The horror of teaching Young Learners

I feel like this post needs a little disclaimer, so here it goes. Disclaimer: all the stories and opinions written below are my own and come from my personal experience teaching in Spain. Teaching (very) young learners can be rewarding and a lot of fun, but it’s not for everyone! We need to remember that even the youngest students are still students, should be treated with respect and be surrounded by professionals who know how to give them what they need.

Teaching young learners comes with a stigma. During my time teaching ESL in Spain, I have met only ONE person who truly loved teaching young learners. All the other teachers treated those lessons as a chore, this thing that you do twice a week and forget about it as soon as it ends. This thing that you don’t teach – you survive.

I’m not proud to say this, but I was the same. When I first started teaching ESL, I was excited to teach English to adults and teenagers. I was able to discuss many things, play adult games, joke around…with kids it was a different story. Every week, I struggled thinking about the types of activities we could do. I tried to keep it fresh and entertaining, bring a lot of games, research crafts that we could do as a group. I spent hours looking for the perfect tasks. There were times when all my efforts paid off, and the students loved everything we did. However, more often than not, that just wasn’t the case, and I’d finish the class feeling disappointed and stressed thinking about next week. I had six hours teaching non-stop, starting with a group of VYL and ending with adults, and I’d always tell myself, If you survive the first hour, the rest will be a breeze.

I tried to think of the reasons why I felt this way and different ways in which I could improve. Here are some things that came to my mind.

Going outside your comfort zone

I think that this sentiment is shared by so many of my fellow ESL teachers for one common reason – language academies expect ESL teachers to go out of their comfort and expertise zones. I can’t think of a situation in which a public school teacher has such a variety of students, level and age-wise. A kindergarten teacher focuses on VYL, and a high school teacher deals with teenagers. Then why do ESL teachers need to know how to cater for 3 year-olds and an hour later have a business class? One hour you do the Hockey-Pokey and the next you discuss the socio-economic problems of your country.

I remember having a YL class sandwiched in between two adult lessons. Let me tell you, that wasn’t fun. I’d quite literally roll on the floor with the kids, dust off my pants, fix my hair and suddenly act all professional. It was ridiculous. I asked my boss if I could wear more comfortable clothes for the YL classes and I wasn’t allowed to do that, because I had an adult class right after and there was no time to change. Plus, when we did crafts…let’s not talk about the chaotic cleanup and table moving.

I understand that ESL teachers often need to educate themselves on different topics, sometimes the ones that they’re not even interested in, just to provide a topical and engaging class. But this seems to be somewhat extensive, hence mentally exhausting.

Hiring non-professionals to teach children

Another thing that quite literally drives me crazy, is hiring non-professionals to teach young learners. I’m CELTA certified and feel best surrounded by students aged 12 years old and up. However, there is a belief that adult students need to be treated with respect and require a professional (at least professional-looking) teacher to keep them satisfied. The children don’t need that because they don’t know any better.

I strongly believe that kids need to be in the presence of a professionally trained teacher more than adults for many different reasons. First of all, children may need your assistance with most basic tasks like going to the toilet. In my first year of teaching, I had a group of eleven 3 year-olds, and at least two of them had to go and usually needed me to help them out. This meant that I had to leave the other children alone in the class while assisting the one child (I didn’t have an assistant).

Secondly, I knew how to plan an engaging lesson for adults, but I struggled with thinking of new ideas for the children. I was aware that they needed a lot of repetition, so I’d start every class with vocabulary revision. However, I couldn’t think of any new material, which kept me busy all weekends, researching and worrying about the classes. On the flip side, once I got more comfortable, I found a bunch of useful websites that provide ready lessons plans and games. I frequently visited ESL Kids Stuff which offers over 60 free lessons plans! WOW English YouTube channel has many interesting ideas for classroom games. I always tried to use some of their activities to make my classes more engaging and fun. If you spend some time going over their videos, you’ll find some gems that became my all-time favourite.

Another issue is that children often can’t control their behaviour and you need to know how to deal with it. This problem doesn’t come up (at least not that often) in adult classes. I believe that going to university and learning about the psychology, emotions and behaviour of children is difficult to learn on your own. There are so many different tricks that you are taught when you are prepared to work with kids. It’s something that only professionals can control.

Dealing with the parents

The behaviour problems tie in nicely with building a healthy relationship with the parents. In my opinion, constantly reporting about the classes is possibly one of the worst parts of teaching YLs. Parents will be always watching you and getting information on you. It can be a bit annoying, but my advice is to introduce yourself on the first day and get used to talking to them regularly. Once the parents see that the kids are comfortable around you, you are golden. I had a great relationship with all of the parents of my students. It wasn’t an easy task and I put a lot of effort into this, but it was worthwhile.

I was worried that if there were any problems, I’d be the one to blame. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. Well, it became an issue only once. I was a short-term substitute in a private school and got to teach a group of VYLs. The kids behaved well with one exception. One of the students didn’t want to participate and made it clear by screaming and hitting everyone around. One time she just got up and ran outside of the classroom. I was shocked and frankly, didn’t know what to do. I told the kids to stay where they were and ran after her. I managed to catch her and in return, she bit me. I immediately called the coordinator and reported this. After the class, I went to speak to her father who didn’t scold her just said Oh, Maria! You can’t bite people! And that’s it. The problem wasn’t solved, and from what I heard she bit the coordinator, too. Just on a different day. It was just a one-time thing, but it left me mentally scarred (physically, I was okay).

Non-natives to teach children

I’m very sad to say this, but I have noticed this pattern and was affected by it, too. Native speakers (even those without any experience or qualifications) are given more advanced classes, while certified non-natives get to teach the kids because, as I said before, the children don’t know any better. Just have a class and then do some crafts. It’s good enough.

Being close

Children need to be close to other people, and you need to be ready for that. Mentalize that kids may randomly hug you, will try to sit on your lap and at times try to kiss you! It happens a lot, especially in Spain. My advice is to go with it, obviously don’t cross any lines, but don’t make it weird either. Kids don’t see it as a bad thing. They get to spend two hours a week with you, they have fun with you and want you to know that you matter to them.

As I mentioned before, I assisted children in the toilet. I didn’t think it was a part of my job, but at the same time, I didn’t mind that. However, one of my colleagues felt it was wrong and refused to do that, to avoid any problems. To that I say, it’s only weird because you make it weird. Act cool and everything’s going to be fine. If it worries you that much, maybe talk about it with your DOS or the parents.

Learning how to plan for YL

I have talked about this before in Is it possible to plan for very young learners. Planning for kids is so much different from planning for adults. For starters, you need to over-plan just in case. Children will give you immediate feedback on any activity they love or hate. And oh boy, if they hate what they are doing, it feels awful. Especially, if you had spent hours thinking about it. However, you need to go with the flow and adapt your plans as you go. With adults, the situation is a bit different, as they normally won’t complain to you about an activity that turned out to be a flop. It makes it a bit less stressful.

It’s good to prepare a range of activities, a mix of stirrers and settlers, to give the appropriate amount of stimulus for YL to learn. It’s good to have some reading and colouring time, mixed in with some singing and dancing, maybe some crafts, followed by some kinesthetic tasks. It’s a journey, but the truth be told, a successful YL class will pass quicker than you expect! And if you over-plan, don’t worry about it. You can use those activities in the next class.

Lack of resources

Once I had it all figured out and I knew how to prepare a class for the YLs, other problems started showing up. One of them was a lack of resources. I needed plenty of materials to make classes engaging and memorable. Unfortunately, I was teaching in a village that was far away from the academy (where all the resources were), so if I had to improvise, I couldn’t. I started buying a lot of materials and paying for them out of my pocket, a practice that I don’t do anymore. So if you ever find yourself teaching children, ask for the basics – coloured paper, crayons, markers, glue, scissors, pencils and rubbers. That’s the minimum that you need to have!

Despite all the negatives, teaching YLs can be very satisfying. Once you get to know the little ones, they will show you affection and gratitude like no one else. I can’t tell you the number of drawings and little gifts I received over my time teaching kids. Plus the biggest advantage of teaching children is the fact that you can go completely crazy, let loose and play so many cool games that you are otherwise too old to play!

If you feel like you need more practice on teaching YLs, you should look into IH Certificate in Teaching Young Learners and Teenagers. I haven’t done it myself, but I heard that it’s quite useful. You learn some theory and at the same time, you are being assessed on your teaching. You finish the course with a certificate that will give you leverage when looking for new jobs. Remember that in Spain, ESL teachers will have to teach YLs 99% of the time!

Is it possible to plan for very young learners?

So you’ve spent the whole weekend crafting an ideal plan for your young learners. You are confident and excited to have this class but the second you enter the classroom, you feel that something is off. Does it mean you’ve wasted your time?

I have immense admiration for all teachers who are truly passionate about working with (very) young children. They spend their entire days in a class full of energy and oh so many unexpected turns. I remember my first time teaching a group of eleven three-year-olds. I started off well, very hyped when suddenly everything collapsed. Until this day I don’t know what had happened. Needless to say, I left this classroom sweaty, exhausted and with the feeling that I don’t want to do this ever again.

I somehow managed to survive one full year teaching this group but the feeling of dread before every single class never changed. Luckily, it was only one year and since then I taught very young learners but in smaller groups and with more resources. This taught me one important thing – there’s a huge difference in class preparation between teenagers/adults and young learners!

Last week I talked about the importance of planning. While I still believe that it is important to at least think about your lessons, look at the textbooks, maybe prepare some CCQs and refresh some grammar points, I think that having a detailed plan for VYL doesn’t make much sense. Instead, we should have a general draft of the lesson that can be easily manipulated depending on how the lesson goes.

The reason for having an outline rather than a plan is that classes with young learners are a bit more unpredictable. I can think of so many times when all my kids got distracted so I had to scrap my plan and just go with the flow. To give you some examples of great distractions: a fallen and then lost tooth (we all had to go on a tooth search – without it, the Tooth Fairy wouldn’t come at night), a lost pencil (I tried giving one of my pencils but it just wasn’t the same), someone’s birthday (it doesn’t even have to be your student’s birthday, apparently a cousin’s birthday is as distracting), Halloween, Christmas, a car outside…or worst out of all of them – a boring activity.

Plan more than necessary

When you prepare an activity for a group of adults, even if it isn’t your best work, they’ll follow and most likely you won’t hear much complaining. In the case of VYL, you hear immediate feedback. Now it’s up to you to either listen to your learners and tweak the activity based on their likes or just abandon it altogether and move on to something else. For this reason, it is essential to plan more than necessary. Worst case scenario is that you used all your planned activities, the best case scenario – you have some ideas that you can use next time! Most importantly, don’t feel bad that your students don’t enjoy your task. It’s hard to predict a good activity, especially that the exact same one can work just fine some other day!

Create learning stations

On a similar note, imagine that you have a craft idea prepared but not everyone wants to do it. You have some kids who can’t wait to be a part of it and others who prefer something else. In the case of larger groups, you may benefit from creating learning stations. You can start by learning vocabulary and grammar together but then you can send your students to do the tasks that they enjoy at the moment. It requires a lot of preparation and you need to be everywhere at the same time but your students enjoy the class and that’s what matters the most.

Listen to your students

Now, hear me out. Sometimes your students enter the classroom and they know what they want to do. It’s normally a game or an activity that they’d done at school and enjoyed it. There are times that the ideas are not great but more often than not I learnt new games that I adapted to my lessons. At the end of the day, you show that you have trust and respect for your students as their opinion matters to you. The same goes for some of your activities. If the activity is a bit off and you can see that students don’t really enjoy it but have an idea how they can change it, then give it a go! You may have a hidden gem on your hands and you just need some courage to try it out. Again – if it’s not working, you can always stop it.

From the top of my head, I can think of one example from my own class. I wanted to do a flashcard race but the kids were not having it that day. Instead, they were really distracted by…chairs. So I got up and without saying anything, put the chairs in a straight line. This already created some interest and brought back attention to me. I asked them to form a queue and we had a crawling race. Students crawled under the chairs and named the flashcards that they found on their way. At the end of the task, I had reached my objective and everyone was happy (and a bit dusty but you can’t have it all…)

Have a treasure box

Let’s imagine that you came to the class really under planned and you are running low on activities and ideas. In that case, try to have something up your sleeve. Maybe there’s a game, a song, or a dance that your students really love and you don’t do that often. In general, keep the best and most exciting activities on the low, so when you do them, you immediately get everyone on board.

By no means I’m a (V)YL expert. These are only some of my thoughts and ideas based on observation and experimentation. Keep in mind that all the groups are different and that just because one activity didn’t work one day, it may work perfectly fine next time! My only advice is to keep the lesson planning as flexible as possible and most importantly just have fun with it!

What are your thoughts on teaching and planning for VYLs?