I always ask the same question when I interview candidates for my school, “What did you feel was most applicable from your TEFL course when you first started teaching?”
It is surprising to me how many people struggle with this answer. After all, most courses are over 120 hours and involve a practical component of some kind. How is it possible to spend that much time studying something, but not know how this knowledge is useful in the classroom? The reason that I ask this question is because the teachers with a good answer tend to be those with the ability to reflect, using their TEFL course as an academic base, and improve on their teaching over time. Many of the teachers without a good answer for this simply rushed through the course and didn’t get as much out of it as they could have.
Read on for tips on getting the most out of your TEFL course during the course itself, during your practicum and after you have started teaching. If you’ve already completed your course and are preparing to travel abroad on your first TEFL adventure, click on the button below for a documentation checklist. This will ensure you have all the necessary paperwork ready to get the work permit in the country where you are headed.
During the Course
There’s now way around it, TEFL courses are full of a lot of concepts and terms that you are not likely familiar with unless you already have a background in linguistics or teaching. There are people who dedicate their post graduate studies exclusively to different aspects of the course (e.g. phonology, theories of motivation, miscommunication, etc.), however, trainees are meant to gain a basic understanding of all these things, as well as practical teaching techniques, in a little over a month.
Not helping this is the fact that, at the moment, there are TEFL, CELTA and certTESOL courses on offer for people who want to teach English abroad. In general, much of the methodology and approaches to teaching are similar in each type of course. That said, a lot of the terminology referring to the same things is different in each course!
What this results in, is a lot of misunderstanding or things that trainees might simply miss. To minimize this, I recommend that people taking the course take notes about things they don’t understand completely; taking notes is essential to engaging with the material instead of passively trying to absorb it all. Then, turn your notes into questions that can be answered by a course trainer, a current teacher, more in depth research or someone down the line when you actually begin teaching.
Another thing that works for me when I take practical courses, or do almost any kind of professional development, is to visualize myself in a classroom. When I do this, it makes the abstract concepts more actionable. For example, instead of talking about synthetic vs. analytic phonics, I imagine myself encouraging students to look at a whole word and guess at its sounds. If I imagine a real classroom setting, I can see which students would be fine with this and which would struggle vs. teaching the phonemes of a word one at a time.
Lastly, though you might not think so at the time, it IS worth learning the lexicon of TEFL. Immediately after the course, it will be useful in the interview. As you teach, and try to develop as a teacher, it is essential that you know how to refer to different parts of teaching if you want to do more research or even ask for help. Similarly, learning the terminology of TEFL helps you understand the terms as concepts. Spending the time to memorize the terms will reward you when you start teaching.
During Your Practicum
Most employers will want you to have some teaching experience before having you sign a one year contract with their school. Some TEFL courses require that you do a practicum and some do not, but getting some real experience during, or directly after the course, is important for making sure you get a decent teaching position and that you are ready to work there effectively. If your course doesn’t help you organize one directly, don’t worry, they are pretty easy to set up.
If you are abroad already, you could see if there are any local charities that are offering free English lessons. They would be happy to have you come and fumble your way through your first month of teaching. Community centers are also good places to look for interning opportunities. If the center doesn’t have something set up yet, they would likely organize something. I myself set up my practicum at the Vietnamese community center in Chicago, Illinois. It was an extremely valuable experience, and I don’t know how I could have started a full teaching schedule without that experience to draw from.
I recommend doing your practicum while you do your TEFL course. As I mentioned earlier, visualizing a classroom while learning abstract concepts about language teaching can help make it seem more real. Well, having a real classroom to refer to will help make that possible. Also, having a real class gives you the opportunity to experiment with different ideas from the course to see what works or doesn’t work for you.
When You Become a Teacher
It’s not as though when you finish the course and become a teacher, you will know everything about teaching that you’ll ever need to know. In many ways, getting a TEFL is the beginning of your teacher training. The idea is that a TEFL course will give you the foundation that you need, but it is just that, a beginning.
You will encounter challenges during your first year of teaching: difficult students, being asked to teach things you aren’t familiar with, students that don’t seem to make any progress, students with language difficulties that you can’t quite assess, etc. As you come across these challenges, it’s good to look back at your notes or certain sections of the course itself. For many teachers, it is only when they encounter a real situation like this that some concepts from the course are fully understood.
Also, as you are a teacher in a school at this point, you are likely surrounded by other teachers. Now is the time to get some of your questions from the course answered. Make it a habit to hang out with more experienced teachers, and absorb as much academic and practical teaching advice as possible.
When you finish your course and get your first job, another challenge awaits you–getting a work permit. Make sure that you prepare all the necessary paperwork BEFORE you leave your home country. You can gain access to a documentation checklist by clicking on the button below.