I signed the contract confidently. “I can manage 60 students in a class," I thought.
Plus, I was told that a teaching assistant was provided, so that would take the edge off, at least a little bit.
I was living in Hanoi, Vietnam. It is an extremely busy city, life moves fast, and I have never seen as many motorbikes zipping around the streets as I did when I was there.
The public school I worked for was in the rural area north of the city. It was around a 30-minute motorbike ride through the bustling city streets and then 30 minutes into the countryside.
I was a subject English teacher, all of the students were EFL learners and I was teaching 13 classes twice a week, each with between 40 and 60 students.
Now my memory for names is generally quite good but here I could only remember the names I needed to say 10 times a lesson to keep them on task. And while the staff were great, supportive and friendly, the TA I was promised never materialised.
The noise of a class of 60 students
The first thing I was struck by was the noise…It blew my mind.
If I set a speaking activity, the noise level was intense. I would have to pause activities at least three times to remind classes to speak quietly. They were good classes. I had one Grade 4 class that was well-known in the school as a “challenging” class.
They did not follow instructions, they were low in motivation and loved distracting each other. I could get them through the lessons using competitions and prizes, but even then it was not easy.
Differentiation on another level
Another challenge was the differing levels of students. In any classroom, I would have students spread right across the spectrum of language skills.
The main way I got around this was to use differentiation by outcome and games that had one student drill another student in language.
I will always remember one boy who started the year looking demoralised at the sight of any piece of work he was set. As we went on, he realised that he could actually do the work (and do it well). It changed everything.
Getting to know you...
It was supremely tough to get to know the students in such large classes.
I had over 500 children in my classes, making it profoundly difficult to get to know any of them, except for the ones who needed a lot of extra support or caused a lot of problems for the other students with their behaviour.
On the bright side, the children were absolutely interested in stickers and small prizes. I would run a whole-class reward system where they just had to stop and listen when I did my clapping routine.
The children also found me quite fascinating – I am 6ft 5in, bald and usually have a medium-length beard. I must have looked like an alien to them.
A learning experience like no other
But for all the tough times, it was a great learning curve.
It taught me how to make a worksheet accessible to a range of students in my class.
The differentiation by outcome approach is one that I carry with me to this day.
It forced me to learn how to make tasks that students can grade themselves on afterwards – it saved me a lot of marking.
I recently read a meta-analysis that shows peer- and self-assessment improve academic performance across a range of ages and contexts (not to mention that they saved my life when it came to marking).
It also taught me that in the mid-afternoon, when the students went to sleep for an hour or two, I could get my head down in the staffroom. Trust me, I needed it!
And it makes me grateful to just have 25 students in my class these days.
Gregory Adam is a primary teacher at Nord Anglia Chinese International School in Shanghai. He released his first book last year, Teaching EFL, ESL & EAL. A Practitioner’s Guide