This is article 1 of 6 in the series How (& Why) to Teach Exams.
It was January 2010 in Izmir, Turkey. I was sitting at a conference table with my first-ever private student for TOEFL iBT lessons. She had already taken TOEFL iBT a couple of times and the senior teachers at my school declared she had reached her highest speaking score. They got her to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue them if the teacher they assigned botched her lessons.
“Jaime, we’ve got your first TOEFL student for you…”
Panic and excitement washed over me. I’d spent over a year explaining general English grammar from elementary to upper-intermediate, and in a weird, masochistic way, I had looked forward to teaching an exam class. I knew I was being trusted with my student’s future: a Master’s program in Denmark.
I can’t lie. The human drama of teaching an exam like TOEFL iBT keeps me hooked — but there are more tangible ways that developing expertise about an exam like TOEFL iBT has positioned my career on a whole new level.
1. Teaching exams sets me apart.
In my experience, most teachers react to teaching exams with tight-faced fear. No wonder they’re scared. It’s not like they were shown what to do! There is also only one published book I know of about how to teach exams, and test companies like ETS really only make token efforts to help teachers with their lessons.
If ESL was an ecosystem, it would be a lush, tropical rain forest. But ESL exam prep’s ecosystem? A hostile desert with scorpions and coyotes that come after you at night.
Basically, there is a “knowledge drought” that makes it exceptionally hard for teachers to amass actual knowledge about how to teach exams. This means there is a microscopic amount of supply — in the face of incomprehensibly huge demand for ESL exam prep (especially for speaking). I am very confident that anyone who follows a path like mine for long enough will end up where I was with a new student a few weeks ago…
2. My students appreciate me way more.
In late July, I was getting acquainted with a new student for TOEFL iBT. His life has been on hold for three years. As a new father, the pressure increases with each day. He cannot get the score he needs so he has taken the TOEFL iBT exam 20 times. That’s not a typo. 20. He’s paid for help from a few other English tutors and even attended a course at an exam prep academy in New York City. So when he came to me for private tutoring, he was desperate and had “tried everything.”
“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “You haven’t tried everything.”
In our first lesson, I did something new. I go a lot more into my process in my webinar, 3 Things Your ESL Exam Students Need You To Do. It might seem like I’m making a bold claim, except that after finishing his first homework assignment, that student sent me this email:
I finished my homework. I really enjoyed studying this way. At least, I knew what I was doing and now I see some light of hope after wandering about months and years. I really feel motivated by your coaching.
I have been offered positions to teach in schools again for general English and every time since 2011, I’ve turned them down. Being appreciated and knowing that I’m offering support that students cannot find anywhere else is addictive.
3. I have a full schedule, so I earn more money.
In my experience, students like the one I wrote about above start recommending me to their friends before they’ve even finished our lesson package or gotten results. There’s a cascade effect. More students show up and I don’t have to do any icky marketing.
With a full schedule and so many needy students, I’m not fibbing when I tell students they cannot cancel at the last minute — because I really do have someone else I could have helped. With fewer cancellations, the students’ keep their momentum and make progress, and I earn more.
4. I am never bored.
Each student whom I teach is like a puzzle or a knot to unravel. I love the challenge. The student is lost over here at Point A. The student wants to get to Point B. Find the route to get the student from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible — while having the most fun. No two students are exactly the same — even though the exam content changes very minimally.
By teaching the same lessons, my nervousness evaporates and I am able to be present with each student in a totally different way. In my relaxed and happy state, I notice details about students that could otherwise be missed. Pulling on the right question allows whole sequences of problems to just magically untangle themselves.
After having a 30-minute discussion with one student, she gained insight into herself that allowed her to improve her own reading score without learning new strategies. It seemed unbelievable until I gave her a few more practice tests and she proved that she could consistently get 4-5 points higher than she had just a few days earlier.
The constant tension between proper ESL, strategy and human psychology keeps my days extremely interesting.
5. Motivation is a two-way street.
By spending so much time with highly motivated learners, I am more focused on my own goals and get more done. Studying for a high-stakes exam brings certain aspects of human nature to the surface. I am constantly in awe of my students. They wake up at 4:30 and 5 am to study. They find ways to stay cool and focus when everything feels like it’s on the line all because of some stupid test — a marriage, an $80,000 scholarship, a career, a dream, their ability to work, the standard they set for their children, their dignity and confidence.
As I have spent more time with people who suck it up, step up and keep going, I get better.
Want that for yourself?
Join me in a free, career-changing webinar. I go into 3 things that get results for my students — keeps them referring their friends to me. Master them and you’ll teach exams more effectively than 95% of your peers.
This is article 1 of 6 in the series, How (& Why) to Teach Exams. To continue with the second article, Love a good puzzle? These ESL classes keep you challenged, click here.