Monday, November 25, 2013

ESL Conversational lesson = Find Out If....(I'm lying!!!)

Hi everyone,

Here's how to take a really simple lesson plan for conversation and basic tense (present perfect & past simple) and question practice and make it more involving and challenging.

I took the original lesson idea from and it is perfectly good in its basic form. Essentially you give each student a list of things (see below) and they divide into pairs to ask questions about each other, find out which ones the other student has done then ask follow up questions about them. At the end the class reports on interesting findings and the teacher can board some corrections.

This is a simple and effective lesson when you have a large group of students. How about a small group or when you have a one to one lesson? What about more advanced students? Fancy spicing up the challenge?

Find out if your partner:
has had a problem with the police
has almost died
has fired someone (or contributed to someone being fired).
has met a famous person
has had a frightening experience on an aeroplane
has tried an unusual sport or hobby
has shouted at their boss
has fallen in love with a person they could not have
has been on a terrible or embarrassing date
has gotten a tattoo
has performed a daredevil act
has backpacked in a foreign country
has been to a gay bar
has eaten something disgusting
has won something (for example, the lottery. a contest)
has had a romantic relationship with someone in their office/workplace

All you need to do is pass out the list statements above. I added a few business themed ones but otherwise it's pretty stock. Each student gets a copy of the list. Quickly run through to check understanding of vocabulary (daredevil usually comes up and I often have to remind them that GOING on a date is romantic) and then stop. Tell them that, on average, people have done 50% of these things and that they shouldn't tell anyone what they have already done.

We run through the Have You Ever...question format and then follow up to make sure they are ready to switch to past tense for follow up questions. We usually brainstorm and board some basic question words to help us out later on.

Then I sell them into the lesson by telling them we

Step 1 - Ask a have you ever question.
Step 2 - The person says Yes, I have.
Step 3 - Ask past questions to try and figure out if they are lying or not.

The fun part then becomes people getting creative with telling their real life stories or with their lies to try to make everyone else believe what they are saying. Once you've gone around and asked a good number of questions (say 6-8) then you can guess if it's true, false or partly true. The person then reveals their answer and we find out how good they are at storytelling or lying.

I prefer this way of doing the lesson to the original because I teach small groups (max 5-6) at the moment and it gives a good chance to correct forms as you hear the mistakes and people can work as a group to prompt and think of new questions. If the group gets towards the maximum size or you are dealing with larger groups it may be better to split into pairs or threes so that people have more time to speak. I'd still go with the lying option and maybe mix up the groups once or twice depending how long your lesson is. You can then get back together for a group review plus a list of the best/worst liars in the classroom.

Also, for fun, I have everyone count up how many are actually true for them and then that person can be labelled the most interesting/craziest depending on the group.

I often put this kind of fun or funny twist into my lessons so that people come out feeling like they had a good time while learning English. The more people genuinely enjoy what you do while learning, the more repeat business and recommendations you will receive. If you get stuck, look at how much fun the dogs above are having. Try to replicate that in your classroom and make your students love coming to English with you :-)

All the best


PS: I've done all but two of the Have You Ever items on the list above. Any guesses which ones are false? ;-)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How to win and retain private students / clients.

What we hope private students will do for us

Private students - frustratingly, wonderfully, annoyingly nice. They give you a chance to customise lessons, help you earn some extra cash, fill in the gaps in your schedule, cancel without much warning, fail to do homework, do all of their homework and more, challenge you in new ways, annoy you by not learning what they should, bring their bad moods into the lessons, bring their great moods into the lessons, argue with you over price and times, pay you well and let you be flexible when you need to cancel etc.

NB: For this post I'll define a private student as one who you teach individually or in a small group as a direct client (no school or agency involvement) and who often pays for the lessons in cash. 

I think that every ESL teacher who has private students will share some of the sentiments above. Private students are an interesting mix as they can be a great boon for your income and a real nightmare for your time management and income stability. 

Here are my tips for making a good impression, getting new clients, making them happy and keeping them with you.

  1. Advertise. How can people ask for you as a teacher if they don't know that you are available for lessons? You can advertise any way you like but generally word of mouth, online adverts and social networks are very good. I have several clients from word of mouth or friends of friends on facebook but most of mine come from free websites where I have an advert uploaded. It works!
  2. Go and meet them. It sounds annoying but you have to sell yourself in person. At first you are a teacher who they don't know any more than another teacher. Get to know them, make them realise how fun and interesting the lessons will be for you and if they want a free lesson ,write it off as a good demo. I have to do it, schools and companies do it. It's just part of teaching.
  3. References. Who have you worked for? Which companies or well known clients can you use as references for when people ask about your experience? This is quite a key factor in ensuring you can ask for a good price. I have a list of major clients I've worked with (including Lenovo, SAP, Dell and Slovnaft, a huge petrochemical company) that I can use if people ask.
  4. Compromise. I frequently accept the first lesson or two at a less preferable time or location just to get the ball rolling. I will work hard to meet the client as close as possible to their home or work so that the English lesson doesn't feel like a big chore for them. Once we have a good relationship students afford me a lot more flexibility and we work together to make it easy and convenient for both of us
  5. The first lesson. Make it a good one. You have a chance to really impress them, make them happy with your methods and ideas, build a long term relationship and, if you charge at the higher end (as I do) you must justify this cost to them. To do this:
  • Bring a fun, interactive and engaging lesson. Generally I'd go for more conversational as people often ask for this type of lesson.
  • Create a lesson that works really well for interaction. A lot of teachers my students have described will come to the lesson with a textbook and just go through it with the students. If you have something more (cards, games, activities, conversation fun) they will appreciate it and it's easier to make it feel customised.
  • Make sure you check their language level. Mark down what they need to work on so you have material and can mentally create a 'syllabus'. Show them a few selected mistakes and help them with corrections to establish yourself as a teacher.
  • Highlight what they are good at, probably before the point above. Most students have fairly low language esteem, or they portray it this way. Perhaps it's true or perhaps it's polite modesty but get them to realise just how good they already are. Now, with your help (see above), they can get better.
  • BE IN A GOOD MOOD. You know how students being down can make your lesson that much harder and more challenging? You can do that to your students. Bring them a happy, enthusiastic and interesting teacher who makes them feel good during and after their lesson. It's hard sometimes faking your mood if you're having a tough week but do it and the rewards will be tangible and appreciated. 
  • Let the lesson run over a bit. Unless you are really time constrained, make sure you give them a little extra time. Enjoy a few more games or activities so that they feel good. Then you can add the hint of acting where you "realise" you've run over and didn't notice because you were having such a good time. 

Once you've gotten the ball rolling with people and had a good few first lessons, I find it then tends to run much more smoothly and easily. If it helps you, I suggest you pin down two or three good, general lessons that you like and know you can teach clearly and comfortably. I have a standard two starting lessons and then I take the next lessons in the direction each particular student needs.

If you read this far without getting bored and giving up, here's a cute puppy picture to reward you.

Any questions, please just drop a line in the comments section :-)


Marriage vs blogging ;-)

Hi everyone,

I have been unforgivably lax in updating this blog and giving more feedback on life as an ESL teacher to everyone. I apologise unreservedly for that and offer my good intentions to increase activity and make this blog a worthy place to visit.

Above is one of the reasons that I've not been active on the blogging scene so much. Last month I got to experience one of the best days of my life when I married the inspiring, kind, wonderful love of my life. Despite being a small wedding it was a lot of work to organise, manage the paperwork, set everything up to our liking and manage this while keeping busy with work.

Anyway, all that is now done, we have wonderful memories, photos and enjoyed our time with all the special people who made it a wonderful day.

The next post is on the way ;-)


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Becoming confident and assertive Part 2.

So how does one follow on from a post all about full contact cage fighting and tie it into the day to day realities of English teaching?

It's fairly simple really. As a more experienced teacher who has just gone freelance I've come to realise that my abilities are good, my confidence measured but high, my experience valuable in the market and my assertiveness is growing.

I've come to realise and stand up for what I'm worth in the EFL market here in Bratislava.

Going freelance and working with a business license frees you from a lot of the contractual obligations most people work under, but also frees you from the contract protection those people have. In return, it's generally accepted that you will earn higher fees per hour than teachers who work with contracts.

Now it's up to you to figure out exactly what your school / agency / client will pay you and it varies depending on your experience and background (here natives can easily add 5 per hour over a non-native for many clients). I've gone from an average of about 14 per hour to an average pay of somewhere around 20 per hour. There is some variation of course as different agencies / schools take different cuts based on their costs and my direct clients pay slightly different rates depending on how big they are, how many lessons they have etc. but overall I'm very happy.

I've had to be assertive for a lot of what I have and it was hard at first. There's a constant fear that the people you are pushing for higher prices, be they students, companies or employers, will simply say no and let you walk away if you don't work to their limits.

Now I have the confidence and assertiveness to call that bluff. I know I'm a good teacher, I know I'm in demand and I know that I can earn just fine without any particular employer monopolising my time. I have the freedom to take the clients I want, work my schedule in a way that suits me so I don't have to work early mornings or late at night unless I choose to and end up in a better financial situation

So how does the bluffing/negotiating procedure go for me now?

Just had to include this photo ;-)

It's been going well. Perhaps buoyed by confidence from my cage fighting days coupled with the knowledge that I'm good at what I do and am in demand as a teacher, I now go into negotiations with a clear idea of what is acceptable or not and stay totally calm as I direct things go the way they should go. Knowing that I covered up and dealt with punches coming at my face while I was pinned to the ground in a cage makes it a lot easier to manage someone who is just arguing over a small work point.

Recently I have:
 - Established a new and much higher baseline pay rate that most people accept now.
 - Negotiated a higher pay rate with one school for a lesson they need me to cover.
 - Ensured that an agency covered the cost of training they didn't inform me about until the last minute (Sorry, I'm not paying to work for you).
 - Reorganised my schedule with a big school who were failing to provide enough lessons in a timely manner.

Now please understand (especially any new ESL teachers reading this) that you have a lot of responsibilities that go along with steps like those above. If you teach a bad lesson when you charge someone ten euros per hour, that's one thing, but double the price and you'd damn well better be on your game. People are less forgiving of mistakes and rightly so. If you charge a premium price, deliver a premium product.

I also put a lot of energy into my clients and my lessons, particularly in the initial stages when 'selling' the first few hours with a new student. I make sure they have a great time, I'm in a good mood (even if I'm tired/sick etc.), I really focus in on the English mistakes that matter to that student and leave them feeling like they enjoy what's happening and can see the benefits. I am happy and willing to pay 20 euros per hour for a private lesson of Slovak from a teacher I know and trust. My job is to make sure my students feel the same and know they are getting a better product than those who went for cheaper options.

When you are selling that first lesson, don't only bring your best attitude. You may want to let the lesson run over for 15 minutes or so, especially if you're having a good time. That way the students are happy that they get 'free' lesson time. Previously I offered half price or discounted first lessons and that was popular too. Now I go for the extended time but both ways are good to make people feel happy. You should leave them thinking:

"Wow, that was fun and useful. I can't wait to have the next lesson and spend more time with my new teacher."

Get that part done and you'll be rolling in students soon enough.

There you have the basic story of how I took the lessons learned in a cage and brought them into a classroom and business environment. I had to learn a lot, nerve myself up to call bluffs and pretend I wasn't scared but the end results have been worth it and continue to improve day by day.

So teachers, if you know you are worth a lot and you aren't happy with where you are, step up and take control of your career and the people you work with. Think like the ever impressive George St Pierre (in red trunks), the UFC welterweight champion, and make sure everyone knows you are a dedicated worker and are getting what you're worth.

Best wishes,


PS: I was smiling giddily and did a little happy dance the first time I successfully a negotiated a good deal. A behind the scenes moment of truth ;-)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Becoming confident and assertive Part 1...

I feel like I've recently hit a breakthrough in the way I conduct business and work as a teacher. It came down to confidence, experience and just a bit of faking it until I made it. The latter is something that I've really had to work on in my life but it's not just a popular saying. I've been finding that there is more and more truth in it and I enjoy it.

So what's with the picture at the top of the post? It's from April 2011 during my last week or so in the US before I came to Europe to teach. Following the end of long term relationship I had started training at a mixed martial arts gym and got into it a lot. The picture is me mentally preparing ahead of a full contact cage match with a training partner. If you think I look nervous, you're absolutely right.

I've done martial arts for a long time because I like them, I'm a small guy and I have always been scared of violence. Even though I've spent a long time involved in them, I was always scared of fighting and getting hit. That fear has never gone away. I felt a nervous trickle of adrenaline when my instructor called me up to spar and I knew I could (and would) be hit. Moving into a full contact sport like MMA was a major step for me.

I spent a long time believing that I was the only one afraid to get into the ring/cage and fight. Everybody else seemed so calm and ready to go at any time. It was only after faking it for a long time that I realised I needed to fake it less. I could deal with a lot of problems and challenges without backing down. Other people were also scared but they also learned to push it down and be confident.

So I stepped into the cage for nine minutes of full contact fighting.

This is one of the high points in the fight where I started to find good range for my kicks and land them on my buddy. Unfortunately...

...his wrestling and size were a bit much for me and I spent the latter part of the fight getting battered and pounded into the mats. I lost the fight by decision but I didn't quit in the fight (I wanted to), I didn't make excuses about why I lost (it was my lack of confidence in my striking skills that really sealed it) and I didn't give in to my temptation to cancel the fight before it started.

Now I'm not training MMA or other martial arts any more. I've picked up enough injuries and I'm getting old enough that I don't want too much of a bad legacy from my wild younger days.

So how exactly do the photos above correspond to what I'm doing with myself these days since I'm an English teacher, not a cage fighter, right?

Well it's about developing confidence and assertiveness. These are traits that will serve you well in the cage but also very well in life and business too.

Part 2 to follow soon...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Going freelance as a teacher

So here I am, going freelance as teacher. I'm leaving Class over the next few days / weeks and going my own way in the teaching market here in Bratislava.

This is exactly what I'll be doing every day from now on...honest ;-)

I'm sure that a big question for friends and students revolves around why I'm leaving. Let's me say one thing first of all. I think Class was and still is a great school to learn at, I've enjoyed teaching my students and I am not leaving for reasons of dissatisfaction with the method or ideas. For anyone who wants kids or adults lessons, I do and will continue to recommend that people go and see the teachers at Class and have fun learning. There are great teachers at Class and I would and do recommend them to students.

However, it's time for me to spread my wings and try some things on my own. I've learned a lot at Class but unfortunately due to work availability factors and some other issues it was time to leave. It's a shame we couldn't negotiate a different outcome as I like the school and students a lot, but I'm excited to be my own boss and to see what I can manage as a freelance teacher.

So how am I feeling at the moment?

Mostly excited and a little bit nervous. 

I think that's probably a good mix of feelings for this situation and for the things I'm going to be facing. I've got a lot of organisation of lessons and timetables to do but it's looking very interesting, promising and profitable all in all. 

So far I'll be using a three pronged approach. I will be:

 - working part time for Berlitz, a very big and successful language school. This is a great way to set down a base level of lessons, develop my teaching skills by going back to basics in a very well thought out teaching method, have a lot of support from my employer, have access to really nice teaching materials and books, gain globally recognised CV experience and, with a bit of luck, become a certified Berlitz teacher so I can take my skills to other countries if I want to.

 - working with agencies (primarily business English) to get involved with teaching at different companies in the city and explore alternative methods and approaches to lessons. This will bring a lot of freedom and creativity to my working life where the onus will be on my to deliver top quality. 

- working directly with companies or individuals to teach different aspects of English. This is the most lucrative of the three options but also the most challenging in many ways as it's completely on me to find out how to make my clients the happiest with what I offer. 

More posts to follow talking about what is so exciting about my life at the moment.

Pete :-)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A teacher and a confidant

It depends on the kind of school you teach at but there is something very particular about one to one lessons. For various timetable and student level reasons I've had the privilege to teach a lot of individual students for the last six months or so.

People sometimes ask me if it's better to teach groups or individuals and the answer is, inevitably, that it varies. The great thing about individuals is that you can develop their language skills so much more in the same number of lessons simply by dint of having them be the only other person speaking. If we take a simple 70% student talking time (the less wasted teacher talking time the better) from a 60 minute lesson then an individual student will get to speak for 42 minutes where one in a group of 6 will only get 7 minutes of private time on average.  Of course, these are just averages and teachers use a lot of techniques to increase language production time for all (pair work, team games, group conversation, writing etc.). Still, it's among the individual students that you often see the most progress.

On the flip side it can be really hard as teacher because you are forced to focus on the students for such an extended time. In a group, you can start a lot of activities and then sit back and focus on the students, perhaps listening for corrections. One of the toughest parts is when you are engaging in role plays with individual students because you have to listen to what they are saying so you can formulate an appropriate response, listen for their mistakes and correct language use, and sometimes even write down the errors so you can discuss that afterwards. It's tiring and makes the one to one lessons that much more of a challenge from a focus perspective. Then again, when you have someone who you genuinely like and enjoy spending time with, it can be like meeting with friends where you get paid for it ;-)

One very special thing is how much you are exposed to when you spend time alone with people. Perhaps because I'm a relative stranger to them, my students often feel comfortable opening up to me. I've come to know things that are very personal and challenging including relationship problems, births, deaths, illness, drug problems, financial worries and work issues.

It can be hard to listen to these stories at times and I've had to do my best to comfort people without sounding trite. I'm also asked for advice in some situations and that brings the next big challenge...what kind of grounds do I have to offer advice to people on life problems that I may have never faced before? I'm not a psychologist (though I lived with one for some time) and have very little education or knowledge on the specifics of these cases so I have to be very careful what I say. Likewise when people ask me about what they should do in a work context with an annoying or difficult boss/colleague/situation. In each case I try to offer my best advice from my work experience while at all times trying not to make their decision for them. Usually I focus on what they could do and what some of the advantages and disadvantages of each choice may be. With any luck we get to work on expressing feelings, worries and using modals (should, could, might etc.)

I know that a lot of other teachers tend to stay away from topics like this because they prefer to keep their and students private lives away from the classroom. I can respect and understand that completely  It's not how I teach and I hope that my individual students enjoy having someone who is willing to be part of more personal and complex issues, as well as working on their language skills.

I knew in an intellectual way that teaching would be a lot about experience but as they say, there is nothing like actually getting out there and doing it. The more time I spend in classrooms and with students the more comfortable I feel, even in tough situations.

As far as this particular challenge goes I'll just say this. To all of my students who have talked about problems or challenges with me, I hope that I have helped you feel better, or given you some good advice, or been a good listener or just not annoyed you ;-)

Take care everyone,