) and not OK (chatting to your neighbor in your native language.) For ESL classrooms with rolling admissions, it can be helpful to have an introduction one-pager for students to read on the first day they enter class. It can also help to assign a buddy to the new student the day he/she comes. The buddy can be responsible for assisting the new student and for explaining the class culture.

An orientation to your classrooms is just as important as framing a story before students read it or pre-teaching some vocabulary before beginning a listening activity. By setting things up properly, you make it easier for students to hit the ground running. You also minimize misunderstandings and get everyone on the same page.

In what ways do you introduce students to the culture of classrooms in your country?

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