I’ve been very quiet for the last month. Maybe you noticed? But I’ve not written anything on my blog for quite some time now. The reason for this sudden and dramatic silence is that I’ve been busying myself taking a four week crash course in the divine art of being an English teacher, ahead of getting a teaching job here in Hanoi.
When I told people I was about to do a CELTA (the Certificate of English Language Teaching for Adults, underwritten by the University of Cambridge and recognized as a gold standard qualification the world over), their reaction was broadly uniform: a wincing of the face, a pitiful drawing of breath, and a look not dissimilar to the one I give people when they stub their toe painfully on the corner of a misplaced item of furniture. The pre-course emails from the college where I was studying – Language Link in Hanoi – advised me not to arrange any social events during the course, and to prepare for four weeks of intensive work. I was told to wave goodbye to my friends for a month.
Surely it couldn’t be that bad, I thought?
Well… Lets just say it didn’t turn out to be a cakewalk. Not that I was expecting a cakewalk, of course. But prophecies of 18 hour days and persistent nightmares of lesson plans did indeed come true. In four weeks on the course we covered everything from how to put together and then deliver comprehensive lessons to the relative merits of a range of teaching methodologies (I can now hold my own in an argument regarding the pros and cons of PPP. Not that I’d ever actually want to do this, you understand).
Every week we’d also give a handful of ‘TP sessions’ – Teaching Practices involving 40 minutes of actual real life teaching to actual real life Vietnamese students (by the end of my lessons they were often decidedly less ‘real life’, especially when I was barking on at the poor bastards about grammar and tenses that even I don’t really understand).
The days were long, the hours intense, and with evenings crammed with filling in increasingly detailed lesson plans for the next day, it became quite a stressful experience. Indeed, two people on our course dropped out after the first week, such was the sheer volume of work we had to get done. CELTA fully deserves its reputation for being a sort of teaching bootcamp.
So it sounds like hell, right? Yeah, it was pretty hellish. But through it all some strange things happened. For one thing, I found that my teaching skills actually improved over the four weeks of the course, and that from delivering some faltering and disjointed early lessons when I must have looked like a bit of a lemon, by the end of the course I felt I was able to put together and then to effectively deliver some pretty decent lesson plans.
I even found I enjoyed teaching the students – fancy that! Those of you who follow me on Facebook might have noticed a flood of Vietnamese people becoming my Facebook friends over the weekend. They’re some of the two dozen or so wonderful people from the elementary and intermediate classes we taught. Some of them are dazzlingly intelligent people, and all of them were among the friendliest people you could ever hope to meet. We the CELTA teachers took the students for a beer on Thursday night last week, to thank them for being so patient with us over the last month. They swiftly drank us all under the table. Mot hai baa yo, indeed!
To anyone who wants to come and teach English overseas, my advice is to come and do a CELTA first. Don’t waste your time with any cheap TEFL course that doesn’t involve an actual real teaching element. Learning to be a teacher without teaching is like learning to drive a car just by reading a book, but without actually sitting behind the wheel.
Sure, its hard work. Its stressful. In fact its bloody terrifying when you first stand up at the front of a classroom and see 15 pairs of expectant eyes staring back at you, waiting to be taught. I’ve played drums in front of hundreds of people I don’t know before, and I don’t even get nervous anymore, and yet when I first found myself in front of a dozen Viet students I was beside myself with nerves!
But you get through that. You get through the work, through the stress, through the stacks of paperwork you need to do. And somewhere in the middle of it all, whilst not emerging from the course as the complete teacher you’d like to be, you will have had an almighty push in the right direction.
And just to help you along, from this fresh CELTA graduate, here are my top five tips to surviving your CELTA course:
Learn a little bit of grammar before you start
You don’t need a full working knowledge of the ins and outs of the punitively complex English grammar system. But being able to spot your present perfect from your present simple by the time you arrive is going to help. You’re going to have enough to worry about on your CELTA as it is: this is something you can box off before you begin.
Don’t expect a life!
Explain to your friends and family that for four weeks, you’re going to be a hermit. Evenings and weekends will disappear into a vacuum of work and effort. Your mates will start to think you’ve become an anti-social dickhead. Your family will start to forget you ever existed. When that happens, just explain to them you’re doing a CELTA, and that you’ll emerge into the real world again soon. But before that happens, they should stop bugging you!
You can do CELTAs pretty much anywhere in the world. I could have done mine in Liverpool. But I chose to come and do it in Hanoi. The reason was that I knew I’d be teaching Vietnamese people during the CELTA, and that if I’m going to teach in Vietnam, these people will struggle with the same things as the people I end up teaching professionally. It made sense to study in Vietnam, and I’d suggest you do the same.
You’ve got lesson plans, written assignments, reading and researching to do. The work will pile up relentlessly if you’re not careful. So, be organized, and don’t leave stuff to the last minute! If you’ve got a spare half hour, write up a few hundred words of your next written assignment. If you’ve got a spare evening, don’t sit on the sofa in your pants watching The Big Bang Theory, but get ahead with your next lesson plan even if its not due for another day or two.
If you’ve got a problem, get help!
Our CELTA tutors, Kaithe and Jennifer, were fantastic. I really did think they were. They were always available to answer any questions I had, and when I was tearing out my hair over lesson plans (and you know I can’t afford to lose any more hair than I have already) they were uniformly patient whilst helping me navigate my way through. CELTA is a bloody hard course to survive. I felt our tutors made it easier to finish.