27th March 2018

The 8 biggest mistakes made by trainee TEFL teachers

By Tom Garside

Of the 175 or so trainee teachers who study the Trinity Cert TESOL certification in Hong Kong each year, very few know what they are in for. The gradient of the learning curve, the retention (and application) of so much content in such a short space of time, the stress and sleepless nights… A lot of these issues can be avoided with some realistic pointers before they join. This article presents the 8 biggest mistakes made by Certificate-level trainees on TESOL courses such as the Cert TESOL, and how to avoid them.

1) Assuming that experience is an advantage

You’ve been teaching on and off for a few years, so an initial teaching qualification should be easy, right? You’ve got the experience, so just keep doing what you’re doing… Actually, although teaching experience may help you with your confidence levels when you stand up in front of the class, you may have developed some bad habits without realising. A common comment from trainees in week 3 of the four-week course: “I always used to… but now I can see it was all wrong! What have I been doing all these years?!”.

Advice: take all the methodology input you can, early in the course, and be selective. You may not agree with it, or you may want to incorporate it into your way of teaching, but eventually you will get feedback on what is there and what is missing, which can affect the success of the lesson, so leave your preconceptions at the door and come on the course with an open mind. Be prepared to change what you do, unless you can give evidence that what you do is working.

2) Being afraid to ask questions

The Cert TESOL is a complex TEFL course with several different assessments to pass, each with its own set of grading criteria to work to, and a practical component to get to grips with, as well as significant amounts of language and methodology input to process… the position it takes on the Registered Qualifications Framework puts it at the same level as an entire second year of a Bachelors degree at university! In the blur of all this information, it’s inevitable that something will get lost, forgotten or misinterpreted. That’s why we encourage trainees to be prepared to ask questions. After all, you don’t ask, you don’t know, right? No-one is going to criticise you for asking something we told you about two weeks ago – better to ask and know, than to find out an assignment was unsuccessful and have to rewrite it when you have a hundred other things on. There are no stupid questions in such a high-stakes environment (there are, of course, stupid answers, but that’s for a different article).

3) Not having enough sleep

One of the biggest challenges trainees face is cutting down lesson planning time to a point where they can get to bed before the sun comes up. If this is happening, the trainee teacher has obviously not taken our advice on board regarding how and how much to plan. More often than not, some clear lesson aims and a couple of task-based stages will provide a good skeleton to start with, which you can pad out with the routine stages which do not change (instructing an activity, taking feedback after a task, drilling… these are all formulaic stages that look the same on any lesson plan, though the specific language may change).

As any practising teacher will tell you, going to bed at 4am is simply not a realistic way to be. In a high-stress setting like a TESOL course, you need sleep to stay sane. 3 more hours spent planning might mean a more controlled lesson, but if you are then destroyed for the afternoon’s input sessions on how to write another important assignment, that time would have been better spent asleep. Less, with details in the right places, is often more. We give you the principles of lesson planning from the beginning of the course. If you choose to reinvent the wheel every lesson, you will face a lot of sleepless nights.

4) Not planning 'teacher talk'

Towards the beginning of the course, the main problem that 90% of trainees have is their teacher talk. Either in terms of quality or quantity, the language you use as a teacher has to be planned for best effect with students. The point where you are standing up in front of the class, nervous and being watched, is possibly the worst single time to think about the words you are using to instruct / present / question the students. That is the time when your mouth will start running away with you, and the blank expressions fall across the students’ faces, and it feels like there’s nothing you can do to stop.

The best solution for this, again, early in a course, is to write out the predictable stages of your lesson, where you are in control of the interaction, and plan these out word for word. Although this can never be a script (students are unpredictable at the best of times), it will give you a focus to your language, which will help you to cut out unnecessary words and prevent your teacher talk going down the rabbit-hole and dragging your lesson with it!

5) Not valuing teacher feedback

Another common hurdle that all trainees have to face is how to participate in post-lesson feedback from their tutor and their peers on the course. After every lesson, the two to three observed teachers sit down with the observer and break down what happened in the lesson with the aim of reflecting on issues that arose, and receiving feedback on how to make things better in future lessons. These sessions are designed for trainees to take the driving seat, and to evaluate each others’ performance as well as getting comment from the trainers. Often, we can learn more from those who are in the same position as us, and trainees often have a different take on what they see in a lesson compared to tutors, as they are closer to the issues at hand. In addition, what is true for one teacher may also be true for others, so peer comment is a valuable and constructive tool. Everyone should be ready to benefit from the reflection that goes on after every lesson.

6) Not reflecting on your lessons

After trainee teachers have taught an observed lesson and received feedback from the other members of the morning’s activity, they must write a short reflection of how their lesson went. With all the juggling of assignment work and deadlines, this small (but important) piece of writing can easily get pushed back. Although the post-lesson reflection is only required to be 200-300 words long, leaving a couple of these until the next day can make the workload mount up. With eight teaching practice lessons in all, this constitutes around 2000 words of writing by the end of the course, so my advice to all trainees is to get these done as soon as possible after the lesson to ensure that you can focus on all the other assignment work you have going on.

Another reason to get reflections written in good time is that the longer you leave them, the hazier the details of the lesson will be. Is an evaluation of a lesson delivered three days ago really as focused as one written right after the feedback session is over? Leaving it too long can mean that you will spend longer trying to remember the points from the lesson, and your timing can be affected for other important priorities.

7) Going way over suggested word limits with assignments

One big difference between Trinity Cert TESOL certification and the Cambridge CELTA qualification is the amount of assignment work involved. With four written assignments to complete alongside lesson preparation and delivery, and language and methodology input, time management and attention to deadlines is a key skill for success on the Cert TESOL course. For this reason, it is essential to keep assignment work concise and focused. We give a huge information load on the course, but by no means expect you to reproduce everything in your assignment work, so think about which aspects of the course are designed for you to understand (language awareness input, theories of teaching and learning), which aspects are designed for you to take on and apply (methodology and teaching techniques), and which are there to inform how you present your assignment work (analytical, reflective and evaluative skills). Focus on specific, relevant points for each assignment, and respect the recommended lengths that we give you, and you will be able to balance the various responsibilities in a time-effective way, leading to a better all-round product across all assessed components of the course.

8) Trying not to make mistakes

A final assumption that many Cert TESOL trainees make is that we expect you to apply everything we give you perfectly in every lesson. In fact, this could not be further from the truth. The approach taken by Trinity College in designing this qualification includes a strong emphasis on reflective practice. This means that it is more important that you find ways of teaching that reflect your (and your students’) individual strengths and weaknesses through self-evaluation and acting on feedback. The strongest ‘lightbulb moments’ come from trainees reflecting on areas of their delivery which lacked, the reasons for this, and the effects that their actions had on their learners. Again, on such an intensive and complex course, learning so many skills and applying them so fast, weaknesses emerge, and need to be treated constructively. Issues with weaknesses in teaching and assignments only become a problem when feedback from trainers is not followed up, leading to persistent issues which we may not have time to address in the limited timeframe that the course provides.

Overall, nobody claims the Cert TESOL is easy, but with attention to some key study and time management skills, everyone who works to improve through reflection, analysis and evaluation can get through it. Take our advice, and follow our suggestions for workload management, and it will be all the more rewarding in the end as you begin your 'teaching English as a foreign language' career.

Considering a Trinity CertTESOL qualification? The introductory module of the CertTESOL course is now available as a standalone fully online course – the TESOL Starter course.

Tom Garside, EfA’s former Director of Teacher Training, has 18 years of teaching and training experience in Europe, New Zealand and China. He holds a degree in Linguistics and French, Cambridge CELTA and DELTA qualifications, a Post-Graduate Diploma in TESOL and an MATESOL. He has trained teachers in Europe, as part of the European Union Comenius teacher development project, provided initial training for the Trinity CertTESOL and provides in-service training for native and non-native-speaker teachers in a wide range of teaching situations.  He is the author of the essential CertTESOL course supplement, Tesol: A Gateway Guide for Teachers of English.