Surviving your first year as an ESL teacher: what the CELTA doesn’t prepare you for as a newly qualified teacher by Lewis Waitt

When planning this article I had a very simple intention: to show that you are not alone when feeling under-prepared and over-whelmed for your first year of ESL teaching. The CELTA is an incredible qualification and gives us the license to drive; but with the benefit of hindsight, I can honestly say nothing prepares us more for the challenges of being a full-time teacher than the everyday experiences we have in school.

Like most, I walked to my first ESL classroom with sweaty palms, a racing heart and hoping that I wasn’t going to crash and burn. A mixture of persistence, determination and sheer desire for independence had got me to this door, and I had been told that I was ready to go-it-alone, so why did I feel that I wasn’t?

You flashback to the initial euphoria of passing, but suddenly this is overshadowed by the realisation that you are now passenger-less with the freedom of the road (or your new classroom) lying in front of you. Cautious at first, we try to remember everything we were taught by our instructors; check mirrors before turning (check for understanding before activities), drive at the speed limit (grade our language appropriately to suit the class) and keep our distance from the car in front (peer checking before open class feedback). In the hope we avoid the inevitable first knock, it’s hard to remember feeling this way with someone observing our every move. But, you are not alone and, as newly qualified teachers, we shouldn’t feel judged for feeling somewhat unprepared when reaching the end of the corridor with just a door between you and your first real ESL classroom. This isn't the first time in your life you have been told you are capable of something by predetermined criteria and opinion (be it your CELTA trainers or driving instructor) and it certainly won't be the last.

But the CELTA was only four weeks, surely there is more to know about being an ESL teacher than that?

In short, yes, there will be new things every day. But, when you think back to your CELTA qualification, it is truly incredible how much you learn about the methods of teaching the English language. However, the unobserved classroom and the staffroom are the settings where you will learn to become a teacher. And so, to return back to my point of showing you that you are not alone, and that you will succeed with a little experience; what are the five things you didn't know about being a teacher before being allowed to drive alone on the ESL highway?

1. Teaching the extremes.
Fortunately, for me, the intermediate groups that I was lucky enough to teach as my CELTA guinea pigs understood the semi-graded language I used whilst developing my ESL voice. But, what about elementary and other lower-level students? How do you grade language for them? There is obviously a distinct difference in their ability to understand us as their teachers and so in the classroom, the initial glazed looks of confusion from students will soon be a telltale sign of the need for further grading. But, apart from signing up to the CELTYL (the young learners CELTA extension course), simple methods of communication that you learn on the CELTA are wonderfully interchangeable for lower levels. So, with practice, the ice will thaw from your students’ faces, leaving them alert and ready to start your wonderful lesson, safe in understanding exactly what you want from them.

At the other extreme, grading your language is far less of a problem, but as a native speaker should you be expected to know all the grammar points of more advanced levels? Especially given that we have had very little experience of teaching the more complicated structures. Give a native speaker grammar exercises on subjects like relative clauses and mixed conditionals, probably 50% would look even more confused than your students, and the other 50% would know how to complete it without knowing why. It is this "why?" that we will learn in preparation for lessons or via courses like the IHWO LAC (Language Awareness Course). Simply looking at the book may not be enough and so, before we educate our students, we must educate ourselves.

Both extremes come with very different challenges. Given time and experience in the classroom, language grading becomes second nature and we start to become more educated, as teachers. As each lesson ends, we learn another practical lesson about becoming a teacher and the weight of feeling unprepared slowly begins to fall from our shoulders. What can we focus on next?

2. Motivating the unmotivated.

During the CELTA course we are fortunate enough to practise on motivated students who take any opportunity to learn English, but what about the teenagers sent by parents and clients sent by employers? Although this may not have been overtly taught during the CELTA, much of the reasoning behind warmers, context setting and open discussions can relate specifically and personally to our students. Therefore, by providing them with a reason for talking in class we, in turn, provide them with motivation to practise and succeed. If we, as new teachers, engage our students with subjects that may not be confined to the textbook, students can immediately appear more enthusiastic about relating the language to personal experiences. This is excellent motivation for our students and gives us as new teachers a wonderful feeling of satisfaction as our students use language from previous lessons. Maybe becoming a teacher wasn’t as hard as we thought?

3. Planning time.

The initial shock of no longer planning for two 45-minute lessons a week, but twelve 90-minute lessons can certainly be an eye-opening experience at first. With the luxury of time during our CELTA courses, lesson planning could have taken hours, especially in the first couple of weeks. However, as we find out very quickly, this is not realistic and, at first, planning for your new timetable may seem an impossible task. Time management and organisation will obviously be helpful companions, but with constant classroom experience, the two hours that constitute a lesson's planning time soon diminishes. We begin to pull ideas from different corners of our minds and from the staffroom making planning, once a laborious task, a freer-flowing sequence of ideas that will make the next lesson the best yet. Who knows what you could use your freer time to do? Maybe expand on your language knowledge for your exam class or catch up on that marking you have been putting off because you had no time. The joys of becoming a teacher!

4. Establishing routines.

With each lesson planned and taught, the necessity of having simple routines in any classroom makes a 90-minute lesson far easier to develop. Revision and recycling of previously studied vocabulary and grammar, and feedback on last lesson's homework activity both contribute to a well-planned lesson. It is these routines (to name a few) which give us, as teachers, flexibility at the start and end of the lesson, or as a welcome break from topic. During the 45-minute lessons we teach on the CELTA, little can be done to maximise routine as each lesson is specific to a required skill or specific target language. Therefore, with time and classroom experience, we develop our personalised routines to progress through the textbook, which in itself is a new experience. This helps us, not only decrease on planning time, but provide our students with a reason to talk, making us and them more motivated. The jigsaw of becoming a teacher is slowing piecing together!

5. Piles of paperwork.

After the first few days of teaching, you will certainly become aware of the amount of additional activities being an ESL teacher entails. After a recent test or writing exercise, marking may begin to pile up and seem unmanageable, but remember back to when you felt the CELTA workload was unmanageable? This additional workload is totally achievable given your previous experience. Methods of assessing writing and testing may not have been studied at length on the course but the workload sure was. So when we are hit with additional reports to write, and registers and work done sheets to complete, this will not be the sheet of paper that broke the new ESL teacher’s back, but experience which made us stronger and more experienced.

Speaking from hindsight, could we as newly qualified teachers offer some advice on what little changes could be made to the CELTA qualification to help prospective teachers feel more prepared when stepping into their first ESL classroom alone?

  • An obvious change would be to increase the time constraints of the course to successfully include more subject material in the syllabus e.g. language analysis for the more advanced levels. However, isn't this the beauty of the CELTA? That in four weeks you can be qualified to teach the exciting subject of ESL. Of course we are required to do language analysis in the course already, but could there be further input of more advanced language or even specify that CELTA trainees teach elementary, intermediate and advanced. In the hope of not bombarding teaching hopefuls with a waterfall of language terminology, are we not being sheltered from the real world of ESL teaching?
  • To prepare students for the planning times that are more realistic, one addition could be a restriction on time allowed to plan for a specific lesson. Not all lessons need to be planned in this way, but by adding a time restriction to, for example, the penultimate lesson (when students are more experienced with the text book and classroom management, but still have the freedom of time to prepare their final lesson) a more realistic teaching environment can be created.
  • ESL students who are taught on a CELTA course usually do so in conjunction with other courses, and so setting of further homework could be an unwelcome edition. However, to develop assessment and marking skills, a simple marking task (in addition to the personal assessment of focus on the learner) could really aid the development of marking methods. This would give a new teacher a great platform to decrease their time spent on marking and other paperwork from day one of their first full-time teaching post.
  • To develop classroom routine from the start, more emphasis could be placed on lesson continuation. Since it is part of the assessment criteria already, surely more emphasis could be placed on recycling vocabulary or language from the previous lessons. By doing this, students will start lessons motivated by their language retention and communication development. This could then give prospective teachers knowledge and working practice of increasing motivation levels of unmotivated students, decreasing planning time and, of course, establishing classroom routine.

In conclusion, it is undeniable that the CELTA is an incredible qualification in the teaching and practice of ESL teaching methods, not to mention how many doors a course of this length can open in relation to others. Even with continuous syllabus development, a prospective ESL teacher may never feel truly prepared for the first time in front of their first class. Nonetheless, however invaluable the CELTA experience is, there is no substitute for the experiences we have every day in school and the classroom, as it is here that we truly learn to be an ESL teacher.