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One-to-One Teaching – Managing Time

One-to-One Teaching – Managing Time

You often hear from teachers how overwhelmed they are by spending long hours on lesson preparation and not having enough time during classes to do everything they have planned. This problem can be even more pronounced in the one-to-one context. 1-2-1 teachers feel pressured to live up to their students’ expectations, which are understandably high due to the costliness of individual tuition.

Here’s what my colleague Fae says in her comment to one of my blog posts: “I have recently taken on 9 new 1-2-1 students and I do feel I’ve taken on too much work! I always plan the classes for each student and I want the students to feel I am preparing and working for their money.

As I see it, being responsible 1-2-1 teachers means, first of all, giving careful thought to our use of classroom and preparation time rather than trying to look like we’re doing a lot. We should constantly re-evaluate how what we do affects the learning process and how we can most effectively help our learners. Otherwise there is a danger of wasting time and effort on piles of colourful materials which look impressive but are irrelevant to our learners’ current needs.

Eat that frog

I love the quote from “Eat That Frog”, a time management classics by Brian Tracy: “There is never enough time to do everything but there is always enough time to do the most important thing“. The ELT term surrender value is linked to this principle. Ask yourself: “If this was my student’s last English lesson, what could I do right now that would have the biggest positive impact on their language competence?” The bigger this positive impact, the bigger the surrender value of what you’re doing as a teacher.

I’ve been able to boost the efficiency of my 1-2-1 teaching by changing my attitude to lesson preparation. Instead of preparing for the next lesson I concentrate on following up the previous one. It is typical of the Dogme or Teaching Unplugged approach. Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury highlight three main characteristics of this teaching style – it is conversational , materials light and based on emergent language. While from the first glance Dogme might look like an approach that advocates “just winging it”, it doesn’t imply that the teacher invests less time in reflection and preparation. It’s just done after the class rather than before it.

Trying it out

Having taught 1-2-1 in this way for years, I’ve recently had an opportunity to experience it from the point of view of a learner. Several months ago I started taking private classes in Spanish. My teacher Alexandra treats her job very seriously. Our first few lessons were packed with grammar exercises and lexical sets which were not quite what I was willing or ready to work with in each particular lesson.

Then I asked Alexandra not to prepare any materials for our lessons and just go with the flow of where our communication would take us. She was taken aback but complied despite her reservations. Since then, our work has been based on natural conversation. My teacher helps me with my immediate linguistic needs that emerge in the process, be it work on systems or skills.

Alexandra has expressed her surprise at how well this approach seems to be working. A remark that touched me was “I feel a bit guilty charging you for lessons – I’m not really doing anything!” In fact, by being flexible, not imposing a curriculum on me and following my learning process rather than dragging me along, she is doing much more than many other teachers who look like they are “working harder” but don’t really listen and respond to their learners’ needs.

Preparation and follow-up time

So far my experience of a 1-2-1 learner as well as a 1-2-1 teacher has confirmed that individual lessons are an excellent environment for “encouraging someone to speak, taking notes as they do it and exploring together the language you have captured”. My earlier Spanish lessons have opened me up to how unnecessary use of published materials can compromise a learner’s expectation of unmediated contact with the teacher.

Have you ever found yourself planning a seemingly perfect lesson only to find that the student is too tired for it, or finds it not challenging enough? Discarding your plan seems like a waste, and going through with it anyway is an even worse option. When teaching groups, we also need to be flexible and ready to adapt our lesson plans. However, there are two important distinctions between a 1-2-1 and a group lesson which can prompt teachers to trade preparation time for follow-up time.

The student is the syllabus

First, in a 1-2-1 context you are usually less, or not at all, limited by a certain curriculum or a textbook so in each lesson you can focus not only what your student needs, but on what she needs at each particular moment. In 1-2-1 ELT “the student is the syllabus”. I agree with Wilberg who says that individual teaching is about using the student as a source of content and then helping him reformulate this content on a new level.

No need to compromise

Secondly, with a group, you need overall lesson structure to achieve a compromise between different learners’ interests and goals. In 1-2-1 there is no need for a compromise, so the constraints imposed on the learning process by detailed planning are in fact unnecessary. A well-planned and structured lesson which ignores the learner’s current needs is a waste of her time and money. In the 1-2-1 context these needs are so dynamic and changeable that you will probably end up throwing away a big part your plan if you’re really attentive to your student.

Flipping your presentation time

With this in mind, I’d like to emphasize that your preparation time is not endless. If you spend hours on lesson planning, you will have little or no time to analyze and follow up. By “flipping” your preparation time you make sure that what you’re working on is memorable, relevant and has a high surrender value. Besides, you avoid the risk of having to discard a plan that took a lot of effort to prepare, thus making sure all your out of class time is spent productively. In my experience, it is the best thing you can do to make sure a 1-2-1 student gets his money worth.

As a conclusion, I’d like to mention Michael Swan‘s talk from the recent IH conference in Barcelona. He talked about the psychological notion of good enough parents. “People are not designed to grow up with perfect parents, only with good enough parents”. The same applies to teachers – Swan encouraged the audience to stop being perfectionist and to get content with being “good enough teachers“. If you accept that there will never be enough time to prepare perfect lessons, you can focus on what your learner will benefit from the most.

1-2-1 lessons offer advantages group lessons don’t, such as a flexible syllabus, various ways to support learner autonomy, a closer psychological distance and others. A possibility to do 1-2-1 lessons with little or no preparation while concentrating your efforts on the follow-up is one such advantage which can have a significant positive impact on your professional time management and your learners’ progress if you have the courage to use it.

How do you set priorities and optimize your time when teaching 1-2-1? Please enter your comments below.


  • Coulter, Dale Learning Their Way: Dogme ELT
  • Hunt, Roger Surrender value: a call on CALL – Why are you doing what are you doing?
  • Meddings L., Thornbury S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged, Delta Teacher Development Series
  • Osbourne, P. (2005) Teaching English One to One, Modern English Publishing
  • Samsonova, O. No preparation is key to success: My first steps in learning Spanish
  • Tracy, B. (2007) Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, Berrett-Koehler Publishers
  • Wilberg, P. (1987) One to One. Language Teaching Productions[/jbox]

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2 Responses

  • Caio

    Dear Olga, I have been teaching ESL for over five years in Brazil; most of them in groups from six to 12 students. I have started recently, though, to teach 1-2-1 again. What you've written makes total sense! I mean, first of all I do feel like preparing 'perfect' classes once ss pay more for them, and I even feel a little guilty if the classes are just 'good enough'. This was a first lesson for me after reading this article. Secondly, I totally agree with you that emergent language is something that ss in 1-2-1 really value. By reflecting on my practice after reading, I've realized that my ss do enjoy telling me what is going on at the company or what they did the previous weekend. I have the impression that this move to more emergent language is also getting its space on group lessons as well, in a lower scale if compared to 1-2-1, of course. Moreover, I believe that methods in the future will value this idea of coming up with more emergent and real language. We can see this move throughtout the years if we reflect on the evolution of methods from Grammar Translation to Communicative Approach. Congratulations on your article! =) Caio