Cambodia Teachers Diary 1January 20, 2007
The most important day of the term for most students will be the last one. That’s the day when they take the final exam and get to see whether they’ve learned the skills necessary to progress to the next level.
For the teacher, however, it’s another matter. The most important day has to be the first one. The old saying that it”s crucial to make a good first impression is nowhere so true as in the classroom.
The first day gives the teacher the opportunity to do several things.
1) He can establish his credibility with his qualifications, experience, and professionalism.
2) He can set the tone of the whole term by laying down a few firm rules.
3) He can begin training the students in effective ways to approach language learning.
4) He can let the students have a laugh with some fun and games and show them that he”s not unduly grave.
If you”ve taught the class before, these things will already have been established. Yet, it”s rare to get entirely the same group twice, and it”s still helpful to reaffirm certain fundamentals periodically.
In my experience, Khmer students often have a two-sided view of what they want in a teacher. They’re quick to dismiss unqualified edutainers, but they also want to have a good time. On the first day, I make sure they know I’m serious, but I also try to make them have fun.
The first thing I do is take care of the serious side of things. After introducing myself, I tell them how long I”ve been in Cambodia, how long I’ve been teaching, and where and what I’ve taught.
Once you’ve got their respect, Khmer students are pussycats. They really are deferential, and they will pay you the utmost respect, but if they don’t take you seriously they will make your life in the classroom miserable.
By giving them a serious introduction, you should have their respect, at least for the first day, and then you”re in a position to lay down some laws. Personally, I don”t go in for the idea of a “classroom contract”. Cambodia is a rigidly hierarchical society, and the most practical role for a teacher is that of the enlightened despot.
On the first day, I lay down laws about lateness, absences, telephones, chatter, cheating, and so on. I throw in a few jokes, but I’m generally as grim as an executioner. What I usually see on their faces is apprehension. I know what they”re thinking: “This guy” strict.”
This may seem harsh, but in the end, it”s just much easier being serious at first than trying to bring an unruly class into line later. They will hate you for trying to bring them into line; but they will love you for making generous exceptions to your harsh laws.
I know this sounds like my primer on classroom management was Nicolo Machiavelli”s “The Prince.” But really it’s just a matter of setting a tone. I never really intend to be that strict with them. It’s just important to make them know you mean business.
For hour-long classes, I like to leave at least thirty-five minutes for a speaking activity that maximises classroom interaction. This is obviously most important with classes of students who don’t already know each other well.
This kind of activity has several functions. One is to allow you to begin gauging their speaking ability. More importantly, it”s crucial for students to get to know each other, to make friends, and to break the ice right away, so that future exercises go smoothly.
This term, I used a variation on the classic “Find someone who” activity. Each student gets a worksheet with various questions. Then they stand up, wander around the room, and gather information about as many other students as possible.
It’s also possible to begin training your students even at this early stage. Many Khmer students tend to rush through speaking activities as though the object is to collect the necessary information as quickly as possible.
Before we start, I make sure they understand that the real object of the exercise is for them to converse in English non-stop for thirty minutes. I teach pre- to upper-intermediate, so this is not an unrealistic goal given a worksheet geared to the correct level.
One final thing they should learn on the first day is a phrase that I will drill into their heads until the end of their days with me, “Follow-up questions!” I warn them not to raise their hands and say,”"Teacher, finished!”" They should keep the conversation going until instructed to stop.
This kind of activity has never failed me before. They were up again this term, jostling each other as they roamed around the room, and the sound of their chatter and laughter was the perfect end to another first day in the classroom.