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Universality and Mediocrity Part 3: Training for what, exactly?

May 6, 2013

Once upon a time, in the days when PPP was standard practice and Dogme was just a twinkle in Scott Thornbury’s eye as he digressed from his lesson plan, I went to ILC Paris and did the CELTA. Well, this was actually so long ago that it wasn’t even called the CELTA then, it was called the CTEFLA, but it had the same perceived magical quality of taking people from unskilled graduates to qualified teachers in 4 weeks.

I learned a few things on the CTEFLA – a basic grounding in English language systems, how to write a lesson plan, how to ask concept questions, how to group and re-group students, various drilling techniques, and of course a bunch of activities that involved students mingling and doing things with cut up strips of paper.

Shortly after finishing the course I got offered my first teaching job, teaching at a secondary school in Mongolia with VSO. My “brief” was to teach English to the pupils, but I was also expected to teach English to the teachers and introduce new teaching techniques to the language teachers in particular. Class sizes were around 40-50 and there were very few resources to speak of. The ministry of Education had recently produced a coursebook for the younger kids (11-12 year-olds) which was well-intentioned but seriously lacking in terms of, well, most things really. There was a kind of resource centre for teachers in Ulaanbaatar where I could occasionally photocopy pages from books (not class sets, just single copies for my own reference) but it depended on whether the copier was working and on the availability of paper. Even the blackboard was rubbish – it was brown, and you had to lick the chalk before writing in order for it to work. The other English teachers didn’t have great communication skills, but they knew more about English grammar and phonology than me (they even knew about phonemic symbols, which I still didn’t have a clue about) and they certainly knew how to manage their classes.


Secondary School No. 1, Ulaanbaatar, where I worked for nearly 2 years.

I had never felt more underqualified to do a job, and I never have since. I’m sure most of you would agree that the job spec was a challenging one for anyone straight off their 4-week initial training course, but I had accepted the post with the naïve assumption that I would be able to do it. The thing was, I had been led to believe that the CTEFLA would give me the necessary skills to teach effectively in pretty much any context. Granted, my context was quite extreme, but it certainly wasn’t unusual in that it was similar to many English language classrooms across the world. And yet, I quickly realised that most of what I had learnt on the CTEFLA was useless. I was unprepared for the fact that most of the students were complete beginners and therefore couldn’t be left to do anything in pairs or small groups (they had nothing to say to each other). I had no idea how to teach a new alphabet to kids who were already learning two (Cyrillic and Mongol-bichig, which was being re-introduced in this new post-Soviet age). I had no photocopied handouts and no cassettes; without reading and listening texts I had very little access to examples of language in use. Cutting up strips of paper was simply impractical with large classes, and mingle activities were impossible in the cramped conditions we were working in. Added to this were all the issues related to teaching younger learners, which I was also unprepared for. In short, the new techniques I was supposed to be introducing to the teachers were embarrassingly impractical. As time went on I found myself approaching them for advice, rather than the other way round.

I left Mongolia feeling disenchanted, having lost confidence in the teaching skills that I had been taught and with communicative language teaching in general. It was only after I started my next job at IH Timisoara (funded by George Soros, incredibly well-resourced with a photocopier and even a computer!) and found I was able to put some of my CTEFLA learning into practice, that I felt I could start developing properly as a teacher. My Mongolian experience had taught me other skills – how to manage large groups, how to maximise minimal resources, how to think on your feet etc. – but these had barely been addressed on the CTEFLA and I resented the CTEFLA for this.

OK, I realise this was a long time ago and in many respects today’s CELTA is not the same as it was back then. I also realise that Cambridge ESOL always describe the CELTA as an initial teaching certificate; it is only supposed to provide some basic skills and candidates who get a Pass (as I did) are still expected to require some ongoing support. However, despite what Cambridge may say, the general perception is that having the CELTA means you know how to teach English. Not only that, but you know how to teach English to anyone, anywhere, in whatever circumstances. Applying for a job teaching in primary schools in the jungles of Borneo? You’ll need the CELTA. Want to teach 1-1 ESP to Parisian businessmen? You can if you have the CELTA. Looking to earn a tax-free salary teaching English to engineering students using CLIL in a Saudi technical college? All you need is a CELTA plus two years’ experience (even if the two years was spent in a primary school in the jungles of Borneo).

For what it is, the CELTA is a great qualification; it manages to cover a huge amount of ground and develop a wide range of skills in a very short time. But it is what it is – a generic, introductory teaching qualification – and no more. It can’t prepare you for every context, but it tries to. So in your average CELTA course you will get a single 90-minute input session on teaching younger learners, another on teaching ESP, one on teaching literacy, and maybe one on teaching with minimal resources. Rather than being fully trained to work in a particular context, CELTA graduates are partially trained to work in a range of contexts. And even the generic skills (managing small groups, setting up mingle activities etc.) may not work in certain learning environments, as I found out.

Scott Thornbury posted a piece yesterday exploring the issue of teacher knowledge, and discussing what knowledge/skills are required to make a good teacher. As usual, he has stirred up some interesting discussion. Looking through the comments led me to this article by Jack Richards, which makes the point that perceptions of effective teaching vary from culture to culture, and also from context to context. Being an effective teacher in one context doesn’t necessarily mean you will be as good in another.

This raises another issue with the CELTA, and all other teaching qualifications that contain a practical component. The input sessions may be generic but the teaching practice necessarily takes place in a specific context. When I did my course, I was deemed sufficiently effective at applying what I had learnt to the context of teaching small groups of French adults in a language school with lots of resources and a photocopier. However, this did not make me an effective teacher in a Mongolian secondary school. Similarly, last year I was training on CELTAs in Malaysia where the teaching practice was with small, mostly multilingual (or predomonolingual) young adult classes. I wonder how useful the course was for many of my trainees, who have gone off to teach in a range of other contexts.

Rather than being excellent teachers in one specific environment, the CELTA prepares its trainees to be OK (at best) in a lot of different environments, and maybe a bit better than OK in the environment where the teaching practice was conducted. Presumably this is deliberate; early incarnations of the CELTA were developed mostly to train native speakers who wanted to teach English abroad. From a corporate point of view, a single qualification that can be branded and marketed all over the world is highly preferable to a large number of context-specific qualifications. But such an approach relies on the assumption that there are a sufficient number of generic teaching skills to allow a teacher who acquires them to be equally effective in any context. Is this the case? How much teacher knowledge is universally applicable, and how much is context-specific?

My view is that it is impossible to achieve excellence in teaching without the teaching being applied to a specific context. To be a good teacher you need to know about your learners – their needs, their goals, their lives, and you need to know how to exploit the context to maximise learning, which entails familiarity with the context. I’m not saying that the CELTA is invalid, but its whole essence contains a certain element of unreliability.

This post is the third and final part (for now at least) of my posts on universality and mediocrity. I’ve been trying to explore the idea that focusing on the generic doesn’t necessarily lead to quality in specific contexts. I’d appreciate any comments on this topic in general, and also on the individual posts in particular.

References/further reading:

Richards, J. 2010: Competence and Performance in Language Teaching. RELC Journal Vol. 41 pp. 101-122

Thornbury, S. 2013: T is for Teacher Knowledge. (accessed 06/05/13)

Tsui, A, B.M. 2009: Teaching expertise: approaches, perspectives and characteristics. In Burns, A. and Richards, J. (eds). The Cambridge guide to second language teacher education. CUP

  1. Reading this, I realized I’ve been thinking almost the same thing. Yeah I mean not everybody gets to teach in the same exact environment and apply the same skills. CELTA does help as I believe it helped many of my fellow trainees but it is not the only thing you need and it can be quite disappointing in some circumstances. In some countries, using these methods would make student think you are just wasting their time and they wouldn’t learn anything and would not respond to your activities.
    Overall, I am really glad I did the course but I agree with you on the whole reliability matter.

    • Hi Parisa,
      Thanks for your comment. I don’t think either of us are devaluing the CELTA, just being aware of its limitations. I wonder if having a universally accepted teacher training qualification is a realistic aspiration for Cambridge ESOL to have. What do you think?

  2. Daljit Kaur permalink

    An interesting blog, Steve. I liken the CELTA to a one week intensive driving course. You’re taught the very basics, but some driving students will get more out of the course than others. The real learning of the roads only takes place later when the driver is exposed to a range of road situations, makes mistakes, is forced to rely on what he’s learned and the experience he’s now gaining.

    My CELTA training was very useful and no-one ever claimed I’d learned everything I needed to know. I was always told that it was just initial training and I would learn as I went along. The difference came when I realised that I needed just more than my CELTA qualification in order to become a good teacher.

  3. Thanks for this, Daljit.
    It’s true, you don’t really start learning to drive properly until you’re out there by yourself. But then, does passing your driving test in one country mean you’re able to drive in another country? I mean, if you learn to drive in Scotland how easy will it be for you to drive in Italy? Or if you passed your test in India how will you get on driving in Scotland? If you do your CELTA in Paris how good a teacher will you be in Mongolia?

    • Daljit Kaur permalink

      That’s when you recognise you need more than the initial training. Of course the CELTA has its limitations. None of us are debating that. It simply provides the teacher with the solid basics from which to build on.

      Learners all over the world vary. However, a teacher who knows how to stage a lesson, be aware of varying learning styles, has the ability to concept check and understands when a lesson isn’t working out as planned, has surely been provided the building blocks required to tackle learners and learning environments in most countries. THEN the teacher’s real learning curve begins, or so I would hope. The worry appears when the teacher thinks that the CELTA is all that’s necessary…

      • You’re right, of course. There are plenty of things that can be learned on a CELTA and then universally applied. But some things that are learned on a CELTA canNOT be universally applied. What bothers me is that the actual qualification is universally recognised as the same, irrespective of where it was gained. Surely the context in which the course was taught, and particularly the students that were used in the TP sessions, would have a major impact on the course and the knowledge and skills gained. OK, someone who does their CELTA at a college in Scotland and then goes off to teach in Thailand, say, will learn to come to terms with the needs of Thai learners. But is it fair to say that the qualification that they obtained is equivalent to a CELTA obtained in Bangkok?
        I know that Cambridge ESOL never pretend that the CELTA is more than just an introductory course – though I don’t think they mind people believing it’s more than this. However, they do claim that the qualification is the same irrespective of where it is obtained, and this is what doesn’t sit right with me.

  4. i think the responsibility lies with employers – in South Korea, teachers are employed simply because they are native English speakers. At least a CELTA (other courses are available) gives teachers some grounding. Employers need to raise the bar if there is to be a rise in the quality of teaching.

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