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First Class Private Class

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I've just recently started a private class, so I met someone new! That's certainly one of the upsides of teaching, and of course with the communicative approach, it's all about communicating! So I get to find out all sorts of things; and vice versa. In fact, the truth is I learn lots from my students, for example, about the latest technology, films, the economy; you name it!

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William Christison
William Christison.

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So in your first class you're getting first impressions, probably second and third ones too. I'm finding out where their interests lie, their strengths and weaknesses, what their expectations are, how they want to focus the class. Many prefer to do readings and exercises at home, and bring their questions to me. They want a 'fun', tailor-made class with detailed feedback, while others need a more focused lesson, especially those with specific goals like passing an exam or preparing for a job interview.

Actually, when starting out, you need to figure out who's setting the agenda. Some students want to improve their level in general and expect the teacher to take the reins and lead them to language proficiency. That's fine by me: I normally use a course book, which provides more input than I could on my own.

Yet some students seem repulsed by this idea. I suppose they haven't had positive language experiences at school and associate course books with crushing boredom. Or they have a preconceived notion that with a native teacher, a course book is unnecessary because they'll achieve fluency by osmosis. Actually sometimes what ends up happening is that the class is divided between more 'serious' work (the course book), and freer activities.

Then there are other students who have their own agenda and projects they want to focus on. They usually need English for a specific purpose; for example, as mentioned above, a job interview or work. I have students who regularly give reports in English at meetings or in video conferences, so a good deal of our class is spent improving and upgrading their language for this purpose.

In any case, in the first class they want to find out more about you, the teacher. For example, in my experience it's practically guaranteed they'll ask you a language question. They want to know if you know your stuff, if they're getting their money's worth. For example, in my recent first class, she asked me about 'In the end' vs 'At the end'. Of course, at madridteacher this type of question is standard fare.

So as I've said, when starting off, we're getting first impressions. Besides finding out if we know our stuff, they also want to know our attitude, and the basic question really is if we enjoy teaching. This is a bit subtle, but not always! My new student surprised me and came right out and asked me if I enjoyed teaching.

Actually, confronted with such a direct question, I couldn't resist answering humorously: I looked at her squarely in the face and said, 'No'. Then I immediately explained I was joking, and that of course I enjoy teaching. And I do! I really enjoy talking to people and finding about them, and it gives me great satisfaction to see their level improve. It's a bit of a thrill to see that I've made a difference.

This is probably obvious, but a sense of humor does help things along, especially if you understand each other's humor. Obviously we're all different, and that's why some students and teachers connect better than others. Actually I tend to have a deadpan humor, like the above example. I looked at her with a dead serious face and said, 'No, I don't like teaching.' But after that I smiled and made it clear I was joking; after all, it was our first class and you don't want any misunderstandings.

This particular student seemed to have an exceptional understanding of the teaching game, maybe because she works for a private university (doing marketing work). In any case, later she asked what I thought the qualities of a good teacher were, and I said 'patience'. So she said that obviously I'm patient. Actually I couldn't resist coming out with, 'I have no patience whatsoever', but then I laughed and made it clear I was joking. Truth is, I was born patient: the story of my life.

It's also important to make a sort of intellectual connection with students. As teachers, we're going to be pushing them, presenting them with language and concepts, trying to get them to take new language on board. We have to see what they can do. In a way we see these people as few others do: at their limits. One of my students is a university professor who I've brought from a pre-intermediate to an advanced level (this is my third year with him). He's an excellent student with a good memory, but still at times I see I'm overloading him, pushing him right to his limits. Let's face it, language proficiency is a long hard road.

Of course, students often turn the table and challenge us as well. You get students asking questions you've never thought of before; for example, one was asking about the seeming contradiction of the word 'strike'. On the one hand it means 'hit' (you 'strike' someone), but in baseball a 'strike' is when you aren't able to hit the ball, when you don't 'strike' something. Surprising. Had never thought of that. And there are other meanings as well, like 'go on strike' and 'he strikes me as a nice guy'. It's hard work for students to come to grips with all this.

In any case, besides dealing with English issues, you can make an intellectual connection in other ways; for example, talking about issues, the world we live in, and all that. For example, one of my students is passionate about technology and the internet. He says it's one of the most significant inventions ever, right up there with the printing press; a real game changer, a paradigm shift; things will never be the same. He's really raised my awareness of just how powerful this tool is, and not just for better; there's a dark side too. In any case, obviously tread carefully when going down the road of controversial issues.

I'm not suggesting we're going to make a profound connection with our students in the first class, or ever, but in the best classes the learning is mutual: it goes both ways. I learn something from all of my students, like how their business works. In company classes you often get a priveleged glimpse into their business world, and some have had experiences far different from mine. Very interesting!

In any case, right from the word go I give them detailed written feedback on their mistakes and suggestions on how to upgrade their language. Massive personalized feedback is a major reason students opt for private classes, and it's important for them to come away with something tangible, even in fairly loose conversation classes, which the first one can be, or many if they're into that.

Obviously one of the main attractions of private classes is the power the student has to set the agenda, and they often want to consolidate what they already know, or in theory know. And that makes sense: linguists say that students need to have contact with a language item seven to ten times before it's internalized, before they can actually use it, so they need constant recycling; and exposure to new language items as well.

What's more, in private classes the student tends to be very active and communicate all their ideas in English, which forces them to activate language which hitherto was passive. This helps build their confidence, which is absolutely essential. You get students who in theory are at an advanced level or whatever, yet they don't sound like it. So again, they need practice, revision, consolidation, feedback, and exposure to new language. You get them to produce language and give comprehensive feedback, all the elements of a first class private class.

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