With industry veterans like Geoff Jordan, Hugh Dellar and others out there swinging their hammers at CELTA, I thought I’d take the opportunity to defend the pre-service ELT teaching certificate. Not the CELTA, mind you, but its oft-snubbed, dubiously legitimate little brother. I’m here to defend the humble TEFL certificate.
For the record, I completed a 120-hour TEFL program with 6 hours of teaching practice at the now-defunct ITC Prague (i.e. not an internet-only certificate). The instructors were Geoff Harwood and three other guys whose names I no longer remember (Geoff’s was written on my end-of-course certificate). ITC Prague (as I found out later) eventually failed as a business, but the teaching instruction these guys gave was excellent. The TEFL has had a sort of slow-drip effect on me, and some of what I learned only really struck a chord years later.
Looking back on it from 13 years later, here are 12 things I most definitely learned on my TEFL course. Whatever pre-service course you’ve done or will do, I hope you’ll have the chance to learn some of the same.
1. What it feels like to be in your students’ shoes
Once a week during the 4-week training course we got taught a lesson in basic Czech. It was L2 only, and we learned some of the usual basics like ordering a beer, ordering a beer… and, well, whatever else you do in Prague. (Oh, that’s right, and the akusativ case as well). I still find it silly and somewhat ridiculous when Delta trainers or presenters ask you to model activities and instructions on your English-speaking colleagues who are roleplaying as students; this sort of suspension of disbelief would have been impossible to accomplish with day-0 teachers if we hadn’t had the bracing shock of our first dose of elementary Czech.
Of course, L2-only instruction has no shortage of critics now, but as a teaching model in the context of mostly monolingual native-speaker Americans (as we were) en route to who knows where, it makes a lot of sense. So much so that when I started helping with teacher training in Istanbul I also liked to demonstrate the basics in elementary Turkish.
2. Be prepared to teach in any condition
Maybe because we weren’t the silver spoon babies from the Cambridge CELTA nursery there seemed to be an emphasis on being prepared to teach in any condition. We heard stories about jobs around the world with horrid living conditions and monthly payments in cash-filled suitcases that had to be rushed to the local currency exchange before the rate plunged and four weeks’ pay turned into two. You might have a library full of resources, we were told, but it was more likely we were to have an out-of-date coursebook and a broken photocopy machine and just one color of chalk. (That’s right, I said chalk.)
As such, we learned to teach with minimal resources, like a blurry photocopy of a half-page of a coursebook (at least that’s how I remember it). Knowing how little is needed to actually teach a language ultimately both prepared me for some of the teaching experiences that followed (particularly when I spent lunches teaching two farm girls in a small village in Southern Italy with only home-made materials) and primed me to keep my head above water when confronted with the tsunami of lookalike coursebooks, CDs, DVDs, online components and apps that the profession is awash in today.
3. You may play only a small, possibly insignificant role in any learner’s EFL journey
ITC opened up their doors to the city to fill the chairs for the free trainee lessons. There was a slightly annoying, over-talkative older guy who never failed to show up in the advanced course. One evening after my lesson he button-holed me on my way out to meet up with fellow TEFLers at a bar. His English was very good, and his accent, at least to my American ears, was very British. Did he learn that much just from popping into trainee lessons? Of course not. As we walked across the Old Town Square he told me that he had learned all his English by listening emphatically, obsessively and passionately to BBC radio from the time he was a child during the war.
In other words, it was his own relentless motivation that allowed him to learn what he had. For much of his life that meant listening to the radio. At other times it might have meant studying grammar or sitting in and piping up during awkwardly delivered trainee lessons.
What’s great is that when you realize you’re only a small part of anybody’s learning journey you can stop worrying about cramming in and pounding away at every bit of grammar on the B2 syllabus. Every new teacher may secretly hope to be that one heroic, life-changing catalyst, but more likely than not there will be other classes, other teachers, other learning moments. You’re only a small stop along the way.
4. Be generous with your praise
I think one of the hardest lessons for any teacher to learn is that there’s no magic to spotting errors, and nothing is easier than criticism. Giving praise, on the other hand, is much harder, or at least harder to stay in the habit of doing day in and day out, in classroom speaking and homework marking. Fortunately I was given a great example of how to heap praise on struggling elementary students early on. The instructor was a grinning, floppy haired guy who’d mastered two dozen ways to say “great”, and he doled them fast and furiously whenever the students would talk. Amazing. Fantastic. Excellent. Awesome.
Of course, empty praise can be shallow, if not damaging, and some leading lights in ELT would probably take my instructor to task for not demanding high enough, but the thing I’ve learned to constantly remind myself of is just how much time and study it took for any student, whatever her level of interlanguage, to produce the language she has produced. When a student is stretching herself to express meaning, imperfect is no less praiseworthy.
5. Use the room
One of the best classroom techniques I ever learned was to simply back off when a student was speaking in whole-class mode. When someone timidly croaks out a few words or a sentence the natural impulse is to approach, protect and console. But outside of a major emotional breakdown by your student, this is the wrong approach. What I learned from the same grinning, floppy-haired instructor was that the best response to student production is to move to the diagonal opposite side of the room.
It forces the student to project (shouting What? while cupping your hand to your ear doesn’t hurt either), it’s a great justification for some Underhill-approved repetition, and it keeps the whole class engaged as nobody’s excluded from an unintentionally private conversation.
6. You want authentic? Tell a story
The best trainee lesson I taught on my TEFL certificate course was one where I recorded myself telling a true story about randomly ending up in a small French village to watch the home team win the final game of the 2008 World Cup, and the riotous, booze-soaked celebration that followed. Students listened to the recording then retold the story using elaborate pictures I had drawn and colored. Then they conceived, practiced and rehearsed their own anecdotes. While the stories vary, and the technology has changed (I don’t record on cassette tape anymore!) I still do variations on this lesson to this day.
What’s great about anecdote telling lessons is that require no preparation (you can certainly do without the box of colored pencils), they’re infinitely variable and repeatable and within the timespan of one lesson they reward students with a perceptible increase in fluency. Anecdotes focus on whole texts, rather than discrete grammatical units (though of course they can serve as a vehicle for the latter) and allow both students and teacher to generate authentic texts. And best of all there’s no better way to get to know, and remember, the people in the class than by giving them the space and time to tell stories about themselves.
Humans are storytelling animals, and stories and anecdotes make for some of the best, easiest and most rewarding lessons you can create.
7. Coursebooks are lame
I don’t remember what coursebooks we were given to analyze, but I knew from the outset that they were not for me. As I wrote in an email to a friend at the end of week 3 of the course: You often have the option of working at least for structure from text/lesson books, but everyone remembers how mind-numbingly stupid those activities were. And un-cool.
I’d always romantically believed in Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that the government should be rewritten, by blood if necessary, for every generation, and thought it applied no less to my future career. I wrote: I’d like to make the first “hip” language textbook, to be tossed out, or modified, with each passing year and trend.
Though I spent later years lost in the wilderness of New English File, in the last few years I’ve been born again into my youthful ambition to rewrite the rules on what it means to teach a course. Without a coursebook.
8. Break fucking convention ― and learn from it
After getting an initial dose of what coursebooks were all about, I was itching to push back. I wanted to break the boundaries, and no doubt strike an imaginary blow at the anodyne, cookie-cutter texts I was going to be using for the foreseeable future. So I said I wanted to teach my students how to use fuck. And in the tradition of all great educators ever, my TEFL instructor Geoff Harwood did the best thing he possibly could have: he said yes. Geoff pointed me to an actual teacher’s book on teaching taboo topics (with an actual lesson on cursing), and let me have a go with lesson planning. So I developed, planned and taught a very legitimate pre-service trainee lesson on fuck. Why did he let me do it? I think there was something of the iconoclast in him, too, and he probably wanted to see if I could pull it off. More importantly, however, I think Geoff probably suspected what I found out in that post-session breakdown: that teaching a lesson on fuck wasn’t really as cool, or interesting, or worthwhile, as I’d hoped. I think the Czechs were amused, and mildly interested, but they hardly had the same need for rebellion that I did. And coming from another culture with its own categorically different swear words, they hardly felt the taboo-busting titillation I did.
To this day I can only remember one other time where I’ve actually sat down with the intention of teaching a student a whole litany of swear words, and that was a 1-to-1 situation, and on request. It’s not that I shy away from curses, but when they come up in authentic texts or students ask me about them I certainly deal with them in a more natural way because I’m not trying to feed my own need to break ELT taboo. I wanted to épater la bourgeoisie and by helping me get it out of my system, Geoff and the TEFL course helped me move on.
9. Lesson planning is a pain
Jim Scrivener once said to me at an AISLi conference session he was delivering in Thiene that Delta Module 2 puts way too much priority on lesson planning and not enough time on how to respond to the real time needs of learners in the classroom. And while I fully agree with his assessment, I had already been indoctrinated into the misery and wasted hours of lesson planning on my TEFL course. I remember spending what seemed forever thinking and rethinking, writing and rewriting, sweating bullets trying to complete all the boxes on my lesson plan.
During Delta Module 2 I came to accept that the Cambridge lesson plan format is, like other forms of academic writing, or FCE test papers, or recipes for Tiramisù, a sort of genre-writing where certain conventions must be respected. But for the pre-service teacher groping his way in the dark there seemed nothing more excruciating than vainly fiddling around trying to tick the right boxes.
What would have been much more helpful for me, I think, is writing a basic back-of-the-envelope plan followed by a one-to-one talkthrough of what I expected to happen and how to transition between blocks. And talking through what to actually do when the what-ifs came true. The post lesson feedback sessions were great, but hardly made up for all the agony that came before. Outside of professional-development hoop-jumping I’ve never written up a lesson plan anything like as much unpleasant detail.
10. The present perfect is formed by HAVE/HAS + V3
I may have studied English Lit and fancied myself exceptionally fluent in my native tongue but like many native speakers I went into my pre-service course with little idea of how to identify, label, diagram or explain English verb tense and aspect, the bread and butter of your typical coursebook. Years after teaching my way through New New Headway, New English File and Speakout, the one thing that’s always stuck with me (besides the diagramming lessons) was the way my TEFL course instructors labeled what everybody else called the past participle: V3. It made sense to me, and I continued to label it so, despite what the coursebooks said, because the V3 (like V1 and V2) seemed such a better and more efficient label, and less confusing when dealing with issues like hypothetical conditional structures.
Michael Lewis’s The English Verb was a revelation to me when I read it years later on my Delta Module 1 prep course, particularly for his call to relabel, and reimagine, the system of tense and aspect as pertains to the English language (and not to Latin). I don’t know for sure if my instructors were inspired by Lewis in their descriptions, but I suspect they were, and I’m grateful that pre-service grammar intro planted the seeds for later understanding.
11. There’s a career to be made out of this, somehow
I remember visibly cringing when one of my instructors said he was 32 years old. 32? And still working in TEFL? OMG! Like many of my peers, when I first signed up for my TEFL course I was not in it for the long haul. I was giving myself two years before I went back to the states to do something serious. Or so I thought.
But as two years turned into three or four and friends back home stopped asking me when I was coming back (and 32 finally came and went), I realized I had to find some new role models. What came back to me, of course, were my very first models for developed, professional teachers, the instructors at ITC Prague.
They were dedicated, serious, and inquisitive (my first taste of what Richards and Rodgers call “alternative approaches and methods” was Geoff Harwood, gesticulating in his black turtleneck, as he demoed the Silent Way for us in class) and, in at least one case, by then well-rooted in the local environment. As I did go on to make a career out of it (however precarious it at times may be) I’ll always have them to thank for showing me that TEFL has a shelf-life past 32.
12. Say yes
In the end, the best thing I learned from my TEFL course was simply to say yes. Yes to late nights and the early mornings, yes to the horrible slog of lesson planning, yes to post-lesson feedback, yes to amazing, incredible, awesome, yes to diagramming tense and aspect, yes to chalk, yes to the akusativ, and to being a language student all over again, yes to fuck, fucking, fucked, yes to that pit in my stomach as I weighed up which unknown country, city and school to go to, yes to hours spent in smokey bars, and even smokier internet cafes, and yes to a 36-hour bus ride to Istanbul, to a city that had been horribly and repeatedly bombed only 4 months before, where I would spend nearly five great years and meet my future wife and fall in love and yes, even start on a real live career in ELT.
Of course, I’m not arguing that the a one-month pre-service course is necessarily the best or the only way to learn, but for now it remains the standard.
13 years ago I said yes to the TEFL certificate and I never looked back. I hope whatever pre-training certificate you do or did, you’ll end up doing the same.