This article on Ten Tips for New EFL Teachers in a University Setting is written for teachers who have just begun teaching EFL classes at a university. I’ve taught in several universities in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the following tips are things that I have picked up over the years teaching at different universities. Perhaps not all of them will be relevant in your context, but I feel they are worth considering as you begin your first semester of teaching at a university abroad.
1. Reach out to your new colleagues
Unfortunately, not every new teaching job will set up a friendly get-together or organize a welcome wagon to help you feel settled in. The professional culture at some universities can be a bit cold and distant. That’s why it’s crucial to take the initiative in meeting your new colleagues. Take every opportunity to introduce yourself and shake hands. Learn names as quickly as possible (the university’s website might allow you to get a head start on this!). Definitely get to know the office staff in your department, as they will be a big help whenever you have a problem. Be friendly with the library staff, administrative staff, and custodial staff, as well.
2. Show gratitude to colleagues who help you get settled in
Be extra polite to anyone who takes time to help you learn some of your new duties or answer your questions. Remember to thank them. From time to time, you can bring them a treat, such as their favorite snack or beverage. You could also offer to help them if they need your assistance in the future.
3. Project an image of confidence and professionalism
Everything from the way you address people to your clothes to how you decorate (or not decorate) your workspace should reflect that you are a serious, professional teacher. Don’t come to school in a t-shirt and jeans, especially if you are in a work environment where all teachers dress formally. Keep your office or cubicle neat and organized. Avoid any signs, posters, etc. that indicate you have a bad attitude towards your profession.
4. Expect lots of surprises
As the author of this article can attest, teaching at a university can often be filled with unexpected twists and turns. You might be asked to teach classes that you’ve never taught before. Classes might suddenly be cancelled, or your schedule could be changed drastically during the first week of the semester. Remain calm and patient in these situations. Try to be open to change, and be grateful that you have a job.
5. Prioritize the administrative duties
Early on, you should get clarification on which of your duties are the most important. You might be assigned some duties which are considered mandatory, while some other duties might be optional. Spend more time on the most important duties. This information might not be given to you directly from your department head, so you may need to ask colleagues.
6. Get to know the university and the campus
Pick up some fun facts about the university. See if you can get answers to these questions:
When was the university founded?
What’s the name of the university president?
What are the departments of the university?
How many students are currently enrolled in the university?
How much is tuition for one school year?
What courses are the most popular?
Which departments have the best reputation in this country?
Who are some well-known graduates of the university?
Walk around the campus on the first few days and get to know where everything is –classrooms, library, copy center, places to eat, restrooms, administrative offices. Before the semester starts, locate your classrooms, and take a good look inside. Explore all the buildings on campus, even buildings you won’t be in very often. Look for some interesting spots on campus. Keep an eye open for green areas. Go to the top of the tallest building. Also, find out what services and amenities that campus has that can make your life easier, such as a gym or a laundry center.
7. Familiarize yourself with the area around the campus
Seek out some places to grab a quick meal, or places to sit and read. If you are up for having class outside the classroom one day, look for some place to take the students. Obviously, you’ll need to find the quickest way to get to work from where you live. However, you should try out alternative routes as well.
8. Keep track of all the positives, big and small
When you are in a new environment, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and ultimately frustrated. It can be even trickier if you are adapting to a new country. Avoid the habit of being negative all the time. While there might certainly be quite a few drawbacks to your job, learn to shift your attention to the more positive aspects. If a few students in your Tuesday afternoon class are getting on your nerves, look for others in the class that are paying attention and participating. If your teaching schedule leaves you disappointed in some way (too many 8 a.m. classes, for example), look for a positive aspect, if possible (you have evenings free). You might think about keeping a list of all the good things that happen in your professional and personal life.
9. Make rules for classes, and stick to them
It’s important to set rules for your classes. Think about your expectations in terms of homework, student behavior, use of technology in class, and anything else you think needs addressing. Prepare a PowerPoint or handout for your students. Go over the rules with every class during the first week. You may also consider quizzing them on the rules in the following weeks.
10. Try to adapt
Over the years, I’ve noticed in many expat teachers two extremes of orientation towards the host country. The first position is one of expecting the local people to do more to integrate the foreign teacher, by doing things the way the foreign teacher does back home, and doing everything possible to accommodate him/her. The other position is accepting as a duty to adapt to the new environment, by studying the local culture and language, and always being aware that he/she is not in his/her home country anymore.
I can certainly empathize with people in the first group, as it would be unrealistic for any university to hire a lecturer or professor, and expect him/her to arrive the first week, completely fluent in the country’s language, with a comprehensive knowledge of the country’s customs and traditions. However, I believe that the second position is a much healthier one, as it is unrealistic to expect everyone to adapt to your culture, and far more fruitful to seize the opportunity to learn about a different country. Aim to learn more about your new environment, whether you plan to stay one year or twenty years.
If you enjoyed reading this article, please take a look at my new book from iTDi Publishing, 101 EFL Activities for Teaching University Students: