Teaching Beginner English Students in Senegal: Personal Experience with ESL
From 2018 to 2019, I taught two eighth grade English classes in the rural Thies area, experiencing some of the challenges and advantages to teaching students who were just embarking on their language study. I was paired with a long-term Senegalese teacher who walked me through the basics of teaching a foreign language: engaging the class, developing study materials, and creating activities. What stood out to me was his emphasis on showing up as a role model for the students, as well as integrating other modes of learning into the classroom, such as art, singing, and dance activities.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Elise L. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Overall, the combined notion of a teacher as both a parent and a superior was highly important in Senegalese culture, and teachers were held in high regard by adults and children alike. I remember feeling treated with more respect than I perhaps should have been simply because of my white skin, especially in comparison to fellow ESL teachers who came from countries other than the States or the UK.
Though I was originally placed in a variety of classes (both upper-level and beginner classes) to get a sense of my options, I chose to stay with the younger classes, who were working on beginning vocabulary dealing with animals, places, and names, as well as present and past tense structures. Since they were just learning English, I had to slow down my usual speaking pace considerably and repeat simple instructions that they already knew: for example, “Open the book to Chapter Three.”
Large class sizes, sometimes holding 60+ students, introduced some difficulties into teachings, such as making it harder to run large group activities and have whole-class debates or discussions. However, beginning students, when compared to other classes at the school that I sat in on, were more willing to raise their hands, answer questions, and be “wrong” in front of their classmates. They didn’t mean to be disruptive; but, every elicitation prompt was answered with students jumping out of their chairs and waving their hands to draw teacher attention.
These occasional issues with smooth classroom management were alleviated by adding in group work, mixing up classes with warm-up games and partner role-plays, and adding in after-class hours for students to ask individualized questions. Tests were accompanied beforehand with practice scenarios as well as numerous dialogues, book gap-fill and study activities, and open-ended questions.
I think the number one realization that hit while I was teaching in a classroom for the first time was that teachers have to be prepared to adapt to anything. I expected students to encounter difficulties learning the language, family obligations, especially in more traditional families, and discomfort with speaking, but the major issue during my time at the school was teacher-driven strikes. We ran into problems with government funding, and to protest, many teachers chose leaves of absences for two or more weeks, leaving students stuck in classrooms without any learning taking place.
Choice of Activities
That was where outside clubs and activities came in helpful: English Club ran regardless of strikes and provided a way for stronger students to continuously challenge themselves, as well as bringing together smaller groups. This made it easy to arrange, for example, plays or more diverse forms of learning than was possible in a large group setting. Even walks home after teaching opened up informal opportunities for English conversation.
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Teaching beginning students, especially those who were fifteen to sixteen years of age, required patience, constant revision, and frequent visual cues---but it was extremely rewarding in terms of the students’ motivation to learn and the progress they made throughout the school year. After re-evaluating several of my past lessons and imagining how my lessons could be more interactive in the future, I’m looking forward to returning to teaching. After all, it’s not often that you get the chance to be so deeply engaged and challenged in a community so different from your own.
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