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Issues and challenges: teacher training

September 11, 2007

Hello again,
I thought I would try to spark off a debate about some of what I feel are key issues and challenges for the future of English language teaching. I want to start with teacher training ...

...and raise some questions about how we prepare teachers for their work.

Firstly I am concerned that market forces rather than principles seem to dictate standards. If a young person in the UK is contemplating a teaching position in the State education system the route is a university degree followed b a postgraduate training course lasting at least one year. Qualified teacher status can be conferred after a probationary period is satisfactorily completed. Contrast this with what is required to become an English language teacher: over 18, competent in English (I am not sure what this really means) and four weeks training. This teacher training conveyor belt churns out thousands of teachers each year many of whom have scant acquaintance with English grammar, little idea of the cultural backgrounds of their prospective students and little or no awareness of the complexity of the learning processes of diverse student groups.

The course providers and the exam boards no doubt make a pretty penny from exploiting this demand but the end results are very far from addressing the real needs of the profession.

Today’s English language students are a very heterogeneous constituency. Yes, it is still possible to find students who need the traditional route to English through carefully graded levels. But increasingly national education systems are providing English teaching of such a high standard that school-leavers have already jumped though all those hoops. What they need is specialised training: English for academic purposes (an enormous area); English for Business (with concentration on specific domains); English for tourism; English in a globalised world. I am very sorry but your average four-week Tefler hasn’t a clue how to deal with these fields.

I saw this steady erosion of standards when the new University of Cambridge framework for teaching qualifications was ushered in during he 1990s. Those of us who suggested that entry to the profession should be restricted to graduates and those with some subject knowledge of linguistics or at least the basics of English grammatical structure were characterised as dinosaurs.

Related to this issue of the poor quality of training on offer is the status of teachers and their salaries. It is something of a vicious circle. Schools are unlikely to offer better terms to teachers who are little more than teacher-tourists. And of course would-be teachers are unlikely to demand deeper training if the rewards are so low.

In time I imagine the situation will resolve itself. The demand for the four-week Tefler will dry up and national and private education systems will probably look to recruit better teachers who are better equipped to handle ELT needs in the 21st century.

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  1. John Says:

    Well, I have to say there is some sense in the relaxing of criteria. The whole world thirsts to learn English, so practically, if all teachers were required to acquire a degree or advanced levels of competency, then a great deal of students would have no access to any type of English teacher at all. Also, in my experience, many of my student's fluency levels are low anough that at this point it is the enthusiasm you are able to rouse, your technique and energy, and a basic understanding of how to impart learning of the language, that sees you through and reaches them. When one rises further up the ladder in terms of competency, I am certain that a graduate would be able to do a better job, but at my level I feel certain basic instincts and possessing the language as a mother-tongue, is sufficient enough. Indeed, the travelling type might be able to inspire the kids more effectively than a teacher with too strong an emphasis on correctedness. Before one can learn, one must love to learn - and I think us unqualified teachers serve as enough exposure to inspire a lifelong learning process.

  1. Gill Says:

    I completely agree with John's comments. As a mature non-degreed person who has completed the CELTA 4-week course and taught with great success, I feel that I can offer a much greater depth of teaching to foreign students than say a younger person with all the paperwork knobs and whistles of a degree but perhaps less empathy and life-experiences. Learners from other countries are generally not seeking grammatical perfection; they usually need fluency and vocabulary above all else, and some insight into the many idiosyncrasies which make up the English language and customs. You don't need a degree to be a good TEFL teacher.

  1. Dotty Says:

    Recently I completed a sixty-hour ESL course. I was astounded that there was no screening, testing or one-on-one conversation prior to my paying $900!
    The lack of proper English grammar among the students was shocking! One lady said, "like" between every other word in a sentence. When I discussed this with my instructor, he told me that the company makes money! I hope John is correct: we will make a positive difference in teaching our overseas students!!

  1. Mel Hepworth Says:

    I have worked in 7 countries as a teacher and as a D.o.S. I am a native speaker with a degree in sociolinguistics, a CELTA and various other TEFL qualifications.

    Market forces are the key. There is an increasing demand for English and there are a growing number of schools. Schools can either hire 'someone' or hire 'no one'. Hiring someone means that students get lessons and schools make money. In Asia the choice is not between a CELTA qualified teacher and a 'better' qualified teacher. The choice is often between someone (often no CELTA, no degree and no experience) and no one.

  1. Jon Says:

    I attended a course that was only 20 hours and was amazed that I didn't learn a thing. I'm now working as a teacher but I was honest with my employer. I told him that I felt I was not qualified and that I wasn't very good with grammar, he has provided on the job training and I feel I am now doing a good job.

    To be frank, with the range of books and teaching aids available to us, teaching English is actually fairly easy. After 3 months working I am very confident. I'm not a clown as I was trained to be in the TEFL course, I teach adults who pay money. The two other native speakers in my school, who hold degrees, seem content with showing films and generally entertaining rather than teaching. I think this is an insult to students.

  1. Liz Says:

    Having broken into the field of ESL teaching by chance, with no teaching experience, no TEFL certificate but a degree (in art) I was quietly thrilled that this was possible. On a personal level it has opened the door for me to explore the field of teaching and experience what a great and rewarding career it could be. After returning home from a years teaching in Ecuador I immediately enrolled in a Dip Ed. with TESOL as a minor to continue to learn in this field and become a better teacher. I made numerous friends through my students and on completion of the courses they commended me on how much they learnt. I saw myself how they went from speaking no English at all to being able to have a conversation with them.
    There is an art to being able to teach and it lies with the teacher's enthusiasm and committment to their students how successful the classes will be. For my first teaching job I was paid nothing but gave 200% committment to my students. I don't think a good teacher is determined by salary or by qualification but by their level of effort in wanting others to learn.

  1. Michael Bryan Says:

    Our students tend to use the language that we
    ,as teachers, use - our English must be as close to correct as possible. As the debate grows larger and larger in determining what is acceptable grammar and what is not, some of the highest degreed people are minimized by us normal teachers that are relating more successfully to the foreign students with an understandable conversation.

    If we are careful to discourage the obviously incorrect speech, the students will learn to speak as well as expected.

    Being a language student myself, I know that I will never be perfect in my languages, because I will never develop a perfect knowledge of the grammar of the foreign language that native speakers do'nt even possess

  1. KoreaMom Says:

    Whether teachers have 4 year degrees or not, whether teachers have CELTA (DELTA or TESOL or TEFL) training or not, whether teachers have experience teaching non-English speakers or not, I see the biggest problem in recruiting qualified, enthusiastic teachers is that ESL teaching is seen as "easy money" and "made for travel."

    I teach in Korea, where a four-year degree is required, but little attention is paid to a teacher's other qualifications apart from physical appearance and age. (They like 'em young and blond.)

    No surprise that many of the ESL "teachers" in Korea are not terribly motivated when they begin teaching, nor do they always get much better with experience.

    If you like teaching and are willing and able to learn techniques ("on the job" or through professional societies like KOTESOL) for teaching a second language (and have a sufficient command of English grammar, spelling, and syntax), you will probably be a decent teacher.

    Otherwise, it doesn't matter if you have a degree, or a certificate in CELTA/TEFL/TESOL, etc. If you're in it solely for the money and travel, you have no incentive to become a decent teacher.

    No matter how many employers don't renew your contract (whether you're just a bad teacher or an alcoholic or even worse!), someone somewhere will give you a new job in Asia. You can work for years, making quite a respectable salary considering that your effort could be minimal, and never want for a job so long as you're willing to job-hop.

    Sad, but true. No easy solution to the problem of a shortage of teachers. The money is fairly low for someone with "real" qualifications (advanced degrees and lots of experience), but quite good for those with little experience and no real qualifications.

    I think the students deserve better, but there are no easy solutions to this.

    Take me, for example. I am an older teacher, a professional writer but with only the typical 4-year degree in a subject unrelated to English or teaching. I have a TEFL certificate but do not plan to invest the time or money to get an MA-TESOL or other advanced degree because I have only a half-dozen years to retirement.

    So maybe I'm part of the problem, too! I try to bring a lot of enthusiasm to the classroom. I genuinely love teaching and my students.

    But am I truly qualified? If experience counts, I guess so.

    But how do you judge experience? Is it just "years on the job"? That may not mean much. A lot of "experienced" teachers (including some older teachers) don't always invest a lot of effort, and don't much care.

    I think the problems are clear, but the solutions aren't so easy to puzzle out. Still, an important issue - and worthy of discussion.

  1. celta-certified Says:

    I have just recently, successfully completed my Cambridge CELTA and have this to share with those of you who are interested....

    Despite what anyone says, the CELTA is a tough 4 weeks! the workload is hectic and it really stretches you to perform at your best. Observed teaching practice with real students can be stressful but its been the most rewarding and humbling experience I've had in years!

    Although I've heard this said before, I truly am amazed that one can learn sooo much in 4 weeks! I went from not having taught before to being able to successfully prepare interesting and focussed lesson plans for elementary and intermediate students, being able to deliver these lessons very successfully within structured frameworks while retaining an element of 'learning is fun' - all this while being observed and graded by experienced 'degreed' trainers (MA Tesol + Delta +++).

    The proof really, as to whether a CELTA is able to equip you for real teaching, lies in the difference you make in the lives of the students you teach. I've taught 10 complete lessons (yes, thats all - for those raised eyebrows!) during my CELTA training and my students were testimony to the fact that I did a great job. (We were lucky to have the same group of elementary students for 2 weeks and then an intermediate group for the last 2 weeks - so assessing success of teaching practice was possible- usually its different students each day I hear). The students were able to demonstrate at the end of each lesson, during controlled and freer practice, that they were able to actually use the new language they'd just learnt, in a range of contexts. The confidence they gained in speaking to native speakers, in the few short weeks I taught them, was amazing.

    I am a non-degreed native English speaker with 16 years of business experience working in the project management and training & development sectors. I do believe that what I lack in academic qualifications I have certainly made up for in my years of business and life experience. With my CELTA and perhaps a tefl course in teaching English for Business, coupled with my actual business experience of 16 years, I see no reason why I cannot, as Brenda says, teach English (very successfully) for specific purposes, i.e Business English. I've already implemented all of the requirements for business English, i.e extensive report writing, presentations, marketing, advertising, project management, training & development, during my many years of working.

    So.... when Brenda refers to "a 4 week tefler", what does this really mean? I don't believe it can be that amorphous - there are definite distinctions by way of added value i.e life + business + academic +++ experience.

    This is the year that I've decided to make a complete change in career and decided to focus on a lifelong yearning to teach - so teaching English was a natural choice. I intend to pursue EFL as a career, eventually completing my DELTA after a few years of teaching experience. Yes, I have every intention of travelling to distant lands as a TEFL teacher as I have a passion for people and development in general - not forgetting my love for experiencing new places.

    So, I am now at the point of beginning my search for suitable TEFL jobs, having successfully completed the CELTA!

    To those of you who are pro-CELTA and live to tell the tale.... any advice and/or suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

    PS: I'm South African by the way :-)

  1. Hamed hammad Says:

    Iam with Brenda That market forces than principles, The majority of recruiters needs native sperkers regardless having degrees or not just for showing off especially in some Arab and Asian countries, Some non-native teachers are more qualified than natives without experience and degrees ,I myself Egyptian, near native ,have higher Education from USa universitites,have 28 years teaching and training experience overseas have realized that teaching English is more than just teaching Grammar and fluency but considering other cultures, multi ability classes, handling and using the available and applicable aids and materials are also assests of sucessful teachers
    best regards

  1. Nikita Says:


    I am a Science Graduate who did a four week TEFL course and got a job straight away teaching IELTS and Business English at a University. I am really pleased to say that I haven't had a student receive an IELTS score below 6.0.

    Others who did the course went in a similar direction or worked at kindergartens and lower primary teaching alphabet for free or next to no money. No harm done.

    A significant number of teachers who graduate from university in England and Australia have difficulty spelling and putting a sentence in order.

    Having a university degree in English doesn't mean that a teacher knows their subject. In addition, student rapport matters.

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