Out of all the important things that a TESOL teacher needs to be, do and think about, one of the most important is student motivation.
Even if you have the best lesson plan in the world, the highest possible qualifications and years of experience, it will all fall flat if your ESL students aren’t engaged.
If you have children or teenagers in your classroom, their parents or school have placed them there, so it’s important that you proactively encourage feelings of wanting to be there rather than having to be.
Even if your students are adults and have signed up for your classes voluntarily, stress from life issues can sometimes dull their enthusiasm.
So, it’s important for English Language teachers to have a variety of motivational strategies they can employ, depending on the circumstances.
But if you want to get down to the basics, there are two key elements in building student motivation: who you are as a teacher, and what materials or exercises you teach.
1. Teacher Attitude
There’s a teaching maxim that’s very relevant here: ‘You can’t expect your students to get excited about a subject when you aren’t.’
ESL students watch teachers like a hawk. They’re very willing to forgive themselves for the most outrageous behaviour but are quick to judge even the most minor mistakes or misunderstandings involving their TESOL teacher.
So, let’s say, you have to teach a series of grammar lessons to your students. You don’t like doing this because you think grammar is dull and difficult to teach, and the students can easily see your negative facial expressions and body language.
Or, you have a personal issue that is weighing heavily on your mind. So, when you’re in class teaching, you look distracted, sometimes losing focus, and the students quickly pick up on this.
If these kinds of instances happen often enough, your class atmosphere can quickly go downhill. You can develop a reputation for being ‘unfriendly’ or ‘unprepared’ and students may complain about you to your bosses or online.
The way to avoid getting into a downward spiral is to ensure you always have a positive attitude when you enter the classroom. The first thing your ESL students should see is a smile on your face and a spring in your step.
You need to show a passion for your craft to your students – to demonstrate that you’re excited to be teaching them and your classroom is the only place in the world you want to be right now.
This means that sometimes you need to be a good actor – to look happy even when you’re not. But, it’s amazing how quickly you can actually start to feel positive when you force yourself to smile.
And the added benefit is that over time, if you build up enough good will, you’ll have ‘money in the bank’ with your students. And when a problem occurs, you can make a ‘withdrawal’ without there being negative ramifications.
2. Communicative English
Think carefully about this question: ‘Who needs to practice their English – you or your ESL students?’
A lot of English Language Teachers, with the best of intentions, spend a lot of their class time talking. They want to make sure students understand so they give lengthy explanations.
They want to stay in control of the class – keep the students on track – so they give detailed instructions on what to do and how to do it.
Actually, you help your students most when you keep your TTT (teacher talking time) at a minimum. Remember that you’re not there to practice your English – you’re there to help students practice theirs.
The bottom line is that the less you talk, the more your students will be able to talk.
When it comes to choosing communicative exercises to add to your lesson plans, task-based teaching (TBT) is a great way to ensure students have an optimum opportunity to practice their discussion skills.
A typical task-based learning (TBL) exercise is as follows: You give your students a handout telling them that they are going to be political prisoners on a deserted island. They are only allowed to take a limited number of items with them.
In groups of 3 – 5, they need to choose the items they’ll take. Everyone in the group has to take exactly the same items, so each group member will have to negotiate and compromise about the items they feel strongly about.
Once the teacher has introduced the topic, we get to the heart of the lesson.
There’s fluency-focused learning where students take an active, dominant role – they control the language used (for negotiating and compromising) and the outcome achieved (what items to take).
The teacher acts as a facilitator, giving advice and support as required.
With TBL, ESL students are highly motivated to learn because they become empowered – they ‘own’ the language they use and start to be more confident in their ability to communicate both inside and outside the classroom.