The wide-world of English language teaching just too big to grasp?
If you’re peering into the abyss of English teaching for the first time, here are some thoughts on the value of TEFL Training.
I’m an English teacher living and working happily in Cambodia. Before leaving England I completed a TEFL course as I had been led to believe it would save me much door-knocking in my search for work in Asia. Possessing the TEFL certificate actually did serve to ease the process of finding well-paid teaching work. But in addition to acquiring a certificate which is a prerequisite for gaining a foothold in many English language teaching institutions, what can we realistically expect to gain from a TEFL course which will be applicable once we are stood at the front of our first class? I’ve recently completed a second TEFL, here in Cambodia, with this experience I feel would-be TEFL trainees could benefit from the following observations. On both TEFL courses, the overwhelming impression I got from fellow trainees was that of bewilderment. It’s clear that any TEFL course will have to cover a lot of ground in a very short time, but is there any way to present or approach such a course that will lessen the sense of ‘information overload’? To start with, then, let us consider the various factors which contribute to what seems like a tidal wave of information that trainees often feel temporarily overawed by.
As a career, the teaching of English has the potential to lead absolutely anywhere and involve innumerable possible scenarios formed by teacher’s characters, students, schools and materials which all vary enormously. Thus it seems the English teaching world is vast and the options for global travel and specific approaches to teaching are wonderfully broad, this diversity need not be an overwhelming prospect and rather, one of ELT’s greatest virtues. Through the recognition of the all-encompassing breadth of English language teaching, we find too that this recognition also has its drawbacks, particularly for newcomers to English language teaching. One might hope that enrolling on a TEFL programme would help to add clarity and perspective to this diversity, but what in reality could we hope to achieve over the brief period of the course?
An intensive TEFL course, by definition, implies certain necessarily limited parameters. Such courses tend to be incredibly brief and compact. The sheer volume of material that needs to be presented is daunting in itself and each topic has to be covered very quickly. Therefore it would seem that TEFL trainers are faced with the following dilemma: How can we present objective material and teaching techniques in a brief time but still do justice to the sheer multitude of possible English teaching scenarios? The most extreme and most unhelpful mode of presentation which I encountered on my TEFL course in England was to repeatedly request trainees to imagine the unfortunate situation of having to prepare a lesson for an unknown number of students, of an unknown age group, at an unknown level, in an unknown culture. It should be noted that I do not feel that such a means of presentation of material in TEFL training is unique, but let us attempt to at least hold this notion in perspective. Though I openly concede that, to a certain extent, such scenarios may arise in the lives of practically all teachers at one time or another (with the exception of an unknown culture), I feel the general and initial response to such a proposition, particularly for teacher trainees, is predictably one of bewilderment. Without greater clarification and sensitivity to the trainee who may have a rather ill-defined notion of what English teaching may entail it is clear to imagine the real threat of a bewildered trainee turning to his partner and asking, ‘So we’re to prepare a what, for who, where?’ Such an emphasis on ‘a random, single lesson scenario’ paints an unnecessarily bleak picture of the reality of English teaching. Unless trainees intend to become supply teachers, the requirement for blind preparation is thankfully a rare occurrence. Even for introductory sessions with new, unfamiliar classes the teacher is fore-armed with the knowledge that the students do not know each other and can prepare a class of introductory exercises. A TEFL trainee would no doubt gain great reassurance from the fact that once a teacher has applied for and gained a teaching post he/she will know exactly who and what he/she is dealing with, subsequently the ‘sheer breadth’ of English language teaching becomes far more palpable and manageable.
So what is the reality of actually starting to teach English as a second language?
My own introduction to working as a teacher (and presumably that of many others) was very much ‘in at the deep end’. One applies for a job on a Monday, and is asked to arrive the following day with the prospect of teaching for six hours straight. Such an initiation to teaching gives an individual little time to contemplate the finer points of why certain methods are to be used in class. Rather, nearly all attention becomes focused on the pressing need to decide what will be done. It seems plain that a teacher should have a clear and logical justification for every choice made in the preparation and practice of his/her vocation. This conscious and considered decision-making is applicable to every aspect of English teaching, from the selection of a single exercise, to the longer-term learning objectives of students. However, I think few of those teachers with hectic and busy teaching schedules would often have an opportunity to pause and attempt to both objectively consider and critically evaluate the very foundational principles that underlie their teaching practice.
As newcomers to the profession, it is clear that TEFL trainees understandably feel the requirement for a certain degree of specificity with regard to how they can teach English. Thankfully however, trainees also seem to approach TEFL with relatively open minds and appear to recognise the fact that no single, formulaic method of teaching could work for all teachers or for all types of student.
A TEFL course has the wonderful potential to instil trainees with the urge to consider why they are to choose certain approaches to teaching. This ability to be constructively self-critical can too easily be lost when new teachers are faced with their first six hour day of actual teaching. The considered and critical approach to teaching espoused on a TEFL course has the capacity to prove incredibly fruitful for the teacher and his or her students when actually applied in class.
There seem to be two concurrent themes, then, which run parallel in the aforementioned notion of what English teaching is and these form an integral part of what a TEFL course has the capacity to address: the great diversity of potential ELT scenarios and the specific practical requirements of a teacher and his/her class. So in addition to presenting a selected series of possible teaching techniques, a TEFL course must also recognise the utter breadth of what English teaching could entail, but do so in a way which does not lose sight of the grounded ‘realities’ an individual teacher will face. No one could ever be expected to grasp every potential aspect of English language teaching, but on a TEFL course, the opportunity to consider and evaluate teaching related themes in the company of likeminded, inquiring adults can provide a broad foundation for a trainee’s subsequent teaching. The value of such discussion may only become apparent when the TEFL course itself is long finished. But the relevance and role of self-scrutiny is worth keeping sight of, and will add the desired clarity to actual teaching practice.
In conclusion, I would simply stress what I feel needs to be a vital component of any TEFL course and suggest how a trainee might approach one. Trainees who are new to English language teaching understandably often feel a little insecure about their ability to become good teachers or perhaps feel intimidated by the prospect of teaching for the first time. Providing trainees with self-belief in their abilities, then, would seem to be a pressing concern for any TEFL course. I do not propose that trainers depict an imaginary rose-tinted version of English language teaching, in contrast, I feel the reality of teaching isn’t half as bad as we all had once imagined it would be. For the trainee it is worth bearing in mind that when we become committed to a specific culture, in a specific school, and a specific class, the ice soon melts and the daunting myriad of ‘what ifs?’ are reduced considerably.
My observations are inconclusive, but aren’t the best things in life? It’s the questions that open the doors. When a TEFL course is approached with sensitivity it can serve to open many, and as a trainee you have the chance to peer in and share the opportunity to compare what you see.
Rob Gillen, Cert TEFL, BA(Hons), MA.
Teacher of English.
The University of Cambodia.