In September of this year, I subjected myself to the Cambridge CELTA course at a centre in Northern Spain. This is an overview of my experience.
I guess the first thing to say is why I wanted to do it. I have been teaching in a private language academy in Spain for almost four years, with most of this time spent preparing adult students for the Cambridge Assessment English suite of examinations. Having not planned to make a career out of teaching beyond a summer job, I had no formal qualifications and found that this hindered me when it came to planning my next professional steps. Namely, I want to become a Cambridge speaking examiner. This would bring a lot of credibility to my CV and invaluable experience to show possible employers. I really enjoy my current job at my academy, but am looking ahead to teaching in other countries and more recognised institutions in the future. So I started looking around for a good qualification, CELTA was the only one that convinced me. Recognised by every employer in the EFL sphere, it is only one step down from a formal teaching degree. But given how expensive it is, I had to wait and save up to be able to do it.
Finally, I got the money together and applied for the course at my local centre, half an hour away on the train. I had an interview with the trainer, who was very direct in what she expected from the trainees and I was accepted. Hooray! So there began my CELTA journey.
Having read lots of stories about the course online, some good, some bad, I had a rough idea of what I had let myself in for, so I was prepared for the commitment and work that was required. I really wanted to achieve a Pass A, so I went in full of energy and every intention to walk out a newly qualified superstar teacher.
Lastly for this little foreword. I didn’t exactly find the course difficult in terms of content. A lot of what they try and teach is common sense, and proper preparation and reading of the materials means that you won’t find it difficult to keep up. What I did find occasionally challenging was the time it took to produce something you were really proud of.
The First Day
There were 10 other trainees on the course, and although I hadn’t really expected to make friends while doing it, we all became firm amigos. People bond when you throw them into situations like that. I did find some things quite surprising however, like the fact that of 11, only about 5 of us were ‘native’. The others had studied English just like the students we would be teaching, and had an absolutely phenomenal level of English, with far more language awareness than even some of us ‘native’ speakers.
The morning consisted of a few ‘getting to know you’ activities, course overviews and administrative tasks. Which was actually quite fun, I felt like I was beginning a journey. A feeling that remained with me throughout the course, although occasionally it was buried by tiredness and stress!
Anyway, they informed us that morning that the teaching was to begin the next day and that 6 of us would be teaching our first class, with the other 5 the day after. These lessons would be about getting to know the students and building a rapport.
The First Week
Those first lessons went well for most of us, with only a few being given anything of note to work on regarding those skills. We were split into 2 groups, one for the intermediate learners and another for the beginners. We switched round after two weeks so all of us experienced both types of learner.
Every teaching block was followed up in the afternoon by a feedback session where everybody participated. Far from being centred on criticism, we all found that breaking down our strong and weak points was immensely useful. The benefit that hindsight brings meant that we could all be objective and tell each other what we thought we could improve on. The trainer was also very helpful, and didn’t make us feel little or stupid when she explained our weaknesses.
After the speaking lesson, we had to design a lesson on receptive skills (reading or listening), which was fun! Although it involved a lot of work, we got to design our tasks and worksheets around a personal experience and get the students to practice either their reading or their listening skills. Again, feedback sessions followed and we all thought that it went well.
The Second Week
This was when we started focusing on the coursebooks. As teaching from a coursebook is a large part of EFL now, the course emphasises being able to ‘breathe life’ into the material in there. Which I thought was a hugely valid and sensible idea. In my job, for example, 90% of what I do from September to May is follow a coursebook. So it was useful to get some direction on how to use it to achieve the best outcome for the student. We were assigned different pages to teach from and had to adapt our teaching to getting the learners really engaged in the sometimes monotonous material the book offers.
Overall, these first two weeks were enjoyable and extremely valuable for me.
Third and Fourth Weeks
After being with the first trainer for the first two weeks and four teaching practice sessions. It was time to change over to the intermediate level learners, and a different trainer. We had obviously seen, spoken to and heard from him may times already and the general feeling among my group was that he might be easier to impress that our previous tutor. We were wrong. What follows is not intended as an attack on this tutor, but I feel I want to make clear just how disappointed I was with those final teaching practice sessions, overseen by him.
Whereas in the first two weeks, our tutor was very direct, firm and didn’t waste time on sparing your feelings, this other one was exactly the opposite. He spoke in riddles, asked you questions it was obvious that you didn’t know (and couldn’t possibly know) the answers to, and told us to do things that were beaten out of us in weeks one and two. I won’t give specific examples but a lot of things we had been warned against or told weren’t necessary, he demanded we include. Which was very disheartening, especially since I wanted to achieve the best grade. These things only came out at feedback sessions after you had finished teaching, and so he would mark people down for things that they had thought were perfect practice. A little warning would have been appreciated.
Then came the event that soured the whole experience for me. My fifth teaching practice session. I had prepared the class, on vocabulary, for hours, and was very happy at how everything had turned out. When it came to actually teaching it, the initial nerves had all faded and I came out of the forty minute session absolutely confident of a good grade. The students had engaged, had fun even, they had really got to grips with the material, I had improved in a lot of areas I knew I had to work on and my worksheets had been successful! Go me!
However, in my feedback segment, I was railroaded. That’s a strong word, but that’s how I feel. It came down to this, I hadn’t provided a worksheet for the students to use, and therefore my final activity hadn’t had any direction. For this reason, he had given me a ‘To Standard’. I wasn’t gutted, I was confused. I had given all of the students a worksheet and promptly told him this. To which he replied that he hadn’t seen it because it hadn’t been in the lesson plan notes I had given him. We looked through the sheets I had handed in together, and there it was. He apologised, said that he had been wrong to assume I hadn’t prepared anything, and asked me to meet him after the session was finished with the other teachers so he could change my feedback and grade to reflect this.
The end of the day, and our conversation came, and he had used the time to pick apart the rest of my lesson, finding other things he didn’t like. I shan’t go on, suffice to say that these other failings were equally as tenuous, and some were even laughable. He didn’t change my grade, and I felt cheated. In fact I was incensed. I didn’t sign the form in agreement, I registered a complaint and even spoke to the chief examiner about it. But as no video record is taken of teaching practice, they sided with the trainer.
It may seem petty, but from all of the classes I taught, I was most proud of that one, and felt that I got a raw deal out of it.
Anyway, the end of the course came and I was glad. I hadn’t lost the sense of achievement or pride, but I was happy to return to the real world. I achieved a Pass B. This was down to the high standard of my written assignments and five out of eight ‘Above Standard’ teaching scores. Out of 11 trainees, 2 of us received a Pass B, nobody got a Pass A.
I would like it known that I really did enjoy the overall experience, and have already put a lot of my new skills into practice. I would also recommend the course, and feel that it was well thought out and taught. I also don’t have any trouble seeing why it’s the most valuable qualification there is. However, anybody reading this, and maybe doing their own CELTA in the future, should perhaps know what I found to be disappointing about it.
- You are required to complete 6 hours of teaching observations over the four weeks. For us, these comprised 3 hour-long videos, and 3 hours watching experienced teachers at the training centre. The videos were mostly ok, although we didn’t really learn much from them. But the live observations were absolutely torturous. I was assigned to a teacher who had been working there for 16 years, and boy did he suck. Sorry. Honestly, hands down, the worst teacher I have ever seen in my whole life. In a nutshell, I had lost the will to draw breath after about half an hour. The course taught us, very rightly, to not stand at the front and talk for the whole hour, and that students should be interacting the majority of the time. Well in these classes, students probably spoke for about 10 seconds each, or quite possibly less. It was a total shit show. It honestly should have been a masterclass on how not to do it. Teacher talking time, echoing, going too fast, use of asides, talking about irrelevancies, making jokes students didn’t understand, not explaining properly, I could on. Yet this teacher was apparently a valued teacher at the school, somebody I should be learning from and emulating. Bollocks to all that. If I am ever that bad, someone should shoot me in the face.
- Trainers don’t have time for you as an individual. While this is forgivable most of the time, they have many demands on their time, I, along with the rest of my colleagues, felt that there was absolutely no individual help given to you if you needed it. If you didn’t understand something, you had to wait until you had already made the mistake based on it and hear about it in feedback.
- We were given a finite amount of photocopies for the duration. 200 copies that was supposed to cover everything that needed to be printed. This included written assignments, both drafts, class handouts and worksheets, and lesson plans. All of this amounted to what I estimate at 600 pieces of paper, all necessary printing. By the end of the first week, most of us were going to the copy shop a couple of streets over to do it. Meaning that we were spending our own money, and wasting an extra half an hour on something that should have been provided by the centre.
These things are from my perspective, and from the other trainees on my course. It doesn’t mean that this happens on every course, because every course and every centre is different. But now you are forewarned!
- Bone up on your language. Language awareness is so important when you are doing this.
- Try to get some experience first. Even a couple of classes beforehand will take away those horrible jitters you get when you stand in front of 10 students for the first time.
- Don’t leave your written assignments until the last minute. Failing these means failing the course, and it adds a significant amount of time to your daily workload. So do it when you get it!
- Include as much detail as possible in your lesson plan.
- On the first day, when they assign teaching groups, try to be in the second teaching segment. Usually the teaching blocks are separated into two or three days for each class type. If you’re assigned the letter A, B or C, it probably means that you’ll be teaching first every time. If you get D, E or F, you will likely get the benefit of the others’ feedback to help you.
- Don’t stress out. Have some down time. A lot of people harp on about only sleeping for 3 hours a day. There are a few crazy days, but I always found it possible to sleep for 7 or 8 hours a day and have at least half a day free at the weekend.
- If you feel that something is unfair, let them know. Don’t be argumentative or bitchy, just fair.
- Good Luck!