'I turned up at 8, the class was waiting - they tore me to shreds'

A TEFL course gives you the chance to travel with a purpose - but expect some tricky times, says Sarah Abdullah
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The Independent Online
What do an illustrator, a local government officer, an actor, a journalist and a budding film director have in common? They're all teaching English as a foreign language. TEFL, formerly the preserve of gap year students and green graduates garnering "character-building" experience is, in today's employment ice-age, gathering a growing following as a varied, flexible job.

Narinder, a former tenancy adviser who graduated in Psychology, fell into teaching English when her husband was posted to Bangkok. She saw an ad in one of the city's English-language newspapers. Although she had no teaching qualifications Berlitz has its own training course and demands only that employees are graduates. "To be honest," Narinder says, "it's one of the few things you can do out there, as a foreigner and a woman." It provided a much-needed circle of English-speaking contacts as well as being very flexible and "a brilliant laugh". "I absolutely would do it again," she says.

TEFL training varies from "there's the classroom" through correspondence courses to formal courses involving assessed teaching and essay writing. Probably the most widely recognised of these is the Royal Society of Arts Cambridge Certificate. This qualification, now taught in schools and colleges up and down the country, began at International House in London. The course offered there costs pounds 867 for four weeks' full-time study and requires an A-level or equivalent standard of education for entry - although the teacher-training administrator says most IH students are graduates. It involves 10 hours of teaching practice and 15 hours of methodology (grammar, language awareness, workshops) per week, plus essays and lesson preparation after hours.

Adam, a 30-year-old English graduate who had already taught for a year in Greece before sitting the RSAC exam at IH, says it was as "excellent training". Unfortunately, he adds: "If you fail, you fail" - to resit means another pounds 867. Marcela, a translator, who is doing the certificate part time over 12 weeks - "as something to fall back on" - is a little more dubious, especially about the efficacy of the assessed teaching time which she finds rushed and stressful, even though she has considerable teaching experience.For Londoners, Westminster College offers one of the cheapest full-time TEFL training courses at pounds 500, which according to Loveni, a New Zealander with his sights set on Spain, was "great - really intensive".

A cursory glance at any newspaper education section or the monthly EFL Gazette shows that shopping around can definitely pay off. Another blue- chip course to look out for is the Trinity College London certificate which, like RSA, is well respected. But the overriding impression in the staff room at Berlitz on London's Grosvenor Street is that whatever your training, it's the experience that counts. No amount of practice with "guinea pig" students can prepare a teacher for the infinite variety of ability levels, mother tongues, cultural foibles and characters that he or she will inevitably encounter. But that's the fun part ...

Elly, who started out as the typical post-university chancer and has since made TEFL her career, describes her first teaching experience in Spain. "I turned up at 8 o'clock in the evening, never having taught in my life and they said, 'there's a class waiting for you'. They tore me to shreds - it was awful." Adam who had only done a correspondence course, has a similar tale of Greece: "I was thrown in at the deep end ... it was a case of off the plane, here's the school and do a lesson in five minutes' time." But everyone I've spoken to agrees that you do improve, and quickly.

The average TEFL week is between 25 and 35 hours long but because of having to fit around students' working hours much of this may be evenings and weekends. The opportunities for travel and cross-cultural experience soon have people hooked. Edmund, a publisher who spent a year in Czechoslovakia, describes it as "a wonderful time - I'd recommend it to anyone". Jackie, fed up with the ageist, sexist British job scene, went to teach children in Romania and "loved it".

TEFL is often seen as a ticket to goabroad, to absorb language and culture as part of the working fabric of a country rather than just a tourist. But as Tim, an editor of Nature magazine warned after spending a year teaching in France, "There's a danger of working, living and socialising with only English people and never practising the native tongue or becoming properly integrated beyond your expat ghetto". But Adam argues, "You do soak up the culture, you can't help it if you live and work somewhere for a year, but you have to make a conscious effort not to hang out with the same English-speaking crowd in the same old bar."

If the people I've spoken to agree on one thing it's that TEFL is a sometimes frustrating, always challenging, but ultimatelyrewarding experience that beats waiting tables any day.