It is estimated that a staggering one and a half billion people are, at this moment, learning English worldwide. The opportunities for travelling abroad to teach English are huge, but should you get an ELT qualification first?
Training in teaching English as a foreign language is not absolutely essential for successful job-hunting; but it makes the task easier by an order of magnitude.
Anyone with the Cambridge Certificate (CELTA) or the Trinity Certificate in TESOL is in a much stronger position to get a job in any country where English is widely taught. These certificate courses provide a rigorous introduction to teaching English in just one month full-time (admittedly at considerable expense) or part-time over a period of months; so anyone interested in spending some time teaching abroad should seriously consider enrolling on one. There are numerous other kinds of qualifications available, some obtainable after a weekend course and others after years of university study.
However, the Cambridge and Trinity certificates should not be thought of as a magical passport to work. Sometimes even certificate-holders struggle to find a decent job, especially in teaching markets where business experience is especially prized, as in Germany and France. More than 10,000 candidates enrol on a CELTA course each year, which means there will be lots of competition for the best jobs.
Increasing your marketability is not the only reason to get some training. The assumption that just because you can speak a language you can teach is simply false. There may be some individuals who have a natural flair for teaching and who can do an excellent job without the benefit of an ELT qualification. However, most people, when faced with a class full of eager adolescents or blank-looking beginners, would not have a clue where to begin. Doing a TEFL course cannot fail to increase your confidence and provide you with a range of ideas on how to teach and (just as important) how not to teach.
Even a short introductory course can usually illustrate methods of making lessons interesting and of introducing the range of teaching materials and approaches available to the novice teacher. What is needed more than theory or academic attainment is an ability to entertain and to dramatise, but not without a framework into which your classroom efforts can be placed.
A perpetual problem that a TEFL course solves is the general level of ignorance of grammar among native speakers. Native-speaker teachers often find that their students, who are much better informed on English grammar than they are, can easily catch them out with questions about verb tenses and subjunctives, causing embarrassment all round. As American Leah Moraweic concluded after setting up an online teaching company called TalkBack:
If you want to teach English in Poland, it’s an obvious requirement to speak English but it shouldn’t be the only one; it’s not as easy as it seems. Can you explain the difference between remind and remember? How about the difference between present perfect simple and past simple? You need to have at least some basic grammar knowledge and teaching skills. Before starting, consider doing a TEFL course or reading a book geared toward ESL learners. It’ll be very helpful in not looking like a fool in front of a group of intelligent individuals!
Some training courses can also introduce you to the cultural barriers you can expect to encounter and the specific language-learning difficulties experienced by various nationalities. Some go so far as to see training almost as a moral obligation. Completely untrained teachers may end up being responsible for teaching people who have paid a great deal of money for expert instruction. This is of special concern in countries that have been inundated with ‘tourist-teachers’, while the ministries of education may be struggling to create all-graduate teaching professions. If you happen not to be a natural in the classroom, you may well fail to teach anything much to your students, whether they be young children in Hong Kong or business people in Portugal.
Not satisfied that a one-week course was enough to qualify him as a teacher, Ian Abbott went on to do the Cambridge Certificate at International House in Rome and summarises his view of TEFL training:
I wouldn’t recommend teaching English as a foreign language without investing in a course first. You’ve got to remember that the people coming along to your lessons are desperate to learn your language and it is costing them a small fortune. It is only fair that you know what you are doing and can in the end take that money without guilt, knowing you haven’t ripped them off to increase your travel funds.
One of the practical advantages of joining a TEFL course is that many training centres have contacts with recruitment agencies or language schools abroad and can advise on, if not find, a job abroad for you at the end of the course. Training centres differ enormously in how much help they can offer. If the ‘after-sales service’ is important to you, shop around before choosing which training course to patronise.
Even in countries where it may be commonplace to work without a formal TEFL qualification (for example Cambodia and Japan), teachers who lack a specific grounding in TEFL will often be at a disadvantage. In some cases, the jobs available to the unqualified tend to be at the cowboy end of the market and may therefore offer exploitative conditions. In some countries (such as Turkey) a TEFL certificate is a prerequisite for a work visa, which is yet another justification for doing some formal training before setting off.