You’ve got a new private English class and you’re about to have your first lesson. How exciting! You’re beginning a wonderful process in which you can really make a difference to your student’s learning.

But the first class is often the hardest. There’s a lot of pressure and nerves when you work with a new student (or group of students) for the first time. You want to make the right impression.

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I’ve taught hundreds of private classes, but I still get jittery when starting out with new students. It’s normal. It’s a social encounter with someone you’re unfamiliar with. Things can go wrong. Some factors are outside your control.

However, you can make sure most things go according to plan. Over the years, I’ve developed an approach to first classes which takes a lot of stress out of the situation. In this article, I’ll tell you exactly how I do it.

This article is part of a series of guides on how to be the best private EFL/ESL teacher.

Before we get to the steps, I’d like to explain the philosophy behind my approach.

Motivation and investment are key drivers of learning. If students are enjoying and engaging in your private classes, they’ll progress at an astounding rate.

Many of the steps in this guide are about making students happy. I want to clarify this doesn’t mean you should do everything to please them and bow down to their whims. Far from it.

Photo by Yan Krukov:

There is a cynical business perspective that would suggest you just make your students pleased, so they continue paying you and whether they actually learn anything is irrelevant.

I disagree with this notion. Students know if they’re getting good quality or not. If you just throw loads of fun, meaningless games at them in the first class, even young children will realise they’re not going to be pushed forward.

The trick is to give them a great experience while also learning a lot. So, yes, do what you can to make your first class enjoyable, but not at the expense of quality. The steps in this guide aim to do just that.

So let’s get into it!

  1. Aim to learn about your new student(s)
  2. Have a flexible plan (and plenty of backup activities)
  3. Arrive like a professional
  4. Create the right atmosphere
  5. Set expectations explicitly and implicitly
  6. Avoid over-correcting
  7. Create rapport
  8. Go long if you can
  9. Set up a hook for the next class

1. Aim to learn about your new student(s)

What I’m about to say is going to sound strange. But stick with me.

In your first class with an EFL/ESL student, the aim is NOT to teach them lots of English.

Instead, you want to figure out what English they need to learn. If you start teaching things willy-nilly, for example preparing a class on the present perfect, your chances of pitching it at the right level are very low.

Not to mention the fact that they might not be interested in learning grammar.

Even if you prepare an intricate, detailed sequence of activities and print out loads of great materials, if it’s not the right lesson for your student(s), it’ll be a struggle.

Before you teach anything, you have to learn your students’ needs.

What is their level of English? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Are they preparing for an exam, or are they hoping to get fluent in conversation? How confident are they?

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch:

Private tutoring gives you the opportunity to really tailor your lessons to each individual student. Without knowing what they need, you’re shooting in the dark.

So, really, what you should do in your first class is conduct a needs analysis.

In short, a needs analysis is a structured method of learning the strengths, weaknesses, goals, and preferences of a student. It allows you to create a profile from which you create future classes.

It’s figuring out both what to teach your student(s) and how to teach them.

If a needs analysis is a new concept to you, or you want to find out more, I strongly recommend you read my detailed guide on how to do a needs analysis before moving on to the next step.

2. Have a flexible plan (and plenty of backup activities)

Planning for classes is a given. You set out targets of what you hope to achieve and then plan what activities you’ll need to do in order to achieve those targets.

But, as we saw in step 1, you don’t really know what to expect at this point, so targets are difficult to make. Yet you still need to do something. That’s why having a flexible plan is crucial in the first class.

I like flexibility in all my lesson plans, because you can never fully predict what’ll happen in a session, and this is even more true when you’re unfamiliar with the student(s).

As we’re going to do a needs analysis in the first class, we should plan some activities which will help us assess their level. This can be as simple as some pre-prepared “get to know you” questions, or it can be a fun vocab game.

Activities that don’t focus on a specific topic are best. You want to get a general idea of where they’re at rather than assessing whether they understand the intricacies of the passive voice.

Photo by Yan Krukov from Pexels

I also advise you to compile a series of backup activities. Not everything will work. For example, your student may be very shy, so engaging in a “get to know you” conversation might be challenging for them and only last a few minutes.

If that happens, you’ll want to have an activity focused on reading or writing to ease the pressure of speaking so much.

Alternatively, you might find yourself with some excitable kids who don’t want to sit and answer questions, so get them up and about with an energetic vocab game.

If you have a range of varied activities, you’ll be able to adapt as necessary

3. Arrive like a professional

Okay, so you’ve got your needs analysis ready, and you’ve made a great, flexible plan. Now it’s time to go to the class.

Here’s where outside things can mess you up before you even begin.

I’m talking about travel time, finding the location, and getting set up in the place you’ll be teaching.

First of all, you should choose the right place for the class. In my opinion, it should be the student’s house, or in some cases, a local café. Somewhere they feel comfortable.

For more on getting the right location, read my article Where Should In-Person Private EFL/ESL Classes Take Place?

Second, you need to find out how long it’s going to take to get there. Can you walk? If you’re going by bus or train, what time do you need to get to the station, and do the buses/trains usually turn up on time? If you’re driving, is there somewhere to park?

If you can, do a practice run. Maybe at the weekend, or the day before class when you have a bit of free time. Do the journey so you’re comfortable with the timing.

Speaking of timings, get there early. Not half an hour early, but five minutes before the agreed time is a good aim.

Why? Well, to begin with, it shows you’re professional and organised. And it also allows you to get settled in without needing to rush.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio:

The first time you teach in someone’s house (or in any location, really), you need to get accustomed to your surroundings – which room are you going in, where can you put your bag, what’s the lighting like?

Plus, if you get delayed on the journey, you’ve got a bit of extra time to work with.

In terms of the clothes, smart casual is a good bet in most countries, while in some places like Spain (where I teach) and Latin America, you’re fine with a t-shirt and jeans.

4. Create the right atmosphere

From the moment you step in the door, you and your student(s) are going to start figuring each other out. You both want to know what kind of experience this is going to be.

So here’s your opportunity to show them.

The first thing I do when I meet new students is greet them emphatically. I want them to know I’m happy to see them and I’m excited to get started. A big grin and a warm handshake go a long way. And I like to tell them how delighted I am to be there with them.

It sets the tone. And I keep that up throughout the first class and, to be honest, during all my classes, because I genuinely love my job.

The effect this has on the students is that they immediately know their teacher is interested in their learning.

Private tutoring is a social endeavour. Like in all relationships, being comfortable around someone else and knowing that they care about you makes you more willing to open up and take risks.

Make your students feel valued. This is a rule for all classes, but it’s important to start off with that attitude so you can quickly create an atmosphere of trust.

5. Set expectations explicitly and implicitly

Following on from step 4, where we created a great atmosphere, we’re now going to look at setting expectations.

This is hugely important. If you get this wrong, especially with children, it can be hard to correct later down the line.

When setting expectations, we’re basically establishing what the students need to do and, (something often forgotten), what the teacher will do to make sure the lessons are a success.

This can be related to behaviour, respecting others, the use of mobile phones in class, putting in the effort, completing homework, etc.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

There are two ways of doing this: explicitly and implicitly.

Explicitly is best for most cases, especially with younger learners. It’s essentially coming up with a list of rules. But the reason I call them expectations instead of rules is because students get lots of rules from elsewhere, so they’re sick of them. Plus, there’s always a few who like breaking them.

It can be a good idea to get the students to think up class expectations. This way they have more agency and it balances the power dynamic. However, in the first class, I prefer to establish the groundwork myself.

With children, reinforcing the fundamentals of respect and encouraging students to be supportive to each other is vital. I also like to stress the importance of having fun within limits.

For more on setting class expectations in EFL/ESL, check out my full article on the topic where you can see the Perfect Pyramid: How to Set Rules & Expectations in Private EFL/ESL Classes.

With adults, talk about whether they’re happy doing homework, and how much effort they expect to put in.

It’s a good idea to do this expectation setting near the start of the lesson. I like to tie it in with a needs analysis conversation in which you chat about what the students want to achieve. This way, you can tell them the expectations that will help them get there.

The second way of setting expectations is implicitly.

You do this through your actions during the first class (and indeed all subsequent classes). You’re mostly showing how you will behave towards them and the quality of teaching you’ll provide.

What you transmit through your actions early on sets the tone for subsequent classes.

An example of poor implicit expectation setting is coming into the first class with lots of flashy activities and exciting methods, then spending all the other classes doing boring, repetitive exercises from a textbook.

Or, checking your phone every ten minutes. Turning up late and forgetting half the materials for activities you’d planned. If you do those things, you can bet your students will get distracted by their phone and never bring their homework on time.

Instead, you want to set the expectation that you’re a consistent, caring teacher who they can depend on. Show you can have fun, too.

6. Avoid over-correcting

Atmosphere and expectations create comfort and trust. Students learn best when they feel safe to make mistakes.

And they will make mistakes. If they don’t, then you don’t need to be there teaching them.

It’s very tempting to correct those mistakes, especially early on, to show you’re providing good value.

But be careful. Some people (myself included!) don’t like being told they’re wrong too often. It erodes confidence. When a new teacher comes in and corrects everything you say, it slows you down and makes you feel inadequate.

Image by silviarita from Pixabay

Of course, I’m not saying you should never correct your students. And later on, when you’ve got a better grasp of how they react to being corrected, you can focus on those basic errors and iron them out.

But in the first few lessons, it’s best to tread carefully. Take a note of the errors they make (that’s all part of needs analysis) and plan to target them at a later date.

The last thing you want to happen is for your student to go away from the first class feeling rubbish.

You want them to feel energised and excited.

Here are two pro techniques for doing just that.

  1. Praise the good language they use more than correcting mistakes. You don’t have to say “well done for using the second conditional” every time, but a quick thumbs up, or encouraging smile is often enough.
  2. Instead of correcting and forcing students to repeat the sentence, just echo what they said in the correct way. This subtly shows them their mistake rather than directly criticising them. For example: Student: “Yesterday I go the cinema”, Teacher: “Ah, you went to the cinema yesterday. What did you watch?”

7. Create rapport

As mentioned earlier, teaching, and particularly private tutoring, is a very personal, social activity.

Knowing what makes your students tick is an underrated skill. It’s like meeting a new friend in the sense that you learn what they’re interested in and how they react to certain situations. The difference is, you’re doing it with the intention of improving their learning.

There’s also a level of professionalism to bear in mind. Ultimately, during class, your students are not your friends, they’re your clients. You must treat them as such.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t share interests and develop personal connections.

Image by jamesoladujoye from Pixabay

In my article on needs analysis, step 5 talks about getting to know your student to help you design classes that will interest them.

On top of that, it also creates trust and connection. When you treat a student like a human, they feel able to express themselves more. And if you have something in common with them, you can share your interests to create even more opportunities for fantastic learning.

Students love feeling valued. When you take the time to get to know them well, their motivation to keep learning with you will only grow.

8. Go long if you can

This is an optional step which adds a little extra detail in your favour. If you have the time (and your students do too), go for five minutes past the agreed lesson duration.

The reason I suggest this is that it deepens the idea that you value them. If you get up and leave as soon as the clock strikes the hour, it feels transactional, like you’d rather not be there.

Plus, if students are enjoying the class, they feel good that they went for longer than the allotted duration and it didn’t feel like a drag. You get the “oh, how time flies” reaction, which will motivate them in future classes.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Don’t take this too far, though. If you go way too long, it makes it look like you can’t keep track of time, and you risk making the class boring.

Here are some situations in which you don’t want to go long:

  • You’ve come to the natural conclusion of the class and going longer would be time wasting.
  • The student is frequently looking at the clock (they’re either bored or in a rush).
  • You have another class shortly after and going long will make you late.
  • Parents are hovering nearby.

9. Set up a hook for the next class

By the end of the first class with a new student, you should have learned a lot about their interests, their level of English, their targets, and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

You may have already identified an aspect of grammar to work on. Or perhaps you uncovered something you both love. Whatever it is, you’ll hopefully have an idea of something you can do in the next session.

While you will still take the time after class to go over the information you gathered in the needs analysis before you leave this first class, give your students a simple hook so they have something to look forward to.

Image by Pezibear from Pixabay

Let’s say you have a student who wants to focus on grammar. During the lesson, you noticed she committed a lot of mistakes with pronouns. Tell her you noticed this, and next week you’ll look at it in more detail.

Or maybe your group of ten-year-olds all said they loved superhero movies. Ask them to bring any comics or costumes to the next class so you can have a big chat about those things and maybe a role play.

Then, during the week, you can plan your next class around those hooks.

When you pay off the promise, students will quickly realise you’re the kind of teacher who really cares about helping them.


If you’re thinking all these steps are a lot to take in, don’t worry. I get it. On top of all the nerves of starting a new class, you have to remember to do all these nine steps and execute a needs analysis!

Take it slowly. You don’t need to do everything exactly as I’ve said. When I started out, I certainly didn’t. It took me years to get all these steps right, and I’m still improving.

While I advocate for planning your own tailored lessons, it’s a lot to begin with. If you find comfort in structure, use lesson plans I (or others online) have provided. If you get overwhelmed by lots of steps, simplify. Focus on the important things first.

Bonus step 10: Relax and be happy

Easier said than done. But, really, if there’s one piece of advice I’d give all EFL/ESL teachers going into their first class, it’s to bring a positive attitude and a big smile.

Your students are probably just as nervous as you, if not more so. Take a few deep breaths. Do a few trial runs of the lesson plan in your head. Remember it’s just one class of dozens to come, all of which will be full of exciting, quality learning.

Follow the links below to learn how to be the best private EFL/ESL tutor possible.
Ultimate Guide to Giving Great EFL/ESL Private Classes
Needs Analysis for Private EFL/ESL Lessons: 12 step guide
Principles of Designing Amazing Private EFL/ESL Lessons
Acing Your First Private EFL/ESL Class: 9 Steps to Success
Lesson Plans for First Private EFL/ESL Lesson (+ tips)
How to Set Rules & Expectations in Private EFL/ESL Classes
What to Do if Private EFL/ESL Students Won’t Participate
Getting EFL/ESL Exam Preparation Right: Tips for success
Give Amazing Private EFL/ESL Classes to Kids: 9 steps
7 Steps for Incredible Private EFL/ESL Conversation Classes
Teaching EFL/ESL Grammar: A guide for private tutors
5 Tips for Setting Homework in Private EFL/ESL Classes

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