Jul 31, 2009

Teaching Children vs. Teaching Adults

I'm two months into my first job as an adult ESL teacher, and oh, the things I've learned the hard way.


Well, my attitude hasn't changed per se, but the one I project to my students is oh-so-different. Because my classroom experience with children occurred in East Asia, I was faced with children who were burning the midnight oil with up to twelve hours of school and classes each day. My English lessons were best received when I flat-out acknowledged the fact that they were tired and antsy. "Yes, the Man says we have to study English together for one hour, three days a week," I'd say, "so let's find the most enjoyable way of doing it." Singing? Yep. Discussing Iron Man for an hour? Sure thing. Writing a dialogue between the Hogwarts gang and WWF wrestlers? Why freakin' not?

Adults, I've discovered, don't like this attitude. They're paying the cash, they're spending time away from their families, they're juggling lessons with full-time jobs. They want informative, efficient lessons to make it worth the sacrifices they've made to attend your class. An attitude of "let's not waste any of your valuable time, shall we?" seems to go over best.

I've been grilled about my qualifications by each new group of students. Their time is valuable, quite simply, and they want to learn from a bonafide educator, not a foreign vagabonder who happens to speak English and needs money to fund her travels. It sounds harsh, but wouldn't you hold the same expectations in a language class?


I've tried to force children to take an interest in foreign cultures ("we have bears in Canada! Bears!"), but it's either unstimulating or beyond them. Adult language learners are insatiably curious. To them, it seems that the teacher is an ambassador and fountain of knowledge for all things English. You will find yourself serving as a linguist, sociologist, historian, and travel agent ("Teacher, I want to study in America in a big city with no crime." uhhh...) I love this element of adult classes, because I can relate to this curiosity. When I'm abroad, I love nothing more than pinning down a willing local and prodding them with questions about their country. But the high level of student curiosity does mean that my breaks are often spend frantically Googling a bit of trivia that they've asked about at random.


With children, I have had to dress up grammar points as games. In order for any grammar lesson to be well-received, it was framed in contests and candy prizes like a carrot on a stick. Adults, on the other hand, love grammar, and if they don't love it, at least they love walking out of a lesson with cold hard language facts scribed into their notebooks. Because they often learn English with the intent to study or work abroad, it's likely that there are formal ESL exams in their near futures like the TOEFL or IELTS. They know full well that it's tried-and-true grammar that will open doors. Tips like "well truthfully, you can get by without the present perfect tense, so let's skip this chapter" will put you immediately in students' bad books.

That's not to say that all adult students thirst for grammar all the time. It does mean, however, that I can no longer toss together a few hours' worth of interesting handouts and discussion points and march off to class. The students want a salient teaching point, and I have no doubt they can tell when I'm ill-prepared.

Looking Cool

In my experience, impressing children involves the ability to draw monsters, sing a few bars of the current hit pop song (in the local language, of course), and owning sunglasses. Easy, right?

With adults, it's easy to feel like the old fogey struggling to chat with their sullen teenage cousin. "Soo... that Johnny Depp, he's quite the looker, huh? Hey look, we both own ipods. Neato, right?" Some teachers become the best of friends with their students, and go out for drinks after each class. Others hold a distant but respected air of professionalism. I spend all of my time feeling helplessly stuck in the middle. In fact, I can't really offer advice on how to be cool in your students' eyes, because a) I don't know how, and b) it doesn't really matter that much. While it's near-impossible to hold the attention of a child who doesn't like you, adults will generally perform well as students as long as they respect you.

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