by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright July 2005
If you want to read a story about a happy CELTA training class, stop now. Read about my CELTA class in Bangkok, instead.
Happy looking, isn't it?In the front are the student students. In the back are the student teachers:
Tyler, Jeanine, Andrew, Andrew, Janet and Roger.
And on the right and left in the back are the teacher teachers: Julie Norminton and Ray Parker.
This is not a story of happy teachers teaching happy students who pass the course with flying colors.
It is the story of Roger taking a CELTA teacher training class from International House in Portland, Oregon (IH Portland) being taught by Julie Norminton and Ray Parker. It is the story of Roger trying very hard to pass that course, and failing. And, it is a mystery story. It is a mystery story because there is no way (in my mind, anyway) that Roger should have performed "not to standard", as CELTA puts it.
I took this class because I wanted to open doors. I wanted to be able to teach ESL in Europe and the Middle East (Europe/ME). I was not looking for a challenge when I signed up, I was looking for an affirmation that I was doing a good job as an ESL teacher, and doing a good enough job that I could teach in Europe/ME.
Why did I think I would do a good job at ESL teaching? I thought so because I have taught five years of ESL in Korea, and done very well at it there. How do I know I have taught well in Korea? I've been invited back four times to the same school, I have received no complaints from the director, and my students keep coming back for more. In addition to those direct ESL qualifications, I'm a professional writer, a technical teacher and I scored a 98% percentile on the GMAT verbal just last summer (2004). And, I have a BS, an MBA, and an arm-long list of technical certifications in computer networking.
In sum, I can be taught, and I'm quite experienced with both ESL and the English language.
In addition to all of the above, I was ready to give this class my full attention. From the time I got the pre-course material and signed my check to International House for $2200, this class had my full effort and full attention. This class should have been a slam-dunk.
It should have been a slam-dunk, and I would love to have written that it was a slam-dunk, but this is not a story about a happy classroom experience.
Week One started blandly enough. There were six of us student teachers and two teacher trainers -- Julie Norminton and Ray Parker. We started the course by playing a game where we tossed a ball around, and called out each other's first name. A cute game, but rather worthless in my estimation, since I'm a very slow name learner. I learn people by their resumes -- what they do and what they are interested in -- long before I learn them by their names. When we finished the game I waited for the round of resume-style introductions, but it never happened. That ball game introduction was the introduction.
"Oh...." thinks I at the end of the day, "How quaint and useless that game was. I do much better when I teach. When will these CELTA people show me something useful?"
I was surprised that first day, and the surprise continued all week. I just couldn't believe that these games we were playing were supposed to be the heart of what we were learning. I was also looking hard for ways to integrate what I knew about teaching into this CELTA program, and I wasn't seeing any.
By the end of Week One I sensed a potentially serious problem. I was giving the class my full attention, but nothing meaningful was coming into my head. As I put it in an e-mail to my friends that weekend, "My teachers seem afraid to teach. They start classes by playing games and they won't say what the point of the class is until its end."
I had a second concern: this teaching style I was experiencing looked very much like a teaching style I have detested since elementary school -- a style in which the teacher focuses on trivia, and forces that trivia to become the focus of the class. When I was in the Army I ran into a saying that expressed this problem succinctly, "There are three ways to do things, trooper. There's the right way, the wrong way, and the Army Way." By the end of Week One, I was seeing that there was a right way, a wrong way, and a CELTA way, and the CELTA way looked pretty stupid to me.
Looking stupid to me is not a fatal problem for any activity. I survived school and I survived the Army. What it means is that I have not seen the underlying logic that connects the various activities I am observing. When I see the pattern, it will no longer look so stupid. But, for me to thrive in an environment where I don't see the useful pattern, the teachers have to make it very clear what "their way" is.
On Tuesday morning of Week Two, I talked to Julie about my concerns. I started by asking her, "Do you want to know what my teaching philosophy is? Where I'm coming from?"
"No." She replied, and it was clear that that was exactly what she meant.
"Hmm." thinks I. "We are not off to a good start."
Later in the conversation I said something to her that I would say to her and Ray many times over the next three weeks, "Tell me what it is you want to see me do. Tell me the CELTA way, and I will be happy to do things this CELTA way while I'm here."
She looked at me strangely and said, "There is no CELTA way. I've been showing you many ways... but I've noticed that you seem to be resisting them."
"Uh Oh." thinks I, and not for the last time.
On Friday of Week Two I got a double whammy: I failed a class and I failed for the week.
The class failing made sense on one level, but not on another. The level it made sense on was that I got way off the lesson plan. I was seriously trying to CELTAize my lesson plan that Friday. I put in a half dozen of the techniques that Julie and Ray had been showing us, I filled the lesson plan with CELTA jargon, and I wrote out what I would be saying essentially word-for-word. In sum, I was trying hard to produce something that would please Julie and Ray. I did what I had outlined... in thirty of the forty minutes I was supposed to teach -- I was way too fast.
No big deal, I just ad-libbed the last ten minutes. Ad-libbing is a well-developed part of my teaching tool kit, I'm very good at it. I spent hours practicing ad-libbing when I was a dungeon master (DM) playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), so I slipped into the ad-lib part of this session very smoothly. I did the ab-lib so well that none of the student teachers watching realized I was off lesson plan, and when I finished the session with a hangman game using the key words of the session as words to guess, one of the students twice guessed my words just from the letter count! I was flabbergasted in a most pleasing way -- my lesson had really sunk in!
In spite of that happily impressive ending, Ray flunked me for that class because I hadn't followed the lesson plan. At the time I thought it was an odd choice -- ignoring that the students had learned and had a good time (something that Ray acknowledged during the evaluation), and choosing to make following the lesson plan more important than conducting a class where students learned what they were supposed to.
"Odd choice... but, OK..." thinks I, "I'm here to learn, and if that's the CELTA Way, I've learned that now, and I can live with that while I'm in this classroom environment."
At the time of the evaluation I didn't think the problem of failing one class was too serious. But ten minutes later when I was warned that I had also flunked the entire week, and I was "on warning."
Whoa! Flunked the whole week??? Over the weekend I went into Panic Mode. I focused down. There was no way this should be happening, but, even though it was happening, I was sure I could muster the resources to see this through.
I could see my main problem very clearly: I could not understand what Julie and Ray wanted -- I did not see their pattern. I would read what they handed out, and I would interpret it in a way completely differently than they would. I would listen to what they had to say in class, and (after I learned to strip off the gamey introductions) concentrate on putting their jargon and techniques into my lesson plans, but it wasn't going in right.
I resolved to consult intensively with my teachers... something I rarely do. But, I wanted this certificate, and I figured I'd give intensive consultation a try.
In sum, in the weekend between Week Two and Week Three, I redoubled my efforts.
Take your hands away from the toolbox, son... slowly...
A major source of frustration was that most of the tools in my teaching tool box were incompatible with what this CELTA course wanted.
The foundation of my teaching style is interview and ad-lib, and I teach for fluency, not analyzing grammar. So in a "Roger class" I ask my students lots of questions to both improve their ability to listen, think and then speak, and to find out what they are interested in so I can shape the class around their interests. In a typical Roger-style class 50-80% of the class is ad-lib. This works for me and my Korean students, but it is wrong on many levels for CELTA:
1) interviewing students is "teacher-centric" not student-centric, and CELTA classes should be student-centric.
2) ad-lib teaching is not to-the-lesson plan teaching, so the CELTA tutor observing the class can't check off lots of "he got this item done" spots on the lesson plan sheet.
3) ad-lib teaching builds on the lesson materials, but doesn't follow the lesson materials. Once again, this makes it hard for the CELTA observer. He or she looks and sees that I'm not on lesson plan, and judges this to be a mistake of some sort.
So, while I can use my tools to construct classes that are satisfying to students, I can't use my tools to construct classes that are satisfying to the CELTA teachers. As this course progressed, I found I had to keep more and more of my best tools in my tool box -- no interviews, no ad-libs, no block letters on the whiteboard -- and use unfamiliar CELTA-approved tools instead.
In Week Three the surprises came hot and heavy, and there were many unpleasant ones. First, I got my first writing assignment back, and I had flunked it.
Second, on Tuesday Ray opens a lecture with the statement, "Some of you seem to think that following the lesson plan is more important than teaching the students. That is not so. Teaching the students comes first."
"Whoa!" thinks I, "Yeah, these teachers really are hard to understand. Even more than before, I will have to check and double check what I do with them."
The Written Assignment Episode
I'm a fast writer as well as a good writer. On the Week Two weekend -- after flunking the week -- I wrote all four of the 750-1000 word written assignments that the course requires. I wrote them that early because I wanted them out of the way so I could devote my full attention to solving the mystery of getting good lesson plans prepared and executed.
On Monday of Week Three I handed in the first assignment. I got it back the next day: failed. 'You missed the point." was the essence of the comment on it, and the comments went on to deal with exactly how I had missed the point.
"Oh." thinks I as I read the comments. "Now that I know what they want, I can do that easily." and I did. I took just a couple hours that night to rewrite the assignment completely, and satisfactorily, and I handed it in the next morning.
Sadly, this same thing happened to two of the other four written assignments. After I handed them in the first time I was told I had missed the point entirely and they needed to be resubmitted. After reading what the comments were, I resubmitted work that was quite different from the original, and was satisfactory. On the fourth assignment, I did not figure out from the comments what Julie and Ray wanted, so I failed it twice.
I was not passive about this. I tried to solve this "Not Understanding What Is Wanted" problem by asking Ray to pre-review what I had written. Ray reviewed all of the last three written assignments before I handed them in. Even with that pre-review, they came back the first time as failed.
My feeling on the Written Assignment Episode was, and still is: what a clunky way to learn! Why couldn't these teachers make clear what they wanted in the first place? What I wrote in the second place I could just as easily have written in the first place, if I had only understood what these people wanted!
In Week Three I passed all the teaching sessions. But I was informed that I was just barely passing them. By the end of Week Three I was seriously worried. (there were still two teaching sessions and two written assignments to be completed.)
To pass the Week Three lessons, I was having to write lesson plans that were so detailed that they were including exactly what I would say in my teaching session, word-for-word. In addition to that extensive detail, I was having the lesson plans pre-reviewed by Ray. I would say to Ray, "Please take a look at this lesson plan. Am I covering what has to be covered?" And he would say, "Yes." Yet even with this intensive coordination, the results were marginal. What was going on here????
There was clearly a failure to communicate. I will give another example:
In Week Three I was ordered to write on the white board using lower case letters -- something that was going to be very difficult for me to do. I learned to write on the white board in technical training classes, and in technical training classes uppercase block letters are the standard. I haven't written lower case letters since middle school. So, my lower case letters are ugly, they are slow for me to make, and they are not habit, so I have to think about each letter as I write it. I experimented a bit, and found that when I was writing lower case I did not have the brainpower to write lower case and think about how the class is going or what I should be doing next -- one or the other, not both.
I told both Julie and Ray this. Ray's answer was, "Numerous studies have shown that students use the shape of words to help identify them, and block letter words have no shape. Use lower case."
So, for the last part of Week Three and all of Week Four I used lower case letters. Was I praised for my efforts? Riiight! On my teaching reviews for Week Three and Week Four I got statements such as: "your board writing is hard to read", "you are taking too long to write stuff on the board.", "you seem to lose concentration when you are writing on the board." Not once did Ray or Julie recommend that I go back to using block letters so my students could read what I had written, or so that I could conduct my class smoothly.
This is just one example of the contradictions I encountered all through this course. Julie and Ray would say something, and I would think I understood what they were saying. But, when I would try to implement what I heard them say, I would be told, "You missed the point entirely. You should have done [X]."
This is exactly what happened on my final teaching session of Week Four -- the one I had to pass, and pass well, to complete the course successfully.
Once again, I vetted my word-for-word lesson plan with Ray. He looked it over and said, "It looks fine."
This time I said the lesson plan word-for-word, and it timed out perfectly. I did no ad-libbing. There was no spontaneity. The session was 100% by-the-lesson plan. There should have been no surprises.
The review I got back from Julie was, "This session was about doing a summary writing assignment, but you never told your class what summary writing was. Sorry...." and that was it.
After it was clear that I was not going to be to standard, I tried to contact Linda Galas, the owner of IH, to find out what would happen next. I tried to reach her many times because she was terrible about returning calls.
Finally, the Thursday after class ended, I reached her, and what follows is the entire conversation.
"I was calling to find out what your policy is on retaking a CELTA class."
"We don't have a policy per se. But we usually recommend that if a student wants to retake they should do so at a different school."
"So... I've spent $2200 for a month of memories?"
"Was I not clear?"
"OK. Just checking. Thank you."
And that was it.
I was unhappy about the course, and I was unhappy about the outcome. The course ended July 2nd. On July 5th, per the procedure outlined in my CELTA manual, I sent letters of complaint to Linda Galas and Cambridge University outlining some instances where the teachers had not kept to CELTA standards. (For example, in one session, a training teacher-led class had only three students in it.) It is now August 2nd, a month later, and I have not received any response to those letters.
It seems that now that I've paid my money and spent my time, I'm no longer worthy of any courtesy from either IH or Cambridge University. This leaves me wondering about the effectiveness of their overall quality control on the courses, and how much effort either group puts into their post-class services.
In November my workload at Michigan Language Academy open up an opportunity for me to retake the CELTA course. I used the opportunity to travel to Bangkok, Thailand and take the CELTA course offered by Elite Training. The course was conducted by Stuart Gale and Janice Galloway, and things went much better this time around. I passed the course in a straightforward way.
What was different between the first and second times I took this course? Here's what I saw:
First, let me say that I saw the courses as very much alike. The way the classes were conducted, the class facilities, and the material covered had a lot in common, although they were not identical. So, my problems with the first session were not caused by some fluke in the teaching style of Ray and Julie or the subject matter they covered. That said...
I tried hard to pass this course. It had my full attention for over five weeks. When I go to this much effort, I get something out of it. Here's what I got from a month of CELTA training.
Men are from Mars,
Women are from Venus,
and CELTA teachers are from Planet Pluto
Even after four weeks of time together, my teachers could not communicate to me what they wanted me to do -- I could never discover their underlying pattern that would have made sense of all this. I was as surprised in Week Four, Day Three by Julie's comment, "You should have talked about what summary writing was." as I was her using the Ball Game for introductions on Week One, Day One.
That's all I have for now. I wish those of you who take a CELTA training class better luck, and better understanding than I experienced. May you have a happy class, filled with happy teachers, all of whom pass with flying colors.
-- The End --