DOING THE CELTA
SOME QUESTIONS AND A FEW ANSWERS
by Alan Marsh
These days I’m often asked a serious of related questions concerning the Cambridge ESOL Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults – the CELTA for short. So I thought it might be useful to teachers interested in the subject to put these questions down and try to write some clear answers to them.
Should I do it?
A tough one. If you’re seriously interested in teaching English as a foreign language then it is unlikely that you will find a better training scheme. However, you will need commitment, time, emotional support and peace at home. If you’re planning on separating from your partner or moving house, well, perhaps it would be wise to postpone the course for a while (or perhaps the separation…). You will learn a lot regarding both teaching techniques and your own teaching style. You will be involved in a lot of group work, and have to operate in a team, so I that particular style of learning does not appeal to you then perhaps you should not consider doing the CELTA.
If you plan on working abroad some time in the future, then in many countries it’s difficult to get a decent job (pay, conditions, resources, supportive and qualified staff) without it and in some countries whenever you apply for a TEFL job they’ll ask you to do the CELTA and re-apply.
If you’re experienced, but have no formal qualification to show for it, then the CELTA might be what you’re looking for – an internationally recognized qualification and a course to furnish you with a wealth of new ideas and perspectives.
If I am experienced, will that be a help or a hindrance?
Both, possibly. Standing up in front of a class and managing a group of learners will not be as daunting, and not take as much time to get used to, as might be the case for a novice teacher. Plus, you’ll probably know more about grammar, for example, then somebody who has to analyse, research and teach it for the first time – remember when you first thought about the difference between, for example, she has been and she went?!
However, you may have acquired some teaching habits that, without your realising it, actually get in the way of your students’ learning rather than helping them. Novice teachers won’t have that problem.
I’ve been told that I’d have to write detailed lesson plans and follow them rigidly. Is that true?
Yes and no. Yes, you’ll be asked at some point to write detailed lesson plans. This is a training tool to help you think carefully about what you are going to do in a lesson, why you’re going to do it and how you’re going to go about involving all of the students. No, you won’t have to follow it rigidly. As a sensitive teacher, you’ll be encouraged to follow and respond to whatever happens in the classroom. Often, when you, your colleagues and trainers are analysing and reflecting on a lesson you’ve just taught, it will be found that the effectiveness or otherwise of the lesson can be traced back to elements that were included or excluded in the lesson plan. At other times you will have a spontaneous and successful idea while you’re teaching which is an improvement on the plan. Writing lesson plans will help you to become a more reflective practitioner.
I’ve been told that I might have to change my personality. True?
A rather difficult thing to achieve, and hardly desirable, I’m sure you’ll agree! You will be encouraged and helped, however, to analyse those aspects of your teaching style that actually help students and those that might hinder learning. Often, learning more about how you are perceived you your learners in an interesting and revelatory experience. Just occasionally it can be painful. It is nearly always a potentially empowering experience that can open up exciting directions in your own teaching.
Will I enjoy it?
Why not? At the end of most CELTA course there is an overwhelming sense of camaraderie and sometimes a genuine, and even tearful, sadness that it’s all over. Some groups go on meeting for years afterwards. I know of one group who did their Certificate 20 years ago in Rome and still meet for dinner three times a year!
On the way it can be exhausting, frustrating and stressful, and a t times you may wonder what on earth possessed you to decide to do it, but on the whole the vast majority of participants gain immense satisfaction from the experience.
So what exactly is the course about?
Practical teaching, and becoming a reflective practitioner i.e. thinking about what you’re going to do in the classroom, what actually happened, and making future teaching decisions based on these classroom experiences. There is some theory, too, but only in terms of its practical application in the classroom (theory is dealt with in far greater depth in the Diploma). About half of the course is centred around Teaching Practice; in fact, you start teaching real live genuine foreign learners right from the first day (well, almost)! On the intensive course (four weeks) you’ll be teaching an average of 11-13 times. You’ll prepare a whole lesson with your colleagues and then teach part of it yourself (good co-ordination and co-operative skills required here). Your colleagues and trainer will watch you teach your particular section of the lesson and then, when all the students have gone home and you’ve had a coffee to calm down (!), the teaching group will reflect on the teaching session and what lessons can be drawn from it. In this way, every lesson no matter how wonderful or otherwise, becomes a learning experience.
Most of the rest of the course contains input sessions, mainly in the form of think tanks, workshops, and seminars dealing with finding out about how the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation (or syntactical, lexical and phonological, if you prefer), systems of English work, what the language skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing consist of, and some techniques and ideas we can use in the classroom when we set out to teach these systems and skills.
Rather than being traditional speaker-centred lectures, these seminars, etc., are conducted in such a way that most of what you learn is acquired through doing things e.g. answering questions, solving problems, discussing in pairs and groups, and so forth. The approach used is often referred to as experiential (you learn from experiencing) and as the learners (in this case trainees) do most of the work, rather than the “teacher”, it is often called “learner centred teaching/learning”. This same learner-centred approach is perhaps the defining characteristic of what the course sets out to do – produce practical and reflective learner-centred teacher.
Most of us have not experienced this kind of learning/teaching before (our teachers were trained differently – they were the centre of attention for most of the lesson and they perceived their job as being to provide us with knowledge and information) and we therefore may have no models to base ourselves on when we get up and teach. That is one of the reasons why the course’s input sessions are conducted as they are – to provide a model for the teacher and learner roles you’ll be experimenting with in the classroom. The course is also “about” something else. It can perhaps be put like this: often, learning takes place not as a result of being told the right answer(s) or the right way(s), but from having to work out the answer(s) and way(s). It is this switch in role, from teacher as provider of knowledge to teacher as the one who guides learners to the discovery and awareness of knowledge, that most trainees find difficult to achieve initially.
A third area that the course concerns itself with centrally is that when we teach, we teach people, not “students”. Of course, our learners are studying English, but they are first and foremost people. We need to engage with them as individuals before we can really do anything worthwhile. This may seem perfectly obvious to some, but engaging with a class of individuals rather than a class of “students” is no easy task. In order to do this, we also need to develop a perception of how we “come over” in a classroom as genuine individuals ourselves. Our learners will respond as individuals, as people, if we are “authentic”, to use a phrase coined by Carl Rogers, the American psychologist. Fourthly, our individuals on a CELTA course are adult individuals. Teaching adults, rather than schoolchildren, requires taking in account all the wisdom, knowledge, experience and cultural, emotional and psychological baggage that learners bring with them to the classroom. So the course is not only about teaching techniques. Rather, it’s about identifying and maximizing the potential that lies within you to become, or to continue developing into, the best possible reflective English Language educator of adult people that you can possibly become in the time available –and to start a process that will continue throughout your teaching career.
People say the course is exhausting. Is that true?
It can be, for a variety of reasons. First of all, the CELTA consists of 120 contact hours. On top of that you’ll need to add at least another 120 hours of lesson preparation and assignment research and preparation (there are four assignments). If you count the 4-week intensive course as consisting of 20 weekdays, well, that’s 12 hours a day. Most past courses participants will consider that a conservative estimate. The pace on the semi-intensive course, which involves the same number of hours spread over 12 weeks, may seem a more attractive proposition to some. But do remember, if you’re involved in a full-time hob or study programme, the pace can be just as hectic. (The semi-intensive runs from 3 [p.m. until no later than 8 p.m. and average of three times a week).
Stress is often cited as a cause of tiredness on the course. It can result from a variety of factors. Continuous Assessments, rather than a formal examination, is used to assess participants. Assessments starts from the first moment on the first day and finishes literally at the end of the final day. There are, in fact, three areas in which participants are assessed: Professional Development; Written Work; and of course Preparing, Planning and Practising Teaching.
Working in a group can also be a cause of stress, and hence tiredness. Preparing and planning a single lesson with individuals who have different personalities and teaching styles requires patience, sensitivity and tact. Standing up in front of a class and being observed by your colleagues (and trainer) can be nerve-wracking to begin with. Once the learners have gone home, you’ll be given (and be asked to give) feedback about the lesson in an honest but sensitive way.
Although there will be exhilarating and joyful moments, there may also be frustrating ones, especially if a lesson has not gone as well as you’d hoped. Thos roller-coaster of emotions can also contribute to tiredness. However, if you pace yourself, keep to your deadlines, and organise yourself well, you’ll cope with it all.
How can I find out more?
Phone one of the local Cambridge ESOL CELTA Centres: NSTS ELI International Teacher Training Centre (21336105) or IELS (21320381) or any other Centre – there are about 150 all over world. Ask to speak to a CELTA Course Director or Course Tutor, and ask direct questions. Speak to different people who have done the Course. Write to Cambridge ESOL, Syndicate Buildings, 1, Hills Road, Cambridge, CB1 2EU, UK, Fax 01223 460278 or website: www.cambridgeesol.org/exams/teachingawards/celta.html.
Send off to your chosen Centre for prices, dates, syllabus and application form. How can I join a course? Once your application form has been received, you’ll be asked to attend an interview. Together with pre-interview tasks, this could last about three hours. Yours spoken and written English will be assessed, as will your sensitivity to language in general and the English language in particular. Your interviewer(s) will also be trying to assess your potential for working in a team and your potential suitability for learner-centred teaching/learning. If you’re accepted, and you’re still interested, your place will be secured on payment of a non-refundable deposit. The balance must be paid by no later than one week before the course starts. When you pay your deposit you’ll receive a pre-course task that will start you thinking about some of the areas covered in the course. After that, it’s all systems go!