Helpful advice from my CELTA tutors

I have already highlighted some benefits of getting a CELTA in this post about teaching qualifications. You can also read my tips for passing the course with a good grade. I did my CELTA at CELT Athens and it was an amazing experience. The feedback I received was really valuable because I’d had no teaching experience prior to the course. Several years have passed since then, but I still remember my tutors’ advice. Let me share a few important principles that I follow to this day.

Helpful advice from my CELTA tutors

You have to grade your language
I felt really satisfied with the first English lesson of my life; everything went well and I was proud of my performance. Then my tutor told me that showing off is not a good strategy in the classroom. I was talking too fast and using words way above my learners’ level. I remember that I said, ‘Technically, that’s right’ at one point of the lesson. When I came home, I checked the word ‘technically’ in a dictionary and found out that it’s supposed to be used at C2 level. I taught pre-intermediate students that day.

Speaking fast and using fancy words is fine when presenting at a conference, but talking to your students requires you to adapt your language to their current level of English. They need to be exposed to comprehensible input, so slowing down your speech and adjusting your language is certainly a step in the right direction.

You are talking to human beings
At first I thought that this comment was rather amusing, but then I realised the tutor was referring to building rapport with students. They are more than just an item on the attendance list. I know that talking to complete strangers can be a daunting experience, and that’s why a bit of small talk before or after a lesson is extremely helpful. My lessons are more engaging when I know my students’ professions, hobbies, academic background, etc. That knowledge allows me to personalise the lessons and focus on what the learners find relevant.

Another important word here is humility. I believe that my students have amazing talents and abilities that can range from mathematics to sports, music, etc. They can’t express themselves perfectly in a foreign language, but that doesn’t detract anything from what they can do in other areas. I always ask my students to talk about what they are professionally or academically involved in, and I have actually learnt a lot of new things in the process. I love what Hugh Dellar said in this video:

“First and foremost, good teachers care about the people that they’re in the room with. They care about them on a human level. They care about their feelings, their emotions, their lives, their well-being. Because of that, they care about how well they’re progressing academically. They care about what might be stopping them from progressing well academically. They care about their presence. They care about their involvement in the class. They care about their interactions with other students and with themselves.”

You are not talking to grammarians
Grammar knowledge definitely plays an important role in language learning. That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to expect the learners to memorise all kinds of technical terms. Knowing metalanguage can be useful, but I’ve met students who could identify past participles, complements and adverbials without having the ability to string a few sentences together in their spoken production. I think it makes more sense to focus on performance and successful communication with other people.

I spent a few months tutoring a teenager who was struggling with English at school. Her vocabulary was limited and she didn’t know how to produce complex sentences. When she asked me for help with her homework, I was shocked to see that she was expected to pass a test full of complicated verb forms, including the future perfect progressive! Who in their right mind would think that kind of crap is appropriate for a pre-intermediate learner? How exactly was she supposed to benefit from that? No wonder many students end up hating English when they have to memorise unnecessary rules instead of doing something useful.

Just let them talk
Working with people who are naturally talkative in their native language is good fun. If you live in Colombia and speak Spanish, you will inevitably participate in long conversations on all kinds of topics. Of course, it’s not always easy to take advantage of that trait and make the students speak as much as possible in English. The problem is when the teacher is the most talkative person in the room because you may then witness something like this: 

Teacher: Good morning, how are you? Good? That’s great. How was your weekend? What did you do? Nothing? Really?
Student 1: Sleeping.
Teacher: Sleeping? Yes, me too. I also went to the cinema to see The Avengers. I thought it was amazing. Did you like it?
Student 2: Yes.
Teacher: Yes, that’s great. I loved the part when…

You get the picture. The learners can barely get a word in because the lesson is dominated by a teacher with superior language skills. If I were a student in that classroom, I would decide to save my money and watch videos on YouTube instead. I might actually learn English faster that way.

My point is that students should be the ones who talk a lot in the classroom. Sometimes it’s appropriate to simply shut up and let the learners do most of the talking. I’m sure they’re going to enjoy it more than listening to rambling monologues. You don’t need to go full Dogme and make all your classes based on conversation, but I definitely recommend asking a lot information questions to get people to speak. Just don’t forget to give them enough time to answer!