On that inevitable day of college graduation (which had suddenly emerged with a foggy foresight of how the coming days would ensue) I was at sea, like many others, in the insipid boat of unemployment. But it wasn’t mere laziness that had led me to this predicament. Instead, it was that, after four years of college, I still didn’t know what job I wanted. Only one thing was certain: I wanted to travel abroad.
I had heard about teaching English abroad during my junior year, but I didn’t give it much immediate thought. I stashed away the idea in my mind for later, and sure enough, when graduation came and I still had no job prospects, I began considering it and researched my options. The search proved difficult, initially, since I didn’t know which programs were most legitimate. I asked a friend who had been working for a year as a teacher, and she recommended getting a CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults), saying the training really prepared her. I looked it up and applied, and almost immediately, I was hooked.
Administered by the University of Cambridge, the CELTA is an initial qualification for people with little or no prior teaching experience; and it’s also one of the oldest and most recognized English as a Second Language (ESL) courses in the world. I did my training at the Teaching House Boston site, which is located right in Quincy Market. The four-week course proved to be one of the most rigorous academic experiences I’d ever had, but also one of the most rewarding. Each morning, we began with three hours of “input sessions,” in which trainers would teach us the methodology of ESL teaching with demonstrations and workshops covering different types of language lessons. Following these sessions, the trainees would have ‘teaching practice’ every afternoon, in which we would split into three groups (one with each trainer) to teach three different classes of international students. They put us to the test right away—we started teaching on day two!
Despite the name ‘teaching practice,’ these were very much real lessons. The only thing that made them practice, perhaps, was that we weren’t getting paid. The international students (who were offered free lessons to be our guinea pigs) were at pre-intermediate and upper-intermediate levels of English. Three trainees from each group would teach a lesson each day, and the trainees who weren’t teaching would observe and give feedback. The experience and feedback were invaluable and with each lesson my teaching improved. I became assertive and confident, putting into practice the morning methodology sessions. The CELTA trainers also observed and assessed us during our teaching practices. Their standards and expectations increased with each lesson, and consequently, this kept the pressure on. But it was a necessary pressure—the CELTA course wasn’t merely about earning grades, but about becoming an effective teacher.
Over the nine teaching practices, I taught a variety of lessons to both the pre-intermediate and upper-intermediate students. One of my more challenging lessons was a grammar one on relative clauses. Going into the lesson, I was fully prepared to answer any questions the students might have. Yet, even still, I hadn’t anticipated much difficulty on their part. As it turned out though, most of the students had already learned these clauses incorrectly and a major portion of the lesson needed to be spent clarifying the grammar. The students never had the chance to practice (which should always be the focus of grammar lessons). Needless to say, I hadn’t quite achieved my aims and I wasn’t too pleased with my own time management. The experience taught me to always be prepared for other similar situations and, even more importantly, to plan realistic times for any activities I may utilize.
In contrast, one of my more successful and personally rewarding lessons turned out to be my final teaching practice. Up until the 8th teaching practice, we were given guidance for our lesson plans. But each week, the “teaching points” that the trainers gave us became much less detailed, until lessons eight and nine, when, finally, we were completely on our own. I did my 9th lesson on reading skills, using an article I found on “How to Make Your Own Halloween Costume.” I felt it was appropriate, as it was the middle of October. It turned out to be entertaining for the students, and by the end they had practiced reading skills as well as speaking for fluency. I created a special activity that required students to present how they would make their own different costumes (e.g. “spider,” “doctor,” “mummy,” etc.). I could tell they enjoyed it and their presentations caused lots of laughter for everyone.
Though I had begun the program with a part of me focusing on the “traveling abroad” aspect of teaching, my motivation began to shift as I experienced more on the course. It moved further towards the actual enjoyment and fulfillment of teaching. While I’m certainly still looking forward to traveling with this new certificate, I’ve realized, more importantly, that the classroom is my element. I now feel reassured that this is where I belong—and the training helped nurture such a shift.
In the end, it took me the first eight teaching practices before I was finally able to go into a lesson without feeling nervous. Even so, it’s true that one can’t learn to be a great teacher in just four weeks. It will take much more experience in the months and years to come until I may even consider myself a “good” teacher. But one thing is certain: the course certainly gave me the initial foundation and confidence I needed, and it instilled in me an excitement to teach as well as to learn—an excitement I will apply to my new career.
Davide Nardi graduated from BU this past May, and is currently pursuing a certification in teaching English as a second language to adults. This piece was originally titled “A Teaching Experience: Training to Become an English Language Teacher.”