This fourth semester is particularly busy, btw, because our school is supposed to have two native English teachers but the other English teacher abruptly quit three days before school started. I'd tell you all about it, but it would be a violation of my blog ground rule: "no snarking behind someone's back." Suffice it to say, I am doing double-duty for the time being but since I'm teaching students I've taught before and am very fond of, it's all right for now. I missed them last semester when they were assigned to the other teacher, the one I'm not going to snark about, and now that she's gone, the students and I are happy to be reunited.
Oddly enough, I don't remember much about teaching my first "real" class in China. I clearly remember my first practice classes as a student teacher. They went well -- really well -- so well that I figured that my teaching career would be something like Liv Ullman in Lost Horizon. I'd be skipping around an Asian landscape singing "The World is a Circle" with my adorable pupils trailing behind.
Which doesn't make much sense because I'd signed up to teach 18- to 20-year olds. However, I'd be Liv Ullman in spirit, and impart a transcendent joy in learning to all my students.
One thing I did once I arrived in China was to sit in on another class before I taught my own first class. That really helped with the butterflies. Yeah, I can do this. Another was to make a short power point. People here are interested in the fact that I was born in Korea and have five brothers and sisters and come from Western Canada, which they all know about for its beauty. So a short self-introduction is a good ice-breaker.
Okay, now that the students know you and your name, how are you going to learn their names? One of my classes -- supposedly an oral English class -- has more than forty students and at first the thought of getting to know them all as individuals was overwhelming. Now that I think of it, music played a part in that process. I did try to get the class to sing songs with me and it helped me get to know the students, because of their varied reactions. Most of them didn't really want to. And no, I didn't try to make them sing "The World is a Circle." But I do remember singing "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" with my Business English class and noticing how one girl's face lit up with enjoyment. Her's was the first face I picked out from the crowd and the first name I learned. Lucy.*
I tried asking the students to use name cards but that felt awkward and in many institutions, students use those chair-and-tiny-writing-area-desk combinations, so you'd have no place to put a name card. So one technique I hit on was to take attendance by asking a question -- not a "yes" or "no" question, but something tied to the subject matter, like "what country would you most like to travel to?" "What type of animal would you like for a pet?" "Would you marry for money instead of love?" This technique (1) ensures everyone in class, even the most reluctant, shy or disengaged student, says something at least once; (2) it flushes out the students who aren't listening, because they respond with "here" or "huh?" when I call their name, instead of answering the question, and (3) their answers help me differentiate them as individuals.
In the early days of the class, I ask the students to shake my hand and introduce themselves as they exit, so they can practice Western forms of greeting and I can drill myself on their names. It's hard for the shy ones to even meet my eye, so this is useful for me and for them. It's also useful for Business English students, who may be working with foreigners in their career, to know what a firm Western handshake feels like and learn how to reciprocate.
Some people recommend being strict and scary in those first classes so you can establish your authority and let the kids know who's in charge. Well sure, if you were to project a desperate air to please or to be popular, maybe the students will think they can walk all over you. Or if you don't summon enough "I'm the teacher and I'm in charge" energy and act uncertain or timid, you're in trouble. But the deadly mistake, in my opinion, is to ever show irritation or lose your cool. Like a certain teacher the kids told me about --- but yeah, no snarking behind someone's back. That would be wrong.
I'd say "never let them see you sweat," but that is an impossibility during the warm season in China. Hoo boy, they've seen me sweat, all right.
I am teaching a class this (Sunday) afternoon and the supervisor told me she scheduled me for the after-lunch class because my classes are energetic so it helps the kids stay awake. I'll take that compliment!
Here's a link to an article with more "first day" advice.
*The Chinese students I work with are resigned to the fact that most Westerners can't remember or properly pronounce dozens of Chinese names. So most of them have adopted English names for the classroom.