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Language Teaching - the soft skills bonus

30th September 2019

By Amrita Singh-Giraud

Teaching English as a foreign language can often be an ingenious win-win activity for you as a teacher as well as for your learners. Sometimes underestimated and reduced to a year ‘off’ during which you speak your native language to impressionable locals whose culture you can discover in exchange which is far from the reality of professional language teaching, this job is in fact an excellent avenue for acquiring and honing a multitude of soft skills.

While soft skills are personal and professional assets that you can build on, these cannot be learnt like technical subjects and definitions. This article aims to examine six qualities that come with the territory of teaching English to foreign students.

 

Leadership

Standing in front of the class as an English Teacher, commanding attention, making yourself heard and respected, is no easy task. When you arrive on the first day, chances are the students are busy sizing up the visible differences - posture, dress, body language - before you even speak. By the end of the school year, introductions will be almost long forgotten and overridden by the status you will quickly earn as their authentic English-speaking teacher. After efficiently managing lessons and fostering communication, especially if you instill rules such as punctuality; quiet while peers are participating in class; and discipline throughout the entire time allotted for the lesson, you will emerge quite the leader. You will have an eye for the ‘trouble makers’ and make mental notes about the students who seem stuck and need individual attention. Following a period of piloting English sessions with grit and perseverance even with the most reticent of students, English teachers abroad often grasp a certain know-how in terms of driving and motivating groups. Public speaking may indeed become less intimidating too.

 

Communication

Students who are learning English may sometimes be intimidated by the audible accent of their mother tongue. Other obstacles for students may include their limited vocabulary or the inevitable lack of spontaneity when responding in English, if they dare to. You quickly identify your main challenge as an English teacher: to make the learners less afraid of communicating out loud in English.

You will generate more participation if you are a mix of approachable and pedagogic so that you simplify some terms, and creatively add to their vocabulary with tips and anecdotes. If your class is composed of students with different language levels, you will surely find it somewhat tricky to continue to engage the students who are braver and have a better level of English. And this while also connecting with the students who are shy and need to build on English words and expressions that they can retain and use comfortably.

From your very first English class, you will certainly have many cues that will indicate how you should adjust your own communication too. This can mean a deliberate change of the speed at which you speak to be coherent yet natural. Using phrases that range from light and familiar to formal and refined, depending on the listener and context,  will be important as well. These variations in your speech will help you to personalize your communication style in front of different audiences in future and accentuate how you formulate and express your ideas in contexts other than teaching.

Communication can also be extended beyond oral in this case and your non-verbal gestures to transmit positive emotions in the classroom will come into play too.

Again, if your career path leads you to a role outside of teaching, this is a great example of a transferable skill.

 

Planning

One hour of teaching English as a foreign language can seem either painfully long or incredibly short, but not if you plan adequately to gauge the time and rollout of the lesson.

It is always a good idea to have activities that serve as ice-breakers to get everyone relaxed and ready to participate. Time-fillers are handy tools to make use of when students respond extremely well and the lesson is wrapped up faster than you anticipated. You will learn to have secret weapons to deal with scenarios like an unexpectedly higher or lower student turnout, distractions, a lackluster mood, or an overwhelming energy in class.

After one lesson where you are faced with the awkward dilemma of your warm-up activity, main lesson and post-practice seemingly whizzing by, you will surely master the art of (over) planning to fill any future gaps or add variety to your lesson.

Being adequately prepared and resourceful when you are meant to lead a group is definitely a positive takeaway.

 

Adaptability

This does not mean that all English lessons should be meticulously timed and fit into a strict time slot. An English teacher should be capable of conducting a lesson proficiently. This may mean picking up a lesson that might be dragging, knowing how to recapture the attention of students who may not be focused, and how to tie up loose ends before the class is over. That being said, not everything goes as planned in the classroom. Sometimes over-enthusiastic or hyperactive students may require you to be more authoritative, or English learners who are too quiet may need some coercing to get them out of their comfort zone. Some classes may be rowdy, while you could possibly hear a pin drop in others. When you become familiar with your learners though, you will be capable of switching gears to find the right tempo to make your language lesson interesting, and easy to follow.

Teaching English can even bring out your storyteller side to boost a group that needs it. You will surely tap into creative resources to devise lessons that are adapted to the overall personality, rhythm, and needs of your class. It is this type of flexibility and creativity that would show you how imaginative you really are.

Apart from getting to know your new students, your English teaching job in an environment that is different to you also means that you will be undergoing your own immersion phase as well. The context makes you reactive, and calls for adjusting to food, weather conditions, finding your way around in a foreign transport system, getting to know social customs, etc. all while assuming your teaching responsibility with as much ease as possible for the benefit of your students. You will need to handle practical issues like paperwork for renting an apartment, opening a bank account, getting a mobile phone, and even finding a social network to meet people and have a good time when you are away from your teaching duties.

Not all transitions may be smooth, so some teachers have to deal with homesickness or a rough initial period if adjusting does not go well. You will discover how resilient you are in these delicate moments. The whole experience in the end will possibly give you a greater appreciation for travel and the capacity to adjust easier to new locations and situations.

 

Cultural awareness

Teaching English abroad is indeed more than just about recapping how to conjugate irregular verbs or sharing useful vocabulary according to theme. Your students are often intrigued by where you come from, and what life is like in your country. You may be surprised to come away more aware about the particularities of your own country after answering questions about the simple rituals of your daily life. Things that you take for granted may amaze some of your students, like what you have for breakfast to the school uniform in your country, if there is one.

In the same way, you may have questions about their local habits, cuisine, places of interest, history, events…And your language classes can also become a forum for discussing the culture of your host country.

 

Relationship building

As a teacher of English as a foreign language, you may find that students can either relish the idea of a change of their customary teacher, or look at it with dismay. You will no doubt do your best to ensure that the interruption in the regularly scheduled programming is well received for the most part. Bear in mind that within a relatively short time frame - especially if this is only a one year contract -  your students need to warm up to you, expose their language capacity, and be open to the activities and exercises you propose. Whether you are aware of it or not, your approach may differ in style and content from what they are used to so you will surely need to observe their reactions and tweak your lessons accordingly.

In some cases, there is room to build a relationship that is less academic and formal than with their permanent school staff. You will certainly leave an impression so the emotional part of your interaction is as important as the linguistic one.   

In conclusion, teaching English as a foreign language is a beneficial, eye-opening job that is more profound and engaging than it first seems. You are even committing to sharing a part of who you are with learners who would glean a lot from a native level English speaker. Definitely rich in output and lasting in impressions for all parties directly involved, this is more than grammar rules and correcting papers with red ink. If you are asking yourself why teach English abroad? In short, you would strengthen your skillset from presentation and communication abilities to building relationships and working and living in a foreign environment.

Amrita Singh-Giraud

Amrita Singh-Giraud is a freelance writer based in Lyon, France. Previously she taught English in the island of Martinique as well as in different cities in metropolitan France. She has also worked extensively in business development in various verticals. Today, she is a lover of finding the right words for readerships that range from engaging and casual to corporate.

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