All change! Learning to teach English the CELTA way

My blog has been hibernating since Christmas because I’ve been far too busy to write anything, or to do anything much interesting enough to blog about. That’s because in the the first week of January I started an English language teaching course, and am now the proud owner of the Cambridge Certificate in English Teaching to Adults (CELTA).

For the last three months I’ve been going to classes for three hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and four hours on Saturday mornings. The Saturday mornings were the worst. I’m not a morning person and I felt cruelly deprived of my customary Saturday snooze. It really was painful dragging myself off to class for 9.30 on a Saturday morning, every morning for 12 weeks. The course was very practical, and involved us observing experienced teachers, and teaching eight lessons ourselves, observed by an experienced teacher who then, along with all the students, pitched in to tell us where we went wrong.

A fresh crop of newly qualified teachers!

On top of this, there was a lot of homework. I completed four assignments, which I found relatively easy. They were only 1,000 words each, so once I’d done the research it took me no time at all to bash out the words. But the lesson planning was a different matter. I can’t imagine anyone ever actually plans a lesson in as much depth as we had to for the course, but it took me an average of 4 hours to plan for a 40 or 60 minute lesson. This seems crazy, but I think it really helped us rookie teachers to do such elaborate preparation before the classes. It’s all been a bit of a hard slog, and fairly stressful too, as you feel you stand or fall by the strength of each lesson. You really, really don’t want to spend 40 minutes or an hour each week humiliating yourself in front of a class of students, an experienced teacher, and your peers. So you’ve got to be prepared.

I found the course incredibly interesting. I’ve learnt a lot about about teaching methods but the key point for me is that you need to engage people’s attention and get them to do something active with what they’re learning. No one’s really sure what the best way to learn or teach a language is, so CELTA uses a mix and match of different techniques and ideas. But one thing is sure, standing in front of people and lecturing them for ages doesn’t teach them anything, or test what they know or don’t know, or help them remember anything. They’ve got to actually DO something, an exercise or activity that uses the language.

This is one of those things that is entirely obvious once it’s been pointed out to you, and that suddenly seems relevant to many areas of life. The idea was a revelation though, and I immediately applied it in my day job as an archivist and records manager. I redesigned our training session for new starters to begin with a competition to see who could build a flat-pack records box the fastest. Ice-breakers and competitions get people motivated. You’d be surprised how excited people got when promised a small prize for making a cardboard box. Then we did an exercise of getting the group to assess the contents of a box against a retention schedule, to decide what to keep and what to chuck out. Most people found this surprisingly difficult. This taught them something, but also taught us something too. Not only were these sessions far more effective for learning, they were also much more fun to teach.

Another surprising thing I learnt on the course was the theory of reading. We were taught to structure a reading lesson by giving students a short period of time to read a piece and answer a couple of quick general questions about it, to get the ‘gist’ of it. This is called ‘skimming’. Then they would have much longer to read and answer more specific questions, which is called ‘scanning’, in other words searching for specific information. At no point did they need to read every single word in the piece, read it out loud, or go through it with a dictionary. In other words, students learnt how to read a foreign language in a functional way, the way native speakers do when reading a newspaper or checking listings. They don’t learn to read in the way you might read a novel, because they’re not going to need to do that, at least not until they’re quite advanced. I found it very interesting to think about the different ways in which we read. It’s a much more complex activity than simply looking at one word at a time and understanding each of them. This will definitely change the way I attempt to read in a foreign language in the future. I’ll worry much less about understanding every single word, and just feel pleased if I can extract the information I really need.

So, why have I spent 120 hours of my free time, plus about 60 hours of homework (when I put it like that, I’m not surprised I’ve been tired), learning to be a teacher? Well, I’ve decided it’s time for a change. I’ve been working in archives for about 14 years now and I want to do something different for a while. My partner and I had talked about moving abroad before, but the problem always was, what would I do in another country? Teaching English was the obvious answer, and once we’d hit on the idea of moving to Lisbon for a while, it seemed like a good opportunity. Why Lisbon? Well, it’s hot, sunny, cheap, the food is good, there are nice beaches nearby, and I found the town impossibly romantic. It has a slightly Tom-Waits-esque air of decaying grandeur, melancholy beauty and cultural melting pot. What more could you want?

Lisbon – not bad, eh?

We plan to move to Lisbon in September, so I can get a job there at the start of the teaching year. In the meantime, I’ve actually quit my job, so I’m going to get a teaching job here in London as soon as I can. I’ll keep you updated on how it all goes!