Interview with Mark Almond - Head of CELTA at Canterbury Christ Church University

Mike Turner talks to Mark Almond (head of CELTA at Canterbury Christ Church University), about EFL qualifications, experience and career progression in the world of Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

Interview with Mark Almond - Head of CELTA at Canterbury Christ Church University

Mike Turner talks to Mark Almond (head of CELTA at Canterbury Christ Church University), about EFL qualifications, experience and career progression in the world of Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

Hi Mark, thanks for coming along today. Maybe you could start by telling us a little bit about how you got into EFL in the first place. You're obviously quite high up the ladder professionally – you’re running university courses, including the CELTA, you've got books published, and so on, but how did it all start for you? 

Well for me it started when I was working in Saudi Arabia. So, I was 20 years old, and I had just left college. I got a phone call from an employment agency in London saying there's a job opportunity in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. It was a very basic administrative job, and at that stage, I hadn’t really thought about the possibility of teaching. I’d always loved languages and studying languages and they were the subjects I was most successful at, at school and college. So, I had this job in Saudi, but after about a year and a half, I decided I had had enough. I thought, I'm going back to the UK and what am I going to do? A friend suggested well, why don't you go into English language teaching? So anyway, I came back to the UK, moved to Canterbury, and did a four-week course here. I just loved it - the whole language side of it. Just being in a classroom, in a multicultural, multilingual classroom, I found a really, really rewarding experience – and I haven’t looked back since. Over time, I started being given more responsibility in schools and I did a bit of teacher training, course design, syllabus design - and then, eventually, after about four years, I decided I needed to up my own qualification. So, I did a postgraduate diploma in TESOL, which led ultimately to an MA in TESOL, and that was at Christ Church University back in the mid to late 90s, I think.

I’d be interested to know what the situation is now with qualifications. When I started teaching, my first job was in Greece and back in the 80s when I was doing that, you didn’t really need a qualification. You’d even get people coming up to you in the streets saying ‘Do you want a job? I hear you can speak English.’ I'm guessing that whole situation is different now.

Like you say, back in the 80s and maybe even the 90s, in many parts of the world it was enough to be a graduate and a native English speaker. But I would say that now, in most places around the world, this is not enough because the market is so much more competitive now. With my job at Christ Church University, I get emailed a lot of advertisements for teaching positions around the world: China, Vietnam, other parts of South-East Asia and sometimes Europe as well – places like Spain and Italy. Even in a massive market like China, they want graduates with a CELTA qualification for an English language teaching position or an EFL position.

You’ve mentioned the CELTA. But I think sometimes people get a bit overwhelmed by all the courses on offer. Can you explain a little bit about the difference between validated and non-validated courses?

That's a really good question. Quite often I speak to people and they say, ‘I've got a TEFL qualification’ and then when I start digging a little bit deeper, I realise that what they've done is some kind of online course that isn't validated by a recognised body – as opposed to something like the CELTA, which is a Cambridge University validated qualification. So, when they say ‘I'm TEFL-qualified’, in the eyes of employers it doesn't really mean much. What employers want to see is a qualification that is validated by an institution like Cambridge University or Trinity College.

So those are the two big ones: the CELTA and the Trinity TESOL? Is there much difference between them? 

I think they're very similar in terms of syllabus content and teaching methodology. There is observed teaching practice involved in both, which is really important and is another thing that makes the Trinity and the CELTA stand out from a typical online TEFL course. And that's crazy because obviously a lot of employers want to see that you've had some experience in the classroom. There are a fair number of online TEFL courses out there, so they will obviously all be slightly different. But the thing about the CELTA course is that every course that's run in the world is consistent and externally assessed. For example, I’m a CELTA Assessor and I’m employed by Cambridge University to visit other CELTA courses and check that they are following the Cambridge syllabus and guidelines for quality assurance.

Maybe this is a good point then to talk about the CELTA you run at Christ Church in a bit more detail. First of all, who is the course aimed at?

Well, every CELTA course has the same rationale and content, wherever it is run in the world. According to Cambridge guidelines, it’s aimed at people who are eighteen or over who want a basic TEFL qualification. Having said that, we tend to favour slightly older candidates, because of the nature of the teaching. Applicants need to have ‘A’ levels or equivalent - in other words, qualifications that would gain you entrance into a university - which of course varies from country to country. Aside from this, you need to have a passion for language, a passion for communication, a passion for culture, and a passion for being in a classroom. You need to love interacting with students of different ages, different levels and from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

So, do you have quite a mixed cohort of trainees?

Yes, absolutely. We get a fair number of retired people on our courses, which is great. For example, it may be that they have a second home abroad, want to earn a bit of money and do something meaningful while they're there. We also get undergraduates now and again because at Christ Church we run a part-time CELTA as well as a full-time course - and that allows people to study something else and do the CELTA at the same time - or earn whilst they are studying.

So, tell me a little bit about the full-time versus the part-time. Are the fees similar for both?

Yes. The course fees are exactly the same for the full-time and part-time courses. The full-time course that we run is four weeks and it's a very, very intensive course. Most CELTA qualifications around the world are delivered intensively in four weeks - and they are intensive! Whenever I interview people I say to them, look, if you're going to do it, make sure you don't have anything else going on in your life at the same time because you will be completely consumed! But it's a ‘good consumed’ because you’ve got teaching practice to do, you’ve got written assignments to do, you’ve got observations to do, and you’ve got lessons to attend and observe.

Four weeks sounds like such a short period of time. Given that, do you need any sort of prior knowledge, experience, or qualifications? 

No. So, the CELTA is pitched at level 5 within the educational framework. Which basically means its equivalent level is that of a second-year undergraduate degree. But you don't need any experience. It’s an initial English language teaching qualification. Some people have already had some experience when they start, but most haven't had any.

Is the part-time option better for those who are coming in with basically zero experience, because it gives them a bit more time to develop? Or is it better to be thrown in at the deep end?

That really depends. I’ve spoken to previous trainees that we've had on the part-time course who’ve said, ‘I'm so glad I did the part-time, because it gave me much longer to process everything, and I have loads going on’. I mean, some trainees have a family to look after or work other commitments.

So, very much down to individual circumstances?

Yes, because I've also had other people say, ‘I'm really glad I did the full-time course.’

And when do the courses run?

The part-time generally runs from February to April and the full-time in May/June.

As a ballpark figure, how much would you expect to pay for the course?

It’s about £1400, so it's quite a big outlay. But it’s a great investment. If you've got that initial desire to do it and the passion to do it, then it's the sort of thing you can pick up and put down at will. So, you may do a CELTA and not use it straight away. This has happened a lot with our previous trainees - they've not actually immediately gone into teaching, but just done something else - and then they’ve come back to it after a couple of years. But once they've got the CELTA qualification under their belt, they will always have it – and in terms of its validity, it doesn’t run out.

I'm guessing the answer to this it's ‘no’, but is there any kind of funding available for anyone if they want to do a CELTA?

Actually, the answer is ‘yes’. However, there is a ‘but’. I don't know why, but if you do the CELTA course at a private language school or a university like Christ Church, then unfortunately there is no funding. But if you do the CELTA course at a College of Further Education, there is funding. So, that’s worth knowing. I'm often asked that.

Thanks, that’s really useful to know. Okay, let's talk a little bit now about the core of the CELTA. What sorts of things do you study on the course? 

Well, Cambridge sets out a syllabus of all the things that need to be covered. The most important aspect is the six hours of teaching practice you have to do. You work in a teaching practice group - usually three or four trainees - and you are assigned a tutor. Every week you sit down and you plan your lessons as a teaching practice group with your tutor, and then you deliver your lessons. Your tutor observes every lesson you teach and gives you oral feedback and written feedback. And trainees are also expected to reflect carefully on the lessons they have taught, and to write their own self-evaluations.

So, you have something like a portfolio that’s assessed, then?

Exactly. As well as the teaching practice, there’s is a portfolio that trainees have to compile, as the course progresses. So that’s the biggest part of it. You also have to do six hours of observations of experienced English language teachers. Some of those can be pre-recorded, but because we run English language courses at Christ Church, trainees can go into class and observe live. You also have to do four written assignments. Each assignment is about a thousand words and they’re very practical. You are expected to demonstrate that you've done some background reading, but your background reading and your reflections on your teaching should be related to practical teaching. For example, this is what I've learned in my reading, and this is how it would be relevant to a live teaching situation. So, it is a very, very practical course. Of course, there are seminars as well, covering things like aspects of language - for example, the tense system in English, functional language, modal verbs. There are also sessions on practical skills like how to teach vocabulary.

So, when it comes to teaching grammar, you're not going to be expected to cover everything? Just the key things tend to come up regularly when you're teaching?

Exactly. The broader areas of grammar and structures like conditionals, passives, relative clauses and the tense system. But also, any other things that our trainees are likely to teach during their teaching practice. We try to make that link as well. So, when we deliver seminars on grammar and vocabulary and teaching the four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking), we’ll look at the theory in class together and then say, right how do you apply that to the classroom? And then, obviously, we expect that to come out in the trainee’s own teaching practice.

And when it comes to assessing linguistic knowledge, is that through the observation of the teaching, or is there some kind of written exam that trainees have to do?

There’s no written exam - it's a continuous assessment. On the CELTA course, trainees are assessed according to the progress they're making, so in terms of their grammatical knowledge, yes, we would hope to see that in their teaching practice. However, one of the written assignments is language-based, so that's also a more formal way of testing their grammatical knowledge – and for the written assignments, trainees are expected to do a fair amount of background reading and research.

And do you look at different kinds of teaching methodologies and approaches?

Yes, that’s something we try to cover early on. Being a short course and being an initial qualification it's inevitably quite prescriptive – we make quite a lot of reference to Communicative Language Teaching, which means making lessons as enjoyable and interactive as possible. Making the language we teach meaningful and applicable to everyday life.

You’ve emphasised how intensive it is as a learning experience. Given this, do most people get through it, or do you get a lot of people dropping out?

No, we don't. It’s a continuous assessment, so we obviously mark the written assignments, but trainees are also given a tutor to follow their progress in their teaching practice - and they work very closely with this tutor. Then they’re given tutorials - normally two tutorials for every course. This means we can feedback regularly on where they are in terms of their progress. If a trainee is at risk of failing, this will be pointed out to them, and they will be told exactly what they need to do to get through. So very, very few people drop out. The low drop-out rate is partly down to the monitoring and support, but the recruitment and interview process is also really important in this respect. Everyone who applies for the CELTA course is interviewed and given a pre-course task, to see how much they already know. And when I organise interviews, I make them very interactive - so I get an idea of the applicant’s interpersonal skills and what they'd be like in the classroom. I think that’s why very, very few people drop out.

Okay, that's good to hear! And what advice would you give to someone who is going through the application procedure and is expecting to be interviewed? Is there any kind of preparation that would be useful for them to do, or anything to bear in mind when they go into their interview?

Absolutely. As I said, it's an initial qualification, so you’re certainly not expected to be experts in the English language. But, of course, it's not going to harm your chances if you do a little bit of background reading. Also, I send out a pre-interview task that is grammar, vocabulary and functional language-based. So that will guide applicants to the kinds of areas they will be asked about during the interview - and the kinds of areas they'll cover on the course.   

Because I guess you want people to do as well as possible in an interview? It's not like you’re trying to trip people up.

Absolutely not! But, as I said, I do try to make the interviews as interactive as possible, so I do really like to look out for a person's ability to think on their feet. For example, if I’m checking the concept of a tense or structure they don’t know and I give them a context, it’s great plus if they can show me that they are able to think things through for themselves. It’s really good to see that at an interview.

Also, when I think back to when I first started out - just buying a couple of grammar books that were aimed at learners of English was really helpful because they break down the language into simple explanations, with good contextualization of the language. So, anyone who is thinking of applying, it wouldn't do any harm to get hold of a copy of something like Raymond Murphy’s ‘English Grammar in Use’, aimed at intermediate level learners of English. I found this very helpful.

So, you’d advise going for a student book, rather than one of the big reference works for teachers? 

Absolutely. I remember when I did my course years ago one of the recommended books was the Michael Swan book ‘Practical English Usage’, which of course is a fascinating read, but it was just way over my head for where I was at that stage.  

Great. That’s a nice piece of advice. So, anyway, I've done my course, and I’ve done really well - I've been told I’m a natural teacher! When I’ve finished, can I go straight into teaching? How easy is it to find work out there?

Well, you certainly can go straight into teaching, because you’re qualified! At the end of every CELTA course I run at Christ Church University, I invite local language providers into the university to meet our trainees - and they mingle and talk about job opportunities within their school or organisation. Very often, trainees are employed almost there and then - I mean they have to wait for confirmation of their results – but they’ll pretty much know by that stage. If you are looking to teach in the UK, now things are reopening again after COVID, so it's good. And in terms of working abroad – and a lot of people who come onto the CELTA course want to work abroad - I often receive emails advertising jobs in Europe and Asia, and I always pass these on to my CELTA alumni.

We’ve spoken about how there's been a gradual upgrading of skills and qualifications in the EFL industry. Is a higher-level qualification such as a DELTA now necessary if you're looking for an EFL position in the UK? Or would you get taken on and then be expected to work towards it?

It depends on the school. I know, because I have a lot of dealings with local language schools in Kent and around Canterbury, that a postgraduate qualification such as a DELTA or an MA would help you to get a promotion within a school.  

So, if you were serious about EFL as a career choice - rather than wanting to do it for a few years to travel or for a few weeks a year to bring in a bit of extra cash – if you are serious about doing it as a career, then the progression is...?

A postgraduate DELTA, which again is a Cambridge University qualification. I would absolutely recommend that – and, in terms of qualifications, it goes CELTA, then DELTA, then MA, then PhD. But to get onto a DELTA course, you’ll need at least one year’s experience – in fact, it would be to your advantage to get a good couple of years of teaching under your belt first. Because the DELTA is a postgraduate qualification, you'll get much more from it because you’ll be able to relate the content to your own experience. And that’s vital.

I guess is the final question is to do with the potential career progression, which I guess would be Teacher to Senior Teacher, and then...? 

Director of Studies, Manager... Principal...

Then teaching CELTA at Christ Church University?

Yes... well, absolutely. Why not? I mean I did classroom EFL teaching for so, so many years – I just loved it. But then, you know, I'm in it for the long haul, so ultimately, I went into teacher training. And now, you know, I'm teaching at Christ Church, I'm running the CELTA courses, but I’m also the course director for the MA TESOL (the dissertation stage), and I teach on the course, and I teach sociolinguistics and other linguistics modules on our undergraduate course.   

But going back go to the progression of qualifications. So, the DELTA is one possible route, but Christ Church offers its own equivalent Postgraduate Diploma, so that’s a possibility as well. And if you're thinking of doing that - generally most people need at least one year's experience, but we also have a route through for inexperienced teachers – a kind of fast-track route. However, there are certain modules you would have to do to bring them up to the speed of the experienced teachers on the Diploma.

So, a regular Diploma is a nine-moths full-time, and then you have three months to write your dissertation to convert that into an MA TESOL. But people with less experience would have to do some additional modules?

Exactly. So, there are options and, at Christ Church, we are bringing in different routes all the time.

And do you have to have English as a first language?

No, not at all. Obviously, you have to be a fluent speaker and if English isn’t your first language, you need to have evidence – for example, an IELTS score of seven or to have passed the Cambridge Proficiency exam. But we have lots of people on our CELTAs and our DELTAs and our MAs who don’t have English as a first language. And that’s brilliant, because it just makes the whole environment richer, because all the courses are so interactive and it’s great to have teachers from a wide range of backgrounds, with different experiences.

Brilliant, Mark. Thank you so much for all your time. I’m sure there’s a lot there for our readers, whether they are just starting out on their TEFL journey, or whether they are thinking about the next stage of their career.

Useful Links:

Cambridge University CELTA information

Canterbury Christ Church University CELTA

Mark’s publications:                                                    

Putting the Human Centre Stage

Teaching English with Drama

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