Are you a first-time Young Learner teacher?

Over the last few years I’ve found it increasingly difficult to find teachers who are keen to teach Young Learners or who are indeed ready to teach this age group. I put it down to the fact that our University courses in Languages generally prepare teachers to work with an older age-group (due to the manner in which our school curriculum is distributed). In addition, when student teachers do TP, it’s hardly ever with younger learners.

The irony of this all is that I often see graduates who’ve just started teaching being assigned a class of Young Learners. I think there often is a grave misconception which goes something like this: if you’re young, you’ll be a great YL teacher because you’ve just come out of college brimming with energy and enthusiasm.

Hmm, that might be the case, but being an energetic teacher is not even half of what you need in order to be able to teach YLs effectively. There’s so much more to it!

This is how it was with me, about twenty odd years ago! I unashamedly confess to being completely lost with my group of 10- year-olds! (I started off with a class of Young Learners, an Upper-Intermediate group and a CPE class! What variety!)

I had absolutely no idea how to teach these YLE kids. Maybe it was a cultural factor (I had in fact trained as a primary teacher in the UK, but my seven-year-olds we a far cry from the Brazilian 10-year-olds); or maybe I was simply unsure how to teach a foreign language to kids.

Whatever it was, I am indebted to my life-saving mentor: Ingrid, a specialist in teaching young learners. She was my teacher/mentor with this group of kids and I can only imagine her horror as she observed an entire lesson being taught by yours truly on items of clothing without using a single piece of realia!!!! Yes, I confess to having inflicted this punishment on those poor kids who just looked at me, imploringly, as if to say: what on earth are you on about! (I think their looks will haunt me for ever and ever….).

As I finished teaching the lesson, I knew something was seriously wrong. But I didn’t know what it was. I did feel tears welling up (gosh, some of us are so emotive when we’re young), but held back and looked at Ingrid feebly. Looking back, this was indeed a make or break moment for me as a teacher. The only thing was that I wasn’t really aware of this then. With great skill Ingrid helped me see where I went wrong and I understood the importance of modelling, the use of repetition and, most of all, the use of realia to bring things to life in a YL classroom.

What did she make me do? She made me teach the same lesson again the following week and she said she would observe me again! Wow! Lucky I listened to her! It changed my understanding of how to teach young learners.

Not quite sure how much better the second lesson was, but she must have felt it went fine. Well, I at least I got some really good feedback from one of my little 10 year-olds: “Valéria, agora eu entendi tudo!” (Valéria, I’ve now understood everything!”) Phew! What a relief!

So, today when I observe teachers teaching young learners I can’t help but remember my own initiation into this very specific area of teaching EFL. I still think it requires a teacher who is able to deal with so many different skills and abilities in terms of classroom management (but these we can, of course, learn as we gain more experience). But above all, it requires teachers who enjoy letting themselves go a bit, either when they are singing a song or telling a story; it requires someone who enjoys being hugged (here in Brazil we don’t have many hang-ups yet about kids touching us or vice-versa for that matter, although things are changing gradually); it requires someone who can deal with the children’s parents (and that’s quite a skill); it requires teachers who are willing to get their hands and clothes dirty with paint; teachers who let kids sharpen their pencils for the umpteenth time; who wipe clean children’s noses, who patiently listen to and sing the same songs probably over 100 times in the same term; who laugh at the oldest jokes ever and pretend they’ve never heard it before; who put on funny voices when using puppets; who successfully break up any fight about lending and borrowing the red felt tip pen and who in these wonderful but challenging days of inclusive education, are also able to embrace children with SEN into their classes.

Yes, quite a demanding challenge isn’t it? And we still ask graduates to have a go, quite often with very little guidance or training!  How wrong!

So, if you have ever been in a situation similar to the one I experienced or are actually going through this now, how did you cope / are coping with it? Who has helped you? How have you been able to develop your teaching skills in this field of EFL?

I would love to read your comments.