So you want to Teach English as a Foreign Language Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

So you want to Teach English as a Foreign Language

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What do Wilfred Owen, Bob Geldof, James Joyce, JK Rowling, Nick Hornby, John Fowles and George Orwell all have in common?

Answer? They are all former TEFL teachers.

Of course, it is not possible to promise that embarking on an English language teaching career will bring you fame, critical acclaim or a daughter called Peaches, but you would certainly be in good company. There are some serious wordsmiths on that list. If you would like to join their ranks, and develop a twitch if someone uses the word 'however' to join two ideas in one sentence, here's how.

But what is TEFL exactly?

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (often abbreviated to Teaching EFL, or TEFL) differs from English teaching in schools for native English-speaking students in that it is concerned primarily with actually helping people use English effectively to communicate, and not at all with reading and critiquing great works of literature. It is sometimes also known as (T)ESL1, or (T)ESOL2.

Should you embark on this career path, you could find yourself teaching children, teenagers or adults. Or, to put it another way, refugees, asylum seekers, businesspeople, students, housewives or nuclear scientists. You could teach people holiday English, English for lawyers, general English, or survival English. You may teach those preparing to take exams in the English language, support students at a University who are writing essays in their non-native tongue, or teach people who are experts in a field you know little about yourself how to talk about it confidently in English. You might be involved in teaching people how to read and write in their second language when they don't know how to read and write in their first, or you might be teaching students with a PhD in linguistics. You might be teaching in Moscow or Vladivostok, Tokyo or Sasebo, Riyadh or Al Khobar, Santiago or Valparisio, Sydney or Darwin, New York or Sioux Falls, London or Wolverhampton. It's a very varied field.

Are there any training courses?

Whatever brand of EFL teaching you do there's only one place to start, and that's with a CELTA3 or CertTESOL4 Certificate course. Yes, there really are a lot of acronyms in this business.

Well, OK, strictly speaking there are a number of other options available, weekend courses or online courses for example. But of the ones with significant amounts of teaching practice, the CELTA and CertTESOL are the only internationally recognised qualifications in this field.

The reason why you want a course with significant amounts of teaching practice is that without that it is a lot like assuming you can drive a car because you have passed the theory test. And this is important because learning English, for most people, is not a matter of indulging in a passion for languages, furthering their obsession with the Royal family or wanting to read the works of O Henry in the original. It is a deadly serious need to be acquainted with the lingua franca of the world in order to get a decent job or to get by in the strange new world they have found themselves in now they live in an English-speaking country. It is for this reason that people should also think seriously before just rocking up to a foreign country and declaring themselves a teacher. Even if you are charging peanuts, you are still ripping the students off. There's a lot more to teaching, teaching a language, and teaching a language when you don't necessarily share one in common with your students, than some people seem to think. It behoves native English speakers not to take unfair advantage.

And the reason you want an internationally recognised qualification? You want to get a job in a reputable school, which will support you as a new teacher and pay you a going wage.

How do I get on a CELTA (or CertTESOL) course?

These courses are run all over the world. If you already know where you want to work, it might be worth doing your training there as many training centres then hire people for their school straight off the course. You can find out where exactly there are courses on the websites for the University of Cambridge ESOL exams and Trinity College, London5. Prices vary a bit from country to country, but the going rate in the UK at the moment is around £1,000.

Each training institution will have its own entrance procedures, but generally speaking the aim is to ensure that those accepted will have a decent chance of passing the course. In particular, applicants must be at least 18 years old, have an excellent spoken and written command of the English language and should have qualifications which would allow them to study at undergraduate level6.

There will be an interview, and there will be a pre-interview task to complete. This is partly to check applicants' command of English, partly to see how they look at teaching issues, and partly to see how they handle grammar.

If you are a native speaker of English and the word 'grammar' faintly panics you, do not. Panic, that is. To be perfectly honest, it is rather assumed that you won't know your articles from your artichokes. Courses and tutors are well prepared to help you and a lack of formal grammatical terminology shouldn't necessarily put you off. This doesn't mean you can ignore the issue, but you will be given expert guidance, booklists tailored to your lack of knowledge, plenty of useful homework and workshops all designed to get you up to speed.

How long will it take?

There are courses to suit all sorts of different timescales, but if you want to do it full-time it will be four weeks. That's four weeks, 9–5 in the training centre, which then spills out into work that needs to be done at home, taking up most evenings and a good chunk of your Saturdays and Sundays too. It's very intensive, because there's a lot to cover in this short amount of time. Cancel all your plans for the duration, tell your friends and family you will be unavailable and do not even contemplate going away for one of those weekends.

Part-time, then, might seem more attractive, but again you have to factor in what you will be trying to do at the same time. For example, if you are working full-time and doing a part-time course which lasts 12 weeks, meeting every Tuesday and Thursday evening and every other Saturday all day, you will find that many of your other evenings and weekends will be needed too, which also makes it quite intensive. But there are many different schedules available, up to and including ones which run for one evening a week for the best part of a year, so it's a matter of choosing a course which suits you, your life and your future teaching plans.

Why so much work? What will I be doing on the course?

About half the contact hours between the tutors and the trainee teachers will be spent on seminars, workshops and observation of experienced teachers. These will focus on things like deepening your understanding of what you will be teaching, the nuts and bolts of the English language, and understanding language skills like reading or speaking. There will also be a strong focus on teaching methodology, especially practical examples of what you can do to help students in the classroom.

The rest of the time is given over to teaching practice. Right from the beginning of the course, trainees are divided into groups and each trainee group gets given a class of their own (non-paying) students to teach. These students are real non-native speakers, and you will get to teach at least two groups – one group of students with a low level of English, and the other of students with a much better, but by no means fluent, command of the language.

At the beginning, you'll be teaching shorter segments with quite a lot of input from your tutor into what you could do, how you could do it, and materials you could use or develop to use in class. By the end of the course, however, you will be expected to be able to work much more independently to plan and execute lessons of up to an hour in length. When you are not teaching yourself, you are watching your peers teach their practice lessons – this is also considered valuable as it gives you even more opportunity to find out what works, and what doesn't.

Most of these lessons will be assessed, and each assessed lesson contributes to the overall grade you will get on the course. The grade is holistic, so you cannot pass or fail the course on the basis of just one lesson, but you are expected to demonstrate progress and obviously you are expected to show more expertise in the lessons you teach towards the end of the course, when you are nearing the completion of your training. The grades you can achieve on CELTA or Cert. TESOL courses are Pass A, Pass B, Pass or Fail. Most people get a straight Pass, with only about a quarter getting a B and a couple of percent of those taking the courses getting an A. This is because the higher grades represent the sort of teaching that most people achieve after gaining insight into the subject and students, and how to meld the two together. That comes from experience, which is quite hard to do if experience is not what you have. Getting that straight Pass, therefore, is not considered tantamount to a fail as it is in some contexts these days, and will be perfectly acceptable to most TEFL employers, who understand that most newly-qualified TEFL teachers need more time and support to develop into truly expert practitioners.

So what will you be doing at home? Well, lesson preparation, mostly. There will be grammar points to research, worksheets and Powerpoint presentations to design, props or interesting newspaper articles to find, a certain amount of practising in front of the mirror to do, and each lesson to write up as a detailed plan. In addition there will be some written assignments of 750–1,000 words to complete, which aim to deepen your understanding of different aspects of teaching.

Breaking News

A new variant of the CELTA course is underway, where the input sessions are done online and teachers and trainees only meet face to face for teaching practice. This may be the most flexible option yet.

What do I do after the course?

Getting a Job

Wherever you work, a typical full-time schedule is about 30 classroom hours a week, and a minimum expected 10 hours prep on top, although as a newly-qualified teacher you will probably be spending more time than that at first. Some schools also expect a few hours extra in terms of standby cover, placing new students in the correct level of class, or attending further training sessions.

If you are thinking about working in an English-speaking country, there are three main places where, as a new teacher, you can find work. It should be noted, however, that competition is fierce and it will be a lot easier when you have a few years experience under your belt.

Having said that, it is comparatively simple to get work on a summer school for teenagers. These run for the entirety of the summer holidays, but you can sign up for anything from two weeks to the whole three months. The many many positions are advertised in the national press and on TEFL job websites from January onwards7. There are two types of summer school – ones where the teachers and the students live in, perhaps on the site of a boarding school, and ones where the students live with local families and the teachers live wherever they please. Either way, it is quite likely that you would be doing some extramural duties, chaperoning the kids round Windsor Castle or the British Museum, to LaserQuest or a suitable local disco night8 as well as teaching. Live-in positions will probably also entail some pastoral duties.

The next easiest to break into are private language schools. You will be most likely to end up teaching general English for international adult students, who are usually transitory visitors to their host country. Entry-level positions are rarely advertised and the best way to get a job here is probably to send your CV to all the schools in the area where you would like to work. The situation is that if a school has a class waiting for a teacher they may contact you, and if they don't, they won't. The work will almost certainly be paid on an hourly basis, and that's classroom contact hours, not preparation hours or breaks. At first you might need to work for more than one school to fill the hours you want.

Harder to get are positions in Further Education colleges9 or teaching other government-funded classes. In addition to the same sorts of classes offered by private language schools, there will also be a lot of low-level classes for students who may also have a low level of overall education, possibly with very little literacy or numeracy. This is mainly adult work, but there is a growing need for teachers for the 16–19 age bracket. There really are not that many entry-level positions available in these institutions, but a possible way into this sector is to go through the same employment agencies which specialise in providing supply teachers to state schools. Again, to start with, work will also almost certainly be hourly paid. The rate of pay will be much higher than in private language schools but there is a LOT of admin and paperwork included in that, and you really earn those extra pennies10. To work in these institutions in the UK you will need a bolt-on qualification to the CELTA or Trinity TESOL. The easiest way to get this is to do your initial training with these centres, where it will be included as part of the course11.

If you are looking to work abroad in a non-English-speaking country, the majority of opportunities for CELTA graduates are in private language schools. It is almost guaranteed that you will be teaching children and teens as well as adults, unless you specialise in exam classes or Business English classes, and most schools would think twice about hiring you if you said that you didn't want to teach anyone younger than 18. Their main hiring time is over the summer (or winter if you travel to the Southern Hemisphere) for the start of the school year and contracts often mirror that year in being nine months long. However, they will recruit students and therefore some teachers pretty much at any time. In addition to money, in signing up you might also receive visa help, your airfares refunded (payable, usually, towards the middle or end of your contract), accommodation, travel cards, and health insurance. This very much depends, however, on how attractive the destination is to TEFL teachers. In Spain you will get none of these things, in Russia nearly all, and in Malaysia everything and a maid and a swimming pool thrown in free12.

And then?

Many people teach TEFL for a few years abroad and retire back to 'real life' and 'a proper job'. Some people want to continue though, and there are career options for them too. They can go into more specialised teaching areas. They can become part of the educational management team at a school, leading seminars, planning courses, writing tests and generally helping teachers on a day-to-day basis. They can become teacher trainers themselves. They can write the next bestselling coursebook. They can go and work for the people who design the exams taken in their hundreds of thousands by students around the world. They can go into TEFL publishing. There is, in fact, quite a lot of scope for advancement.

Most promotions rest on the teacher getting either a DELTA13, which is like a glorified CELTA with many bells and a lot of knobs on or, or increasingly and, a Masters in TEFL. The DELTA is the more practically oriented, with a large part of the marks coming from assessed teaching, and so more prized by the roles where hands-on experience is most relevant, while the Masters is more theoretical and frequently specialised.

And Finally!

TEFL teaching is your key to travelling to far-flung and exotic places. It is your key to living in a country alongside the people whose home it is, rather than visiting and getting to meet all the other tourists or expats. You'll see things others don't get to see, you'll understand things others don't understand, you'll hear things not meant for your ears, you'll watch a lot of very odd TV, you'll realise that other countries can run an underground train network successfully, and you'll eat food that will make you think that the natives only keep it around for surprising foreigners with. And then you will miss it when you go somewhere else. Or, alternatively, you can stay at home and have the world come to you.

But don't do it if you want to learn another language. Everybody you meet will speak English.

1(Teaching) English as a Second Language.2(Teaching) English to Speakers of Other Languages.3Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults.4Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.5These are the organisations who accredit and monitor the standards on CELTA and CertTESOL courses.6There might be some leeway – essentially you need to convince the centre you have the ability to pass the course, which does have a certain academic style to it. Basically, talk to a few centres if you don't fit the standard profile.7Depending on your hemisphere, it could be September onwards.8This is a lot of fun, actually. Until you end up in the London Dungeon 12 weeks in a row.9UK-specific: colleges for 16+ students, particularly offering vocational courses below degree level. In the UK, these are the main providers of state-funded TEFL/TESOL courses.10Really a LOT. No, MORE than that. Really.11There is a faint possibility you might get hired off the course too.12Anecdotal evidence: no promises, sorry!13Diploma in English Teaching to Adults.

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