Ok, I admit it, part of the reason I chose the this title for this post is because I wanted to include the cute photo of the puppy – after a hard day’s work we all need more cute puppies in our lives. Unless you’re a cat person of course. But anyway, I digress.
One of my biggest ELT bugbears is whenever people ask what I do, and the following conversation always ensues.
Them: So, what do you do?
Me: I teach English to international students, immigrants and refugees.*
Them: Oh, is that TEFL? I/my daughter/my grandson/my cousin’s sister’s best friend did that. What are you going to do after that?
Just to make it clear, guys, this is my career. It’s not something I decided to do one day as a fun gap year activity (although if you did, and you take it seriously [as you obviously do if you’re reading ELT blogs], then good for you). English language teaching is the only industry I’ve worked in since graduating from university in 2010, and it’s the only industry I intend to work in, dividing my time between teaching, writing, mentoring, and training – and of course blogging. Would you ask a doctor, or an accountant, or even a shop assistant when they were going to get a ‘real job’ or what they were planning to do after they’ve finished/got bored with/grown out of being a doctor/accountant/shop assistant? No? Then please don’t ask me.
Teaching English as a Foreign Language doesn’t have much of a reputation in the ‘career’ stakes – rather it has a reputation for being a gap year activity, a way to fund travel, and more of a fun volunteer activity than a serious career. Why? While I don’t know the definitive answer, I can offer some hypotheses.
1.Many people do only teach English abroad for a year, and then rejoin the ‘real world’. This is an unavoidable fact, and I don’t know that it’s necessarily always a bad thing. Teaching English does give people an opportunity to ‘try out’ teaching, and I know several people who have loved it so much that they’ve moved into mainstream education when back in their home country. Even if you decide not to teach in the long-run, it does give you many transferable skills – and even if you only teach for a year I am still a firm believer that you can have a positive impact on your students. Saying this, I have noticed schools becoming more interested in employing ‘serious teachers’, and I hope for the sake of our students that those expressly interested in simply funding their travel (and with no qualifications or experience) are gently encouraged to look elsewhere.
2. It’s a low-prestige, poorly paid industry. Although it’s true that both the salary and the prestige afforded to English teachers are higher in some countries than in others, generally speaking no one got into teaching EFL in order to get rich. Working conditions can be pretty shoddy, and working abroad means that most teachers will simply take what they’re given to avoid hassle/language barriers/overly complex bureaucracy. The low wages, instability of living abroad and lack of job security (even if you do manage to get a job back home) mean that TEFL is something many people do for only a period of time, rather than a long-term career.
3. TEFL courses are short and (relatively affordable). The internet is flooded with companies offering ‘Weekend TEFL Courses’ and ‘Online TEFL Courses’. Not all courses are created equal – as apparent when you see the number of job adverts which specify that applicants must have CELTA, Trinity CertTESOL or equivalent. However, the perceived ease of ‘doing a TEFL course’ means that many people don’t view those working in this industry as well-qualified professionals; rather we are more akin to someone who bought their qualifications over the internet.
4. Not all TEFL teachers act like professionals. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true. I’ve worked with colleagues who’ve shown up to work drunk, hungover, who’ve boasted about attempts to seduce students or who’ve simply spent their time regaling their students with tales of their drunken escapades rather than actually attempting to teach them anything. To my mind, these are the kind of people who should not be in the teaching profession – and that includes TEFL.
5. Many people are not aware that higher level qualifications exist. I guess this is kind of an extension of point three; the easy availability of entry-level TEFL courses means that many people (especially those outside the industry) are unfamiliar with Delta, the Trinity Diploma, masters degrees, or many of the other CPD opportunities that are out there. I can kind of understand why people don’t feel that a career can be built on a four week qualification – but the fact is that many EFL teachers have significantly more than that.
So, what can you do if you are, for better, for worse, a TEFL teacher, and you want to be taken seriously?
- Take your job seriously.
It’s ok to have the occasional off-day, where you don’t plan or underplan or didn’t get quite enough sleep the night before, or even when you’re feeling a little worse for wear. Everyone’s human! If you find that this is becoming the norm, though, rather than the exception, it might be worth taking the time to consider whether or not this is a job you actually want to do. Teaching EFL is never going to be your only possible option.
I’ve heard lots of people say that you only learn to drive after you pass your test. Not having a driving licence, I can’t vouch for whether or not this is true, but I do think teaching works the same way. You don’t magically become an expert teacher the day you first clutch your TEFL certificate in your hands, and no one expects you to. The best teachers never stop learning and developing. It doesn’t even have to be learning about teaching – learn a new language (maybe the language of the country you’re in) or another skill you’ve always wanted to try. Just by engaging in the learning process from the other side you will automatically be able to empathise more with your students. Observe other teachers, attend workshops or seminars, read books or blogs or websites about teaching, take a face-to-face or online course, there are literally hundreds of ways to become better at what you do.
3. Consider branching out.
Teaching General English classes in a private language school isn’t all there is. Teaching young learners, teaching business English, teaching exam classes, teaching online, teaching ESOL – all of these avenues give you options to specialise, to diversify and to develop as a teacher. General English is just the start: it doesn’t have to end there.
4. Remember that the most important thing is how you feel about what you do.
Other people’s opinions count for a lot. My whole motivation behind writing this post is my frustration with how other people view my job, and my fears that they will view me as somehow ‘lesser’ because my career doesn’t fit in with their expectations. There’s probably a whole host of other blog posts that could be written about how we perceive our identity, how our job or career or lack thereof impacts on our self-esteem, and how social media has led to a generation of young adults worrying too much about what image they present to the world. But today I shall close with this:
Yes, I’d like people to stop telling me about their cousin’s sister’s best friend who did a TEFL certificate in 2002 on her gap year in China. Yes, I’d like well-meaning friends and acquaintances who teach in state schools to stop referring to what they do as ‘real teaching’ (as opposed to what I do, which is obviously… pretend teaching?). But at the end of the day, I know that I am making a difference in my students’ lives – and I am proud to be a TEFL teacher.
*This is my newer, refined answer. Its predecessor, ‘I teach English’ is only understood to mean ELT when outside of the UK, and always led to questions about which primary or secondary school I worked at. This led to confusion when my answer was ‘None of them.’