Sunday, 15 April 2012

My First Lessons - Learning Curve

Long after memory of the actual lesson contents has faded, I can still vividly recollect the circumstances of my first lessons after qualifying as an English teacher.  Namely, I was in the middle of planning for my wedding, which was then only 3 months away.  I had actually been looking forward to a little bit of unemployment after finishing my CELTA, hoping that I would be able to devote myself to such pressing matters as the cake, the decorations and the entertainment at the reception.  Some chance, as it proved.

Although my ears were ringing with Cassandraic predictions that it was near-impossible for newly-qualified CELTA-ites to find employment in a British language college, I managed to do so less than a week after qualifying, after sending out only one CV: sometimes, the timing works out just right.  I was engaged immediately, to do cover work over the summer, with the possibility of being taken on as regular staff at the start of the next term.

Summer being the peak time for holidays, I covered just about every class in the college over the next few months.  It's probably just as well that I don't remember clearly what I taught, because I don't believe that much of it was very good. But here's some of what I learnt:

Lesson Length
On a CELTA course, you spend hours planning a 30- or 60-minute lesson segment, and then get feedback in minute detail.  You teach for 6 hours in total.  This seems like a lot.

That first week of cover, I taught for 6 hours every day.  So after the first day, my teaching experience had doubled.  I had a short feedback conversation during the first day, and also at the end of the week.  Other than that I was on my own.

Lesson Content
Teaching practice on a CELTA is like performing tricks.  It's all about you, and you want to show off all the techniques you've just learned.  You have a short time, so you keep the activities short in order to cram everything in.  Your lesson plans are insanely detailed, with everything timed to the last second.  Your demonstration class never get to sit still as you are constantly moving them to new partners, stand up, sit down, run to the other side of the room, pick things up off the floor...  Boy are they well drilled.  But what they actually take from the lesson after all of that is anyone's guess.

A three-hour lesson is long.  Loooooooong.  You can't approach it in the same way.  Also, 'real' students (sorry) don't want just games: they want, and need, to learn real, solid, meaty language.  It's all about them.

The Dreaded Textbook
We used textbooks in my CELTA classes, kind of.  They were the springboard for our own ideas (see above), which always seemed to involve cutting up paper into tiny tiny pieces.

Having a whole book to teach was a whole other matter.  After realising that my technique would have to change from the CELTA method, I at first swung too far the other way.  I stuck too closely to whichever book that week's class had been inflicted with, teaching without imagination or adaptation to students' needs.  (OK, with little experience and only a few days with them I was unlikely to work out what their needs actually were, so maybe I shouldn't be too hard on myself here.)

I could go on: I had to learn about homework, exam levels and preparation, about what students should be able to do at different levels (but can't always), and about paperwork, paperwork, paperwork.  The learning curve was incredibly steep, but that's the way it should be.  I know I'm a better teacher now than I was a year ago, and a much better one than I was two years ago.  And I know I'm still learning.  A year from now I hope to look back with horror at my present teaching (and blogging?!), because I will be able to see yet again how much I've learned in the interim.

In the early period, I think I learned most from the bad times.  It took 3 months to lose the feeling of dread at the start of every day.  I've been bullied by a member of staff and by a malicious student.  There's been stress, self-doubt and a bereavement that was like a punch in the gut.  There was a staffroom feud that poisoned the atmosphere for weeks.  You keep going.

Now, I get to learn from the good times as well.  How the atmosphere improves when those negative people leave.  How positive people can transform a working culture.  How a college that's willing to take a chance on a newly qualified teacher can be a great place to grow.  How students can be exasperating, contrary, inspiring, hilarious, diverse and marvelous.  How you can make contact with amazing educators through blogging and social media, and continually be inspired and challenged by them.

This is only the beginning - always.

Oh, and one more thing: I've learned that I love being married to my husband!


  1. Hi Steph,
    What a great post! You've really summed up how I think a lot of us feel after CELTA.
    And that's a lovely picture from your wedding.

  2. Reflection, reflection , reflection. That's the key to transformation in my opinion. Many thanks for sharing.

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