Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head
I’ve seen this argument come up a few times in various places over the last few weeks, mostly in the Facebook teaching groups I joined when I was promoting the pre-conference survey Russ and I did. And then, there it was again on ELTjam.
A lot of ELT people feel really strongly that anyone doing an online teaching course with no practical component is insulting the industry and every professional in it. Not to mention doing the students a huge disservice.
I have the Trinity TESOL and an MA in ELT – self funded. Whenever anyone asks me what course I recommend they do, I always ask them where they want to go and teach. And, maybe, how long they plan to stay in teaching. (My personal advice being make sure you have a get-out after two years because you can only grow old, poor and pensionless in ELT).
The truth is, much as no-one wants to admit it, that having that first qualification didn’t make me a professional teacher. Experience did. And I don’t mean the “experience” I got doing 7 whole hours of observed teaching practice. The argument that you wouldn’t want to go to a doctor who has no formal training, so why a teacher, falls apart as soon as you hold that against the wealth of practical teaching experience I had when I was inflicted on my first class.
I was a crap teacher for my first year. My very first job was at summer school in the UK — teaching teens whose parents had paid hundreds of pounds for them to be there. I was hired by a British Council accredited school fresh of my TEFL course with no interview, not even by phone. My course had taught me nothing about dealing with teens and I winged it the entire month. It was loads of fun and I returned five times. At least later on I was able to support the other newbies that came after me. There wasn’t much in the way of support for them otherwise.
My main approach for that job was “How can I fill this hour?”. I photocopied random activities, didn’t read the Teacher’s Book and generally got by on being fun and Native Speaking. In my first year abroad in Prague, I learned some more stuff to fill those lessons up. I picked up most, but not all, of the grammar and, after two years, I thought “Yes, now I can answer pretty much any question a student throws at me.”
I also didn’t concern myself too much if I was late to class, sometimes I didn’t even turn up. I kind of planned – that is one thing the TEFL course really does do for you: teaches the art of detailed lesson planning which you only ever then actually do if you have an observed lesson — and once I had to leave class because I was so hungover I threw up. It was a 4pm class.
Even when I was making an effort, for a student I really liked, I was crap. I once had a one-to-one business student for a 2 week intensive before he was due to go on an important work trip abroad. Needless to say, my £770 TEFL course had taught me nothing about Business English and I had no personal experience of the world of Real Jobs. I noticed he had a problem with definite articles so did a lesson on that. Because that was so what he needed, right? And, being the trained professional I was, I recognised that.
The TEFL course teaches you some very important things. That you don’t know English grammar, you just speak it, and you must learn it in order to teach. And about eliciting, concept checking and maximising student talking time. That’s about it.
Experience teaches you the rest. There are no courses that can give you more than a taster of that. Thinking on your feet, responding to different personalities in the classroom, dealing with teenage apathy and Young Learners running rings round you. You get none of that on any course, face-to-face or otherwise.
Two things you also get taught on the TEFL course and early on in your career are:
1. Never tell students you only did a four week course. They might not understand just how thorough that training is and wonder why they’re paying so much for you to be there.
2. Never admit how long you’ve been teaching if it’s only a few weeks/months. They might not understand just how thorough your recent training was and wonder why they’re paying so much for you to be there.
Why the secrecy? Could it be because within ELT everyone knows students won’t like it, won’t put up with it, Lord forbid, won’t pay for it?
Where I started being a better teacher, an actual professional instead of just one with a paid-for professional qualification (Does anyone actually fail the TEFL courses, by the way?) was in my second year abroad in Thailand. It was a much more professional school although it had no input sessions or anything resembling it. Half my timetable was Young Learners, again, something for which I had no training whatsoever. I observed other teachers, we shared ideas and I ended up pretty good at it. Not only that, teaching Young Learners made me a much better adult teacher too. As did just simply having gained more hours on the clock. So by the time I was placed in front of FCE students with an exam 3 months away, although I’d never had any training in teaching exams, I did OK enough but mostly learned how to teach FCE for the next time students were depending on me and my expertise.
I’ve actually seen people comment that teaching is mixture of Art, Science, skill, experience, psychology and many other things and then berate unqualified teachers for not having what can only ever be a small part of the mix.
The other thing that makes no sense to me about this entire topic is that, once again, the onus is on the teacher to be the professional one. If there are schools that hire unqualified teachers, there will always be people that would rather try out the job for a while, maybe qualify later, maybe not, than pay the high fees for a one month intensive TEFL course. Just like with other problems in ELT, not anywhere near enough pressure is applied to language schools which are the worst thing about the industry.
People who are earning nicely at the top of the food chain i.e. a handful of people with books on the CELTA/DELTA list and the big chains – do you run TEFL courses for free? Or offer people who can only afford an online course to come and shadow, or co-teach, your classes — an invaluable way of learning to teach?
What’s more, this is not something that only happens to students in other countries where the rules about qualifications are lax. It happens to EVERY SINGLE language student who is paying the same price for a newly qualified teacher as they do for someone like me with years of teaching and two shiny qualifications. Why are schools, even the major ones, not being railed against for passing off that sleight of hand? Mainstream UK schools quite clearly hire NQTs and pay them less than they will if they make it through that year. And they get all that silly pension, pay-rise, ongoing training opportunities, holiday pay, promotion, adequate salary stuff that ELT teachers never will.
It is, pure and simple, the industry that is not professional. And until it is, and until it treats its workers as professionals, no-one in or out of it should criticise anyone who chooses to take a step into teaching, especially those who intend to take a course when they can afford it.***
Good luck saving up for that on your TEFL salary, new teachers! It now costs about double what I paid for mine. Maybe your school will pay you through it … Ah wait, nope, that’s YOUR responsibility, not theirs. They’re only the ones banking the enrollment fees, not the ones who should ensure teaching excellence.
**Who else gets treated like this? Students in elite fee paying schools in the UK. Private schools in the UK are not subject to the same hiring rules as state schools and can recruit people just because they excelled academically and went to the right kind of university. Those students then go on to have a higher chance of getting into an Oxbridge university themselves so something other than training has to be a factor.
*** It often seems to me that people just get angry that they paid for the course while others are getting jobs without having made the same cash up front investment.