The worst classroom that I’ve ever had to teach in is also the one that brings back the fondest memories. I was teaching in a state school in Hanoi, Vietnam and was placed at a school on the outskirts of this quickly developing city. The school was in drastic need of refurbishment, so it was no surprise that my little classroom was not in the best of shape.
The screws on the chairs were loose or falling out, leaving wobbly seats and desktops. There was a TV, but it didn’t work. The walls were bare, save some mold in several corners of the room and there was a persistent damp smell that I was sure wasn’t good for the students, or my, health. For me, the worst thing about the classroom was the size. It was basically the width of a school bus and half as long. In this space were 25-30 students, which occasionally forced me to put students in the middle of the aisle in the back. In short, it was a challenging environment.
I did what I could to make this space work for me, I brought a Swiss army knife to school with me and regularly tightened the screws on the chair. I used vinegar to clean the moldy patches. I tried to leave the tiny window open when possible to air the room out. I put students’ work up on the walls so they weren’t so dismal. I even used the broken TV as a place to post my lesson menu for the students. Also, though creating communicative games in such a cramped space was difficult, it did make grow as a teacher as I had to think out of the box regarding interactive activities and getting students to work with their peers.
Thinking about your classroom space and adapting it to your needs is an essential, but often overlooked, part of teaching TEFL. This post will explore different ways to adapt your classroom to such as using resources effectively and using different types of seating arrangements.
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Take Advantage of Classroom Resources
Instead of complaining about that interactive whiteboard that you don’t have, focus on utilizing the materials that you do have. I have yet to see anything on interactive whiteboards or similar that couldn’t be achieved with a little bit of ingenuity on the teacher’s part. If you have walls, start thinking about how you can use them. Walls are a great for posting rules, student contracts, students’ work, flashcards for certain games or enlarged photocopies of the book pages for the day.
You may not have a dedicated classroom, which means that you may have to ask for permission to put anything on the walls. That said, rule posters and the like can easily be made in such a way that the teacher can unroll it and hang it up before class begins. That, or simply dedicate a section of the whiteboard to rules.
Oh, and while we’re on that point, use the board! The board is your point keeper, a place to keep new vocabulary, student errors, target language for the day, games, pictures to elicit, etc. I always have my board set up well before class begins and often consider it while planning the lesson.
Needless to say if you have an interactive whiteboard, use it. Same with the internet or any other piece of technology. If you have tools that make teaching more interesting or engaging for the students, try it out. The key is to test that connections work, to be familiar with the equipment before the class and to get regular feedback from your students about whether your attempts to be tech savvy are helping their learning.
Different Types of Seating Arrangements
Varying seating arrangements has the dual benefit of adapting the classroom to best suit the activity as well as keeping the students from getting bored or complacent. Though there are many creative ways to set up a classroom, here are some of the more common ones and how they are often used.
The U-shape is definitely the most common for TEFL teaching as it allows excellent visibility. All of the students can see the teacher and each other. Using the U, a teacher can do almost any activity as the open space created by the U can be utilized in many different ways.
Though not ideal for TEFL teaching, another common layout is columns and rows. If you are like me, you may have grown up in a school where this was the norm. This set up is good for teacher/instructor focused lessons and getting as many students as possible into a classroom. The problem is that the goal of communicative teaching is to try and have student, not teacher, centered lessons.
If you are stuck with this type of arrangement, I suggest using it to your advantage by varying the partners that students have during a lesson (in front, behind, to the left, to the right, etc.) and, when doing larger groups, splitting the class into natural chunks. Since the students are already close to each other, they can switch groups/partners easily without taking up too much class time or disturbing the flow of the lesson.
A circle is another arrangement that I often use. It’s easy to move into from the U shape either with chairs, or by having students sit on the ground. This seating arrangement is good for story time, passing things in a circle for certain games or practicing vocabulary and is also ideal for whole class discussions. Rarely, with my older teens, we will get into this seating arrangement and chat about the topic together in a casual and unstructured manner. As soon as I do this, they are instantly caught off guard.
Though assigned seating is useful for getting to learn student names, it tends to be detrimental to classroom dynamics if kept the same for too long. Some students work well with their friends, but many students become distracted and get off task easily. Also, some students might naturally feel left out if they are left out of a group. This is why it is usually a good idea to randomize seating assignments, or at least groups and teams.
There are a lot of ways to do this in a fair and consistent manner. You can simply number the students off for as many groups as you want and have the students with the same number sit together. Another fun way to mix students up is to play a seat switching game. With this method, a teacher can say something like a color. If the students are wearing that color, they have to run and switch seats. If you have older students, or don’t feel like spending any class times randomizing groups, you can simply use a list randomizer.
Whatever your classroom space issues may be, remember that there is always a solution. Though your classroom may not be ideal, the best way forward is to address the problem. Taking responsibility for and pride in your classroom will make your job more enjoyable and your classes more effective. It’s worth the effort.
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