Four weeks after graduating with an arts degree, in the early hours of a Sunday morning, I found myself righting the logos on pencils in the conference room of a hotel where I’d been employed as a night porter. Still heavily in debt and clueless as to my future career plans, I decided to escape the labotomizing effects of sleep deprivation and pencil straightening by signing up for a TEFL course.
I’m three weeks into the course. Once again it’s the early hours of a Sunday morning and I’m feeling far from razor sharp, but there’s only one week to go. I signed up for the intensive four-week course which, by the end should hopefully yield me a CELTA certificate. (Apparently only that and the TESOL certificate are worth anything; any course that runs for less that four weeks should be avoided.)
The course is not easy. Our ragged band, an eighteen strong unit, has suffered no outward losses but spirits have been crushed and morale diminished in a pyrrhic struggle against misplaced vowel sounds and flagrant abuses of the third conditional. Our taskmasters are hard. Years of dealing with the so-called native speakers, who can barely spot a homonym from a homophone, have hardened their hearts.
Each morning is spent in training. Language analysis, receptive skills practice, word stress and the schwa are just some of the weapons now at our disposal. In the afternoon we are out in the field, teaching a group of invariably no more than three foreign students, usually press ganged in by our taskmasters, highly sceptical of the worth of something they’re getting for nothing. And through all this we are guided by the Triangle of Truth; a curious blend of Confucianism (“awareness of self and students”) and NewSpeak (“monitoring and dealing with errors”). The beauty of this triangle is that we work downwards, taking the apex as a starting point, and as the triangle spreads into four, ever-widening sections, so the demands increase week by week.
In truth, it is not difficult in content but in quantity. As with most things you could spend hours preparing or blag it in a few minutes and no-one would notice the difference. Alternatively that could go horribly wrong, as when I encouraged an elementary class to read out the comic story “No Alligators in Bed!” in order to save time, only to reach one student who took about five minutes on each syllable, experimenting with a variety of intonations, none of which, to the best of my knowledge, is or ever has been employed in any part of the English speaking world. Tip: Don’t get your students to read out loud.
It can be quite boring, too. A large part of the course seems to involve learning acronyms and buzzwords (ESA, TTT, PPP, “activate”, “engage”). Since this is mainly a way of wankifying the straightforward, it can be frustrating when you get penalised for not playing the game. I have tried to justify it to myself as an important life skill but find it all but impossible to motivate myself to do my homework.
For me the teaching is the highlight. The most anodyne of material can become the most explosive of catalysts in the hands of students who, whilst using the language of the “global village”, evidently live in a very different world. Lessons are watched by a taskmaster, who grades you on a five part scale ranging from well below standard to well above standard. Deviations from a standard grade are few and far between. Nobody seems to fail.
Next then, the job. I am hoping that the world is soon to become my pet oyster. Money can be made in various places such as Japan, Australia and New Zealand, but it’s hardly a profession that is going to pay for your pension; financial survival seems, for the most part, to be enough of a goal. At present I am waiting for news of my application to the Maldives, Azerbaijan and Indonesia. God-willing, in a few weeks time, my insomniac, pencil-straightening nights will be but a distant dream.