The room was dark. It was hot and humid. A mix of climate and fear made it impossible to keep cool. Soon it would be time to begin. The gentle days were over, the days of acclimatisation, of bonding, of learning the language and playing the tourist. This now, today was the reason I had come here, the reason I had made the decision to leave family and friends and travel half way around the world. This was the start, the first day of many days. It was time to step forward and make a difference.
The tables were ranged on rows with two people at each table. I made my way down to the front where a large black board stood on an easel. I turned and looked at the smiling faces, eager, expectant. My heart raced and my mouth felt dry. Here were the university’s finest. Lecturers and senior lecturers all poised to begin the final hurdle that lay between them and their Masters and PhD courses in the US, UK and Australia – the English language exam. They were medics, dentists, engineers, mathematicians, all experienced and dedicated and I was here to make their academic dreams become a reality. I was 21 with my degree in Music and English linguistic studies barely 3 months old and my 1-month teacher training course having been spent largely around the tourist sites of Edinburgh (the weather during my training course had been so good that none of the students had turned up to class).
I took a very deep breath, handed out copies of Kernel Lessons Intermediate and opened the first page. This was it, the first lesson! Would I leave them begging for more or running for the hills?
We began. the Kernel Lessons book came with a piece of A4 green card which was used to cover the writing on the right hand page so the students could discuss the cartoon pictures on the left – this was technology 1977 style! We moved slowly through the pictures, removed the green cards to look at the reading passages and then talked about their own daily routines. Things seemed to be going fine.
Time to use the blackboard. As I turned to pick up the chalk I tripped over the waste-paper basket and did a little impromptu dance. My pride dented, but with no obvious harm done, I took a piece of chalk and began to write. The chalk disintegrated. I took a second piece and a third. By about the sixth piece of chalk I was able to scribble a few words on to the board – these were duly copied down. As I returned the chalk to the box I noticed something moving inside. I shook the box and a small whitish cockroach scuttled out and flew off into the corner of the room. I gasped, they laughed. I laughed, they smiled. Our journey had begun.
It may not have been the dynamic start to a career (which has now spanned almost 34 years) that I might have hoped for, but I still remember that first lesson; how I felt, what went wrong and also what seemed to work. Our first steps are often faltering and tentative, but given good support we can blossom and grow and our learning journey can be a blueprint for those of our students.
My first group of students seemed intimidating to me given their relative ages and status, but I was lucky, they too were teachers and they understood how I was feeling and with their support I was able to create a bond which ensured that everything would work out well. Having good support is very important at the beginning of a new career. Being a teacher puts you very much in the limelight and ‘on stage’ it is not always a comfortable place to be. You need people to turn to for advice and moral support.
Being mentored by a more experienced teacher has great value. They will often have faced the same issues and problems. They can share their own journey, which will have been similar and also see things with more of a bird’s-eye view. This advice and knowledge can be invaluable to a new teacher. I feel, however, that there is another dimension to stepping into a new career which is equally valuable and that is the support of people who are in the same boat. This solidarity helps us to see that we are not alone in facing new challenges, that others are experiencing the same doubts, apprehensions and also achievements. It is important to be able to celebrate the successes within our peer group and commiserate when things go awry.
Being part of a group with experienced mentors and other ‘new’ colleagues can certainly give us the very best safety net for the start of what, with such support, is guaranteed to be an amazing start to a wonderful career.
My own experience as mentor and mentee (I am currently working with a mentor myself), requests from new teachers for mentoring help and my firm belief that we work/learn better as part of a group has led to my setting up my own online EFL/ESL teacher mentoring programme ™ELTMentor. The programme combines the best of web-based training with ‘hands-on’ advice and support from both experienced teachers and also the ELTmentor community itself. We are about to have our second session – sign up to join us.