First Time Teacher: Teaching ESL Classes

Note: this article covers preparation for first-time teachers who will be teaching in a traditional ESL classroom and usually abroad. It assumes you have already been hired and are preparing for your first class. If you are looking for a resource to help you prepare for your first online ESL class then you can find out more about that here

You don’t have to be anxious if you are going to be teaching ESL classes for the first time. Remember that thousands of other teachers have had the same experience before you and come out of it just fine. There are a few things you should know before you get into your first class which can help you to be fully prepared as well as to avoid any potentially embarrassing situations by violating any cultural or even legal standards which the country you teach in may have regarding what can and cannot be talked about. Armed with the knowledge I will be discussing throughout this guide you should easily be able to teach your first ESL class with confidence and ease. So let’s get started first by looking at some things you may or may not need teaching ESL classes for the first time.

What materials do I need?

Most, if not all, materials will be provided by the school for which you are hired. However, there are a number of items you might want to have on hand which could be used throughout the course of your teaching. Some of these items will have to do with having good reference material to more easily answer students question during your classes (which there will be questions you won’t always be able to answer). Some of these times will be for younger students so you can more easily keep their attention. Some of these items will be for your own comfort and for you to more easily live your life as an expat English teacher. Keep in mind that all of these items are completely optional, however, may make managing your classroom as well as your life as an expat teacher much easier.


  • Grammar Books with Activities – of all of the things I am going to list, having a grammar book will perhaps be one of the more important items as you will continually have students who are going to ask you questions about very specific grammatical rules. Questions you will most likely have forgotten the answer to not years prior if you ever knew the answer at all. Especially in countries like China and Japan, where students are primarily learning English in order to pass certain tests, grammar is extremely important and is often emphasized at the expense of other things such as conversation. Because of this, it can be wise to have some kind of resource for you use when you get the occasional inquisitive child who wants to know more than you can answer. Remember, while phones and iPads are the norms nowadays you can’t always expect to have these items readily available in the classroom so having a backup such as a reference guide can be the way to go. Finding books that include different activities can also be great for those times that you need to pass some extra time during the class and aren’t quite sure what to do.
  • Pronunciation Books with Activities – as with the grammar books having a reference to help you with pronunciation can be extremely helpful when you come across a word you are not sure about. The main thing to remember here is that pronunciation is going to be one of those things that your students have a lot of trouble with depending on the age level. Also, students in some countries are going to have more problems than students in other countries as the sounds in their native language may not include those that are found in the English language and the ability to pronounce specific sounds may be underdeveloped (think R’s and L’s for many East and Southeast Asian students). Having a pronunciation book with a clear list of helpful activities for your students can go a long way in helping you to help your students master these different sounds and more easily pronounce the words they are learning in your classroom.
  • Dictionary and Thesaurus – so many words with so many definitions and all of them can be hard to remember even for us native English speakers. As the teacher, your students are going to expect you to be the foremost authority of everything English language and, unless you’re an English-speaking superhero with powers of unlimited vocabulary and comprehension, then this may be a challenge. Fortunately, we have dictionaries and thesauruses which can aid us when the inevitable flow of questions start coming about the meaning of words which will undoubtedly pop up during daily reading activities. As with some of the above resources, it can be tempting to rely solely on your phone or tablet for internet or app-based resources, but, remember you may not have access to these things 100% of the time so it can be good to have a hardcopy backup.
  • Storybooks – these are going to be different for every student level and there may or may not be a school policy covering what you can and cannot have your students read. However, having a storybook or two can be helpful for the times that your students have free time. Having a novel or two ready to go will help your students so that they can further listen to you speak and hear how you are pronouncing words and, depending on the book you choose, can be more fun for your students than some worksheets and dry academic texts. You need to make sure the books you are choosing are both age and skill level appropriate and will not clash with the cultural norms of the students you are teaching. For a good list of books for different age levels of student, you can check out this list as a great starting point.

Teaching Aids

  • Flash Cards – flash cards are a great resource for younger students and even older students for learning various concepts in an easy to digest way. There are flash cards available for everything from grammar to pronunciation to vocabulary and they range from beginning learners to higher level ESL students. The added benefit of flash cards is that they are small and easy to carry around so you can pack a lot of information in a small and lightweight box as opposed to a heavy textbook with the same information. The other nice aspect to flashcards is that you can make them yourself tailored around the specific needs of your students so you don’t constantly have to buy new flashcards sets as you move on to new subjects with your students.
  • Puppets and Other Props – depending on the age level of your students, having some props that you can use to focus their attention when they are distracted can go a long way. It still amazes me even with my son just how focused small children can become when you wave something colorful and silly in front of their face. So, if you are going to be teaching very young children having an arsenal of puppets, stuffed animals, and other props like a noisemaker can be a great option for keeping your students focused and on track for later English learning success. For a great list of potential props as well as how to use them you can read this.
  • Charts and Graphs – this is going to be dependent on the school you are teaching in and their policy for decorating or putting things up in your classroom. But, just as having some reference books for you to use when you have an inquisitive student can come in handy, having some charts and graphs with verb tenses, vocabulary lists, and other easy to compartmentalize information can be helpful for your students. Make sure you check with your school about what you are allowed to put up in your classroom if anything at all so that you don’t run into any trouble before deciding to purchase and hang anything.


  • Bags – having a quality bag to transport whatever books and papers you will need back and forth between your apartment and the classroom can be extremely helpful. Especially if you are going to be in a major city with a mixed transport commute from walking to cabs to trains or if you are in a rural area where your commute may be on a bike or walking a bit of distance. While not necessary at all, a good bag can go a long way towards your comfort and ease. You can look through this list of bags that have been selected specifically for ESL teachers abroad.
  • Computer – in our modern era almost everyone has a computer of some kind whether a laptop or a desktop computer. Most schools will have computers that you will have access to for lesson planning and typing documents and other school-related tasks. However, having your own computer while abroad is going to come in handy. If you know that you will be needing a new computer or are in the market for one considering making the purchase before you travel abroad can be a great decision. In many countries around the world, the taxes and tariffs on electronics can increase the price of a computer to double what it would be in your home country. Take a look at these great computers for teachers if you think you are going to need one while you are abroad. This list is for teachers who work online, however, many will be suitable for any ESL teacher.
  • Pointers – having a pointer can come in handy if you know you will be giving a lot of presentations during your classes. Especially university teachers who may be in large rooms, having a good pointer will make providing instruction much easier. Your school may or may not have one so this certainly falls under the category of extras and is simply something that may make teaching your class easier.
  • Schedule Planners – believe it or not, there are still people out there (like myself) who prefer the traditional day planner and pen or pencil over their cellphone. If you are one of these people then something you should be aware of is that finding a schedule planner in other countries can sometimes be a hassle. What’s more, finding a planner that is in a language you can read and understand can be even more troublesome. So, if you are the type of person that needs to stay organized to function right and know you will want to keep track of lesson plans and everything else you’ve planned out for your student then having a schedule planner can come in handy for this. You can find a list of great paper-based planners as well as planning apps here.

How do I create my first lesson plan?

If you have never written a lesson plan then understanding a few different things such as what you can and cannot do and teach in your classroom and what resources are available to help you can be tremendous in making sure the first time is smooth and produces the desired results. I’m going to go into a few resources available to you as well as something you want to keep into consideration to avoid running astray of school policy and cultural norms and laws (really important and more about that later).

Lesson Planning Tools and Tips

To be quite honest there aren’t too many tools available outside of books and websites which can help you in your planning. There are a number of books available which will guide you through the process from start to finish of creating lesson plans for various ages and skill levels of students. Also, this website is a great place for getting tips and finding examples as well as activities that you can use when teaching your very own ESL classes. It is extremely important that you understand the level of student you are going to be teaching and understand what skill level the average student in your class is at so that you can make your lessons easy enough that they will actually be able to learn something and get through the lesson but challenging enough that they are not going to be bored. Also, you need to make sure that you are paying attention to what your students will and will not understand from a cultural and age level. For example, I have taught many pre-made lessons to young students who were around ten or eleven years old where the lesson was obviously created thirty or more years ago as it talks about things like typewriters and writing a letter to their friends. In our modern era, very few children understood what a typewriter even was and most just thought I was talking about a computer. These were not lesson plans I designed but instead were lessons I was instructed to teach. Make sure that you plan your lessons according to what your students are going to understand to avoid these types of challenges if your school requires you to develop your own lesson for your class.

Understanding Your Class Level

Just because your students are a certain age doesn’t mean you can guarantee they are going to be at a certain skill level. What’s more, you may have a wide range of students in a class as schools aren’t always the best at putting students where they should be. Especially in certain countries parents are known to request their students be placed in a higher level in order to “challenge” them (this usually doesn’t work out and often leaves demoralized students but that will be something you learn to deal with along the way). You are going to need to do your best to prepare for this before your first class. Most likely, other teachers in the school will be able to give you advice about students and may even be able to tell you about specific students you are going to have in your class if they have worked with them before. This will give you an idea of what to expect and will let you prepare a lesson plan that is going to cover what it needs to but in a way that is not going to leave a lot of confused or frustrated faces sitting at desks while you teach. It can be helpful to have easy as well as more challenging content to engage different levels of students. In my own classes, I know which students are at a higher level and which students are at a lower level and then ask appropriate questions for each student. Going into your first class you aren’t going to have this exact knowledge (as mentioned above talking to other teachers before your first class may provide you with some of this information, however, this may not be an option). So, the best thing to do is to think about the lesson and think about questions that you can present to different skill level students. An example of this being a lesson about fruit taught to very young children. Less skill leveled students could be asked if they like apples. A simple yes or no question. Higher skill level students could have the follow-up question of why they like apples. Still a simple question but one that requires a higher level of cognizance and vocabulary.

Understanding the Schools Policies

Different schools, even those in the same country, can have vastly different standards for what you can and cannot teach in your classroom. You will need to know at least the basics of what they will be expecting from you or what limits you have with the lesson before you create your first few lesson plans. Maybe there is a book which you would like to read to your students that the administration of the school doesn’t approve of or has banned from being taught. Or, maybe a certain lesson isn’t appropriate for that school and therefore you would not be able to teach it. Having a clear outline of what you can and cannot teach in the classroom as well as what is specifically required of you to go over will help you to better understand what is expected of you so that you can meet your requirements while still having the freedom to create lesson plans you think will work well in your class. If your school doesn’t provide you with a clear outline to work from when creating lesson plans then don’t be afraid to be proactive and clarify any prior policy with the administration or ask other teachers with more experience for advice.

Cultural Considerations

The final consideration that should be made when creating lesson plans for your very first ESL class will be the cultural you are teaching in. Not all topics will be welcome everywhere you go and just because you can freely talk about a topic in your home country doesn’t mean that it will be acceptable where you are teaching English. A great example of this would be discussing the governments in certain Asian countries. Even if what you are doing is talking about good things in a number of countries around the world discussion of the government or the leaders of the country in any way can get you in trouble not just with the school you are working for but potentially even put you in violation of laws the country has banning the discussion of these things. This is just one of the more prominent examples, however, there are others such as the discussion of Winnie the Pooh in China. One way to make sure that you are not going to run afoul of cultural norms or even laws is to talk to a more experienced teacher at the school when you come up with your lesson plans to make sure the topics are sound and will not get you into trouble. The last thing you want, whether during your first class or your fiftieth,  is to have one of your students report to their parents that you were discussing illegal subjects in the classroom which could get you fired or, even worse, kicked out of the country and banned from returning.

How do I teach my first class?

The most important thing is that you remember to be patient and friendly at all times with your students. Trust me when I say this can be hard. You never know what you are going to get from your students and this can be especially true for your first day where you may be nervous and anxious to do well as a new ESL teacher. No matter what goes wrong you are going to have to stay calm and friendly. This includes when students are acting up or if they don’t want to pay attention or if they aren’t answering your questions or if there are any personal issues which affect your mood. You are going to have to make sure to stay relaxed and keep a positive attitude for your students to reflect. Remember that in many schools there will be a native teacher in the classroom with you so that you can fall back on them for help if you need it. But, even if there isn’t a native teacher in the classroom you will have to remember that you are not alone and that other teachers in the school will be there to help you out if the need arises.

Anticipating Potential Problems

Learning Issues

A great way to deal with problems is to take care of them before they can become a major issue in the first place. This holds true for both disciplinary issues as well as learning issues. You will need to remember that not all students are going to learn the material perfectly without any problems. The best thing you can do as a teacher is to anticipate any problems the students in the class may have and create countermeasures to deal with it beforehand. This can include altering the material to better suit the students’ levels or working a little more closely and asking easier questions to the students in your class you know are going to have problems. Doing this will not only help the students to learn more easily as they are not going to consistently be struggling to keep up with the content, but will also keep them from getting distracted and causing problems in the class. Remember that not all students are going to be at the same skill level and as such you are going to need to be ready for a few students that are highly advanced and a few students that might barely even be able to speak and then others that fall n between that spectrum. It will be different for each class and learning to read the students by looking for confused expressions, frustration, a distraction from the material, and other common signs will let you know that a student is having trouble with the curriculum and may need further help.

Disciplinary Issues

As a teacher, you are guaranteed to come across disciplinary issues no matter how well-respected you are or how good of a teacher you may be. Hopefully, you don’t come across any during your first class, however, looking out for some of these signs and being able to head off any potential issues before they become big can go a long way to keeping your class orderly and maintainable. Firstly, and most obviously, you want to look for the class clowns. Even for your first class, you should be able to identify these students by their mischievous nature. They may be acting up or trying to talk and get your attention or any number of other antics that are going to separate them from your other students. While this behavior is obviously disruptive it can be easily managed if you go about it correctly. One of the things I like to do is keep these students engaged in a way that allows them to talk and get their energy out but will also keep them focused on the lesson. You can do this by asking them making sure to call on them for questions or by doing different activities such as having the students act out a lesson and making sure they are involved. While you don’t want to cater your entire lesson around one disruptive student, understand that being confrontational will only make the problem worse. But, if you learn how to work around the issue and head it off in the beginning then you can keep minor problems from becoming major.

Dealing With Disciplinary Issues

School Policy

As mentioned above, you are inevitably going to come across disciplinary issues in your classroom and being prepared to deal with them will go a long way in helping you to keep the class on track. Before your first class, you are going to want to familiarize yourself with your schools’ policy so you know what you can and cannot do as a teacher to discipline students. When I was growing up, teachers were allowed to fail students, hit students (corporal punishment), and send them out into the hall and away from the rest of the class. This isn’t the case anymore and if you do any of these things at most schools around the world you are on a fast track to unemployment, angry parents, and maybe even some legal troubles. But, fear not, most schools will have a well-established policy for dealing with students so you won’t be completely helpless when issues come up during your class. Hopefully, you don’t have any problems during your first class but if you do then clarifying the procedure for dealing with them with the school before you actually have the class and have any problems can help make dealing with the issue smooth and easy.

Cultural Factors

Just as there are going to be topics you can’t speak about during your lessons in some counties the way you deal with students is going to be affected by the culture. An example of this is a story I heard second-hand but which illustrates this point very well. A friend of a friend was teaching at a school in a certain Asian country. Three girls in the class were causing issues and disturbing the class. The teacher decided he needed to send the students out to the hall in order for the class to proceed. A native teacher at the school asked the girls why they were in the hall and they told the teacher what happened. The English teacher ended up getting in trouble for being a foreigner and disciplining the students and in the end, lost his job because one of the students’ fathers was a police officer in the city and ordered the school fire him. As you can see there is a double standard in the way the foreign English teachers can deal with situations and the way the local teachers can. Make sure you don’t run afoul of the local culture even if it means you must have local teachers handle disciplinary situations. To find out about these sorts of issues you will need to talk to other English teachers who have more experience in the country.

What are some final tips?

There is a lot to remember as you can probably tell from the list above. All of this combined with the fact that teaching your first class in front of a group of ten or twenty or more students can be a nerve-wracking experience for the first time. However, the main thing that you need to remember is that if you are friendly and if you are patient that you can’t go wrong. Throughout human history, there have been probably hundreds of millions of classes taught in all sorts of subjects with all sorts of students and teachers. You aren’t the first person to teach a class and the thing to remember is that almost all of the classes that were taught in the past went by without any problems. Just make sure you plan well and learn as much about your class as possible such as the skill level of the students and the cultural considerations as well as the school policy so that you can plan and prepare for a smooth class that will satisfy all of the parties involved from the parents to the school to the students. Just relax and realize that everything is going to be fine and even if you don’t do perfectly your first class you have the whole semester to improve.