This is a rant I developed over the years but never found anywhere to publish. The last section appeared, in an altered form, in the EL Gazette - the month I left the profession. Appears here, partly as a professional swan song, partly as a warning to anyone who thinks they might like a career in ELT, but mostly for reasons of nostalgia. Sorry.
A very wise teacher trainer once told me, rather bluntly I thought at the time, as I finished my four week RSA CTEFLA training course; Don’t go thinking you’re a teacher, because you’re not. Not yet. Do this for a couple of years and then you can start to think of yourself as a teacher. In recent years, I’ve become convinced that this should be inscribed in italics across every TEFL and TESOL certificate issued. The fact that currently it isn’t causes immense quantities of grief for all concerned, whether they be students, Directors of Studies or the “teachers” themselves. For an industry that claims to have at its core the communicative approach, there is a distinct lack of communication going on where it’s most needed.
It begins with the woefully inadequate training courses, covers the attitude of seventy percent of employers in the sector and isn’t helped by most of the published material the industry puts out. This is not necessarily to apportion blame; there are perfectly good reasons why the initial training courses are woefully inadequate (massive demand for teachers, limited time to train them), but woeful they remain. The employers perhaps should shoulder more guilt but in the end all most of them are trying to do is stay in business (business, that entity that seems geometrically opposed to the basic concepts of what ELT is about, but in the end is the driving force behind it). The coursebooks and supplementary materials put out by the industry are in many cases excellent in content, but what most of them still do is assume a depth of professional commitment and understanding that the vast majority of EFL teachers just do not possess yet, and maybe never will. The simple fact that the bulk of those working in the field are relatively new recruits and very often don’t know what they are doing is tacitly ignored.
Some results of all this that I have witnessed:
Lara, a teacher of some six months experience post certificate, insisted on drilling advanced level students in the basic phonemes for up to forty five minutes at a time because, quote: “they needed it”. Students deserted her classes in droves, politely avoiding direct confrontation. Senior members of staff tried to point out the error of her ways, more or less gently. One class finally worked up the nerve to complain. Lara could not be told; she had adopted the maxim that that’s just your opinion. I am a Teacher and my opinion is as valid as anyone else’s. Nothing in the caring, sharing ELT canon was readily available to deal with this stubbornness, and Lara finally left the academy, bitterly upset at her treatment, presumably to look for a school where she would not be subjected to as much in service training.
Jack, a teacher of several years experience in a variety of cheap and cheerful academies was unable to give up eliciting even when teaching words such as “troubleshooter” to lower intermediate students. He would go to enormous lengths to avoid actually surrendering a word without eliciting and was delighted when someone finally produced what he wanted, often by sheer luck or statistical elimination. Elicitation of pre-taught vocabulary for one text sprawled across more than thirty of his fifty available class minutes. Repeated class observations and advice about this had about as much effect as methadone does on hardened heroin addicts. He had swallowed the precepts of initial training – elicit, don’t tell – without chewing, and no-one had warned him he could choke on it.
Mary, an intelligent and politically aware teacher, insisted (and to my knowledge still insists) on bracing her class with such subjects as What do you think of Bullfighting? and expecting an immediate and involved response, where of course what she usually got was embarrassed and painful silence. Much of her presentation work involved similar immediate demands on students, and despite contrary advice from senior teachers who had observed her classes, she was as addicted to the technique as Jack to his eliciting. She had had no training in cultural sensitivity or, for that matter, basic human psychology, because it was a refinement there just isn’t time for on a four week course. By the time she ran into decent in-service training, it was too late. The pattern was fossilised in.
Eloise, a successful UCLES Diploma graduate with five years of experience, a keen interest in the theories of language learning and a serious attitude to her work replaced Mick, a far less experienced and less dedicated teacher who had been teaching some alarmingly shaky lessons to his post First Certificate class. After a week, the class mutinied and the change had to be reversed. Reason – they didn’t like her (or better put – they liked Mick).
Val, a serious and dedicated teacher with many years experience in the Far East, returned to the UK and invested most of her savings in the UCLES Diploma, held a number of mediocre posts around London for about eighteen months and finally, unwillingly, left the country again for another post abroad. Others in a similar position left the profession instead.
Dave, a forty two year old of many years teaching experience, has failed the UCLES Diploma three times at the last count and is locked into an eternity of low paid, low grade teaching posts around Madrid. He is very bitter and, as a result, pretty much burnt out.
These are not isolated cases. They are the casualties of the (more or less) wilful ignorance that pervades the ELT industry, both within and without the classroom. Enthusiastic young graduates get into the profession without really understanding what it is. In many cases they will spend several years working hard in the field and exit from it, burnt out and bitter, without ever having understood what it was they were doing. At the other end of the scale, others blatantly exploit the situation to scam an undeserved living and status abroad for minimal effort. Further training does not provide an answer; the UCLES Diploma, I am told, has the highest post qualification dropout rate of any vocational course on offer – almost sixty percent of those who take and pass it are no longer working in ELT two years later. Many who fail it, in ironic contrast, remain in the profession much, much longer.
Some hard facts need pointing out:
The ELT industry depends to a large extent on inexperienced workers who better suit the denomination apprentice/trainee than teacher, although they are not usually informed of this. Partly as a result, the field is (mostly) badly paid, and provided with poor working conditions. What rewards it offers come largely from the ephemeral glow of job satisfaction . Unfortunately, you can’t eat that or pay the rent with it.
Good English Language teaching depends as much on charm and personality as on any other single factor including qualifications and experience. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.
Teachers (of all types) are simultaneously over-regarded and under-rewarded in almost every culture on the planet. The expectations of all concerned (students, school owners and teachers) are therefore pretty much incompatible.
The solution? Just don’t do it is probably the tempting answer, but assuming you ignore that advice, just how do you survive ELT? Well, first and foremost, buy a copy of Michael Lewis – Practical Techniques for Language Teaching, and learn it cover to cover. It will save your life every week for the first year you teach and then some. Then, unless you want to be a permanent exile from your own country, unless you aren’t fussed about owning a home, clothing your children or building a pension, my advice is to use the profession the way it will try to use you. Get in while you’re young, do your globe-trotting, enjoy your ephemeral glow, don’t expect too much, don’t take it too seriously, and most important of all, get out again while you’re still young.
But of course, if in the meantime the ELT bug has bitten you, you’ll ignore all that advice too, just the way I always did.