16 Mar Teaching Young Learners With Confidence

“If I want them to have a good time while they learn, I must have a good time while I teach.”

Vanessa U. describes the challenging and joyful experience in teaching English privately with kids.

I know it looks easy. But it is mentally challenging and physically tiring – borderline exhausting. It keeps me on my toes; it often frustrates me while it exhausts my creative muscle. My head spins around day and night, hopping from one idea to another until I create my next lesson plan. I hardly write it all down. Instead, I visualize a vivid mental picture of what we will do in class, and jot the bullet points in my little notebook. I put extra effort into creating the material the students will use, and I always leave room for improvisation. Flexibility is the key in such mood-changing environment. Though I may go through ups and downs in my daily routine, I truly love working with children, and teaching English as a second language.


I have been both working and volunteering with young kids and pre-teens for about 8 years. I am on my second school year working at an elementary school in Spain, and giving private English lessons.  As a TEFL educator, I must fulfill multiple roles daily. Whether I am giving an individual class to a 12 year-old, or a group class to children under 5, different skills are required of me: creativity, eloquence, energy, organization, patience, flexibility, integrity, knowledge, cultural awareness, effective communication, and management.

In my time in Spain, I have assisted 10 classroom teachers that employ diverse teaching methods and strategies. This constant, varying exposure made what works and what does not work, apparent to me. Here are the four things I learned from successful elementary school teachers that help my private English classes run smoothly – even when two 4-year-olds fight, and one 3-year-old poops his pants (true story!):

Start out with a routine
In order to prepare my young students for the lesson ahead, I have picked out two hello songs that we sing at the beginning of each class. It helps them switch their minds to English before introducing new words (Music generally gets children’s attention). This routine helps them know what to do. The repetition makes English class feel familiar and safe. They will quickly learn the lyrics, and once they start singing, there is excitement about the language. For older kids, it is good to go over the date (“Today is…”), the weather (“Is it sunny?”), and their feelings (“I am happy/sad/sleepy…”). They will learn so much practical vocabulary without intently memorizing a list of words.

Make obvious gestures
Body language is important for children in more ways than one. Some of them may still be learning their own native language! In order to grasp what you are saying, you must physically represent every word possible. Think of yourself as a mime. This is not only necessary when you are teaching them new vocabulary, but when you need to reiterate the rules or encourage their effort. Even when it comes to classroom management, a serious face is twice more effective than yelling. At such young ages, body language is the form of communication they are quicker to understand.


Smile. This goes beyond body language. Children will trust you, like you, respect you, and listen to you more if your face is friendly from the start. It will also help you manage your own emotional stability. Teaching children all day long can drain your mental and physical energy before the sun goes down. I find that when kids associate my face with a smile, they are more likely to be cooperative, respectful, and participative. They will also be even more understanding of the “serious face” whenever behavior gets out of hand. I feel classroom management is one of the most challenging things in my daily routine. Poor classroom management can take a toll on you, and the students. I have seen the best of teachers struggle with this from time to time…or every day.

Be flexible and open-minded
Kids have an incredible capacity for creativity. I have ditched part of my lesson plan before just because one of my 4 year-olds came up with a much better idea. That is also part of the joy of teaching, and not having to follow a school’s curriculum. Within your possibilities, being flexible will take your students a long way. Going for their idea gets them more interested and engaged. They will feel listened to, understood, and valued.

You are telling them that their ideas matter and their voices are heard. This is the foundation of my relationship with my students. They will hopefully imitate you when it is their time to be flexible (as all kids learn through observation). It is true that you cannot please every student at the same time. They are bound to dislike some activities and classes as much as others. Not always getting what we want is also a part of life, and it is okay for them to know that.  Still, do not be intimidated to change plans last minute if it will mean a more productive and engaging class. The younger they are, the shorter their attention span…which means you may have to change activity every 5-10 minutes! You will need all the ideas you can get!

Fundamentally, what I have learned in these past few years is that to keep my students engaged, I must be fully engaged. If I want them to have a good time while they learn, I must have a good time while I teach. Every time I come out of a productive and fun English class, I cannot help but feel invaluably successful. Ever since I started teaching, the clock ticks faster, and I never get bored.

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