What if… I’m not a ‘real’ teacher?


After four difficult weeks (and umpteen amounts of weeks waiting for your certificate in the post!) you finally have that piece of paper in your hand – you are a CELTA/Trinity qualified teacher!

…wait, what? Whether it stems from your own fears or from the comments of other (possibly well-meaning, certainly annoying) individuals, the idea that you can train to become a teacher in the space of four weeks can seem, well, far-fetched. Walking into a classroom and realising that the students in front of you have paid to be taught by you is pretty daunting. So what if you aren’t quite sure if you’re a ‘real’ teacher?

Although during my training it never crossed my mind that I might not be considered a ‘real’ teacher, I certainly got a bit of a shock when I started working abroad. Being a teacher in many countries entails taking a specialist masters degree in education. Teachers are trained in child development and psychology, which explained why I was faced with at least a few parents who wanted detailed pointers on how to deal with their child’s challenging behaviour – and viewed me as the resident expert. As a TEFL teacher (even one with substantial experience of working with kids) I simply didn’t feel comfortable with providing that kind of advice, and at least initially found it undermining my confidence. It’s true, also, that we spend far less time completing paperwork than state school teachers in the UK and US, and we are subject to far fewer rules, regulations, and requirements.

Do I think this means that we as TEFL teachers rescind our right to be considered ‘real’ teachers? Not at all, and here’s why:

Training to be a TEFL teacher is pretty unique in that it doesn’t require a specialist degree in a subject relevant to your subject matter. My own degree is in languages, but I’ve worked with teachers who have studied subjects from art to chemistry, from accounting to computer sciences. Far from being a disadvantage, that extra subject knowledge can become a unique ‘selling-point’ for you as a teacher. One of my colleagues has created a specialism for herself in teaching students business English, based on her accounting qualifications and her experience in business prior to training as an English language teacher. Another former colleague has used her Marine Biology degree to teach students biology at the summer school she worked at.

We are trained to teach in a different way. One of my favourite mantras is ‘Different is different’. Just because something is different, that doesn’t tell us that it is superior or inferior, simply that it’s different. I’ve spoken to several teachers working in mainstream education who have been completely thrown by having an ESL student join one of their classes. ‘But how can you explain anything to them when they can’t speak English?!’ …that’s our job. All the time. Smaller class sizes or less assessment doesn’t necessarily make our job easier, it just makes it different.

We learn on the job. Much as you learn to drive only after passing your driving test (when you are exposed to a far wider range of conditions, situations etc and are driving ‘properly’ rather than simply with the ultimate aim of passing your test), TEFL teachers truly learn to teach after taking their initial teaching qualification. Granted, there will always be those for whom teaching is simply a means to travel, and far from a career. But for anyone who takes teaching seriously, you don’t stop learning how to teach as soon as you receive your certificate. TEFL certificates are beyond intense, as anyone who has taken one will know. However, their shortness means that no one really starts out teaching thinking of themselves as an expert. Feeling underprepared can foster an enthusiasm for professional development – which is never a bad thing.

Great knowledge doesn’t necessarily equal great teaching. Being a good teacher is about far more than simply ‘knowing stuff’, it’s about engaging with your students, creating a good rapport, and knowing how to explain often complex ideas in a way that can be easily understood.

Are you disappointed with how you did during your TEFL certificate? At school and at university I was always something of a perfectionist, and it really pained me that I didn’t achieve an A or B grade, simply a ‘pass’, and a not particularly high one at that. But I’ll let you into a secret – it doesn’t matter. Much in the same way that exams that you take at 16 don’t have much impact on your future career, what grade you get in your TEFL certificate isn’t the final word on whether or not you are a good teacher. If you do have a lettered pass, well done! Everyone else (the majority of people!) don’t write yourself off just yet. I’ve worked with those with CELTA A passes who are no longer in teaching, and many, many others with a simple ‘Pass’ who are still doing great things in the business years later.

For anyone who’s worried about not being a ‘real’ teacher, know this: you become a teacher by teaching. 

If you want to be a ‘real’ teacher, take responsibility for your own professional development. Many schools offer a programme of training seminars for their teachers – if yours doesn’t, there are plenty of opportunities for development online. Look into taking a free or paid course in an area that interests you (or one which you think you need to improve in) or simply find a book or do some research online.

If you want to be a ‘real’ teacher, take your job seriously. Everyone has their off days where they stay up too late, or are feeling under the weather, or have something going on in their personal life which negatively impacts their teaching. However you have the ability to determine whether or not this is a one off, or if it’s the norm. If you care about your students, the chances are that you will care about doing a good job. That means planning your lessons. That means doing your best to ensure that your students are happy, but also that they are learning – which, afterall, is what they’re paying for. That sometimes means going to extra mile to research something they’ve asked which you’re not quite sure about. But all of those things? They mean being a real teacher.

My final words on the matter are these: if you care about whether or not people see you as a ‘real’ teacher – the chances are that you are a real teacher. Keep at it.


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