12 April 2012

The CELTA gremlin

Many moons ago – though not as many as Scott Thornbury, whose post P is for Pre-Service Training inspired this one – I took my CELTA at International House London. To say it changed my life sounds a bit dramatic, but it’s true. I was 24, temping as a PA in the civil service, and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. The man whose diary I (barely) organised was a former TEFL teacher and also, fortuitously, one of the smartest and kindest people I’ve met, who encouraged me to analyse what I really loved doing and might be good at (clue: the answer wasn’t Excel spreadsheets. I think secretly he was just sick of my rubbish pie charts).
CELTA bible

The CELTA pushed me right out of my comfort zone and forced me to use my brain in a way that I hadn’t for years. I loved it, every minute of it, even that terrifying first teaching practice. This was the thing I was meant to do! Of course the real training began the moment I stepped into a real classroom with real students (rather than fifteen baffled Poles smiling politely as I drew wonky clines, silently reminding themselves there’s no such thing as a free lunch). When I think back on my first few years of teaching there are so many incidents that make me cringe: finishing my very first lesson 30 minutes early and playing an excruciating game of ‘back to the board’ with absolute beginners; freezing in front of an IELTS class when I couldn’t remember what an auxiliary verb was; asking a Congolese refugee if she was going home for the holidays. I actually did that.

Although the job has been my true education as a teacher, what the CELTA did give me was a basic toolkit to plan and deliver a class. I’m still grateful for those tools (and the ones that came later in my CertEd) but, as Scott said in his post:

‘It took me years to outgrow the 4-week course.’

I’m not sure I’ve fully outgrown my CELTA and perhaps I never will. In my own teaching, there have been times when my classroom practice was a hundred miles away from the course methodology and it was liberating, joyous – as Kathy F commented on Scott’s post, I was teaching ‘as me rather than who I’m ‘supposed to be’’ – and yet tough, because at the back of my mind, the CELTA gremlin never stopped whispering: No no no, not like that. But now that I’m training / mentoring in-service teachers who seem not to have been given a toolkit at all, I find myself falling back on CELTA wisdom. A speaking class looks like this. Don’t forget to concept check. Always have a game up your sleeve in case you finish early. (Have more games up your sleeve than ‘back to the board’.)

It’s a thin line between love and hate. I’m ready to shake off my gremlin, but I wish my mentees had had the benefit of the course; it’s that adage of having to know the rules before you break them. Offering piecemeal CELTA-style workshops to teachers here in Borneo who in many cases have been chalking and talking for over 20 years might (I hope, I hope) be vaguely beneficial, but far less so than insisting all pre-service ELTers take the course. The structureless lessons, the meaningless activities, the overwhelmed teachers and bored, frustrated children I’ve seen time and again in the last 14 months: could they have been avoided with a CELTA-type toolkit?


  1. Great post and one that should be shared with current CELTA trainees who wonder about the value of what they are doing or colleagues who - having done their own CELTA - now have a lovely time blogging about how worthless it all really was.

    I love your phrase "know the rules before you break them"

    It goes with what happens in a lot of other professions - practise your scales before you can interpret, etc.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.


  2. Thanks for your comment Marisa. I wonder what I'd have thought if someone had given me this as I embarked on my CELTA! And I wonder what I will/would think if I read this post myself if another ten years' time. There's always so much more to learn :)