I’m doing something a little different today and looking back at my teacher training.
As a lot of you already know, I took a Cambridge English CELTA course in preparation for moving to Vienna last year. CELTA stands for Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults. The qualification is available for beginner and professional teachers at different institutions around the world, but my particular CELTA course was run through British Study Centres in Oxford.
My CELTA was a four week intensive course, but a part time option is also available. During the course I taught students at 2 different levels for a total of 6 hours. The lessons were observed and graded by our course tutors. There were also compulsory observations of experienced teachers and 4 written assignments about teaching theory, learner assessment, and our reflection on the course experience. All of this took up only half of the course time. Each morning we took part in seminar style teaching workshops
In our CELTA course we were a group of 13 teachers of different levels of experience. We had complete novices as well as people who had been teaching fulltime for a number of years. At 23 I was the third youngest on the course. We also had a 50:50 mix of native and non-native English speakers. It was great to be a part of such a diverse group.
Choosing the CELTA
I chose the CELTA over other teaching courses because it is one of the most widely recognised and respected qualifications out there. This is because of the observed teaching practice with real learners which is built into the course.
For me, the other advantage of the CELTA was the opportunity for career progression after the initial certificate. There are bolt-on courses such as teaching young learners, as well as the DELTA diploma, which is further training undertaken after you have built up at least 1200 hours of teaching practice.
I was also lucky enough to have a good friend in St Andrews who had done the CELTA so I was able to speak to her before I decided to apply.
The CELTA is renowned for being very intensive. When you first express interest, you are told that there is no way you will be able to juggle other time commitments with the workload. This is not an exaggeration.
I am used to hard work, time management and independent study. During my final year at St Andrews, I wrote my dissertation, worked in catering for 15 – 20 hours per week and planned my wedding. Up until I started the CELTA, I worked for up to 60 hours a week in a hotel. I don’t know if it was the large workload, the emotional investment in the lessons we were planning, or the vulnerability of the observed teaching, but the CELTA was exhausting in an entirely different way.
I was very tired for the whole 4 weeks of the course. I think it was only manageable because of the adrenaline and the fact that the end was so clear.
On a typical day, I would wake up before 6.30am to catch the train. We had teaching seminars from 9 until 12.30, then 90 minutes for lunch. We usually spent this time working on our assignments or doing last minute lesson preparation. From 2 – 5 we taught or observed each other teaching. I would get home around 6pm, and I had to work on assignments, study and prepare lessons for another 3 or 4 hours in the evening. I generally stopped working between 10:30 and 11pm, read or watched TV for 30 minutes, and then went to bed. I also had to work for the majority of each weekend. With great forward planning, I was able to go for a run once a week, and I was able to take a Sunday afternoon off during the first weekend of the course to celebrate my wedding anniversary. Otherwise there really wasn’t a break until the assignment deadlines had passed in the fourth week. I still think it’s a miracle that not one of the 13 trainee teachers became ill during the course.
Most importantly, for the duration of the course I stayed with family close to Oxford. I had considered doing the CELTA in Dundee instead and commuting every day from my home in St Andrews. I honestly think that if I had had the longer commute, all the shopping, cooking and cleaning that I normally have to do, and the pressure to see friends in the evening, I wouldn’t have been successful. Other members of my CELTA group regularly found themselves preparing lessons at 2 or 3am.
The course really is as intense as they say.
The CELTA Method
Something which I think you should consider before undertaking any teaching training is the way you will be taught to teach. Many language schools, for instance, will train you in their own method (usually weighted towards speaking) before they allow you to work there. I am a quite skeptical of some of these methods as they seem to be quick fixes. On the other hand, I found the method taught on the CELTA course to be extremely well rounded.
The CELTA seminars and the balance of theory, observation, and practical teaching practice was ideal for me. I was particularly happy with the way that grammar teaching was dealt with. We were never told to ignore grammar, to call it something else, or to pretend that it didn’t exist. Instead, we addressed it in context, so that the students could always see how it was relevant.
The CELTA also taught us to present a teaching point, give the students controlled practice to check their understanding, and then to give them freer practice. For example, we might elicit the structure of the present continuous as we write an example sentence on the board. We might then follow this up with further examples, natural models of repetition, or timelines. Afterwards, the students would have a very controlled exercise such as a gap fill. Only after the class had checked this exercise together would they use the grammatical form in a freer speaking or writing exercise. This final exercise would often be based on open questions.
I really believe that this method helps students to speak and write accurately. It seems to get new words and new grammatical forms into their active vocabulary. The controlled practice activity has been missing from a lot of the German classes I have been taking as a student and I find that really frustrating.
Although they vastly increased the amount of work we had to do, I also found the written assignments very rewarding. They were a chance to reflect on the reading I had done, think about the teaching I had been doing and explore a range of other teaching materials. Books I found particularly helpful, by the way, were Teach Yourself Teach EFL by David Riddel, and Learning Teaching by James Scrivener. Of course, no teacher, trainee or otherwise, can be without a copy of Practical English Usage by Michael Swan.
I also have to mention the benefits of the collaborative aspect of the teacher training. Every so often I became a frustrated by the teamwork elements during the morning training seminars, but I think that was natural under so much pressure. I did sometimes find myself thinking that I could read something from a book in a quarter of the time and spend the time doing my lesson preparation instead, but I do recognise that it’s best that we had to do this group work regularly.
I had a lot of respect for my tutors and all the others I was learning alongside. Spending so much time with the other students and sharing such an intense experience, we became good friends very quickly. Although our lessons and assignments were all graded (s for satisfactory at that stage of the course, s+ for above satisfactory), the course was remarkably non competitive and we genuinely wanted each other to succeed.
Finally, I we weren’t left out in the cold with the CELTA. A lot of what we learned wasn’t exclusive to teaching adults – I can use the basic principles and structures with the children I teach as well. We also had seminars during the last week about professional development, teaching Business English, and were sent away with information about where to look for work.
How has your teaching benefited?
I think my teaching benefited enormously from doing the CELTA. The constructive criticism was invaluable for me as I had so little teaching experience when I started. However, the tutors didn’t stop at picking up on our bad habits. They were incredibly understanding and encouraging throughout the 4 weeks.
With the constructive criticism behind me, I felt very prepared when I was alone with a class for the first time since the course. Perhaps it was even less nerve-wracking as my tutor and 5 peers weren’t watching me.
I continue to use the teaching techniques and warm up activities which we were taught, and I’m still working on improving the messy whiteboards which were the main thing I struggled with during the CELTA.
Would you do it again?
I am very glad that I took the CELTA. I think that it has made it much easier for me to find work in Vienna. It has given me more confidence in my teaching ability, whether that’s with children, adults, Business English or exam preparation. I also know that it would be a great advantage if I ever wanted to travel as a teacher.
Perhaps the greatest recommendation is that I have considered following up with the DELTA diploma once I have another few years of experience behind me.
Think carefully about where you want to take your course
As I said before, I can’t imagine how I would have coped with the CELTA workload if I had had a longer commute or if I had had my regular chores or work responsibilities to juggle. Many centres which offer the CELTA can also provide accommodation close to the school. You should consider this option.
Remember that the teaching you do while on the CELTA is not the teaching you will do for the rest of your career
The CELTA instructors like to see you using certain techniques. They will make sure that you use choral repetition, elicit answers from the students, and give both on the spot and delayed error correction. These are all great techniques, but in my experience it is not realistic to tick them off with every lesson I teach now.
Each of your lessons during the CELTA will also be planned in incredible detail. My lesson plans were usually 6 pages long and included diagrams of my whiteboards, phonemic transcriptions of all new vocabulary and back up plans in case students did not understand my first two context sentences. I would plan for 3 hours to teach a 20 minute lesson. Obviously is impossible to work like this in the real world, but I also think that I would have found this meticulous planning frustrating if I had been a more experienced teacher when the course began.
I think that the CELTA was also unrealistic in the students and lessons we taught. Firstly, our students knew that we were trainees. They were so patient and well motivated, and had been well placed so that there was not a large ability gap in the classes. We did not have to teach absolute beginners or very advanced students. These are all things that I have to deal with in my work now.
Secondly, each lesson that we taught on the CELTA was something of a patchwork. When 3 of us had to teach for 40 minutes each there would be 3 mini-lessons, each dealing with a completely different point of grammar or vocabulary. There was no preparation in the seminars for planning or teaching courses across many weeks, which I really would have appreciated.
This section has ended up being quite long, but I didn’t intend it to discourage you from taking the CELTA. The meticulous planning and range of topics give you a very strong foundation when you start out as a teacher. These are just disadvantages, natural to the structure and environment of the course, which you should be aware of.
You’ll need a thick skin
My final piece of advice to anyone considering the CELTA would be to consider the sheer amount of (always constructive) criticism that you’re going to have to take on board. This is a wonderful thing, but it can also be a shock.
Because of the pressure, the immediate feedback on your teaching and the amount of energy that you’re investing in your lessons, it’s easy to get emotional. Several of us did cry during the feedback sessions. Having said this, the CELTA is also fantastic in that it recognises the emotional aspect of the teaching hours by making you fill out ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ reflections on your lesson. You fill out one self evaluation form as soon as you finish teaching and a second the next evening when you’ve had time to calm down.
As someone on our course said, there is never going to be another time in your career where you will be able to grow so much so quickly, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy.
So what do you think? To all my fellow teachers reading, have you taken a CELTA or other similar teaching course? What was your experience? If you’re considering enrolling and have any questions that I haven’t answered in this post, I’d love to hear from you. Send me an email or let me know what you think in the comments below.
Normal service will be resumed next week, where we’ll be looking at another of my most favourite Scottish traditions.
Mairi : )
image: beggs at everystockphoto.com