“I look Different, But I Promise I’m Not Scary!”

So, you’re a first-time English teacher, fresh off your TEFL course and you walk into a classroom in an Asian country feeling nervous, anxious and excited to teach your first kindergarten class and suddenly, a couple kids start crying and the others stare at you with fear in their eyes. What could possibly make them have such a strong reaction to your presence? Well, aside from being young and missing their parents, there is one other important thing that is out of your control, your appearance. It’s not your hairstyle, or the clothes you’re wearing either, it’s the color of your skin, the color of your hair, the shape of your body and of course, those weird sounds you make when you speak.

Yuyuantan Park, Beijing
Yuyuantan Park, Beijing by DPerstin, on Flickr

Children are usually the most accepting when it comes to differences, but in my experience this doesn’t hold true in an ESL classroom setting where the teacher is a foreigner because many children stare at the foreigner with a mix of fear and fascination and it’s not uncommon for tears to be shed. This is probably the first-time many of the children have seen a foreign face and coupled with the difficulty of coping with saying goodbye to their parents, many are horrified by our oddly colored skin and strange hair colors in yellow, brown and red. Even when accompanied by a native homeroom teacher, many younger kids were terrified to accept their name tag from me and cried hysterically if I uttered one word in English and I have never had so many high-fives left hanging. It was quite disheartening for me as a first-time teacher, but I soldiered through with a smile on my face and continued putting my hand up for a high-five and eventually the children warmed up to me and my funny looking face.

It took a lot of smiling, attempted high-fives and stickers galore to get these young children to even look at me without their lower lip quivering in fear, but these tactics worked and the children learned that even though I look different, I’m not really that scary. Stickers were probably the number one reason why my students decided to believe that my curly, brown hair didn’t mean I was a scary monster and that I was actually a benevolent giant that would reward them with Ben 10 and Hello Kitty stickers if they said funny sounds(English). Any effort whatsoever was rewarded with a sticker; mimicking words I said, responding to requests(Where is …?!) and answering questions(“What’s your name?”) would be met with cheers from me and I would place a sticker on their shirt, making sure every other student saw. The students caught on, and after a few classes they were enthusiastically chanting the words and announcing, “Here I am!” and I had to replenish my sticker stash. A foreign teacher handing out stickers is a lot less scary than a foreign teacher with no stickers and is even more popular than the native homeroom teacher sometimes. Other little treats, such as candy or toys or bubbles, give you brownie points and decrease your scary factor, so it is always good to have a little something for your students for those first few classes when they are adjusting to having an alien-looking person in the classroom.

Picture Books
Picture Books by Enokson, on Flickr

Lots of smiles and encouraging words make you seem a lot less scary to young learners too. It can be a bit discouraging at first because the kids will still cry and hide in fear in the first couple classes and you will start to think you must look like a maniacal clown, but I can guarantee a smiling face eventually puts them more at ease than an annoyed face would. Children like encouragement, they want to know they are doing the right thing, and so your goal is to give them ample encouragement when they speak English so they will associate speaking English with being good, therefore a big smile is a surefire way to help the children make that association.

Having your appearance frighten some young learners and make them nervous is inevitable, but it doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong and your teaching career is over. The blank stares, the quivering bottom lips and the crying can be very intimidating, especially for a first-time teacher, but if you stay positive and upbeat, your students will feed off of those emotions and mirror them. Eventually, your young students will adore you, or just the stickers, but either way their excitement and joy will give you the confidence to continue teaching and to realize that you truly are making a difference. You may have to work a little bit harder to earn the trust of young learners, but it will be worthwhile when you have your students hugging your legs and screeching, “Hello, Teacher!”.

My ESL Students
My ESL Students by DPerstin, on Flickr

Jessica Watson

Over a year ago, Jessica Watson packed up her bags and hopped on a plane to teach English to young learners in Bangkok, Thailand. She loved it so much that after completing her contract in Thailand she moved next-door to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to continue living and working abroad. Life abroad is exciting, exhilarating, sometimes annoying but always fun and Jessica plans on continuing to explore and experience life abroad for years to come! Follow my personal Blog.
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