Why I Wish I Took a TEFL Course

Why I Wish I Took a TEFL Course

In short: teaching is hard. Yes, you know English really, really well. But do you know how to teach the conjugations of irregular past tense verbs? Do you know how to explain the difference between “I will go” and “I’m going to go”? Do you know how to control a group of 35 (or, in my case, 55) children who don’t speak a word of English and think your class is an excuse to goof off?

I did not.

Trial and Error under Pre-teen Scrutiny

On my first day at my teaching job in Spain, I walked in to a class of Spanish 7th graders, most of whom had never met a foreigner before. They had next to no English skills and had never had an English teacher who really spoke English. They were shocked enough by the color of my hair and my super-weird clothes, and then I opened my mouth.

I introduced myself, told them about where I was from and how I would be working with them over the course of the school year. They stared blankly at me. One kid pulled out a cell phone. A couple in the back started whispering to each other. They didn’t understand a word I was saying, and I was losing them.

I tried to shift gears. I explained the game I had planned.

Blank stares.

The teacher tried to help me, explaining the game in Spanish and trying to motivate the kids to participate. But it basically failed, because I had never done it before. I had no experience with kids, or with leading a class, and I didn’t foresee all of the little problems that would arise. I couldn’t have, because I had absolutely no training.

Think they look sweet and innocent? Try getting them to sit still and study present tense.

High-Level Grammar Woes

Working with the older kids at that high school, I realized that I didn’t really know why English sentences are structured the way they are. They were studying for their college entrance exams, and I was not nearly as helpful as I could have been. I didn’t know how to describe the various uses of the word “get,” and while I understand how to use the future perfect in everyday speech, I had no clue how to explain it.

Having never been taught how to make a lesson plan, I spent most of my free time scouring the internet for ideas. I didn’t know how to structure a class effectively, or how to deal with multiple levels in one group, or how to manage rowdy students. I would be awake late at night, landing on the same websites I’d ruled out hours ago, desperately looking for ideas. It was stressful and demoralizing.

For most of my first year, I was just not a truly effective teacher. It took a long time (and a lot of frustration, tears, and stress) to get good at it.

Classroom Management aka Organizing Anarchy

After two years in Spain, I took a contract in Thailand. I thought I had been trained on the job, that I would breeze through the new position. Then I found out that my kids were second graders, and that there were 55 of them in a class. FIFTY-FIVE. They spoke almost no English, and because I looked different and wasn’t dressed in the rigid uniform of their regular teachers, they didn’t take me seriously at all. Teacher Savannah’s class was party time. Two boys on opposite sides of the class would hurl erasers at each other. One kid in the back would occasionally stand up and just start doing gymnastics. One of them tried to stab his neighbor with a pencil.

thai kids

This was actually one of their calmer days.

It was utter madness, and I didn’t know how to handle it. My classes in Spain, for all their problems, had been small, and I had been able to yell and them in Spanish if things really got rough. But 55 kids who only speak Thai? I was helpless.

Luckily, my school had a great training program, and the veteran teachers were extremely helpful. By the end of my first semester, I had those kids behaving themselves and learning a lot. But the first few weeks were very, very hard. I spent my time feeling stressed, confused, and inept. My lack of knowledge and training made my introduction to Thailand much less happy than it could have been.

When you move abroad to teach, you’ve got a lot going on in addition to teaching. You’re trying to learn a new language. You’re experiencing culture shock. You’re homesick. You’re making new friends and have new coworkers and a new house. You’re eager to explore this new country and don’t want to spend hours outside of work planning for work.

The quieting magic of Goodnight Moon

The quieting magic of Goodnight Moon

All of this is manageable, but it can start to feel pretty crushing if you’re spending your days feeling unsuccessful at your job. It’s just an extra layer of stress that can color the whole experience. Preparing yourself with a TEFL course makes that transition so much smoother. You’ll know how to manage a class, and already have had some practice and feedback on it. You’ll understand English grammar from a learner’s perspective, and know how to explain this complicated language to a newcomer. You’ll have learned how to plan an effective lesson and how to cope if a lesson plan fails. Trust me when I say that these are things you do not want to learn while 55 Thai children throw paper airplanes at you. Here are 5 more reasons you should get TEFL certified, even when it’s not required.

A TEFL certification course can be fit into your school or work life through online training, or it can be another leg of your adventure. Greenheart Travel offers a course online that includes the in-class, hands on student teaching that is so important in learning how to become an effective teacher. There are also in-person courses in ChicagoCosta RicaNicaragua, and Spain. With a TEFL under your belt, you won’t find yourself before a class of blankly staring Spanish teenagers, or a hoard of truly anarchic Thai kids. Do it for your sanity.

4 thoughts on "Why I Wish I Took a TEFL Course"

  1. Catrin Vaughan says:

    Sorry to say this, but even your introduction is grammatically incorrect. If you don’t know why it is incorrect then, that is a fundamental problem.
    Speaking English just doesn’t cut it. You need to know why Americans speak incorrectly and know the rules, exceptions and details of the English language…and teach it in an interesting and clear way.
    It is good that you realise it’s hard, but do you want to travel, or become a very good English language teacher? You can be both, but the latter takes a lot of work, learning and understanding the coggs of the English Language.
    (I wish you had learnt your conditionals before you became a teacher:)

  2. Patrick says:

    Afternoon Savannah,
    My name is Patrick and I have been cycling the thought of starting the TEFL certification program for well over a month now. I am just hesitant to get started mainly being a high investment on myself, regardless of how well it could help build my resume and help me find a career I would enjoy I am still nervous about making such a huge step in my life. I will say it makes the most sense to get as much training as possible before making the leap to foreign waters, and especially since I don’t know a lick of Japanese. I guess my question is simply this, with a TEFL certificate under one’s belt can it be used in any country that has English teaching programs or is it narrowed to certain countries from a list? I only ask because I really wish to teach in Japan, but I don’t see it as an option on Greenheart Travel’s website. Also I do have a BA which is a requirement anywhere these days.
    Thanks for your time.

    1. Savannah McDermott says:

      Hey Patrick,
      A TEFL certification is portable – you’ll be able to use it all around the world. We don’t have a Japan program at Greenheart Travel, but our TEFL courses would make you a stronger applicant for jobs there. The ESL industry is huge and competitive in Japan, so it’s helpful to have that edge!

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