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The TEFL Blunder

As I wind up my career as an English teacher in Mexico City, I can reflect and assess the last five and a half years or so. Were there any big blunders along the way? Oh yes. One stands out in particular. I’ll come to that in a moment. I became an English teacher in Mexico City because I wanted to live in Mexico City. Not necessarily because I wanted to be an English teacher, although that did have its appeal. And if it wasn’t something I enjoyed, I dare say I wouldn’t have spent all this time doing it.

But that’s why most people become English teachers abroad. The desire to travel, and plant roots somewhere different.It’s something that any native English speaker can do. Almost. I’m getting closer to my point – the big blunder. The truth of the matter is that the TEFL industry isn’t a world full of regulations, standards or qualifications. There are some recognised courses and certificates, but the most rigorous of those are one month intensive teacher training courses. If you don’t have one? No problem, you’ll still find work. I did take a course, by the by. But  how many other educational jobs for teachers from the developed world can be walked into with such ease?

Because the fact is, if you are a native English speaker, you can be a TEFL teacher. Some of those who’ve made a real career from real qualifications might disagree with me. They might say that not everyone can be an English teacher. But they’re wrong. What they mean to say is that not everybody can be a good English teacher. I remember my first class, back in 2005. How to judge myself?

By the standards of the professional teacher, I wasn’t ‘brilliant’. I didn’t know a relative clause from my elbow. The subjunctive was something that needed the attention of a doctor. But I’m a quick learner, and I’ve worked in industries where I have been required to coach people for most of my working life. I knew if a sentence was wrong or not, and could rapidly work out why, and share the information in an easy to digest manner. And over the years, I’ve developed a very thorough understanding of grammar, vocabulary and context. So I might not have been brilliant from day one, but I was learning the ropes in the same way 95% of TEFL teachers learn the ropes. I survived. So, for the most part, did my students.

A couple of years ago I received an email from someone I know from the digital world. Could he be an English teacher? What steps should he take to make it in Mexico City? I get asked the question a lot. Few ever actually make the jump. My response had become automated. Sure you can. Take a course with this teacher-training company. Get a few jobs, and away you go. That was my big blunder. I knew the chap only from his posting on the internet. Had I thought he might really, actually, whole heartedly go for the jump, then maybe I’d have given him alternative advice.

Perhaps I’d have suggested that his inability to write a coherent, grammatically correct sentence with half decent spelling might hold him back. Might make life difficult for him. There might be better career paths for him to take. I didn’t. I blundered. The truth might hurt, but the enormous amount of time and money that was subsequently wasted hurt more, I’m sure. Prospective TEFL teachers do need to be honest with themselves. You’ve don’t need to be the next Shakespeare. You might not even really understand what ‘grammar’ actually means. But you should at the very least have a decent grasp of the language. At the very least.

The chap failed his course. Miserably. Despite an extension and extra tuition. He did, however, find some classes anyway. Proving my point – anyone can become a TEFL teacher. But it was all too much hard work, and he soon returned from whence he came. Proving that while anyone can become an English teacher, not everyone should become an English teacher.

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