Education: TEFL - The future is English

English is the lingua franca and the job of teaching it to foreigners is perceived as easy and glamorous. In reality, it's neither. By Diana Hinds
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The Independent Online
For Alison Brooks, as for many recent graduates, teaching English as a foreign language first attracted her because it offered a passport for travelling the world. But, unlike many others who take a Tefl certificate, she has become so absorbed in this style of teaching that she is committed to making a career of it, despite the difficulties.

Now 33, she teaches English to refugees and asylum-seekers at a further education college in west London - "which is very rewarding," she says, "because they are so grateful for your help" - and during the summer she teaches language courses to young people at International House, in central London. Her only complaint is that her work is not always taken seriously by those outside the profession.

"This is what I want to do now; I don't want to retrain. I just wish it were a bit more credible. I find I'm five or six years behind my friends. I still don't have my own mortgage, and although I wouldn't change it for the world, it is a struggle."

English-language teachers such as Alison will be heartened, perhaps, in their quest for professional respect and development, by the recent inauguration of the British Institute of English Language Teaching (BIELT). Launched in March, and with funding from the British Council, the institute is currently issuing application forms to English-language teachers.

The chief aim of the new organisation is to promote a greater professionalism by establishing national standards for teaching, and representing and co-ordinating members' interests. The institute will also offer newsletters, resources and discussion groups on the Internet, and an academic and resources library.

"While there are no standards widely recognised, it is hard for employers to judge who is good and who isn't," says Andrew Brown, BIELT project director and the head of education services at St Clare's language school in Oxford. "Without national standards, there is always going to be a level of poor performance, which gives everybody in the profession a bad name."

All those involved in teaching English as a foreign language readily admit that their work suffers from an image problem. It has tended to be the sort of work that young people, often fresh out of university, pick up while travelling, and it remains a popular short-term option for those unsure of what they want to do. The profession is dominated by women, many of them part-time and "massively exploited", on short-term contracts, with relatively few opportunities for permanent jobs, says Mary Anne Ansell, the head of the International Centre for English Language Studies (ICELS) at Oxford Brookes University.

The Tefl certificates offered by Cambridge University and by Trinity College, London (for which you can train in as little as four weeks) are the best-established basic qualifications for English-language teaching, with a more exacting diploma for those with at least two years' experience. But there are still some "cowboy" operators, who will hire language-teachers with no formal teaching qualifications.

"There is still the perception that anyone who can speak English can teach it," says Ms Ansell. In reality, it is a highly skilled occupation, demanding great interpersonal skills and the ability to analyse language.

"People who come on the course thinking it's going to be a nice little fill-in job are quickly disabused of the idea," says Clare McKinley, ICELS marketing director at Oxford Brookes. "It's hard work, and very challenging."

Oxford Brookes runs two Cambridge certificate courses a year, part-time for 10 weeks. The cost is pounds 1,119, with tax relief for the over-thirties, and it attracts a range of university leavers, women in their mid-thirties, and semi-retired people often highly skilled in other professions, in their late fifties or early sixties.

International House in London, which launched the first Tefl training course in the Sixties, runs at least three four-week, full-time courses every month, for groups of 15.

Jeremy Page, the director of studies at International House, says he is looking for "good communicators", and not all applicants are accepted. "Some people come with odd notions that language-teaching is just a matter of transmitting knowledge, rather than facilitating a learning process."

The courses at International House divide the time between methodology, language awareness and teaching practice, with written assessment and background reading. Candidates pass or fail on continuous assessment.

Those who pass, says Mr Page, should be able to find temporary teaching jobs at language schools in this country during the summer and Easter vacations, but longer-term jobs here are scarce. Most universities now provide some form of English-language teaching for their overseas students, but will generally be looking for teachers with higher qualifications, such as a Tefl diploma or an MA.

Opportunities for jobs overseas fluctuate, but are generally available to those who are prepared to cast their net fairly wide. Teaching jobs in western Europe are less plentiful than they were 10 years ago, partly because English-language teachers sometimes decide to settle, marry abroad and hold on to jobs. But Poland currently has a lot of openings, according to Mr Page; and the market in Japan and Korea has picked up again.

David Barnard, 27, qualified for a Tefl certificate six years ago after taking a Tefl module as part of an English language and literature degree at Leeds University. Since then he has taught abroad, including six months in Greece and two and a half years in Japan, as well as on summer courses at British language schools.

Maggie Lloyd switched to Tefl teaching after her children left home. She now teaches assorted groups at Oxford Brookes, and in Oxford University's department of continuing education, including teaching English through English literature, and teaching academic English to overseas students. For her, the freelance nature of her work is very much an asset. "I love the variety of it," she says. "I didn't go into English-language teaching for status, but for the flexibility of it, as well as the possibility of working abroad."

The Voluntary Service Organisation has an enquiries team who can help you arrange work as an English teacher abroad (0181-780 7500). British Institute of Language Teaching (01865 742086; e-mail: