In the first of a new series of posts, MET resident blogger David Dodgson looks at how to make the transition from English language teaching as a job to a career. Based on his own background of starting out as a recent university graduate looking for some life experience, he reflects on steps he has taken (and those he wishes he had taken) to reach the point where ELT has become a professional career choice. Whether you are early in your teaching career or already a seasoned classroom veteran, please read on and share your comments.
Almost two decades ago, a young British person fresh out of university and unsure of what to do next took a Trinity Certificate TESOL course and secured a teaching job in a foreign country. He thought about working there for 1 or 2 years before potentially moving on somewhere else to gain some more life experience and then finally returning home to start a ‘real career’ (whatever that may be).
This is hardly a unique story. It is one that had played out many times before and has played out many times since. However, in my case that ‘1 or 2 years’ has become close to 20 years and looks set to continue for the rest of my working life. Again, I am not alone in making this transition, but how does a job become a career? In this post (and the forthcoming posts in the series), I will reflect on the key stages in my own development from TEFL job to career – feel free to share your experiences and advice in the comments section below.
1. Do you really want to make this your career?
This is the most obvious and perhaps most important question to ask before making any long-term commitments. There comes a point within the first few years of teaching when you have to ask yourself if you can envisage working in TEFL as a long-term career. This applies to both those, like me, who initially entered the profession through the ‘have teaching certificate, will travel’ route and those who qualified through national teaching programmes.
I have worked with many people who became teachers to travel, or because they were good at languages when at school themselves, or because of other extrinsic factors. After some time in the classroom, they find their passion for education and decide to make a long-term career of it. I have also worked with people who have enjoyed teaching but only ever viewed it as a temporary vocation and have later successfully transitioned into other careers.
By contrast, I have also met teachers who entered the job as a means to an end (perhaps they have another reason for being in a particular location and teaching provided a secure job, or past exam results or external expectations pushed them into a teacher training programme).
The key factor here is to decide early. If you are to leave the profession, a few years’ experience of teaching English can enhance your CV when applying for other jobs. Any more than that and the inevitable questions of ‘why did you quit teaching?’ will follow. If you choose to teach long-term, doing so because of your enthusiasm for education will always stand you in better stead than simply doing it because you have to.
2. How can you vary your work experience?
There is a lot to be said for job stability – it offers security to employee and customer alike, and it allows you to become familiar with a particular role and set of responsibilities and/or expectations. However, there is just as much if not more to be said for variety. This allows you to gain a range of experience and apply, adapt, and refine your skills in different contexts. It allows you to grow.
I started my TEFL career teaching adults but after two years, moved into teaching young learners in a primary school. This was great for my early development as teacher as I was forced to step out of my quickly established comfort zone to rise to the new challenge of teaching a foreign language to children. However, fast forward a few years and I was still teaching YLs of the same age in the same school. My development had started to stagnate, and if I have one regret in my career to date, it is that I stayed in the same role for too long.
Taking on different roles allows us to develop our teaching skills by forcing us to adapt our existing ideas and try out new ones. This does not necessarily mean joining a new school every year or two, however (indeed, employers often have a question mark over teachers who have seemingly changed job every year or even every few months). It is possible to find that variety of experience within the same institution. In the school where I taught young learners, for example, I eventually requested to work with secondary students. This helped me develop as a teacher by presenting a set of new challenges about how to engage this new age group.
I would later return to primary teaching re-energised. After that, I took up the opportunity to teach exam classes, which again challenged me to draw on my past experience and adapt my ideas to meet a new set of needs. Ultimately, I would spend 12 years at that school and I am glad that I am able to include a variety of experience and roles on my CV rather that year after year of the same thing.
3. Which areas can you specialise in?
Expanding on the above, as you work with different groups (whether by age, level, or both) in different settings (public or private schools, dedicated language schools, or elsewhere), it is also important to specialise in a couple of areas. This enhances your career prospects through developing an area of expertise that you can use to the benefit of your current or any future employer.
Specialisation in ELT is often taken to mean Business English, EAP, or another specific branch of ESP. While these are valid paths to pursue if you have the opportunity to do so, it is still possible to specialise while working in general English (indeed, tying your specialisation to one specific strand of ELT could even restrict your opportunities later on).
By focusing on classroom practice when thinking about specialisations, we can develop sought-after skills with a wide range of applications which in turn can lead to valuable experience. In my career, two specialisations that have particularly helped me (aside from working with young learners) have been technology and exams.
My path to integrating more technology into my teaching began with the introduction of class PCs and projectors into the classrooms of a school I was working at some 15 years ago. Nobody knew quite what to do with them, so I seized the opportunity to experiment with PowerPoint both as a teaching and learner presentation tool, images and video. I soon became the ‘go-to teacher’ when it came to ICT integration and my role in promoting this at that school has been a very useful experience to highlight when applying for jobs elsewhere.
With international exams continuing to rise in prominence, being familiar with different exam formats and developing lesson plans, course outlines, and preparation activities based around has also been a key specialisation for me. It created the opportunity for me to train other teachers within my own school and beyond, and eventually led to my first official position of responsibility coordinating an exam preparation programme for Movers and Flyers (see my first ever MET article for more details on that).
My advice to any teacher in this regard is to identify what interests you and has an impact for your students (and potentially an impact for your school). This may be ICT, exams, SEN, or a specific language skill such as writing or pronunciation. Focus on it, do some research around it, and share your ideas and findings within your school and beyond.
4. How else can you build on your experience?
So, how can you share your ideas and experience? How can we ensure that the impact of what we do is recognised outside our own classrooms? If you are serious about making TEFL your career, I would strongly advise getting actively involved in training. The obvious place to begin is within your own school. The vast majority of institutions have a regular INSETT programme so take an active role in it. Volunteer to give a workshop or a presentation about your area of expertise or an activity/technique that works well in your class. This can seem daunting at first, but it offers a great way to analyse your own teaching, offering important opportunities for reflection and development, as well as first steps to sharing and showing your expertise.
From there, why not take your ideas to a new audience? Find out about local conferences and respond to their call for speakers. Practical workshops by teachers who are currently actively engaged in classroom practice are always in demand and appreciated by conference goers so put in a proposal today!
Beyond workshops and presentations, consider writing about your experiences. There are many teaching association newsletters, magazines, and ELT blogs out there who encourage new writers and voices to get involved. In fact, Modern English Teacher is always keen to hear from teachers with practical ideas, reflections, or research to share so check out our writing guidelines.
Writing articles is not just about adding something to your CV though. It is also a great way to enhance your own development – for more thoughts on that, please visit my first MET blogpost Write On.
5. What further training options are available to you?
One crucial piece of advice I was given about 6 years into my teaching career was about training. At that time, I still had just my short certificate course as a qualification. Speaking to a senior teacher about enhancing my prospects of eventually finding another job, I was advised to look into higher level training programmes.
I was warned that having several years of experience but not having any further qualifications may raise a question mark in the mind of potential employers. At the time, there was no option to do the DELTA or Trinity Diploma without taking an extended absence from work, so I investigated distance MAs. This proved to be a turning point in my career as it allowed me to not only reflect on and develop my teaching practice, but it also allowed me to pursue the specialisations I mentioned above. I chose a programme with a focus on ICT, which allowed me to introduce new ideas for integrating online resources into my teaching.
I would eventually take the Trinity Diploma as well. Due to the Dip TESOL and DELTA having assessed teaching practice components, they are often more highly valued in our sector than an MA and can be completed in a shorter time. I initially did not take one due to the distance and online learning options were not the same as they are now some 12 years later. Today, both courses offer online learning components, which allow you to apply theories and ideas with your own classes and develop your specialisations through research projects.
If you are serious about working in TEFL long-term, I would strongly recommend taking a higher-level teaching course. Research the options available to you, speak to your employers about them supporting you to take the course, and jump right in. It will be hard work, but you won’t regret it.
A variety of work experience, specialisations, sharing your experience, and further training - these all make for useful additions to your teaching CV when seeking top jobs and positions of responsibility, and those are areas we will look at in future posts.
In the meantime, please share your questions, advice, and experiences related to transitioning from job to career (there are many more ideas such as joining teaching associations, materials writing, mentoring and more that I left out!) in the comments section below.