Tips from the trenches

Tips to help a new teacher get through that very first day of class

As the first day of school quickly approaches and many new teachers will be going into class for the first time, which can be a very invigorating, yet frightening prospect, perhaps a good time to share a few ideas based on 30 enjoyable years in the trenches...

With this in mind, the following compilation of articles might offer some insight into how to approach your students for the first time, regardless of their age, numbers and gender.

Section 1 deals with establishing classroom management rules that will save a great deal of stress throughout the term and provide you with more time to teach

Section 2 offers some tips on how to make life easier by establishing a student buddy system so that students help each other rather than come to you excessively

Section 3 offers some tips on rules and policies concerning homework, from assigning to collecting, from grading to recording, that if implemented can save a multitude of administrative nightmares and allow you to have a life outside of school

Section 4 deals with some ideas that can keep students busy during the first one or two classes or until the textbooks finally arrive from the publisher or local photocopy shop

Section 1: Survival of the fittest and classroom management

On the first day of class, a new teacher, Mr Brown, tall and muscular, snuck into the class with fear written into every aspect of his body language. The students terrorised him the entire year.

In another class, Ms White, short, skinny and a new teacher marched into her classroom with confidence. The students were instantly obedient and remained so for the rest of the year.

Why did students find it so easy to know which teacher could properly manage a classroom?

It takes students about 20 seconds to judge a new teacher, not talking time, but 20 seconds from the first moment they see the teacher enter the room and walk to the front. This is the time we, as teachers, have to impress new students with our ability to control a class and teach.

Therefore, when in the front of the class, smile, look confident and wait for the lull in the noise level that should happen, then start. If students start to make noises again, speak softer. If that does not bring about any change, wait.

If they do not quiet down, you have lost the battle, and unless you gain control, students will be in charge. If this happens, you are off to a hard start and will probably need to be vigilant about students' behaviour throughout the term.

In addition, while students often expect to have a 20-minute class on the first day and then leave early, a good way to establish control is to be prepared for, and give the students, a full class.

Adapting to conditions

If you have established rules for class behaviour, explain them to the students. One rule worth mentioning is for students to think twice about sending medical certificates for absences. In Thailand, it costs about 30 baht to obtain a medical certificate, which is not a huge expense for any student wishing to miss a class.

With this in mind, insist that if they are truly sick, while at the medical facility, they should take a picture with today's newspaper, just like in a kidnapping, and bring it with the certificate.

By insisting on this rule, new teachers can demonstrate knowledge of their culture that should receive a few positive comments from students. While better students will make the effort to take the photos, it makes all students realise that attendance will be necessary if they want to pass.


When students pick their own seats, invariably, the better students will choose to be in front, while the average ones and those who will need the most help tend to be in the middle. Students who do not want to take part in class usually occupy the back row.

One way to make certain to the students that you know why they have selected to sit in a particular section is to draw a plan and label the classroom as having A-students in the front row; B-students behind the first section; C-students in the third row; and D- and F-students in the rows farther back.

While few students will move, those who arrive late, or who decide later that they would like to participate actively, know where they should move to in the next lesson.

Be tough the first week and let things become more relaxed as you get to know and trust the students. By doing so, by the end of the semester you will find a middle ground that will enable you to accomplish what needs to be covered while allowing students more freedom than the level established at the beginning of the school year.

However, if you start by being too relaxed and overly easy-going, it can be a very, very tough challenge to regain control once it has been lost.

Section 2 Establish a student buddy system

When I teach large classes, as many as 220, my goal is to spend as much time as I is possible teaching instead of administering.

A major time killer is dealing with anything distributed in a previous class, ranging from handouts to homework assignments. To combat this administrative nightmare, I nip it in the bud by establishing a buddy study system.

At the start of each term, I instruct each student to pick a partner, someone who will pick up handouts, explain homework assignments and hand in their homework if they are absent.

In addition, I have each set of buddies find another set in the event both students are absent. In this way, there should always be someone to pick things up and pass them on to the right people.

Even in small classes where I have forgotten to apply this rule, the time needed to give handouts to students who were absent can take away from my lesson plan and from those who were present the week before.

Handouts and the buddy system

When I distribute handouts, I make enough for the class and pass them out in mass. I do not expect any returns. If some are returned, this immediately signals that a study buddy has not taken a copy or perhaps both buddies are absent and that their back-up buddy has forgotten to take copies.

Early in the term, I will take time to ask students to make sure they have a copy for anyone missing. If no one comes forward to pick up extra handouts, I throw them away. Invariably, students are shocked by the idea I am not keeping extra copies for those absent, but it is effective in demonstrating I am serious about the need to have a buddy.

The next class, when students who were absent from the previous class or classes ask for handouts, I suggest they talk to their buddy and get what they need. As I do not keep extra copies with me, I make it clear I will not make more or look through my own documents.

If I bring a copy for myself, I mark it with yellow highlight pen, which does not appear on photocopies, with a very large, "TC" (teacher copy). Originals, which I never bring to class, are marked with a large "O" (original).

After a few frustrated attempts to get a handout from a previous class, students give up relying on me and look to their buddy, which in turn relieves me of a time wasting administrative task.

I should add that for the first few weeks, handouts are not that important and if students are missing one or more handouts, it does not really matter. However, two to three weeks into the term, when students have learned the system, handouts become more important.

Homework buddies

I use the same system for homework. If students are absent when homework is due, they should give it to a buddy to hand in. If homework is late, I do not want it and as homework is always assigned two classes ahead, theoretically, this should not be a problem.

I insist on not accepting late homework, as I like to correct it and get it back in the next class. Again, I do not have time to check if homework being handed in late was by someone who was in class, but did not do it.

Most importantly, I do not want students copying homework handed in by another student and already corrected. This would not be fair to those who do it on time and on their own.

If I have less than 40 students, I give homework back individually to get to know students. However, with 50 or more students, it is too timing consuming, so I leave the papers on a desk for them to pick up at break or after class.

While this system might seem unduly strict, it allows me to spend time with students who come to class and not with those who were absent. It allows me to begin my lesson plan without too much delay, which is my overriding goal.

It makes students responsible for keeping up with the class and helping each other with day-to-day assignments and homework.

Finally, it allows me more time to work with students who were in class and who are trying, but need extra help.

Section 3 Dealing with homework

Teaching a large class requires special organisational skills if a teacher is going to have any time to do anything besides correcting homework. The key to managing, correcting, grading and recording a massive volume of homework is to establish easy-to-follow, albeit firm, rules that students must follow.

Homework style sheet

First, I clearly establish what homework should look like. It must be on A4 paper, double-spaced, neat and legible. I have students who believe that if they hand in illegible work, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and award a higher mark. Wrong. If I cannot read it - as with the IELTS (International English Language Testing System), I do not mark it. I simply hand it back with the lowest score.

As I need room for writing corrections or making suggestions, students lose a mark if they hand in work that is not double-spaced. With 40 or more assignments to read, one single-spaced sheet of paper after another tends to become increasingly difficult to correct, and can subconsciously lower the grades given to the papers that follow.

Second, their full name and roster number must be on all homework. Not just a nickname, they must include their full name and class roster number. If roster numbers are not on my student register, I produce a sheet for students to sign each week for attendance purposes and insist they remember the number next to their name.

I find many rosters have unusual alphabetical orders, and if a number on their homework can save a few minutes looking for a name, it is worth the effort getting students to include it. During the first few weeks, I will write their number on their work if they forget, but in the fourth or fifth week, I start to deduct one mark for any incorrect style or incomplete administrative information provided at the top of their homework.

Homework titles

In most writing classes, I have three types of writing work to collect. First, there is homework assigned at the beginning of the term and handed in on a regular basis - for example, a different paragraph due in each class. At the beginning of the term, I give a list of 250 topics and allow them to select the ones they like. (If you would like this list, let me know.) Second, there is homework assigned in a previous class based on what we covered. Third, there is work that students complete during class that I would like to review.

I assign each type of homework a unique number, title and due date. I record these details in my list. For example, a regular assignment due today would be "Regular Paragraph #12: 05 August 2010 - My Dreams"; special homework would be "HW #13: 05 August 2010 - Frequency Adverbs"; and class work would be "CW #08: 21 July 2010, Clauses". If any details are missing, I take off a grade. Invariably, I only need to penalise a student once before they realise I am serious.

Assigning homework

I only assign and explain homework in class. In the first week, I assign the regular homework assignment. I explain what I expect, how it will look and how I will collect, correct and grade their work. I give students time to discuss the homework and my expectations. If they have questions, I answer them. If they do not have questions, I assume they know what to do.

However, students will come to see me later to ask questions, and, while it is very difficult to refuse, I make a point of not providing any more details or explaining once again what I want them to do. They have an opportunity to ask in class, use it. When I assign homework, listen. If you have questions, ask. If shy, write your questions and give them to me. In short, use your English.

In the next class, I will go over their questions, which often prompt other questions. This often leads into further and more detailed discussions about what is expected, thereby reducing the need to explain the same things repeatedly.

With clear and easy-to-understand rules in place, and a fair and impartial administration, less time is spent on homework administration. I have more time to review students' homework and to prepare for upcoming classes. More importantly, during class, it allows me more time to work with students.

Collecting, correcting and grading homework

With clear and easy-to-understand homework rules in place, and a fair and impartial administration, a limited amount of time is needed to deal with homework administration, allowing a teacher more time to prepare for upcoming classes and more time in class for the planned lesson.

Collecting homework

Homework assignments must be on my desk when I arrive. I usually provide a few minutes, but then I close their window of opportunity. I will not accept late homework, especially from someone in class. If I am teaching 40 to 60 students, I do not have time to circulate to make certain they are not working on their "homework" or to remember who arrived late.

However, knowing that even the best students sometimes encounter problems, they have two options. First, if it is a regular assignment, for example, a paragraph due in each class, they can hand in multiple assignments and get ahead of schedule. Second, for all other homework assigned, I give a due date, at least two classes in the future so that they can complete and hand it in early. Class work is only accepted in class and only from those present, making it a useful attendance check.

Correcting homework

I only correct or grade what I have taught. With each homework assignment, I clearly specify what I will grade - things stronger students could find easy, but more importantly, based on what I have covered in class and what everyone should be able to accomplish to varying degrees of success.

Receiving homework assignments from a teacher filled with corrections can hurt students' self-esteem, particularly those trying their best but who remain weak in some areas. However, if I only correct what has been taught, an opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes or to experiment with new ideas is lost.

To find a balance, I instruct students to underline any portion of their homework they would like me to correct. This can range from areas they know they are weak in to those in which they know they are taking a chance. Whatever is underlined is corrected and excluded from being graded.

While many students will not avail themselves of this opportunity, many do, and very few abuse it. In offering this option, I gain an insight into areas they find difficult. In addition, it gives them an opportunity to examine their own writing and to analyse areas they could use support. If certain themes become apparent, and if time allows, I include them in the course.

Grading system

I employ a "1 to 5" scoring system, with "1" being the highest. This makes it easy to calculate scores, which can become quite time-consuming with large classes. Each assignment is recorded in a different section, that is, one section for regular homework, one for special homework and one for class work. This also allows students to track their own scores, relieving me of another time-wasting administrative role - updating them on their ongoing grade.

Each number represents not only a grade, but also the follow-up expected. A "1" means they have successfully fulfilled the requirements. A "2" means they need to review grammar, spelling or organisation already covered in class but not fully incorporated in their writing.

If I make corrections on a "1" or "2" assignment and want the student to rewrite it, I add an "R". The student must rewrite the work and resubmit it at the next class, with the revised version stapled on top of the original. Once resubmitted, it is reviewed, returned with the original score, and the "R" is removed from the grade sheet. A "3", given to students who could have done better if they had tried, requires a rewrite and review of the skills I wanted practised.

A "4" reflects homework handed in simply for the sake of handing in something. Finally, a "5" is for an assignment that was a complete waste of my time or is "miraculously" identical to other homework.

Scores of "4" and "5" are not popular, as both require a student to hand in four (4) or five (5) additional assignments to compensate. Students soon realise they need to be careful with the homework handed in and that the consequences of wasting my time can be severe.

While some students may be unhappy, I have neat, carefully prepared homework handed in on time and which is easy to read, correct, grade and record. In marking only what I have taught, but offering the option to have some work corrected, students are encouraged to experiment and learn from their mistakes.

Section 4: Using activities until books arrive

Logistics being what they are, often you will begin teaching a class before the course books have arrived. While it might be fine for class to finish early, it is better to conduct full-length classes from day one, which means teachers might need a "ready-to-use" activity to use as a filler.

During the first class, after introducing the course and conducting other preliminaries, it may be good to use an activity that breaks the ice and indicates students' language abilities.

For example, students may be asked to interview one another on their favourite something (animal, colour, car, or TV show). It is best to prepare a list of about 25 ideas before class starts. Depending on the class size, give a different idea to each student.

Students should ask each of their fellow students the same question, "What is your favourite ...?"

Once they have heard the answers, they must ask the interviewees why they chose those answers. The respondents must give three reasons. This leads to the need for a few sequence markers, such as first, second and finally.

Some interviewees may need time to think, so the sequence markers could include expressions such as "let me see" and "let me think", or repetition of part of or the entire question, for example, "Favourite colour? What is my favourite colour?"

Provide the interviewers with cues to use while listening, e.g., "I see", "really" and "interesting".
Once they know what to do, encourage the students to interview as many of their classmates as they can. Tell them that while doing so, they must keep track of the answers, which can vary from one-word answers to complex sentences. The type of answer does not matter, but whatever the reply, they need to record it for the second stage.

Next class

The second stage of the exercise, often conducted the following week, is to divide the students into small groups of around four persons each and have a student in each group present his or her findings on a person's answer to the other members of the group.

At this time, the speaker is responsible for telling the other members of the group about somebody's favourite something.

While the speaker's aim is to present his or her findings and end the report as soon as possible, the listeners' goal is to prolong this presentation as long as possible with as many interruptions and questions as they can, for example, by asking: "Last week? Excuse me for interrupting, but what day of last week?"

It is useful to provide a number of concrete examples that facilitate a review of "wh-" questions. The speaker must answer all the questions and quickly return to their story by saying, for example, "Okay, now let me continue."

With three people interrupting and one speaking, it should take around three minutes for the speaker to finish. The students then take turns being the presenter and listeners.

However, because many of the questions used against the first reporter can be reused against subsequent reporters, students should be encouraged to come up with new questions.

The process should, therefore, take longer and longer for each subsequent reporter to finish their presentations. The last deliverer might take up to 10 minutes to finish. Treat the entire exercise as a game and encourage students to have fun.

Writing stage

The third step is to have students write a paragraph based on the information collected. In writing their paragraph, each of them already has the topic question and the responses (like "... is my favourite ... for three reasons").

They also have the sequence markers (first, second, finally, and others). By selecting ideas from different interviews, they should be able to find three good reasons, three supporting sentences and, hopefully, an example or extra information for each idea, as well as three additional supporting sentences.

In short, they should be able to construct the concluding sentence, "In conclusion, is my favourite ... because ... (give three reasons)." In addition, the students should by then be able to write a paragraph that is well organised and consists of sentences arranged in order of importance.

Regardless of students' English abilities, this three-part exercise gives students a chance to practise conversation and writing skills, introduces useful discourse markers and, finally, provides teachers with a good opportunity to assess the English skills of each student.

When lessons run short

Your lesson has finished or fallen apart and now, with 30 minutes left until the bell, you need something to do. The time has come to pull a few tricks out of the bag to keep your students happily busy for the next 30 minutes.

Memory games

Memory games are a great way to have students use vocabulary studied and expand their ability to remember things in English, which is by itself an important skill.

Divide students into small groups of four or five and establish the rules. Students are to repeat, but not write down, a basic, often short, sentence with any additional words, phrases or clauses added as they go around from one student to the next.

"Today, I went to the store and bought a pen." The second student repeats the sentence and adds a new item: "Today, I went to the store and bought a pen and a book." The third student then repeats the sentence and adds one more item; and so the process moves on.

If this proves too easy, add quantifiers and adjectives: Two blue pens, three fiction books and eight soft-lead pencils. Other ideas include using verbs, past tense verbs or verbs with prepositional phrases: "I like to eat, drink and swim", "Yesterday, I ate, drank, walked and swam" or "I like to eat in bed, swim in the sea and run around my house".


Many games using numbers are useful for students who need practice in employing numbers up to about 100.

In this game, five students sit together and start to count as they go around from one student to the next: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, etc. However, every time a number with a three, a seven, or a multiple of three or seven would normally be said, the student whose turn it is must say the word "bottle" instead. In addition, every time a student says "bottle", the order reverses.

For example, student one says "one", student two says "two", and student three says "bottle" (instead of three). The order now reverses to student two who must say "four". Student 1 says "five", and student five says "bottle" (instead of six). The order reverses again, with student one saying "bottle" (instead of seven); the order reverses yet again, and student five says "eight", and student four says "bottle" (instead of nine); the order reverses once more, and student five says "10"; and so on.

Every time a student makes a mistake, he or she drops out of the group and the remainder of the group start anew, which means the dynamics will change. Once all but one student are out, all five begin the game again, starting with the winner, which will again change the dynamics.

Tongue twisters

Tongue twisters are fun and great for pronunciation practices: "A wise woman would not walk in the woods because wandering wolves would get her"; "She sells seashells by the seashore. The shells she sells are seashore shells", or "This thick thistle thrived in that thicket".


Another game is the "yes or no" game, in which one student must answer "yes" or "no" to questions posed by other students without actually saying the word "yes" or "no". Once they do, the time taken to reach this point is recorded, with a maximum of three or four minutes allowed. The student with the longest duration is the winner.

Questions might include "Are you a student?", "Do you like English?" and "Did you do your homework?" Acceptable answers will vary, for example: "I have been a student for many years", "English is my favourite subject", and "I completed it last night".

Having fillers ready for the class can be fun, as it provides students with a bit of competition, and if lucky, they will fill time with an activity that encourages the use of English.

Tim Cornwall



I am enjoying reading your articles. I think it would be a really good experience being your student.
You wrote in your article, "At the beginning of the term, I give a list of 250 topics and allow them to select the ones they like. (If you would like this list, let me know.)" I would like a copy of this list if you can find the time to send it to me. My email address is:
Thank you,
Teacher Ernest

By Ernest, Bangkok (7 years ago)

Thanks Tim , lots of clever ideas , i normally have a problem with the handing in of homework and late assignments . I think or rather I know that after reading your article my problems are solved . Once again thanks for a very informative article .

By Nathan Neumann, South Africa going to Thailand (7 years ago)

What do you do for the first two days of school? This is the time to organize and structure your class the way you want. This is also the time to pre-assess all new and returning students to determine their level of English. Now let us look at how the first two days of school break down, and the activities you can do for each day. Please note: these activities are designed for a 50-minute period. If you teach in blocks, then the two days of activities can be merged into one day.

1.Teacher introduction. Introduce yourself to your new students. Tell them who you are, what you do, and what you expect. Things to include are where you are from, your qualifications, your likes and dislikes, hobbies, and maybe a small, personal anecdote. Why do you do this? Because it is a lead-in to the second activity of the day.
2.Student introduction. Have your students introduce EACH OTHER, following the model of your introduction.. Pair your students up randomly. Put a list of item they need to include on your white board for them to answer. Give your students 10-15 minutes to write their answers on a piece of paper. During this preparation time, the students should be interviewing each other, and writing down the information given by the other student. At the end of the allotted preparation time, call on your pairs to introduce each other. This activity is good because it allows you to accomplish many things. It allows you to:
a.Assess your student’s ability to follow directions.
b.Assess your student’s speaking ability.
c.See how well your students work together.
d.Find the troublemakers (or the students who would rather play than to do class work).
e.Learn about your students.

This is the day you set down your class procedures. Class procedures need to me taught and hammered in immediately, otherwise you lose too much time during the school year trying to control your little mob of children. What items need to be covered? Well, how about:
1.Entering the classroom. How do you want your students to enter? All at once? In a group? With or without shoes? (Moreover, I mention this one because at my school, students have to remove their shoes before entering ANY class, as per the director).
2.Getting to work immediately. Tell the students what their work assignments will be by having them written on the whiteboard. Train the students into getting to task right away.
3.When students are tardy. Do the students have to wai you before entering the room? Can they just walk in? Set this policy NOW and IN STONE. NO deviations.
4.End-of-period dismissal. How do you want your students to leave? Does the bell determine anything?
5.Listening to and responding to questions. How should the students answer questions?
6.Participating in class discussions. How much of a percentage of grade is class participation? Tell them now!
7.Understanding. How will you check for student understanding after you disseminate information?
8.When the teacher is absent. What should the students do when you are not in class?
9.Working cooperatively. How do you want your students to behave when working in groups?
10.Keeping a notebook. How should the students organize their notes, class, and homework?
11.Knowing the schedule for the class. Will you preview your class for the next day? Will you have instructions written on the whiteboard?
12.FINDING DIRECTIONS. It is amazing how many students do NOT know where to find directions for class work or homework. Tell them now.
13.Passing in papers. How do you want your students to turn in class work and homework? How about quizzes and tests?
14.Returning work. How will you return work? What should the students be doing while you return work?
15.Headings on papers. How do you want your students to put names and dates on papers? Nicknames or full names? Student numbers?
16.Asking a question. How should students indicate that they have a question?
17.Saying “thank you.” Is this something you want your students to do? Many Thai teachers require manners from their students. Will you?

Yes, this is a long list. However, some items will not need to be covered. These are optional and need to be chosen by you. Remember, an effective teacher has well thought-out and structured procedures for all activities. An effective teacher teaches the procedures for each activity early in the year. An effective teacher rehearses the class so that procedures become class routines. In addition, an effective teacher reteaches a procedure when necessary and praises to reinforce when appropriate. Good luck for this new school year!

By Doug, Bangkok (7 years ago)

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