What’s the CELTA really like?

Categories Personal, Teaching

At the end of June 2014, I was about to start my CELTA.  

It was a scary time. I had left my job in hotel management to do the course, I had never taught before and, once it was over, I would only have a few weeks to pack up my life before I moved to Vienna. Now, since I’ve been using my CELTA for five years, I’ve had time to think about the impact it’s had on my life.

I got my CELTA because I needed to find a job in a German-speaking city while I was still learning the language. Teaching English seemed like the best option, at least while I was finding my feet. Others might want to a CELTA to take them travelling. Even experienced language teachers will often pick one up a few years into their career, as an EFL MOT.

Whatever the reason, if you’re considering a CELTA and you’d like to know not only what it’s like to go through the course, but also what it’s like to work with it, you’ve come to the right place.

So what is a CELTA?

There are a lot of courses out there for people who want to teach English, but the Cambridge CELTA (the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) is one of the best regarded. As far as I can tell, this is for two reasons. Firstly, you have to do the course in person, so you have to be there to take on board the massive amount of personal feedback you get from your instructors. Secondly, the number of hours you have to teach on the course is massive. The almost equal weighting of theory and practice means that new teachers gain invaluable experience which would be impossible with an online course.

In my experience, CELTA lessons are focussed on teaching grammar to adults from absolute beginners to around B2 level. The CELTA philosophy is to prepare your lesson thoroughly and then get the students to do the work. In each lesson, you go through a spiral of testing the students’ knowledge, then teaching them new concepts, then testing their understanding. You elicit the answers instead of telling and you never, ever ask the forbidden question ‘Do you understand?’ The students participate throughout the class so they gain active vocabulary instead of passive understanding. It’s a great way of teaching languages and, after four weeks, you’ll be doing it from muscle memory.

Still, if you’ve already been shopping for a course, you’ve probably noticed that the CELTA has the reputation for being tough.

Everything you have read is true.

My full time CELTA was the most intense four weeks of my life. I had just done a year of working 60-hour weeks in hospitality. Before that, I’d studied full time, juggling a catering job while I wrote my dissertation. The CELTA month was still the busiest I had ever been. The course was 9 – 5, 5 days a week, with at least another 3 hours every night on written assignments and lesson planning. I also worked on the course for a full day of every weekend.  

On the first day, the instructors warned us that someone always cried from tiredness on the second Tuesday afternoon. It happened.   

I managed to avoid crying (during course hours, at least) by falling into a routine. I’d get to the station at 8am, always taking the stopping train so I could get a seat and have 10 minutes longer to listen to my podcast. It was the only ‘me time’ I had in the day.

From 9am until noon, we had seminars and workshops. The seminars were on everything from grammar to classroom management, from lesson planning to crafting the perfect whiteboard. We watched videos to see best practice applied and took a field trip to the main language school to observe experienced teachers. In the last week we also discussed how to find work and compared the best textbooks. In the most memorable workshop, our instructor demonstrated that you can teach a class with zero prior knowledge by gesturing and repeating herself in Polish. She proved her point. If I went to Warsaw, I could still say hello.

From 12 – 1pm our instructors were available while we prepared our lessons.  In the lunch break, I’d go out to the roof and practice teaching to thin air. 

What I was doing was rehearsing my lines and my marks. ‘Reduce Teacher Talking Time,’ is a CELTA mantra, and I was preparing myself to get the maximum number of words out of my students while saying the minimum number of words myself. I was shaving instructions until they were crystal clear. I was memorising everything because I tend to ramble when I’m on the spot. I was repeating concept check questions until they were both humorous and helpful. Usually, I was also freaking out at the thought of being observed by someone with my lesson plan on a clipboard.

Our lessons ran from 2 – 4.30pm, where we would either teach or make notes on the other candidates. When the students left, we gave each other exhaustive feedback. If you can’t take constructive criticism at the beginning of the course, you will have learned to by the end.

I got back on the train. I had dinner. I worked. My family would tell me to go to bed at 10. I usually had to work for another 30 – 60 minutes. I was writing up my notes from the day, doing the reflective writing assignments which were part of the final mark, preparing materials and writing lesson plans. The lesson plans were the most time consuming. We wrote down every interaction, explained how the sections of the lesson built on one another, and decided how we would deal with anticipated problems. Even teaching for 20 minutes required a 2 page plan.

The light at the end of the tunnel was week 4. By then, our lessons were 60 minutes long, meaning only 2 candidates could teach per day and some of us only had to teach once in the week. That week, I got to go running in the evening. It was the most joyous I have ever been on a run.

‘Why would you put yourself through that when you could get an online TEFL?’ I hear you ask. Like I said, it’s all to do with the teaching.  

At the beginning of the CELTA, teaching was terrifying to me. I was taking the course out of necessity, rather than because I had always dreamed of being a teacher. I reassured myself that we would work up to it slowly over the first week. Instead, I had to teach actual adult learners on the afternoon of the first day and then every 2 – 3 days for the rest of the course. The students weren’t paying for the classes they received from a mishmash of teachers with varying levels of experience and stage fright, but there was still something at stake for everyone. The students needed the lessons so that they could find jobs or get into schools, exactly as I would be doing in Vienna in a few weeks’ time. The responsibility we had to them was genuine. We also got to know a lot of the students well, even in a short time. Amid the hard work, all of that became a source of motivation.

The CELTA was scary and exhausting and I’ve never received so much criticism in such a short time, but I absolutely believe that it was worth it for me. My one reservation is that, while the CELTA made me a great teacher, it didn’t open as many doors as quickly as I thought it would when I was trying to find work. I might have had a different experience if I had been using the qualification to travel and I certainly wouldn’t have found any teaching work without my CELTA, but I expected it to make job hunting easy. Instead, I had a frustrating few months of interviews and picking up odd contracts before I found a full-time position.

I think this was part of job hunting in a European capital. Whereas the CELTA was very grammar focussed, I’ve never actually had to sit down with a class and say ‘Today, we’re going to learn how to construct the past perfect tense.’ Most of the work available to me was in teaching business English or teaching children and, although there is a specific CELTA for young learners, neither topic is covered in depth in the main course.

That being said, I use my CELTA training even when I’m teaching teenagers in a high school about current events. I have it to thank for knowing how to structure my lessons. Aside from the phonemic alphabet, which I had to memorise for the course but have never looked at again, everything covered in the CELTA was useful to me in teaching and continues to be useful to me as a writer. If nothing else, I no longer have a problem with phrasing or receiving constructive criticism.

I also haven’t forgotten how fun the four weeks were. I recommend that people look at doing a full time CELTA for the same reason I recommend intensive language lessons: you learn fast and become part of a community. The friendship that formed between the 11 candidates on my course was a large part of why I was able to get through such an exhausting and emotional month.  We spent entire days together and cheered each other on. Some of us are still in touch five years later.

So if you find yourself having to pick an EFL course and you’re somewhere near a CELTA centre, I think that you should jump at the opportunity. Just prepare to be exhausted, put as much of your real life on hold as you can, and be open to learning on a personal as well as a technical level. Practically speaking, devote a lot of time to the pre course task they send you beforehand. There’s a lot of reflection involved in the CELTA and the PCT will prepare you for that. Also, if you’re like me and haven’t actually thought about English grammar since you had to learn what an adverb was in primary school, find a workbook to read from cover to cover before you start. Focus on tenses especially. Otherwise you’re going to be shown up by the experienced teacher from Switzerland who, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, considers a CELTA to be a ‘relaxing summer holiday’ in the UK.

I did my CELTA in July 2014 at British Study Centres, Oxford.