Examining the Examiners

Irena Köstenbauer

Unabridged version. A short version of this article was published in: ELGazette March 1996, London

Teaching English as a foreign language has become a big business.

In the not too distance past becoming a teacher was not a question of a week-end training - it was the decision for life. It cost both time and money.

In the 80's, together with the growing popularity of the communicative approach created a large demand for native speakers, qualified or unqualified. This approach has inevitably favoured native or near- native speakers of English over the non- native speakers, which are most English teachers!! However, employers and students did not realize that in unprofessional hands this approach could lead to an unstructured type of instruction in which little systematic knowledge of the grammatical framework or the pronunciation system was imparted. Until today, practically anybody born in an English speaking country can get a teaching job anywhere in the world.

In those times the whole complicated TEFL machine started to move slowly but inevitably to meet the requirements of unqualified native speakers of English and provide them with at least basic education. Anything you can dream of - from a week-end introductory course, through an intensive RSA Cambridge or Trinity TEFL certificate to RSA Diploma.

Having graduated from RSA Cambridge Course in London myself and having studied the programmes of many other institutes offering such courses, I have to admit that they have been doing a good job, at lleast trying to provide the participants with the minimum knowledge of teaching techniques, classroom management, making them acquainted with the latest teaching and reference materials.

Nevertheless, the question arises: Can one learn this difficult and responsible profession within a month?. Is it fair even to suggest that one can? Should young people looking for a future job and career be made to believe that you can become a teacher after a short teacher training course?

The matter of the fact is that they are made to believe it and then everybody seems to be surprised about poor quality of courses, frustrated students, frustrated teachers and angry employers.

Just to remind you, a three-week-course in England costs an average Austrian student about 1500 pounds.It is not little, is it? But his parents are willing to pay it because they treat it as an investment in their child's future. On the other hand one hears lamenting from TEFL students, who had to pay 700 - 850 pounds for a very intensive 4-week-course, which gives them an opportunity for a future job. They also complain that they earn too little.

Our school receives tens of application letters from people who have never taught English in their lives.Some of these letters are with spelling mistakes, written by "qualified" teachers, quoting examples of previous work experience such as: gas station attendants, check-out operators, tele-marketing specialists, assistants at boutiques, nannies or opera singers - the list is long, but, typically includes anything but teaching experience. Their only qualification are these introductory TEFL courses.

On the other hand I also receive many application letters from young Austrian students from the Vienna English Department. They do not want to teach at my summer school - they are aware of the fact that they are not yet qualified. They modestly apply for a job of teacher assistants, which is very badly paid. They do not apply to earn a lot of money but to gain experience before graduating from the University and teaching at Austrian schools. The matter of the fact is I cannot employ them because the parents are so strongly convinced about the assets of having a native speaker as a teacher that they would prefer even an unqualified to a good Austrian one. And this I find wrong and misleading although I am certainly not able to change it.

Unfortunately, I have the feeling that the value of this difficult but rewarding profession started to diminish. Would such a devaluation and depreciation be possible in other professions?

Could we, teachers, take a week-end course and start working as nurses in a hospital? Would we get a job as car mechanics after a week-course? The answer is clearly NO, but actually why not?

Is it because teachers do not have to learn anything, is it because they have no responsibility educating future generations, is it because this profession does not require any effort and knowledge?

Can teaching be considered a summer job, just like fruit picking or babysitting, just to make a few pounds to be able to travel around?

Let me quote an ancient Chinese proverb:

"Those who want to leave an impression for one year should plant corn.
Those who want to leave an impression for 25 years should plant a tree.
But those who want to leave an impression for 100 years
should train and educate a human being".

Choosing this profession one should be aware of the great responsibility that one takes over one's shoulders. A teacher, as a person, possesses tremendous power to make his pupils miserable or joyous. He can give him the feeling of success or failure. He can be a tool of torture or instrument of inspiration, he can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. A teacher is always a decisive element in the classroom.

It is his or her knowledge, personal engagement, personality, teaching techniques, authority and last but not least personal approach that creates the climate.
Is it responsible to place the education of our children in the hands of accidental summer job hunters?

Much has been said about the difficult lives of these poor TEFL students. It is often pointed out how much the TEFL education costs, how long it lasts to become a teacher, how badly these people are paid, how much they are abused by bad employers, how hard they have to work and how much stress they have.

It is said much less, however, about poor employers who have to deal with the products of this TEFL machinery.

After having observed classes of different applicants for the last 15 years, I have to state the following:

1. as far as the command of language is concerned most of the applicants

:: did not even have basic knowledge of English grammar

:: could not explain simple grammatical problems properly, if at all

:: could not give clear, short answers to students' questions

:: very often made mistakes themselves (differences between Simple past & Present Perfect, use of Saxon Genetive, spelling mistakes.

2. as far as teaching techniques are concerned most of the applicants:

:: did not prepare their lessons

:: did not not know how to prepare a proper lesson plan;

:: were not able to follow an existing lesson plan - they did not know how to proceed

:: while working with beginners who cannot follow complicated explanations, they talked too much;

:: while working with advanced learners, conversation classes or ESP, they could not explain more complicated words or phrases and either students got frustrated or it took a long time to find a word in the dictionary

:: they could not keep bigger classes under control, since lessons were not organized and planned

:: had no experience with using props and all sorts of teaching materials

3. as far as the classroom management is concerned most of the applicants:

:: were very nervous and unsure in class due to the lack of training, experience and knowledge, which in consequence led to disruptive behaviour and caused boredom.

Following the discussions on TEFL education and TEFL Certificates in EFL Gazette, one can clearly see that the problem of teacher training courses and the level of teachers' qualifications has recently caused a lot of attention. There have been attempts to get it under control. For example, three years ago The University of Cambridge lounged a project to develop the Cambridge Integrated Language Teaching Systems. Mr Keith Morrow, a consultant for this project, defines its tasks in the following way: "...the keynote of this project has been a commitment to quality - both in the procedures set up for consultation with the profession, and in the design and development of syllabuses and assessment procedures which ensure that both candidates and employers can depend on the awards made." (IATEFL Newsletter, Issue No.130). In his letter he also gives a check-list which should help employers in assessing Certificates from an unknown source.

As long as the actual situation is going to continue, as long as there are hundreds of schools offerring TEFL courses of different quality, one cannot be surprised that both employers and students prefer to choose the well-known Institutes.

That may be true that there is a deadlock on teacher training certificates hels by Trinity and RSA, this may also be true that these are best known institutes and it is very difficult for the other schools to break through. But not without reason.

If you, as an employer, are confronted with a TEFL Certificate issued by International House in London, you are not only given a proper insight into the course content and its duration, but you also learn a lot about the applicant.

RSA Certificate specifies the student's grade, gives you first an overall assessment, then discusses the applicant's personality and rapport and also informs you thoroughly about the applicant's lesson preparation. The information includes: clarity of aims, ability to analyse the language, suitability of materials and aids as well as relevance of materials and aids.

Unfortunately, I cannot comment on Trinity Certificates because our school has not received any application letters from its graduates yet.

On the other hand I very often receive application letters from people who graduated from the International TEFL College in Dublin. The Certificates issued by this Institute tell me very little about the candidate. I get the information about the grade and the material covered, but there is no duration of the course stated nor do I learn about the hours of teaching practice.

During one of the interviews it turned out that a month-course at the TEFL

College in Dublin was in reality not even a two-week course because classes were held only three times a week,three hours in the evening. It was also this very Institute mentioned before in this article, whose students had to teach FULL TWO hours to graduate. This is astounding!

What other possibilities do we, employers, have to defend ourselves from such certificates and such applicants than relying only on the most famous ones?

I do not think minor differences between RSA and Trinity Certificates matter so much. What matters is a very strict control of hundreds of other schools who offer TEFL Courses. Mr Keith gives employers good tips how to check on different Institutes. I would suggest there should be an official body which would have to agree first that a given school has the right to offer a course and issue certificates at all. Employers living in another countries may not be acquainted with the whole TEFL system in England and yet they have to be able to rely on a certificate and obtain a good portion of information about the applicant. One cannot expect South Americans to study the details of British TEFL Institutes. Europe is not so far, many of us have taken a course in London, but what about the others?

Teaching is by no means an easy profession and people who would like to proceed this career should not be made to believed it.

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