Stories from our Readers about their Early Days as Teachers

Stories from our Readers about their Early Days as Teachers

By: Think Tank Readers

A Ground-Shaking Classroom Experience

Nigel Mcquitty – A language teacher that became a Cambridge University Press Manager

I was a shy child that grew into a nervous English teacher, but I was determined to overcome my fear of public speaking. One of my first classes in Taiwan was in a private language school on the fifteenth floor of a rickety old cream tile-covered building. I prepared thoroughly, walked into the classroom, and stood in front of the whiteboard with eighteen young and old faces staring at me waiting for my first words.

Just as I began to introduce myself, the walls started to creak like an old ship, the windows rattled like glass jars in a box and the building swayed like a small boat. I walked quickly to the door expecting the class to follow, but I looked around and no one had moved.

One of the students looked up at me and said, “Teacher, it’s ok, only a small earthquake.” I moved back to the front of the class and tried to gather my composure.

To calm myself I walked around the classroom slid open all the windows and returned to the front of the class. The same student looked at me and said, “Teacher, the air conditioner is on.” So, I walked back around the classroom in the opposite direction closing all the windows and said, “Right, let’s begin.”

Learner Support

Marc Helgesen – Teacher, author, speaker, and teacher always

When you teach in prison, you sign a form agreeing that the prison system will not negotiate for you if you are taken hostage. Sounds nasty but you certainly don’t want to go into the job with a price on your head.

I taught ESL in a maximum security prison for five years. It isn’t unusual for cons to get angry. As you might guess, many have anger control issues. One day something happened in my classroom. One guy got really angry at me. Oh, what’s gonna happen now?

Suddenly I had a wall of all the other students standing between me and the con. They weren’t going to let him touch me. Part of it was their self-interest. If a fight had broken out, they would have been confined to their cells for a while. But part of it was that they appreciated what I was doing. I was their ticket to English and that made prison life a whole lot easier. 

Ski Camp Driver

Tim Murphey – regular contributor and muse

My first Christmas break in Switzerland as an undergraduate at a university I got hired as a driver at a ski camp. But it turned out they didn’t have enough ski teachers and so they gave me five beginners around 10 years old, because I had only skied once in my life and I came from Florida. I taught them first how to fall down safely and how to get up easily. I could also immediately see that the poles in their hands were in the way rather than helping them. So, we all left our ski-poles in a pile and just skied slowly down without them. The kids learned much faster to keep their balance and shift their weight and skis effectively. Later we also passed a ball to each other. If you had the ball, you had to go slowly and you passed the ball to the first person who skied below you. It encouraged them to ski a bit faster and have more fun turning back and forth. At the end of the camp, the director gave a questionnaire to the kids asking how much they liked learning to ski and would they like to return to the camp next year. My group was the most positive and they all wanted to return the next year. The director told me that “Maybe professionals are not the best teachers for beginners after all.” The “Florida skier” returned to that job for many winters.

Delirium Becomes Reality

Meredith Stephens – teacher and sailor

During my early days at a Japanese university, I was keen to create a good impression. This was well before the pandemic, in the mid-2000’s. I noticed that my colleagues wore masks to work, and I assumed I should go to work even if I had a cold. One day, I felt feverish, and wasn’t sure whether I should front up to the class or not. I asked an administrator, “How high a temperature is too high to teach?” “38.5 degrees and higher,” came the reply. I took my temperature and it was just a little over 38 degrees. I was delirious, but felt obliged to follow the administrator’s instructions. I found my way to the classroom on the third floor, stood on the podium, and delivered the lesson of the day, which happened to be about Australian flora. The students’ eyes glazed over, and it occurred to me how irrelevant this topic must be for them. Then I glanced through the window, and noticed that eucalyptus leaves filled the view. “If you look outside you can see an example of Australian flora right out there!” I informed them, pointing at the leaves.” Oh dear. I must really be delirious,” I thought. “Was I hallucinating in my homesick condition?” The next day, after having recovered from my fever, I walked around the grounds outside the classroom and, to my relief, confirmed that there were in fact eucalyptus trees in the courtyard. That’s rare for Japan. From that year onward until I retired, I had the annual seminar photo taken in front of the eucalyptus tree, and the campus no longer felt so foreign.

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Ng Gee Lian – Assistant Lecturer, Soka University

During my practicum days as a novice teacher, one of my greatest fears was to not receive any response from the students during class teaching. Even though I could identify every student by their names, I often could not bring myself to call out a name for the fear of losing a Like from the students, like a real-time update on my status as a teacher. So, I always asked for volunteers to give the answers, which rarely worked.

At the end of the semester, I and my cooperating teacher held an imitation contest where the students were to imitate any common behavior or habit of their teachers. I thought that the imitation contest would be a fun activity for the students as well as a good opportunity for us to reflect on our own teaching. In one of the student presentations, a student imitated, “Any volunteers? … (silence) … No? … Ok, I shall press the random name picker.” Yes. That was my legacy with my students.

Mastering my Accent

Caroline Handley – former EFL teacher in Spain, China, and Japan

Despite over 15 years of teaching, I can still remember an incident that happened when I taught one of my first-ever English classes to pre-intermediate level students in Spain. During general getting-to-know-you questions, they asked me if I had any brothers or sisters, to which I replied, in my Fenland accent, “I have one bruvva”. They looked confused. I repeated my answer. More head-scratching. I thought for a moment, then repeated “I have one bro- [deep breath] –ther“. This time my response was met by large smiles and the lesson continued. And I realised that my local accent was not going to cut it in the EFL classroom.

Remote Fenland in England

So, I paid attention whenever I had to pronounce a word with “th” in it. Or rather, I panicked every time I had to tell the class to turn to page three or twenty-three of the textbook. I also took a deep breath, stuck my tongue out between my lips in what I can only hope wasn’t too noticeable an exaggeration, and slowly and carefully pronounced “three”. I think this continued for at least my first two or three years of teaching. Once I realised I’d pronounced the word “free” as “three” and so I now had to worry about over-compensating, too. But finally, I managed to turn my f’s and v’s into the correct th forms (and keep my tongue inside my mouth as I did so). I guess you could call it my own personal introduction to skill acquisition theory (DeKeyser, 2007).

However, I also learned that identity can be more important than mastery. Although my Fenland accent is now deeply buried after years abroad, when I go back to my hometown to visit my parents, I would still proudly tell you, fankoo for reading this story.


DeKeyser, R. (2007). Skill acquisition theory. In B. VanPatten & J. Williams (Eds.), Theories in Second Language Acquisition: An Introduction (pp. 97–113). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

The BEST teaching method. Myth or reality?

Peggy Thoma – EFL teacher and English language centre owner in Greece

 I have been teaching English as a second language for 20 years. While I was at university, back in 1997, we were taught about the benefits of the communicative approach. It was apparently the best approach. Since then, a great number of new methods or approaches have emerged. In the past few years, a lot of professionals have supported gamification. Numerous articles, blogs and books have been written and teachers are always on the lookout for a new exciting game, whether online or in class. We have also come up with project-based learning, and so on and so forth. What have I learned throughout these years? Well, unfortunately, there is no best teaching method! This might sound confusing and even disheartening, but the truth is that it gives us the freedom to explore and discover all the different principles we can use and incorporate into our teaching. So where do I start?

Nowadays, there is a wealth of easily accessible information with regards to the latest pedagogical research. The Think Tanks, for example, are a great resource among others. Taking part in seminars or webinars where you can gain insights into teaching and interact with people from all around the globe is another great idea. Be ready to try new things like games, projects, drama, etc. Last but not least, we should adopt a holistic approach to teaching. It is not just about the best method, the books or even the teacher. There is so much more to it. The classroom environment, like the size, the colour of the furniture, the lights, the levels of oxygen, should also be taken into account.

Don’t be afraid of change; actually, welcome change! In a world where, as Heraclitus said, “Everything flows. Nothing stands still,” don’t be the person who stands still.

Explore, discover, create!

Our Built-in GPS Systems

Tim Murphey – regular contributor

Teaching juggling to my students, I learned we have built-in GPS Systems. I used to believe: If you throw up a ball and close your eyes before you catch it, you will miss it. I thought that you had to see it all the way down. Maybe we all thought this at first. This is not true. Amazingly enough our brains have GPS systems (global positioning systems) for flying objects that we are looking at, and we use it to coordinate our hands. Getting students to only look at the top of the ball’s trajectory already tells them how fast and where it will fall. Baseball, soccer, basketball, and football players all know this intuitively and thus amaze us (and themselves) again and again. When I teach my students this, often in class with a bag of balls, or even paper balls of their own making, they don’t believe me at first. Of course, it might take a few tries to waken the GPS, but usually by the third throw they all get it. Then I dare them to see the ball only at the top of its trajectory, and then to close their eyes. After a few tries they find they can catch it with their eyes closed (after they see it starting down). Letting them know that their brains are capable of these things usually opens them up to admiring the capacity of their own brains and bodies to understand moving objects and their trajectories. It is these few moments of awe and appreciation toward their brains that excites them again, like playing peek-a-boo with a small child. If you have never experienced this, please try it, with any ball-like objects (no knives please). See it at the top of the throw, but don’t look down at your hand. You will soon understand your GPS that has been with you your whole life and the beauty of the embodied brain. The next step is to teach friends and family these things.




  1. When doing this with fruit or breakables, it is best done over a bed or couch.
  2. For young children, you can also do table juggling with them as partners beside you.
  3. a video of diverse juggling positions.


Forget Yourself

Curtis Kelly – 45-year English teacher of low-motivation students in Japanese universities

When I was a novice in Japan, I just concentrated on “teaching the lesson.” It was important to me to have complete control of the class, plod through every exercise in the ELT textbook, and get to the end of the chapter before the bell rang. After all, I was “hired to teach English.” If the students didn’t pay attention, that was on them, and I gave the 10% who did the most attention. It was my class.

 Then at some point, I made a transition to “teaching the learners.” I realized that following my class plan or getting the chapter done did not matter at all if the students weren’t getting anything from it. It was their class. So, what I taught was not the important thing, their learning was, whether that learning lie in improving their English ability or something else related to growing up, like sharing things about themselves. My focus went from me, to each of them; from controlling my students to releasing them. I learned I had to do something very hard, forget myself, and listen to them. 

And that made all the difference

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