TEFL is a current buzzword among native English speakers who want to travel but don’t have the funds for a Celtic Tiger-style inter-railing trek. TEFL stands at career fairs and over-the-top email newsletters imply that there is no time like the present to sign up for an online teaching course and get yourself a ticket to paid positions in places as far-flung as Thailand, Indonesia or Vietnam.
Having briefly given private English conversation lessons one summer, I had already learnt that the ‘Pick a theme and talk to them about it’ method of teaching only goes so far. The notion of a two-day online course making me a competent teacher seemed too good to be true, while TEFL programmes offering positions to native English speakers without any teaching qualifications whatsoever, for a small fee, of course, came across as more than a little suspicious.
My reservations led me to do some online research and I also got in touch with people who had done intensive month-long teacher training courses, namely CELTA (Certificate in teaching English to speakers of other languages, accredited by the University of Cambridge) and CELT (Certificate in English language teaching, the Irish, ACELS-accredited version of CELTA). The question of whether it was worth paying the average €1,400-1,600 price tag of a CELT or CELTA course, was worth it instead of €200-400 on a TEFL course, was met with a resounding yes. Plenty of people have travelled and taught English with a TEFL certificate or acquired work through native speaker status alone, but as English teaching abroad becomes an increasingly popular vocation, competition is rising and better qualifications are being sought by schools worldwide.
Having a qualification such as CELT or CELTA is particularly important if you want to work in Europe. The ultimate benefit of these courses is that they give you hands-on classroom experience from day one, as the timetable consists of workshops in the mornings and teaching practice in the afternoons, while lesson preparation and weekly assignments take up the rest of your time. It’s a month of your life where you can afford to spend time on little but the course itself, but you will either come out of it with a solid grounding in lesson planning and a desire to teach, or the sometimes equally important realisation that teaching isn’t for you. It might be a pricey discovery, but it’s best to find that out before you sign up to a year-long contract at a school halfway across the world.
My job as an English Language Assistant at a second-level commercial school in a small town in Switzerland might not be as exotic as teaching children in China or businessmen in Abu Dhabi, but that’s not to say that there aren’t cultural differences to be encountered. I became the laughing stock of the staff room for commenting on how people shake hands a lot in Switzerland, where a handshake is used as a daily greeting rather than an introduction-only gesture.
My first week at the school was spent sitting in on classes such as History, German and Economics, to give me an idea of what else the students’ 7.30am to 5.30pm timetables and business-orientated curriculums entailed. The early starts remain a shock to my system, even if I only have to be in for the first class once a week. However, the students have a far more intense week than my maximum 16-hour equivalent, as they spend one or two full days at school and the remaining three or four working equally long hours as part of a three-year internship at banks, commercial enterprises or local administration.
The second week saw me introduce myself to 18 of the roughly 20 classes that I would be working with by trying to find out what they knew about or thought of Ireland. References to U2 and James Joyce were met with blank faces, so I lowered my cultural expectations and found that P.S. I Love You and the Irish guy from One Direction evoked the desired reaction, if mostly from the female contingent of the class. While class after class of business students told me that the Irish currency was a pound of some description, sports fans made up for that particular knowledge gap by listing a number of Irish football players, the most well-known being Robbie Keane and Damien Duff.
My attempt at explaining the finer details of Gaelic games hit a low point when I drew a particularly phallic-looking hurl on the board, after which I abandoned my artistic attempts. Somehow even that incident only led to a short fit of giggles in the classroom, rather than the anarchy I would have expected in most Irish secondary schools. Swiss students are, by my standards at least, generally well-behaved, and will greet you politely when they meet you in the corridor, and yes, sometimes they do even shake your hand.
Even my proximity to their age, as a 23-year-old teaching 16 to 20-year-olds, sometimes even older, hasn’t caused them to lower their level of teacher-student respect. Yet when asking me questions at the end of my introduction, the first question was always how old I was, swiftly followed by whether I had a boyfriend or a husband. They were also keen to know if I could speak German, which thanks to studying German at UCD I can, but when asked if I could understand Swiss German I had to admit a certain level of defeat.
The job of an English teacher abroad is made more enjoyable because it involves teaching a subject that most students already have an active interest in, as well as an appreciation of the importance that their English language skills will play in their career. Native speaker competence is appreciated, even if language assistants often learn a lot about their own mother tongue as they go along. I’ve learnt to rely not only on intuition but also on a good grammar reference book. Lesson number one: TEFL is a great way to finance yourself while seeing a little more of the world, but if you’re not prepared to learn, don’t try and teach.