Smart Moves: One-stop teachers

Brilliant communication skills are yours for ever once you've taught English as a foreign language. By Sandra Deeble
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The Independent Online
IF, the next time you're in a meeting, one of your colleagues jumps up and rushes to the flip-chart, grabs a marker pen and illustrates her idea with a flourish before proceeding to ask the rest of the group to discuss the concept in pairs, the likelihood is that she was once a TEFL teacher.

TEFL, or Teaching English as a Foreign Language, has traditionally been the domain of arts and humanities graduates who, post-finals, and clueless about their next step, opt for a year abroad in an attempt to find out what they really want to do.

A chance to travel, learn another language and absorb another culture all make TEFL an attractive option. However, there is always the teaching. At best, it can be stimulating and enriching, at worst, you will find yourself in the role of children's entertainer, horrified to hear yourself speaking loudly and clearly, trying to blot out any memories of the seventies TV comedy Mind Your Language as you plough through the lesson stoically, determined to enlighten your students with your succinct and crystal-clear definition of phrasal verbs.

To become a qualified TEFL teacher, all you need is a degree and a bit of cash. The Cambridge CELTA course is hardly a snip (expect to pay an average of pounds 900) but it is widely recognised as the most prestigious qualification, guaranteed to equip you with all the necessary skills to teach English as a foreign language. The course can be done as a four-week intensive, part-time, or even as an evening class. Some 7,000 gained the CELTA qualification last year - with the profile of candidates now widening to include more mature people who have been made redundant and wish to re-skill or those who fancy a change in career. This number far exceeds the demand for UK- based TEFL positions - making English language teaching a highly successful export - with Spain, Italy and Portugal topping the charts as the favourite destinations. Those teachers who aspire to "fast track" career development should set their sights on eastern Europe, where the EFL market is booming. Organisations such as International House, the British Council and VSO offer comprehensive job placement schemes worldwide.

But once the novelty of living in a new country has worn off, does the challenge of dreaming up entertaining, attention-holding lessons start to wane? Do you go for total integration in your new country or do you lead a double life, where you work abroad during the academic year, returning to Britain to teach in language schools during the summer?

For many, the nine months abroad, three months in the UK pattern soon wears thin, with most TEFL teachers leaving the profession after two years. Beyond Europe, those niggling details which bug you as you get older and wiser, such as a pension plans, tend to be non-existent. Real money is only to be made by those who set up private language schools. In some countries, teachers become trapped by non-transferable salaries. Careers in TEFL do exist but the job opportunities are highly sought-after. Many decide to pack up their Headway series of books and head home.

Back in blighty with fluent Turkish, you may feel confident, but what, seriously, can you do? Are you really any better off than when you graduated? Many opt for "proper" teaching and do a Postgraduate Certificate of Education. Others shimmy into the big business of EFL publishing: designing, producing and marketing teaching materials.

One thing is certain: you will come back with a bundle of skills in your satchel. But how transferable are they? Strangely, language skills developed abroad seem less useful than the myriad communication skills which are the hallmark of ex-TEFL teachers.

Given the obsession with the need for skills rather than relevant experience, an ex-TEFL teacher is well placed to go far in workplace cultures which encourage the art of creativity and which require an aptitude for pulling out the stops to deliver a polished "it'll be all right on the night" performance.

Marketing, advertising, PR, hotel management and tourism, law and journalism, in fact, any area where the capacity to present one's case convincingly is potential employment ground for TEFL veterans. You will probably have to start at the bottom but, when others in your team go on a course to improve their presentation skills, you will already be a dab hand at playing to the gallery.

Theatricality is what helped Michael, formerly of Andersen Consulting, and with TEFL experience behind him, to keep one step ahead of his clients. He is convinced that teaching demanding students is not dissimilar from the role of a management consultant in that it demands you to display your skills in listening, strategic thinking and understanding the needs of people.

Kate Aydin, editorial assistant in the ELT division at Heinemann, found the skills she developed teaching in Italy invaluable - "the ability to deal with high stress levels, think on your feet, anticipate questions and put yourself in someone else's shoes, thinking in two languages and people management". But how easy is it to convince employers your experience is valuable? Wasn't that two years in Madrid just a glorified research study into tapas bars?

One organisation which recognises this problem and is helping ex-TEFL teachers to think laterally is VSO. Jo Rhodes-Jiao places teachers in posts as far-flung as Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Mongolia and advises former volunteers on how to sell their experience in new areas.

At Forte Hotels, Margaret Erstad is programme co-ordinator within the human resources division. "Coaching, eliciting and the ability to give encouragement" are all techniques acquired by Ms Erstad while teaching in Spain, and, she explains, that whereas before the emphasis in training was on the manager being an expert, today, an ability to "empathise with the learner" is what counts.

For further details on TEFL contact: International House (0171 491 2598); VSO (0181 780 7500); The British Council (0171 930 8466); The Bell School (01223 275510).