Going abroad to teach English is often thought of as a great way to immerse oneself in a new culture and get an entirely different perspective on life. But it can also awaken talents or skills in one that were never previously considered or explored. When I went to Valencia, Spain to teach English, I did not set out to specifically find students as young as 3 years old. But through word-of-mouth, the best method for acquiring new students, I was presented with an opportunity to teach at a nursery for one hour a week. This was a stable gig not prone to last minute cancellations, something common in private teaching in Spain. Having never worked with children, I was initially apprehensive. However, it fit perfectly into my schedule and the pay at 40 Euros was quite attractive. I did not know what to expect but as it turned out, this experience was one of the most gratifying pursuits for me, not least what I learned about the challenges, methods, and rewards when teaching English to small children.
Spain has seen a tremendous influx of immigrants who arrived during its construction boom several years ago. It was no surprise, even in this small town outside of Valencia where the nursery was located, to see children from other countries like Bulgaria, Morocco and some Arab countries. Suffice it to say that there is nothing particularly unique or culturally specific about teaching very young Spanish children. I did however find Spanish parents to be generally quite relaxed and trusting. This helped to put me at ease when interacting physically with their kids. Of course a general acquaintance with the Spanish culture and language goes a long way to facilitate interaction between all parties involved. In time, the children were greeting me enthusiastically at the door, and with each goodbye, they were insisting on a huge group hug. I could not help but feel like a rock star; but instead of autographs, I was handing out and receiving hugs.
Children seem to have an uncanny ability for sizing up grownups and seeing through a façade that most adults cannot crack. Perhaps the most fundamental requirement for successfully working with children is a genuine, caring approach that is not something that can be faked. Children can look past almost all other shortcomings because in their world, things are never rigid. They are very forgiving when you abandon certain methods that you may have imposed on them in exchange for new or better ones. As I got more acquainted with my students, my teaching routine and “syllabus” evolved naturally and formed their own structure to include various tools and activities. Personally, I was comfortable with a somewhat improvised and free-style approach rather than having set, detailed lesson plans. Regardless of the approach however, there are always many challenges; most of them are easily overcome by having the courage to try new things, no matter how silly they may seem.
My biggest challenge in teaching young children was maintaining their attention, but I learned to decipher the “rhythm” of the group. With time, I was able to turn the right dials to strike a balance and alternate between them sitting quietly on the rug listening to me and putting their new knowledge into practice through games, songs and physical activities. There always seemed to be at least one distracted child who was mesmerized by a toy on a shelf somewhere or by the shoelaces of a neighbor. Fortunately, the directors of the nursery were always available to help if things got out of hand. And sometimes they did! But the chaos was part of the experience and often played into my teaching routine. In fact, I learned the importance of not exerting too much control and of allowing the children to explore on their own, within certain limits.
There are always other concerns as well. Children can strike each other seemingly on a whim and begin crying and screeching, often making it difficult for the class to continue. I also had to keep their physical safety in mind when, for example, they enthusiastically volunteered for one of my activities that involved standing on a table in front of the entire class while flapping their wings like a bird. Equally important to me was their emotional well-being. While I did not attempt to control every encounter between the children, I tried to ensure that all of them received my equal attention. I realized that in a group, children are a microcosm of society - some are bossy, others want to help. Still others are often bored or looking for mischief. With time, I was able to identify each personality type and tailor my approach in a way that engaged them in learning. I was also well on my way to becoming an amateur child psychologist!
Children love to be physically engaged, tapping into all of their senses. Flashcards were a good foundation for many physical activities. I used an array of flashcards with different pictures, colors or objects. Some of them had textured images so that the children could feel the feathers of a chicken, for example, or the wiry texture of a rug or the fur of a dog or cat. I would distribute the flashcards and repeat the name of the textured image while they passed their fingers over it.
In a favorite game, I used laminated extra-large flashcards representing different colors. First I would have the children sit in a group and present them with the cards while they repeated the names of the colors after me. I would continue with this activity for several minutes until I saw some restlessness or shoelace envy stirring in the crowd. Then I would quickly put their knowledge to the test by playing a game. I would place the cards on the floor in a format similar to that of hopscotch. The children took turns individually hopping their way through the maze of cards. I would call out a color and they had to jump to the correct flashcard. I also used a variation on this theme by placing the flashcards at different locations in the room. I would call out the color for the children to run to. In yet another variation, I aligned chairs in a row and placed the cards on the back of the chairs. I would call the kids individually and ask them to run and sit on the chairs with that color card. Such activities can be used to teach virtually anything, from numbers to food items to types of animals or objects.
Music is also a powerful teaching tool and I frequently used it throughout each class session. I made a CD of some children's songs that included roughly 15 catchy melodies with simple words or lyrics. One of their favorite songs was “The Wheels on the Bus” and it involved physically mimicking the words or lyrics. The “ABC” song was also very effective in exposing them to the English alphabet, set to a melody. I used a large tablet of the entire alphabet with removable letters. I would hold it up and point to the letters individually as the song moved along. The children would clamor to be the one to use his or her finger to follow along with the song. After a few replays of the tune, I would remove each letter one by one from the tablet and hold it up high and call out its name. I would ask in Spanish for volunteers who wanted to “guard” a letter and invite them to repeat the name of the letter after me before handing it to them. In total I would hand out only ten to fifteen letters of the alphabet in order not to overwhelm them. Then I would call out the letters and ask the “guards” to hold up their respective letters and return them to the tablet.
There are countless games and methods to keep children engaged in learning. It is quite easy to employ almost any object that may be lying around the classroom. The key is in engaging their imagination. Balls, toys and dolls are wonderful props for teaching. To my surprise, I was able to maintain the children's undivided attention for quite some time when I put a large doll, namely Disney's Goofy, on my lap and did my best to throw my voice like a ventriloquist using some vocabulary words. Perhaps the most successful method I employed in my instruction was having the children play teacher. I would call for volunteers, usually one by one but sometimes in groups, and place the child on a large table in front of the class. The child would either show the class how to sing the song or hold up the flashcards for the class. This method boosts the confidence of the child and thus it is important to give each child an opportunity to play the teacher role.
One of my goals was to teach the children to correctly pronounce words ending in more than one consonant, like "five" or "pink." In my opinion, correct pronunciation is key to successfully learning the English language, and as the majority of English teachers in Spanish public schools are non-native speakers, exposure to native-speaker pronunciation is important.
Aside from the generous pay, there were many other benefits in teaching kids. At times, I was invited by parents to share paella for lunch or given some fresh tomatoes or melons from their fields. Best of all was the joy I felt after being immersed for an hour in the innocence of twenty children. For one hour each week, I had the chance to escape the relatively heavy and treacherous adult world and crawl, sing and dance my way into the magical realm of children, leaving each session completely energized and content. I also had the chance to leave an everlasting impression on them as I participated in the formative wiring of their brains. In that classroom, I was as much of a student of these little ones as they were mine and, through their eyes, I learned to appreciate the magic and wonder of seemingly trivial things, even the color and texture and pattern of shoelaces.