Using props in the ESL classroom to keep your students engaged

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

Sometimes, the simplest of materials can offer the greatest opportunities for creative exploration. This week, I’ve invited Rose-Anne Turner of Destination TEFL to share her expert tips on how to use everyday items as stimulating props within your lessons.

In our last blog post, we discussed using technology in the classroom to engage your students. Oftentimes, this just isn’t possible, and we need to look at other low cost and easy to source props for the classroom that not only get the students involved, but create a fun learning environment for the teacher and students.

Here we have a few suggestions that you can easily pick up in a $1 store (20 baht shop for those of you in Thailand!) and how to use them successfully in the classroom.

Balls: The options are endless here! Those cheap plastic ball-pit balls can be used for so many different games. They can also be used as a way to pair or group students for groupwork (put the coloured balls in a black plastic bag, the students pull out a ball and join the group with the same colour balls). You can also use a ball to throw at a ‘dart board’ drawn on the whiteboard to allocate points to questions answered correctly. The games for using balls in the classroom are endless! Just make sure to use lightweight ones so you don’t end up with broken windows…

Plastic fly swotters: This is one of our all-time favourite props at Destination TEFL. A great go-to game for a consolidation activity is ‘slam’. The teacher splits the class into two teams and calls up two students at a time to the board, one from each team. Flashcards with images from the words learnt in the lesson are stuck to the board (lower level students, just 2 words to choose from, higher level, you can put up more options). When the teacher calls out the word, the two students have to ‘slam’ the correct flashcard. The one who slams the correct card first is the winner and gets a point for their team. For more advanced students, this could be changed into a grammar exercise: put parts of speech words to the board such as noun, proposition etc. Call out a word and the student who slams the correct part of speech is the winner. We have had equal success with slam across all age levels, from kindergarten to adult lessons. Warning: you’ll need a pacemaker activity to calm down the class afterwards as the noise and excitement level can become quite high!

Funny hats and glasses or puppets: Sometimes students are shy to speak. If they take on another ‘persona’ in the form of a puppet or dress up, then it can encourage them to participate in a fun way with a speaking activity, as they are not being themselves but the character of the puppet or prop.

Stickers or ink stamps: children respond well to the positive reinforcement of receiving a ‘reward’ for correct work or even just participation. They love being able to show their parents a sticker of praise in their workbook or even on their hand. TIP: stickers can get expensive for a teacher, but a rubber stamp with an inkpad is a cheap way of rewarding students.

“An AWESOME book!”

Dice: These can be used in so many ways. Here are a few examples: Use it for dividing students into groups – you land on a 4 and you divide the class into groups of 4. Or students roll the dice and line up in order of the number they rolled. When answering questions, students roll the dice to determine which question to answer. Think of 6 topics, students roll the dice to determine which topic they will speak on for quick oral practice.

Scrabble tiles: Again, the opportunities to use this simple prop are endless. Use them to line up students (in alphabetical or reverse alphabetical order) after the students pick a tile from a bag. Use them to group students according to letters selected, or in groups according to vowel and consonant. Select a category (perhaps topics you have recently covered in class) and students take turn to draw letters and name a word from the category which starts with that letter (you can remove any letters that won’t work for a topic). Let teams draw 10 letters each, and they should come up with as many English words with those letters in a specific time.

Beanbag or soft toy: Use this to throw to the students to determine who will be next in answering a question or participating in the task. Rather than the teacher always being the one to throw the toy, give them a chance to throw it to the next student after answering the question or drilling the word. This keeps them on their toes as they don’t know who will be called on next, as you are not going by order of seating.

Ball of string: a length of string or rope can be used in so many ways. Use it to line up students as a timeline to teach tenses (they can peg words to the string in order of tense). Use it as a ‘washing line’ activity. Students pick the words of a sentence out of a bag and need to peg it to the line in the correct word order. Have two washing lines and two teams so that there’s a winning team based on time and accuracy. 

Remember that for all games, there MUST be a purpose. The purpose for the teacher is for the students to learn and practice the language by playing the consolidation activity or production game. The purpose for the student is to complete the task or win the game. A game or activity that has no outcome or result (usually in the form of a winner) will not be as engaging for your students. Do keep games and outcomes age appropriate. For example, at kindergarten level, we don’t want to focus on winning quite as much, with participation being the main goal at that level.

What props do you use in your ESL classroom?

Guest blog written for Richard James Rogers by Rose-Anne Turner – Destination TEFL

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Good Teachers Are Also Good Students

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Accompanying video:

I have always loved mathematics, but I’ve not always been ‘good’ at maths. I got a grade A for GCSE Mathematics when I was 16 years old (a grade I worked really, really hard for) but I struggled with mathematics at ‘AS’ and ‘A’ – Level (the UK’s pre-university qualifications). 

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“An AMAZING Book!”

It just so happened that mathematics wasn’t a subject I needed as a prerequisite for my university course anyway. So, in a sense, I committed the cardinal sin of thinking that it ‘didn’t matter’. I was planning to study molecular biology at university, and my admissions tutors were mainly interested in my biology and chemistry grades.

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I achieved my goal of going to uni and doing my PGCE in order to become a fully qualified Science teacher in 2006. I was happy for several years, but my failure to complete my mathematics education at school kept gnawing at me like an annoying itch. I needed to do something about it. 

I decided to complete the Certificate in Mathematics course with the Open University in 2009, after three years of being a full-time science teacher. This course covered everything in my ‘A’-Level syllabus with some extra, university-level topics thrown in. It was challenging and offered me just what I needed: closure. As a distance-learning course, it also offered me the chance to study and work as a teacher at the same time. 

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As I started studying the course and handing in assignments (which had to be snail mailed to the UK  – I was living in Thailand at the time), I began to realise how much I had become disconnected from the student experience as a teacher. It had been around three years since I had ever studied anything seriously, and this mathematics course was teaching me how difficult it was to:

  • Meet deadlines
  • Seek help when in doubt
  • Have the self-discipline needed to study at a regular time-slot each day

These skills were, of course, things I had to do whilst completing my degree course and schooling earlier in life, but it had been a few years since I had been immersed in serious study like this. I was slowly losing empathy for my students: that was until this course gave me a wake-up call. 

Another big thing I took from this experience was just how stressful it can be to prepare for a difficult exam (and to complete it). I had to fly to the UK to take the end of course mathematics exam (a three hour beast), and along with the intense revision that came in the few days running up to the exam I had the misfortune of not sleeping so well the night before the big day. And then, once sat down and actually completing the paper, three hours felt like it went by in an instant.

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I guess I’m trying to make a number of points in this trip down Memory Lane – namely that by immersing ourselves in the ‘student experience’ we can, as teachers:

  • Regain, or enhance, our true understanding of just how many hurdles await our students on their race to the exam finish-line.
  • Learn new skills and concepts that can be applied to our roles as classroom managers, leaders and ‘purveyors’ of specialist knowledge.
  • Build self-discipline, and pass on the lessons learned to our students in our roles as mentors, homeroom teachers, form tutors and coaches.

One final point to stress is that, whilst we can study almost any subject we want via online platforms like EdX and Coursera these days, it’s also important that we take the time to thoroughly reflect on a regular basis. Keeping a journal of things we’ve done well, and things we messed up, can be a great way to have a written record to read over when we want to celebrate successes and remind ourselves of lessons we have learned on our journeys as educators. This video I made a few years ago goes into this in more detail:

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Reliability and Flexibility: Two Traits Every Teacher Must Have [An Interview with Gill Murray]

The idea that teachers should be role-models for their students is a complex one to grasp at times. What are the key teacher-behaviors that need to be adopted for modelling to be effective? Today, I’ve invited Gill Murray (Founder of Alba English Class Online and Homestay) to share her thoughts and tips for educators. Gill shares her perspectives on teaching from the viewpoint of a language school owner – a unique take that I’m sure my readers will find interesting.

Accompanying video:

Tell us a little about yourself

I was born and raised in Scotland, UK.

I don’t have a degree, which is the most asked question I get asked from potential TEFL students and teachers. I did a Higher National Diploma in Hotel Management (this is my second obsession: all things hospitality). 

I owned my own catering business, worked in recruitment and, I can happily say, I am the owner/teacher at Alba English Class Online and Homestay.

I started teaching as a Trainer in the hotels I worked in and was a Lecturer at Glasgow College of Food Technology for 3 years. While I was there, I was asked to deliver a 3 week course on Sales and Marketing in Moscow for new business start-ups.

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I have been teaching English for nearly 10 years:  face to face in classrooms, online via Skype and as part of my Homestay courses.  I spent nearly 3 years living and teaching English in a language academy in Spain and now live in beautiful Scotland. Focusing on conversational English, I concentrate on vocabulary and pronunciation. My lessons are relaxed and flexible, making students feel comfortable and confident about learning English. 

Why did you choose to become a teacher in the first place?

I had 2 career paths I wanted to follow whilst at school: teaching and hotel management. I chose hotel management and specialized in training people in the hotels I worked in. The process of delivering information to people to improve their skills, efficiency and value was our objective. Then, a chance meeting 11 years ago with a colleague in the work’s tea room opened the world of TEFL to me and I have been addicted to it ever since. I teach my own students online and face to face during my homestay courses, I do visiting classes online in other language schools across the world and I teach new TEFL Teachers how to teach online and I mentor them.

What advice would you give to someone who is new to teaching?

Welcome to the best job in the world!

– Do a recognised qualification. Employers want to see you have the skills they need and that you have invested in their environment.

– Keep it easy to begin with until you become familiar with your working environment. We are so lucky to have so many resources available to us but it can be very confusing if you are new to it.

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“An AMAZING Book!”

– Have several income sources (e.g. regular hours from an online school, some face to face students, some from other platforms such as Preply or Italki). This allows you to have a steady income and avoid dips in student numbers.

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– Keep a database of contacts and students for future reference. I guarantee you will use them in your future teaching life.

– Try everything once and you will learn from that. The simplest of ideas can be your best ideas.

– Get a “character” to work with: e.g. an animal, a doll… I have a Harry Potter I use for everyone and it is a real icebreaker and lifesaver.

– Laugh and keep it fun!

What is your personal teaching philosophy?

Reliability and flexibility! This has been the way I have worked my whole life and it is fundamental to a good, strong teaching business. Lesson cancellations happen and you must be prepared to be flexible, regularly using your free time to do classes. Time differences mean early starts or late finishes but it all goes towards your reputation and business development. 

Q & A

Keep it simple and have fun! I have the privilege to teach other people how to speak my native language. They work hard earning money to pay for my classes so I give them the best class I can for the fairest price. 

With these 2 philosophies in place, you will never have an empty schedule. 

What changes do you see happening in the future with regards to the teaching profession?

I think we have just lived through the biggest change in teaching over the last few months with the Covid 19 situation. Classroom teachers and parents have been thrown into online teaching and they have all done the most amazing job. 

I think parents realise just how hard a job it is and have a new respect for teachers.

I think student teachers/qualified teachers will have online teaching training added to their skills base as this method will continue in the future.

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Online teaching of any subjects will continue to increase as people have now realised how convenient it is in their lives. 

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt in your journey as a teacher?

To respect every student, their nationality and cultural differences. It all goes to build the relationship between teacher and student and improve their learning journey and yours.

To embrace the profession I am in and to experience as many parts of this profession as possible.

To listen to the student: for an idea about their mood during the class; to the information they share with you; for their response to your teaching and they understand what you are teaching.

What’s next for you and your career?

I am so lucky to be working in the profession I am in. I love marketing so I am always thinking up new ways to diversify my business.

Last year I started Homestay courses from my countryside home in Scotland. Students came to stay with us and immersed themselves in English with daily classes and excursions. I was truly surprised at how much the students improved in such a short time. After Covid, this will continue.      

I will continue to deliver online classes to current and new students.  Details can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/Alba-English-Class-Online-and-Homestay-436805727098408/

I created my 2020 Challenge allowing me to give a free hour of my time to deliver a conversation class to students to allow them to speak with a native speaker. This has been a great success so far and continues until December. This had led to many new teaching contacts and new working relationships developing for the future.

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I am now offering coaching sessions to potential or new TEFL teachers where we discuss their career possibilities and goals. These sessions include real-life online classes with my students to alleviate any nerves  for the new teacher. I am there to support them and help with any questions.

Thoughts and reflections from Richard James Rogers

Thank you, Gill, for taking the time to share these really useful, unique and insightful tips and experiences with us. Some key takeaways for me personally were:

  • Treating your job as a teacher as if it were your own personal ‘business’ (for those of us who don’t actually own our own schools) is a great mindset to take-on. It ensures personal accountability so that high-standards of ‘customer’ service (i.e. service to our students and their parents) remains high. 
  • I really like the two foundational ‘pillars’ of flexibility and reliability as key philosophies to guide teachers in their practice. In my personal experience, it took me a long time to realise what profound, life-changing effects I was having on my students – effects that lasted well into adulthood. The creation of this blog and my first book, The Quick Guide to Classroom Management, involved me ‘chasing-up some of my old students who I taught at high-school and who were now in their mid-to-late twenties. After numerous discussions and interviews, it became clear to me that teacher reliability (in particular) was one high-effect characteristic that literally had the power to change people’s lives. I use the word ‘people’s’ instead of ‘students’ because I realized the ultimate truth that what we do as teachers affects our students well into their professional lives as adults. When we fail to be reliable, we can generate resentment that lasts for decades (literally). When we choose to be reliable, we can set students on a path to success. It really is that simple. 

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We welcome you to join the Richard James Rogers online community! Join us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates, giveaways of Richard’s books, special offers, upcoming events and news. 

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How to Ace Your Observed TEFL Lesson

Lesson observations can be nerve-wracking and stressful for many teachers. Often, this is a result of not-knowing how to effectively deal with the observation (or anticipation of it) on an emotional, professional and strategic level. Today, I’ve invited Rose-Anne Turner, Admissions Director at Destination TEFL, to share her advice on how to ace a TEFL lesson-observation.

Images for this guest blog post have been kindly provided by Destination TEFL and show teachers they have successful trained in-action, interacting with students. If you’re thinking of getting a TEFL qualification and teaching overseas, then Destination TEFL can help you!

There are so many things to think about when you’re being observed, that it’s easy to forget the obvious. Here are some ways to make sure you ace your observed lessons. 

Before the lesson 

This applies to observed practicums during your course: Pay attention in class! Know the correct procedures and techniques, so you know what is expected of you. 

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! Practice the steps and procedures (drilling, back-chaining etc) and practice your full lesson beforehand, on your own or with your partner. Get your classmates to act as students and let them point out any mistakes afterwards – all in good faith of course, and you do the same for them. Ask for a copy of the observation form that your observer will use and understand what they’re looking for. Your trainer should make it clear what is expected of you. 

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This will also apply should you be doing a demo lesson for a job interview. When you are called in for a demo, be sure to get all the facts beforehand, including the number and level of the students, how long the lesson will be, the topic, the facilities on site, etc. 

Have a backup for everything! Always have a spare board-marker – they have a nasty way of suddenly dying when you least need them to. Time wasted scrambling for another pen will affect your lesson time management, and the curveball will make you nervous, as well as having a knock-on effect. If you plan to show images on a projector, print the images too. If you’re giving students handouts, always have a few spares on hand in case your observer wants a copy or in case there are more students than expected. Have a safety net for every aspect of the class. Be prepared to upscale or ‘dumb-down’ the lesson in case the level of the students is not what you were expecting, so make sure activities can be adjusted accordingly. 

Have a checklist. Having an amazing board game or a fun worksheet is pointless if you leave it behind – we’ve seen this happen too many times – you can only be marked on what you actually do in class, not what you left at home. Attached to your lesson plan, have a checklist of what to bring, including a bottle of water and a sweat towel – there’s nothing worse than dripping sweat over the kids (yes, we’ve seen this happen too!). Make sure you have all your materials required for the lesson. 

Dress professionally. If you look the part, you’ll feel the part and then you’ll act the part. If you’re not confident, fake it! Soon it will be real confidence. Find out beforehand what the dress code is at the school where you’ll be conducting the lessons. If this is for your teacher practicums during the course, you will be told this beforehand, but if it’s for a demo lesson find out! Some schools for instance, insist that female teachers wear skirts, not trousers, and many schools want all tattoos covered up. 

Don’t rush and don’t leave things to the last minute! Do all your printing the day before – power outages happen and that could mean you can’t print your worksheets, lesson plan etc. make sure your computer is charged and is working. Don’t assume there will be WiFi if you need to show a YouTube clip – either download the video or make sure you can send a hotspot from your phone to the computer for internet access. On the day devote all your attention to delivering a great class, not worrying about last minute logistics. 

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During the lesson 

Stay calm. It’s natural to be nervous when being observed. Many people speak too quickly when nervous – take a deep breath and SLOW DOWN, or your students will not understand you. Smile at your students. They will smile back and this will help you to relax. 

Take note of your students. Plans should be followed… however, they should also be adapted if need be, according to your students’ levels. This is why it’s important to plan for your lesson to be adjusted both up and down, particularly for a class you have never taught before, and are not familiar with the level. Involve all your students When nervous, it’s natural to just focus on the students in the front, or those who are actively participating. Try your best to encourage all to participate. 

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Step back and read what you have written on the board. Often our brains are thinking ahead and we make silly spelling or other mistakes on the board. Take a step back and read what you have written. 

After the lesson 

Listen to the feedback, and take it to heart. Getting constructive feedback is the best opportunity for you to develop as a teacher. Sometimes, it’s not easy to hear, but the feedback given during your observed lessons on the course, is done so with the best intentions, allowing you to get the most out of the course. Avoid acting defensively, arguing with the observer and blaming the students. Instead, keep an open mind, ask for more details and note down the suggestions. 

Do a self-analysis. After each lesson, think back to what you did, and how you could have done it differently. Think about how you handled questions, unruly kids, etc and think about how you could improve. Keep a lesson journal, and take your own feedback to heart too. 

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Take responsibility. Think about what you could have done to teach a better class, not about how someone else is at fault for what went wrong in your lesson. Many people get defensive when given feedback. Blame it on naughty kids? Rather take responsibility for poor classroom management, and research classroom management techniques. Not enough time? Look at your time management skills, and how much wasted time there was in the class. 

It’s important to act on the feedback given after a lesson. If you don’t incorporate the suggestions given by your observer in your next lesson, then the feedback was pointless. Make the most of the valuable feedback session given during your course. After a demo lesson for a job interview, ask for feedback too. Your potential employer will value the fact that you are keen to improve and every good teacher knows that the best teachers never stop learning. 

Rose-Anne Turner, Admissions Director – Destination TEFL (www.destinationtefl.com)

Thoughts and reflections from Richard James Rogers

I really enjoyed reading this great blog post, Rose-Anne. Thank you for taking the time to share these great tips with our community. As a high-school Science teacher in Thailand, I found these tips to be just as helpful to me as they would be for a TEFL ‘purist’. I think your advice is beneficial for teachers in a wide-variety of different settings. 

My key-takeaways were as follows:

  • A lesson-observation needs to be dealt with strategically: this is not something that you can leave to chance, or be ad-hoc about. You need to have a plan in-place for the run-up to the lesson, the lesson itself and the after-lesson reflection process. Most teachers focus only on lesson-planning and their presence during the lesson, in my personal experience. 
  • Planning the lesson activities and meeting lesson-objectives is important, but dealing with your own emotions and mental well-being as the teacher is equally important. This aspect of preparing for a lesson-observation is often overlooked and poorly discussed in traditional teacher-training programmes, in my personal opinion.
  • I really liked the after-lesson tips: teachers need to hear no-nonsense advice like “Listen to the feedback, and take it to heart”. I really like how you encourage teachers to “take responsibility”: we live in a world of convenience coupled with flux, and this often causes adults to become resentful and play the ‘blame game’ when receiving constructive criticism. It’s important to detach any negative emotions from whatever feedback you receive, analyse what happened, and take the necessary action steps to become better next time. 

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‘COVID-19 Will Change EFL Teaching Forever’: An Interview with Tatyana Cheprasova

We all know how important it is to maximize the progress and attainment of our students, but how do we work to ensure that we make progress as teachers? What are the key strategies that teachers should deploy in the classroom? Today, I’ve invited Tatyana Cheprasova (Senior Lecturer and EFL/TEFL instructor at Voronezh State University, Russia) to share her insights and tips for educators.

Accompanying video (very compelling and interesting, and goes into more detail than the written responses below. Well-worth a watch!):

Tell us a little about yourself

My name is Tatyana. I am a senior lecturer and EFL/TEFL instructor at Voronezh State University, Russia. I have been teaching English for more than 15 years to various groups of students with a diversity of learning needs and backgrounds. I am also doing my MA in ELT: online at the University of Southampton. I love cycling and swimming, and training my Akita Inu dog when I have some free time.

Why did you choose to become a teacher in the first place?

I think it mostly happened due to the fact that when I was a student and was doing TEFL as a part of my major I was lucky to have a fantastic instructor. She was a brilliant lecturer, a very charismatic one, and she somehow managed to inspire many of my course-mates to become EFL teachers and to launch our teaching careers once we got our diplomas.

What advice would you give to someone who is new to teaching?

Presumably, there is very little advice to be given here as we all operate in very different teaching settings and cultural contexts. I do think, though, that all a novice teacher needs to gain in the first place is experience – as much as possible. Not to be afraid of making mistakes can become the order of the day, too. Self-reflection and self-evaluation are also very important here. In my opinion, these are the two vital skills a novice teacher needs to develop on their way towards professionalism. Hence, working in close cooperation with more experienced colleagues can be an effective practice.

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What is your personal teaching philosophy?

So far I haven’t given it a particular thought. I tend to think that it resides in many aspects in the main populations of Positivism as a philosophical paradigm, where experience and observation play an important role. EFL teachers often find themselves at the forefront of ideological confrontations, be it a never-ending struggle with language policymakers or the government. Anyway, we often find ourselves striving for learners’ equity and the protection of their rights, hence, enhancing positive changes in the society.

What changes do you see happening in the future with regards to the teaching profession?

I am convinced that the world of TEFL will never be the same once the situation with COVID-19 gets back to normal. What I mean here, is that EFL teachers worldwide will no longer be able to neglect the need to actively implement the digital constitute in their teaching procedures. No longer will they be able to exclude the development of digital literacies as the vital component of their CPD. The era of Digital Natives has arrived and it is here to stay, so teachers will have to customize and adjust their teaching strategies in many ways.

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What are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt in your journey as a teacher?

Not to let yourself become rusty. For me, this means to stay always curious, to be quick to pick up new skill sets, to challenge myself with something totally new and unexplored. Once you start to think and look like Master Yoda, you are lost for this profession.

What’s next for you and your career?

I would love to take part in an international research project and to have its results published in a TEFL journal. This would be an absolutely unforgettable experience for me!

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“An AMAZING Book”

Thoughts and reflections from Richard James Rogers

Thank you, Tatyana, for taking the time to share these really helpful and insightful tips and experiences with us. Some key takeaways for me personally were:

  • A great teacher can really have a massive and profound effect on his/her students’ lives (as exemplified by your reasons for becoming a teacher in the first place – you and your classmates were inspired by a great instructor).
  • Don’t become stagnant (or ‘rusty’, as you aptly phrase it): continue to develop yourself and learn new skills along the way. Be a ‘reflective practitioner’.
  • Gain as much experience as you can and don’t be afraid of making mistakes along the way. I can personally endorse this wonderful advice – I’ve made a tonne of mistakes in my time as a teacher! I think it’s a good idea to write mistakes down in a journal of some form (so you don’t forget them!) and read over this journal on a regular basis – it’s a great way to ensure self-reflection and constant progress. Don’t forget to record ‘victories’ in your journal too – things you did well and personal successes.
  • COVID-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of the EFL/TEFL ‘edspace’, and teachers really do need to skill up, or face being left-behind. One place I would suggest that all teachers start is by becoming Google Certified – it’s a cheap, yet prestigious qualification and the training you receive is great for bringing practical edtech into the classroom.

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We welcome you to join the Richard James Rogers online community! Join us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates, giveaways of Richard’s books, special offers, upcoming events and news. 

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