Make Substitute EFL Teaching Fun and Easy

[Guest written by our friend, Beth Verde]374

It’s a classic scene from a 1980s coming-of-age movie: a confused and anxious substitute teacher bombarded with a hail of spitballs, paper airplanes and a raft of abuse from the class he or she is supposed to instruct.

Well, put away your shoulder pads and tweed jackets, substitute teaching in an English as a Foreign Language classroom is no reason for anxiety (or tetanus shots—spitballs? Ewww…)

Teachers of English abroad most often find themselves in a substitute situation if they have to fill in for a colleague who is late, sick, ill, or otherwise occupied.  Usually, the students welcome a new face in the classroom now and again as it gives them a fresh chance to listen to a new accent being spoken and an opportunity to find out more about your culture, which may be quite different from both their native culture and that of the teacher you are replacing for the day.

Don’t Worry About Students. Worry About Preparation.

So, don’t worry about the students you’ll be teaching. They’ll be pleased, and you’re likely to even have fun. But, what you might have to worry about though, is preparation. Typically, substitutes are given little (or no) warning before going into class, and therefore no chance to prepare a stunning (or even mediocre) lesson plan. Notice, I only said you’re “likely to have fun.”  Walking into a class completely unprepared is not fun at all.

Now, ideally, your absent colleague has planned his or her own lesson so beautifully and completely that you can just take a copy of it and sail into the lesson using that plan. Unfortunately, though, you’re often set adrift without a rudder, so to speak.

If you’re working at a school or training center where substitutions seem to happen a lot (and this can be seasonal, like during flu season) it’s a good idea to have a few backup, boilerplate lesson plans handy in your desk or other teaching materials. Then, you can whip these plans out in a jiffy whenever you need to stand in for someone. If your institution covers many different levels of English, then it’s wise to have pre-planned activities for each of those levels that you can substitute within the same plan.

Plan a One-Off Lesson You Can Adjust to Any Level

For example, let’s say you’re teaching teenagers at a high school. You’ve got three levels of English at your school, and you may be called on to substitute for any of these levels at any time.  Draft out a lesson plan on a topic—let’s say ‘pop music’. Your plan structure can be the same for any level you teach, but you’re gong to need three different modifications of the lesson plan’s activities so that you don’t overwhelm some groups of students and under-inspire others.

The lower group might do well in an activity talking about their favorite stars, and listening to part of a pop song and saying if they like it or don’t like it and why.

Meanwhile, the middle group might try a role play where they meet a pop star and then tell their friends about it, and then listen to a song (you can use the same song with all three groups) and do a gap fill for the lyrics.

The higher group may try discussing the importance of music in culture and then translating and interpreting the song’s lyrics.

You can structure the lesson the same way for all of them, so if you’re using PPP methodology, your presentation can be the same, then have slightly different practice materials available for the groups, which you then wind up with level-appropriate production activities.

Keep a “Bag of Tricks”

It’s also a good idea to have five or six go-to activities that you can adjust on the fly to any classroom or level. Having a  “bag of tricks” is useful for your regularly scheduled classes, but doubly important in a substitute class where you’re not familiar with the students and how quickly they will eat through your lesson plan.

Preparation really is the secret to stress-free teaching. You can do anything, and do it well, as long as you’ve put a little planning into it.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Don’t stress out about doing a substitute class. Students love it when they get to meet a new foreign teacher.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Always keep an eye out for interesting and quick activities that you can pull into your repertoire to fill any extra time in a substitute lesson. Examples include teaching the class to say a tongue twister, showing and discussing a short YouTube clip, or organizing a quick treasure hunt.




How to Make the Most of Your TEFL Course

You’re taking a TEFL certification course because you want to be in front of a group of students, leading them to better English, right? So, it may seem strange, especially for those of us who have been out of school a long time, when we assume the role of the student, and not the teacher.

If you hang out in online forums about teaching English abroad (like I do) you’ll have encountered plenty of TEFL Certification nay-sayers who claim that your certification course is only worth the paper the certificate is printed on. Or, worse, people who claim you should go abroad and start teaching without any preparation.

Pay Attention, You’ll Be Surprised What You Learn

But, if you’re smart (and I know you are), instead of listening to these unhappy online pundits and dismissing your course as a mere formality, look at what you can do to make the most out of your TEFL certification course.  For one thing, if you’ve already paid the money for the course, why wouldn’t you take full advantage of what you’ve purchased? Also, think of this time in the classroom as a way to build empathy for your future students. You’ll soon be in front of the classroom, but don’t forget what it’s like to sit at the pupils’ desks too. Even if you’re taking an online course like our TEFLBootcamp, you’ll learn a lot from being a virtual student if you pay attention. And, not least, by absorbing all the information from your TEFL course, you’ll learn tips and tricks that will save you time and earn you more money later in your career.

Still not convinced? Consider the following:

1. You need to learn from experience. If you haven’t got any experience (that would be why you’re taking the TEFL course, right?), then the next best thing is to surround yourself with experienced people. TEFL trainers and other certification course staff are a goldmine of information. Spend the time you have on your TEFL course mining that knowledge and forging some battle armor for your later work as a teacher.  Even if you’re taking an online TEFL course, you should have lots of opportunities to contact your trainer and ask all the teaching-related questions you can think of.

2. Even if you think you’ve got this—maybe you don’t. Plenty of English teachers start out thinking they’ll be able to whiz into classrooms and knock out lessons with the ease of a professional, right off the bat. Sure, English teaching isn’t usually rocket science (though you may end up teaching some rocket scientists!) but there’s a reason that educators worldwide have put time and effort into developing certain methodologies and techniques to help second-language acquisition. Keep your ears open and your eyes focused on all the information you learn. You may be surprised how much you’ll take away from your course and put to use in your own classroom.

3. Most reputable TEFL certification programs offer some kind of job assistance for their graduates. For example, over at, we offer the Secrets of Success ebook along with every course as well as two other ebooks, How to Land a Job Teaching English Abroad and How to Teach English Overseas- a ten-week plan to a new life abroad.  You can sign up for those ebooks FREE here:  —  see, you are already ahead of the game!

TED’s Tips™ #1: Pay attention in class. You’ve paid for it, so get your money’s worth. Plus, it’s good karma—maybe later, your students will pay attention to you too.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Go through your TEFL Certification course with an eye on how you can parlay your experience and connections into a job later.