For many of us, TEFL is our first time working as a teacher. This makes our experience exciting; while terrifying, invigorating; while exhausting, and above all, novel in every way. Sure, we complete a TEFL qualification prior to setting off, but there is a huge difference between teaching in theory, and teaching in practice.

Mistake 1: Not Choosing an Age Group

I made this mistake before I set foot in the classroom. While applying to become a teacher, I had the opportunity to select my preferred age group. Would I prefer adults? Or high schoolers?

Middle schoolers? Younger? Full of confidence and wanting my placement to be based only on my preferred location, I left this selection blank. My choice? No preference.

Boy, do I look back on that decision with some regret! Having chosen no preference I was selected to teach in a Primary School. This came as a surprise, as I had prepared lessons for a high school level. A notion I took based on the school I was told I was placed at. Little did I know that the school you are officially with may simply be the school in charge of your placement, not the actual location you’ll be teaching at!

I spent the first week in China replanning my lessons for my new age group. This was a challenge. How do you teach students who potentially have no English at all? How can you pass on information without that medium? Thankfully I have a good level of Chinese so I have the ability to ‘cheat’ in the classroom, using Mandarin to explain things. It’s worth noting that all of my TEFL training advises against the use of Chinese. The lesson is supposed to be a fully immersive English experience. You will find after you arrive that, at times, this is simply unachievable.

Mistake 2: Making Assumptions

A second mistake I made was assuming my students would have a basic level of English. Nothing major, I simply expected them to have learned the alphabet. It sounds simple, right? As a Spoken-English teacher, the main body of their education was up to their Chinese-English teacher, not me. After completing a few lessons I was told by one of these teachers that, in fact, not only had they not yet started the alphabet, they wouldn’t be learning it until second semester! This was due to potential confusion between learning the Chinese Pinyin system and the English Alphabet.

Another assumption I made, and still make, is that my students will be able to take notes. I have occasionally asked my students to write something down, or draw something, only to be told they do not have any paper! While for their main subjects they have dedicated notebooks, none have been provided for their spoken English classes! I believe this is due to the faculty’s expectation that in my class only speaking and listening are necessary. Thus I struggle to find ways for my students to retain the information I teach them.

Mistake 3: Letting Them Move

Following the advice I received in my TEFL training; that the English classroom should be a place of combined approaches, where the students work not just individually, but also in pairs and groups, where they are encouraged to move around the room during activities, in my first lesson I attempted to do a matching activity. I created flashcards with either a number (in numerals), a colour, or the written name for that number or colour. I gave these out to the students and explained that they should find their matching partner. Sounds simple on paper, but in reality it created chaos. My room was pandemonium as students moved around at speed, all talking (and not in English!). As soon as I realised my loss of control I attempted to get them back in their seats, to no avail! For the rest of the week I avoided this activity and to this date I have yet to recreate the


Mistake 4: Accidentally Creating Catchphrases

For my final mistake, I give you a less problematic, but more embarrassing one. I teach Grades 1 and 2, but also have just two classes of Grade 6. These are my preteens, and they require a very different approach to my youngsters. Early on with one of these classes I was struggling to regain control. These students are louder than my youngsters, so at times it’s a constant struggle to keep their attention. In my attempt to get them to be quiet I tried to shame them by comparing them to my youngsters. I said to them (in what I thought was my best Chinese) ‘You are not small children!’. I was trying to make the point that they shouldn’t behave like my youngsters, because they are older and more mature. To my dismay, this phrase ‘You are not small children!’ became one student’s way of greeting me every time we met in the halls. Now several of them use it when I enter the classroom, and anytime we pass in the school. All I can do is smile, and let the shame wash over me as I continue with my day.

The Learning Experience

As you enter the world of TEFL, be aware that it is a constant learning experience. You will make mistakes, but they will not define your teaching. Be brave, be bold, and be prepared to be unprepared!

About the Author:

Frances McManus
I am Frances McManus. I'm Irish-American, currently living and teaching English in China. I have a passion for languages and want to study Interpreting in the future. My blog is
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