By Jennifer Wallace - Anhui University of Technology, China
I'm 54, and a couple of years back, fed up with the admin job I was doing, decided to head back into TEFL - something I'd done for a few years about 15 years before. I had about 7 years' teaching experience altogether, all done back in the days when a degree was the only essential qualification, and as mine was BA plus MPhil in Linguistics, I never had trouble getting reasonable quality work. I wanted to come to China, and VSO (a UK based international development NGO) has a sizeable China programme. But to be accepted by VSO I had to be a qualified teacher. So I went off and did an intensive one month course to get the CELTA (Cambridge basic EFL qualification). I'm glad I did - for my sake.
The situation here's very different from my previous teaching experience - in the UK, Portugal and Spain. I'd taught all sorts of age groups, all levels, private and public sector, most nationalities. But the course (which was a good one) sent me off very up-to-date on current practice, and pointed me in the direction of what to follow up in terms of current new developments, and full of fresh practical ideas. As I've worked my way through this first year teaching in China, I've been very appreciative of all that. Even when my lessons have been crap, I've known I was trying to do something reasonable, and I've been able to learn from the disasters as I had a reasonably robust framework to look at that disaster in. It's also meant I've done some work which has been very successful.
I plan to stay here longer than the 2 year contract I have at present, so my doing training is in the context of a rough plan of at least a decade of TEFL work. I now think of doing more training in a few years' time. There's a higher level Cambridge qualification (DELTA) which interests me. There are things in this TEFL work in China I'm definitely very interested in. I've been given a complete timetable of oral English classes for English major freshman (college/university) for next semester and am planning both pronunciation work and conversation skills work for that. I've done a little of both this last year, enough to realise how valuable both could be, but how much more I need to plan to do both well.
For example, there was a point that I realised my students could hold forth, declamatory-style, reasonably well. But they had no conversation skills in English. I suppose I expected them to transfer Chinese conversation skills - listening, responding, turn-taking. They weren't, so I set to and systematically taught those three things. I made the rules explicit and the conversations are still slightly formal-sounding, but the overall effect has been good. For their exam these students discussed a randomly allocated (but prepared) topic in a randomly selected group - and they did it well. But I could see how much they're having to work at including others, picking up and making conversational links, driving a conversation forward. The best ones, though, were excellent conversations - something they couldn't do a semester ago.
Could I have taught this sort of thing without training? I'm obviously drawing as much as anything on my linguistics knowledge and interests. It's the same with the pronunciation. Unlike many people in TEFL, not only am I not afraid of phonemic alphabets, I enjoy getting students to start to get to grips with both phonetics and phonology, and am enjoying helping them make real improvements in their pronunciation, almost working in a speech therapy fashion, I think.
But I think the TEFL training and qualification has given me a clear sense of what's expected in this field nowadays - what good practice is. That framework's invaluable. I can see what particular interests and skills I have and how they can develop within that framework, and I think it's making me a much better teacher than I was before (and I don't think I was crap before).
On a purely selfish note, I'm also learning Chinese, and much I learnt on my TEFL course is helping me with my own language study!