The importance of teaching qualifications

As I mentioned in the article about an employee visa, I was never asked to prove that I held teaching qualifications in order to work legally in Colombia. All I needed was a valid passport and an employer willing to provide a few documents. Is such a lenient approach a good idea? You be the judge of that. Anyway, there are signs that this policy is coming to an end because more and more visa applicants are asked to produce degrees or other documents.

Let’s get something important out of the way right at the beginning. Backpacker teachers have a bad reputation in Colombia. This refers to unqualified people delivering low-quality lessons for a while and then moving somewhere else. There is nothing wrong with travelling and volunteering; however, asking for money from your students is frowned upon in that situation.

Even if you have no qualifications whatsoever, you may be able to find someone who would like to employ you. Please, don’t be that person. Put yourself in your students’ shoes: Colombian public education system is not renowned for effective English classes, so many people pay extra money to learn the language. It is really important for your students’ careers; many of them wish to study or work abroad. They deserve to be taught by someone who knows what they are doing. Some employers don’t care about their students and they will hire anyone whose only qualification is being able to speak English. That doesn’t mean it is okay to participate in that terrible practice. Try to be a good teacher. You owe it to your students.

Do you need a degree? In theory, you don’t need one to get a visa, but it is highly recommended to have at least a Bachelor’s. I understand that you can be a good teacher without a degree. I also don’t think that everybody with a Bachelor’s degree in Modern Languages automatically knows how to teach. It has more to do with your status. You may teach English to someone who has already finished their Master’s and is now working on their PhD. If you teach children and teenagers, their parents may ask you for your qualifications. Having no degree could lead to some awkward conversations in those situations.

Again, I suggest that you look at it from another point of view. If you wanted to learn Spanish, would you pay for classes with a random Colombian whose only qualifications are being a native speaker and finishing a high school? I guess not. That is why having a degree is important. If it is related to education and includes teaching practice, you are ready to apply for a job.

Even if your degree is unrelated, there are options to get qualified as a teacher. Many people opt for online courses. You can find some ridiculously cheap ones on Groupon and apparently they are good enough to get a visa in many Asian countries. Since you don’t really need that in Colombia, I don’t see why you should take that kind of course. How can clicking through some online content prepare you for teaching real students in a classroom?

Some online courses are quite expensive and they will undoubtedly teach you something. However, I still don’t think that a course without assessed teaching practice represents a good investment. I would recommend buying Jeremy Harmer’s book The Practice of English Language Teaching instead. Another point to consider is that the best-paying employers won’t even call you for an interview if your only qualification is an online certificate.

If you are serious about teaching, you should take a course that includes teaching real students and getting feedback from a qualified tutor. The most recognised ones are CELTA and CertTESOL. Basically, they are four-week boot camps for teachers in which you give classes and receive constant feedback on your performance. Obviously, such a short course can’t transform you into an amazing teacher. What it can do, though, is equip you with practical techniques to survive your first job. When I observe other teachers, I can instantly tell if they have taken a CELTA course; and I mean that as a compliment.

There are CELTA courses in Colombia provided by International House and the British Council. Most of them take place in Bogotá, but there are usually one or two in Medellín every year. Both CELTA and CertTESOL are standardised and externally assessed, which means that it doesn’t matter where you take them. You can find a course close to your location here: CELTA, CertTESOL. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, these qualifications can now be obtained fully online as well, which is a good option for those interested in teaching online.

The good news is that Colombian employers recognise both certificates. Even if you have no teaching experience, having a CELTA or CertTESOL can help you avoid the pitfalls of being offered only terrible positions (and there are plenty of them in Colombia!). Your students will appreciate that as well because both courses produce teachers who try to make their lessons as learner-centred as possible.

A word of warning at the end. There are some in-class courses, some of them taking place in Latin America, which claim to be a CELTA equivalent. Those courses may actually be really useful, but the problem is that they aren’t externally assessed, so nobody really knows how good or bad they are. You may then end up having to explain what the course was about during a job interview and that is not a position you want to be in. The British Council and International House won’t accept that kind of certificate. It may seem unfair, but that is the way the ELT industry works. Taking those courses is a risky decision, especially considering the fact that some of them are even more expensive than CELTA.

Have you taken any of the courses mentioned in this post? You are welcome to tell us about your experience in the comments section.