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The first day of class is anxiety inducing for teachers and students, alike. Add to that a serious language barrier, and the nerves can get even worse. There are ways to approach the first class that will set an appropriate tone for the class, help the students relax, and ease your way into a successful term.
If you can speak your students' native language, you've an advantage for the first day. When faced with a sea of blank, uncomprehending faces, you can translate into a language they'll understand and everything will go a bit more smoothly. It is important to note, though, that this could put you at a disadvantage later on. If your students know you will resort to speaking their language, they may feel less inclined to take risks with English later in the term, preferring instead to rely on their own language.
If you can't speak your students' language, don't worry! The best option is to jump right in and start out with English-only. How do you do this?
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Getting to Know You
On the first day, a ball can be your best friend. A small ball that is easy to throw and catch (or a cute stuffed animal for children) will allow you and your students to interact in a way that doesn't put pressure on anyone. Simply form a circle or get your students facing each other in the best way possible for your class size and room. Simple gestures and phrases are surprisingly effective when it comes to conveying meaning, and your students will soon learn what your hand gestures mean and connect them to the action phrase. For example, lifting both hands, palm up, while saying "stand up" will quickly get your students out of their seats and ready for your activity.
Starting with the ball in your hands, start with a simple introduction. "Hello, my name is _____." is always a good way to start. Look for a student who seems alert and eager to participate and toss the ball to him or her. Prompt the student, if necessary, to say hello and introduce himself. He then passes the ball to another student, and before you know it, you are learning the names of your students and they are becoming more comfortable with you, each other, and the English language. Repetition is the key, so running through the class a few times will help students remember not only each other's names but also the key English words and phrases.
If your students are not beginners, you can modify this activity to make it a bit more challenging. This will allow you to gauge the level at which they are communicating. Asking more open-ended questions, such as "What is your favorite food?" or "What do you do in your free time?" will let you hear the range of vocabulary and grammatical structures the students have learned previously.
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Wrapping it Up
Time will probably pass quickly on your first day, but it is important to wrap up the lesson before students rush out the door. Now is an excellent time to introduce an end-of-class procedure. You can indicate how you want papers turned in and supplies put away by miming the activities and using simple phrases. Students will start to learn what you expect and how the classroom runs. A simple "Goodbye!" or a "See you next week!" for more advanced students should be repeated several times before students are allowed to leave.
Congratulations! You have survived your first class! Don't forget to keep reviewing introductions and simple classroom instructions in the future, and remember that the ball can help get students involved and talking about a variety of topics in the future.
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