Teach As If You Are Your Own Student

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A common expression I often heard when I first started teaching was “Teacher, I don’t understand.” I would, of course, ask them which part they didn’t understand, and then give them further explanation. However, I would still see confusion on their faces. It was my turn to be confused. I had done what I was supposed to do, explain, but still they repeated “Teacher, I don’t understand.”

I didn’t find the answer until I had the chance to observe a student teacher. I had my ‘aha’ moment. The teacher was explaining vocabulary and expressions perfectly. However, she had barely considered her students’ levels and their level of understanding for the “perfect” explanations. At that moment, I realized my mistakes: 1) I treated them like their English was at my level; 2) I taught English like I was an ESL teacher.

I was full of passion to apply all my professional skills and knowledge to my class. Yet, there was one thing I completely forgot: my students. Do they understand what I learned from professional teacher training programs? Do they know the more technical words I use to explain things? No, they don’t. They are students, not ESL teachers. They don’t need to know my professional training skills and language. They need a teacher who understands their language levels and specific needs.

So, what kind of teacher can understand their needs? A teacher who teaches as if they are their own student. Ask yourself: would you understand what you are explaining if you were at their English level? How can you simplify your explanation? If your students ask you what the word “same” means, instead of telling them it means “not different”, would you give examples or use realia to SHOW them what “same” really means?

Now, when I teach, I teach as if it is my first time seeing that word, that sentence or that grammar point. I ask myself what I would need to understand, then use that to guide my students. You have tools you can use, including vivid examples, exaggerated body language and facial expressions, and drawing skills. Use them to help your students. Imagine you are one of your students and teach as if you were. Always ask yourself, “Would I understand?”

What other tips do you have in teaching at your students’ level of English?

Hello, my name is Bei Zhang. I am delighted to be part of the team to share my ideas and experience. I am currently working at Huron University College as an English Language Learning specialist. My job there is to help international students with their academic English language skills. I also teach ESL and LINC at Thames Valley District School Board, and ESL at London Language Institute, a private language school in London. I graduated in 2018 with a master’s degree in Education Studies from Western University, focused on applied linguistics and teacher education. I also have a background in human resources management. I hope that my unique perspective of teaching ESL in different educational systems can benefit the TESL Ontario Blog and our members.


4 thoughts on “Teach As If You Are Your Own Student”

  1. Thanks for the good points you have made. This is a good reminder for teachers, even those of us who’ve been teaching for many years!

    1. Thank you Carol. Sometime we just forget. Because we know, we assume students would know too. I have to remind myself too: “I know” doesn’t mean “students know”.

  2. Bei, Thanks for the reminder that as teachers we need to examine our teaching from the student’s perspective. I will certainly keep this in mind for the future.

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