Jeremy Meehan who recently completed a four-week CELTA course in UCC
Hey Jeremy, thanks for taking the time to do this. Now that the four-week intensive CELTA course is over how do you feel?
Delighted to have made it to the end successfully and now to have an internationally-recognised qualification and the means of earning a living, either here in Ireland, or in many other countries.
Can you tell me what were your reasons for doing the course?
My main reason was to acquire a skill and a level of certification to accompany it that would give me employment opportunities in this area. Having worked in two different positions for a total of 32 years I was looking for a change, but one that I could use as much or as little as I felt like after retirement age. I have always had a fascination with the English language, and I enjoy working with others, so this seemed like a good option.
Can you tell us a little about the application process? What did you have to do?
The application process was straightforward: there is a standard form, which requests the usual details, as well as your third-level degree qualifications (you must have a degree to do CELTA). It also explores your motivations for applying, any relevant experience you have in teaching or training, and asks for details of two referees.
Once you submit this, you are then invited to attend the centre, where you sit a one-hour written paper, followed by an interview that can last up to an hour. Both are reasonably general in nature and seem designed to explore whether you would be a suitable candidate for the course.
What about before the course – were there things you had to do in preparation?
UCC supplies a reading/reference list of publications that are widely used in the ESL area: teaching theory, English grammar, etc. Reading these from end to end is not compulsory, but at least dipping into them will give a flavour of the kinds of topics that are relevant to the course.
There is also a pre-course assignment. This takes the form of a fairly lengthy questionnaire covering all kinds of areas. It isn’t mandatory and it wasn’t collected at the course, but it is a very thought-provoking exercise and will get you thinking about many aspects of this kind of work and angles that you might not have been aware of previously.
Tell us about the first day? What was that like?
Like all first days there was a mixture of anticipation, apprehension, wanting to make a good impression and excitement at having got this far! It was interesting to meet the other trainees and see what a wide divergence of backgrounds they had. We also met our trainers, who gave us an overview of what the course would entail.
They say the course is really intensive. It is as relentless as they say or is it exaggerated?
It is no exaggeration. This course, worldwide, has a reputation for being an endurance test. It is hugely challenging on a number of fronts, as you will quickly discover following the induction day:
- Sleep deprivation – during the week, having worked a full day in college, you will continue working until late in the evening, often rising again well before dawn to complete preparations for teaching practice or to work on assignments with deadlines approaching, before facing in to college and having to stand up and deliver the goods
- The pressure of performing in front of near-strangers during Teaching Practice
- The primal fear of being found wanting, as everything you do and say while in the Teaching Practice spotlight is analysed and written down, giving you a grade in many different and specific sub-skill categories
- The added pressure of the follow-on feedback sessions where your performance is analysed by both your trainer and your peers and your lesson is assigned a grade
- Further stress as the four vital assignments with their specific requirements are added to the schedule and you try to make sense of them
On the course you have to teach for a total of six hours? How does that work out?
You prepare and deliver a lesson every second day, initially 40-minute lessons and later on one-hour lessons.
Are the students ‘real’ students?
Yes, in the sense that none of them has English as a first language. They come from a wide variety of different countries and backgrounds; most will be living in Ireland, but some may just be here for a short stay and are availing of the opportunity to brush up on their English.
On average how long did it take you to prepare for a lesson?
Generally about seven or eight hours. However, this varies from person to person. The length of time is due to the necessity of preparing the materials and writing up the notes in a very specific format, going into some detail on several fronts.
Did the tutors give you a lot of help in the planning stage of your lessons?
The course is designed so that in the early stages, Weeks 1 and 2, you get very detailed assistance; this tails off and by Week 4 you are pretty much on your own, albeit with recourse to your trainer if you have specific queries. However, by then you should have acquired most of the necessary skills.
So, in the morning you have teaching practice and then in the afternoon you have input sessions? Tell us a little about those.
Input sessions cover a wide variety of the other areas you need to know, such as classroom management and closer analysis of some of the main areas you will be teaching such as the receptive skills of reading and listening and the productive ones of speaking and writing. They are enjoyable and thought-provoking sessions, with much interaction.
What is the hardest part of the course?
Apart from the mental and physical demands and the unremitting nature of the pressure, the whole class found that it was difficult to pin down the fundamentals of the CELTA methodology – what the bones of it are and then how and why lessons in various categories are put together in a certain way, to particular templates. Much mental energy went into trying to identify this global structure, and this seems to be a feature of the course worldwide rather than any local phenomenon. The general feeling was one of trying to assemble a large jigsaw when you are given new pieces every day, each one full of detail, but without first being given the full picture so that you can see how each piece relates to the whole. This sense of uncertainty persisted to the end of the course, and perhaps it is something that Cambridge might ponder with a view to providing a structured, detailed, printed resource to all of its centres.
Was there anything you found easy?
Easy perhaps isn’t the word, but it is great that everybody on the staff is very positive and supportive, and generally committed to their trainees being successful in their endeavours. People are always willing to give you their time or some extra advice or help, and the office staff are very friendly, helpful and understanding. This was the case also with fellow trainees: there was great bonding between all the class, with everyone helping one another along in many different ways. A stiff challenge always brings out people’s true mettle, and the sense of camaraderie and mutual support was wonderful.
Was there anything you had not expected at all; something that surprised you?
It was interesting to observe trained teachers in class, and see the wide variety of teaching styles.
What advice would you give someone preparing for the intensive 4-week CELTA course? Are there any books or websites you would suggest?
- Take seriously the advice you are given with regard to clearing your diary completely for this time.
- If you have family, explain to them that you need to make arrangements to be off the radar for a month!
- Minimise the factors that will act as tipping points for stress during the course: in particular, if you have access to printing or photocopying facilities off-site, use them. When you are under severe pressure before a lesson in the morning, something beyond your control, such as the inevitable issues with photocopiers or the IT in the classrooms can be the final straw.
- Similarly, as soon as the course begins, so does the blizzard of handouts under a plethora of different headings. Likewise, you will be taking copious notes to go with these. Come prepared and armed with a couple of folders or accordion files into which you can file the paper, labelled appropriately, as it falls; also an A4 pad or two.
- At weekends, try and take at least one half-day’s complete break and do something that takes your mind off things – if possible something outdoors.
- Make sure to eat properly in order to have the stamina required. A double espresso and two aspirin do not constitute breakfast!
In general, you need to be sanguine about what you are engaged in and try and keep a sense of perspective for the relatively short duration of the course. A philosophy of “Keep calm and carry on” will go a long way. You also need to be able to accept constructive criticism with a good grace, and be seen to act upon it: trainers are endeavouring to give you very particular skills that you need to master if you are to be someone who can enable learning, as opposed to just delivering teaching, and they need to be satisfied that you are taking their advice on board and trying to implement it. Lastly, as in all of life, a sense of humour will help you to get by!
With regard to books, websites, etc., the reading lists provided by the Department in UCC are a good initial source of reference works on both the theory and practice of the CELTA method. During the course, your trainers will often mention useful books or other references relevant to the specific topic under discussion. The internet is a great repository of all kinds of material, and a Google search will throw up dozens of websites with any number of resources – mostly free – under every conceivable heading. Also, your CELTA course fee entitles you to one year’s subscription to the Cambridge English Teacher website, which is the main hub for online tutorials, forums and many other helpful materials related to CELTA. You receive an activation code for this upon payment of fees.
And finally, now that the course is over what are your plans? How do you intend to use your CELTA qualification?
I was very lucky to be offered some contracts with a local college as soon as the course finished. This has enabled me to get stuck in to the world of ESL and begin to implement the training I received on the course. I hope also to take some private pupils in parallel to that, perhaps working from home, so as to build up experience, resources and contacts. It’s all good so far!
Thanks so much for doing this Jeremy. It was really interesting to learn about your experience. I am sure it will help anyone doing a CELTA course, both the trainees and the tutors!
Best of luck in all you do!
If you are interested in doing a CELTA course at UCC, you can find all the information here.