'Lessons Taught and Lessons Learnt':
August – 2007: So, here I am, teaching over summer, sharing the school with thirty enthusiastic CELTA trainees who are going through just what I went through almost a year ago.
'So what's it like being a teacher?', one of them asked me. I stopped to consider this for a moment, then smiled.
'It's the best job in the world', I replied, sincerely.
Watching them go through the ups and downs, stresses and successes of learning to be teachers has prompted me to reflect on my own experience of teaching. So, here I am, thinking that it might be a nice idea to share with anyone who wants to listen some of the experiences (good, bad and crazy!) of my first year teaching TEFL, and about why exactly I'm convinced it's the best job in the world.
First of all, to all you CELTA trainees, your true learning is going to begin after CELTA, as soon as you're thrown in the deep end and start teaching between twenty five and thirty hours a week. The course gives you what you need to be able to stand up in front of a class and not look like too much of a clueless idiot, but I think teaching is the kind of job where your learning and training never really end. I guess the transition into 'proper' teaching is probably smoother for some than for others. I think I was fairly lucky overall, despite a bit of a stressful first lesson. The students were a group of primary school teachers, there was no assigned course book, they were supposed to be pre-intermediate level. Yeah right! I got to the school and found the classroom after an embarrassing exchange of horrifically-pronounced Czech words (just on my part!) and gestures between myself and the receptionist. My students were waiting for me. 'Why do we keep changing teachers?' A woman asked, in English that was definitely NOT pre-intermediate level. After explaining that there had been some 'shuffling around' of teachers and that they'd have me for the rest of the semester, I quickly realised that my lesson on the past simple taken from New Headway Pre-Int was going to be a joke. Most of these students were at least upper-int. A teacher's worst nightmare: an obsolete lesson plan, and in my first ever lesson! I kind of managed to save the lesson though, after discovering that these teachers were desperate to complain about the recent changes in the Czech Education System; perfect material for a heated debate and some language feedback at the end. Lesson learnt: don't always expect students to be the level you're told they are, and make sure that your first lesson with a class can be modified/adjusted according to the students' level.
After my rather 'dubious' first lesson, I went through many ups and downs and way too many hours spent lesson planning before I began to feel semi-confident about what I was doing and what my students were doing. At the beginning I was absolutely petrified of my proficiency class. I'd try to anticipate every single possible question that could be asked and then stay awake the night before worrying about it. I remember one of my proficiency students asked me a random question out of the blue (it was actually during a lesson on future tenses). He wanted to know what the difference was between 'As soon as he finished his exams he went abroad' and 'As soon as he had finished his exams he went abroad'. I mean, both sentences sounded perfectly correct to me, and any difference in meaning wasn't apparently obvious. It wasn't until I went away and looked it up in Practical English Usage by the legendary Michael Swan that I discovered that using the past perfect emphasises slightly the independence of the first action from the second. Lesson learnt: It's impossible to anticipate every question you could possibly be asked, and if you get asked a question that you can't answer, it's okay to say 'I'll let you know next week'. It's better than getting yourself into a tizzy before or during the lesson, or guessing the answer, trust me!
I think one of the wonderful things about being a language teacher is that your subject matter can be anything you or your students like. I've given lessons (at my students' request) on drugs, chocolate, Harry Potter, sugar daddies and toy boys, animal rights, cosmetic surgery and transvestites, to name but a few. Thinking about that lesson I taught on cosmetic surgery never fails to make me smile. It was a class of middle-aged business people who, when asked what topics interested them, proceeded to confess their near obsession with reading trashy gossip magazines on their lunch breaks. After teaching the relevant vocabulary, I told students that I was going to get them to come up to the front of the class, one at a time, and their classmates would decide which cosmetic surgery procedures they needed and why. I managed to keep a straight face and resist bursting out laughing for all of about five seconds while my students looked at me with a mixture of horror and amusement. After we'd calmed down and regained our composure, we proceeded with the real activity: looking at pictures of famous people and deciding what they'd had done. Lesson learnt: humour and letting your personality shine through break down all barriers :-)
I've been teaching CELTA guinea pigs this summer, so that the trainees could observe 'experienced' teachers. I got the beginners. I'd never taught beginners before and was terrified that they wouldn't understand instructions and that it would be a huge mess – a huge observed mess! We got through the first lesson relatively unscathed, even though I'm convinced that the only information they understood about me during the 'getting to know you' was that my favourite animal is a monkey (using extremely embarrassing gestures!) :-) In the next lesson I tried some Total Physical Response; which basically involves students moving around and responding to instructions and then giving instructions when they feel ready. It seemed to work; well, they remembered all the vocabulary when I tested them in the next lesson! By the third lesson, I felt we'd reached an unspoken agreement that I'd do my best to communicate with them in a non-patronizing way and involve them in their learning even if I had to jump on desks and make a complete fool of myself in front of the CELTA trainees, and in return they'd do their best to understand, make fools of themselves too and hopefully learn. On the last day we were sitting in a circle on the floor, having just finished a vocab revision game, when the strongest student in the class said to me:
'What animal favourite?'
I replied without hesitation.
Then from behind someone's back emerged a monkey'! (A soft toy one of course!) And they all tried to grab it and give it to me at the same time. I was incredibly touched. It was one of those spectacular moments that makes you feel like it's all worthwhile and that you're truly doing what you're supposed to be doing. Thanks guys :-) Lesson learnt: teaching beginners isn't terrifying; it's rewarding and great fun!
I think one of the best things about being a TEFL teacher is the opportunity to meet so many great people, and to help them achieve their goals. I think this is one of the most rewarding things you can do, and sometimes also one of the most surprising. I've taught chemists who work for the Institute of Beer Brewing; I was prepared to research obscure chemistry jargon to help them present their research at conferences, but instead they asked for a lesson on relationship/love vocabulary and chat-up lines; I was a bit surprised I must admit! I've taught Doctors of Law who wanted to pore through the finer subtleties of English grammar and seemed almost unnaturally excited about cleft sentences. I've taught musicians who spent their lessons singing to me and working on pronunciation, and then inviting me to their concerts. I've taught CEOs of multi-national companies to negotiate in English, and when asked what they wanted to do in their final class with me, requested a lesson on Harry Potter. Honestly, teaching never fails to surprise me :-) If you're looking for a predictable, repetitive job then please don't teach!
I mentioned above that in teaching you never really stop learning. I believe this is especially true if you seek out opportunities for professional development and not feel like you can't present at a conference or do action research until you're experienced. Doing these things is what gives you the experience. Through action research I managed to get to the bottom of a motivation problem faced by a particularly difficult class of mine, and I even conducted some 'crazy' experiments like teaching a lesson in which I was completely silent! Presenting at my first conference and giving teacher development workshops was scary at first (I had to apologise to my poor sister, who was visiting me at the time, for stressing out at her on the morning of the conference!) But it really is so rewarding. Teachers love the chance to get together and try out activities and discuss their problems and issues, and I found such a warm and friendly reception and atmosphere. Give it a go; you'll be pleasantly surprised :-) If you regularly present at conferences and make yourself 'known' there's a good chance you'll get approached by Cambridge or Oxford University Press and asked to represent them at conferences. It's worth it for the money and you get to meet some cool people, although you have to fit it in around your regular teaching schedule.
So, what does a career in TEFL look like? Well, if you fall in love with teaching and are in it for the long haul, then there are several options. Whichever path you decide to take, you'll need to teach for at least two years before you can do the DELTA (the diploma course for hard-core people who don't mind spending a year of their life as a hermit). Then most people do one of three things (sometimes followed by the fourth thing):
a) Continue regular teaching and get paid heaps more and maybe become a Senior Teacher (which will probably involve carrying out observations of teachers and some extra responsibilities).
b) Become a DOS (Director of Studies) or an ADOS (Assistant Director of Studies). Beware: this will probably involve timetabling and taking last-minute subs!
c) Move into Teacher Training (like teaching CELTA and DELTA and TKT). This will probably involve some regular teaching too.
d) (Not for the faint-hearted) Then if you're super hard-core you might consider writing a course book or opening your own language school.
I think one of the other main attractions of a career in TEFL is the opportunity to live abroad and experience different countries and cultures. Once you've got CELTA and a bit of experience, the world truly is your oyster. And when you're considering moving on to greener (or maybe less green!) pastures, chances are there'll be someone at your school who's lived in the country you're considering applying to or who knows someone who has, so you can always find out about what life is like there. I guess one of the downsides of the profession is that it is so transient. People come and go, friends leave. But the upside is that you're always meeting new people, hearing great stories, and this way you can build up a network of colleagues and friends in all sorts of places; great for holidays! A word of caution though: It's easy to live in a little 'TEFL bubble' and only hang out with English speakers and make no effort to meet the locals and learn their lingo. At the end of the day it's your choice, but personally I think it's a great feeling being able to order in a restaurant (something other than beer!) or ask for directions in my host country's (notoriously difficult!) language.
If you're still not convinced that TEFL teaching is the best job in the world, think about all the fascinating people you get to meet and talk to, think about the random and crazy topics you get to discuss, think about how wonderful it feels to help people work towards and achieve their goals, think about the opportunities to live abroad and experience another culture and language, think about the continuous learning and sense of progress and improvement, think about the surprises and the quirks and the challenges and the rewards (not the monkeys or other presents, but the sense of achievement that you get :-) I'm convinced, anyway, and am in it for the long haul.
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