Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My Experience Getting a CELTA Pass A

As many of you know, I recently took (and survived) the Cambridge CELTA course - I took it despite having taught for over five years because I no longer wished to be a very good “corporate trainer” (translation: teacher in a suit) who happened to not be certified. I wanted to be a fantastic teacher with a real qualification.  I chose CELTA because it was the only certification program that I felt I would really learn from after five years of teaching.

And I did – I felt that besides learning some new ideas and techniques for good teaching, that teaching 8 lessons and being critically assessed on all of them was extremely good for me. I went into the course thinking that timing and half-assed lesson planning were my problems, but learned that it’s in fact timing and Teacher Talking Time that I need to work on. Simply having a qualified person assess my teaching and give me action points was an immensely helpful learning experience. No other certification program would have given me that.

So, yes, all you other CELTA folks out there, I did get a Pass A (provisionally, but I have every reason to believe that that will be my final grade as well). After five years of experience and knowing from feedback, the clients I was given and their subsequent renewals that I was good – if not great – at my job, I’m happy to see that my grade reflects that (although I would have been fine with a B – that was the grade I was prepared to receive). For those who don’t know, about 70% of everyone who takes the CELTA gets a regular “Pass”. 25-27% get a Pass B and 3-5% get a Pass A.

There are a lot of personal experiences scattered about the Interwebs on taking the CELTA, especially the gruelling four-week course. At least one good post on the topic covers the writer’sexperience getting a Pass B, with tips on how readers can attempt the same. There are none chronicling the experience of someone who got a Pass A, which is why I’m writing this at all.

I can’t tell you “how” to get a Pass A, because even having got one, I don’t really know how it’s done. The criteria for the various grades are never clearly outlined – there is no (known) formula that says “if you get this many Above Standards on your lessons” or something, that automatically translates into a Pass A or B”. *

What I can say is that it was extraordinarily difficult, despite having come in with a lot of experience. I’ll be honest: I found the input sessions mostly easy (although I did learn a few things and pick up lots of ideas and techniques, broadening my repertoire), the written assignments not difficult in their content but certainly difficult in terms of the time and attention to detail it took to turn in something truly great. I did find the actual teaching to be a challenge – partly because my own style was a bit higher on the Teacher Talking Time that CELTA so rails against, and partly because being assessed and critiqued in great detail on a relatively short lesson that comes between two other lessons that other trainees planned is quite different indeed from how I teach at my actual job.

Basically, even with experience I had to work extraordinarily hard to hand in work and perform at a level that eventually earned me the A, and I don’t see how I could have done it without prior experience. I’d attend class all day, come home and work for up to four hours straight. In every other aspect of life I reverted to someone who has the mentality of a five-year-old because I was just so mentally shot to hell from how hard I was working. I ate kids’ food and drank a lot of whiskey. I worked all weekend almost every weekend (on the final weekend I managed to take Sunday off). I obsessed over lesson plans and nearly get headaches just thinking aout the level of detail I included in my Procedure pages. I stopped blogging, I stopped reading, I stopped watching TV and didn’t even check e-mail all that often – I did keep Facebook open in the background at all times though.

I highly doubt that someone on the CELTA course with zero teaching experience could get a Pass A unless they were preternaturally talented or had some indirect experience (ie one of their parents was a teacher or some such – that kind of exposure does have value). A Pass B would be possible, but a person with no experience who managed that would still have to be exceptionally talented.

I did note a few things that might have helped bump me from a B to an A. While there’s no set number of Above Standards that one needs in order to get an A or B, clearly the more you get, the better your chances are. The poster in the link above got 6 out of 9 Above Standards and got a B. I got 5 out of 8. Another trainee in my group – who was extremely good and actually had a teaching certificate already, just not for TEFL – got 6 out of 8, but I’m not sure what his final grade was. Another girl in another group also got 6 out of 8, but I’m not sure of her final grade, either. If more than half of your TPs are Above Standard, you’ll probably make it into the upper grades…or you’re far more likely, at least.

They tell you that as long as you pass all of your written assignments, it doesn’t matter how well you do on them, because it’s an overall Pass/Fail (and it is clearly announced that if you fail one assignment, you can pass the course but you can’t get a Pass A). That said, my final report noted that all of my written assignments were “of a very high standard” and that I passed all of them with no resubmissions. The fact that this was noted makes me believe that it had some impact on getting the A.

The tutors look in great detail at lesson plans, and this is one area in which I excelled – I mentioned above how I would give myself headaches over the level of detail I included. Every stage had ICQs and CCQs mapped out. If I was going to model instructions, I noted that, and how I would model them (with a student, with the board etc.).  I was very detailed in writing out what the students would do in each stage and I was very careful to check my Interaction Patterns to make sure there was as little T-Ss as possible. If your Procedure page for a 40-minute lesson reaches 3 or even 4 pages, you know you’re on the right track.

I was careful to use any new thing from a recent input session as soon as it was appropriate, and note that in my lesson plans, as well. In the real world you don’t need to do this, but if you If you’re really trying to excel, listen carefully to little things the tutors say: if you hear a tutor mention that using “teach” and “learn” in your aims or stage aims is a bad idea (and it is – “teach” is too teacher-centered and “learn” is too general), then don’t use those verbs in your aims. If they say “for any language focus, create a context and cover meaning, form and pronunciation”, well, do that. Every time. Even if you have to write that down on a piece of scrap paper and tape it over your computer.

Which, yes, boils down to “do what the tutors tell you”, but hey. Oh well. They’re tutors for a reason.

Other things that I felt worked in my favor: strong language awareness**, good rapport with students, confidence, good instructions, ability to adapt and create materials, good anticipation of problems, participation in input sessions and “professionalism” (be on time, don’t look skeevy, get on well with other trainees and coordinate lesson flow with those in your group, show leadership skills), and strong self-reflection and reaction to feedback.

Of course, a lot of this is easier said than done. I can say “oh you should cultivate a strong rapport with students” – yeah, great, but how do you do that? I can’t tell you. I know what works for me, but everyone’s style is different. This is why teaching is a lot harder than people give it credit for (and the profession has a surprisingly high number of detractors). There are no easy answers to things like “how to improve rapport” – it’s very touchy-feely. There are fewer clear answers in education than in other professions.

No guarantees or promises that doing all of this will get you an A, or even a B (like I said, I can’t tell you how to do that), but these are things tutors noted as my strengths, and a few of them were things that tutors openly said were important – for example, one tutor said quite clearly that a Pass A trainee “shows a high degree of professionalism, which includes being on time” (there were some late students).

It’s also quite clearly possible to get a Pass A while still having areas requiring improvement – even serious ones. I personally need to reduce my Teacher Talking Time. It’s hard for me to do, because I’m a naturally chatty person and I do have a strong personality. I like to really get to know my students, and I like for them to really get to know me, which often translates into my being more talkative and more at the front of the class than I really should be. If you know you have a similarly serious action point, but have shown clearly that you are taking steps to improve, are aware of the problem and are open to feedback on it, then it is still possible to finish the course while still needing to work on the issue, and get an A nonetheless.

I could also stand to work on my timing, and my lead-ins tend to take too long. I tend to latch on to a few great ideas and over-use them, for example doing similar lead-ins for each class (not on any report, I just know that I do that). When I get nervous, my eye contact shoots to hell and at least in the beginning my board work was a mess (much improved, still not perfect).

Basically, I’m far from a perfect teacher. I’m good, and I’m not shy about the fact that I’m good – I am so totally not into the paradigm where women and people in professions dominated by women are shot down if they are anything less than humble, if not self-deprecating, and goodness forbid you be confident or (gasp) self-promoting. I’m not perfect, though, and I could be a hell of a lot better. If someone like me who still has a lot to work on can get an A, clearly it is a goal that need not be dismissed as impossible (although if you have no experience at all, you are probably better off shooting for a B).

So, what real advice can I give? Not much, except this: if you set up your goal as “I’m gonna gits me an A!” then, well, it’s a worthy goal and all, but you’ll probably give yourself an ulcer, and stress so much about whether you’re doing enough or doing well enough that your freaky-outy stress will cause you to lose focus and actually do worse. Don’t look for a magic bullet or secret formula – there is none, and trying to guess at the magical combination of factors that leads to an A will just cause you to get even more freaky-outy. Always remember that it’s not a competition, so if you see someone who seems to be doing better than you, hey, you’re in it for four weeks with that person and you are quite possibly friendly with them – you are not in a race. There is not just one gold medal. Their good work does not mean you’ll get edged out for the one top spot, because there is no “one” top spot.

It sounds like a cliché but it’s really true: just work your ass off, do the best work you can do and don’t freak out (because that will affect your work).  Remember that the course is designed for people with no experience. Things you can do immediately, that take no innate or learned skill are to participate as much as you can in input, do your damnedest to provide as much detail as you can in your lesson plans, be on time and be receptive to feedback (defend yourself if you feel something said was really unfair, or explain your rationale, but don’t get defensive or argumentative).  If you are given a language focus to teach, learn everything you can about it (especially if it’s grammar), beyond what the textbook says. Even if you don’t plan to teach every aspect, know everything you can to better cope with questions or issues that may arise.

*One tutor said something along the lines of "We know we're not turning out perfect teachers, that's impossible in four weeks. After the CELTA you'll still need training. A Pass A tells employers that you can start teaching immediately with basically no training and little support. A Pass B tells them that you will need a lot less training than most new hires, but still require some. A Pass tells them that you are an average passing trainee, will need further training and support, but you did absorb the fundamentals taught on the CELTA."

**About that language awareness thing – yeah. It’s tough, even with experience and especially with no experience. Don’t be afraid – when I started teaching, I was all “modal? WTF is a modal?” – which of course meant that I was not the best teacher. I learned, though, and I got better. I picked up my language awareness because I had to teach it. Actually teaching it did far more for my own in-depth language awareness than reading a grammar book ever could have done. If you find yourself, the night before a lesson, flipping through web pages or reference books going “WTF is a modal?”, don’t worry, you’re not the only one, and the next time you have to teach it, you’ll know it. You’ll get better. You’ll learn it in far more depth and detail than you ever thought possible because having to teach it does that – it forces you to learn it in a somewhat high-pressure situation. So go out and buy yourself a good grammar reference, pour yourself a drink and relax.


The Expatriate said...

Congratulations on passing. Sounds like a great achievement. I've thought about doing the CELTA myself a few times, but it wouldn't really behoove me in my current (or planned future) position.

Reading through your notes, it sounds like we have a lot in common. My Teaching Talk Time is through the roof - and I teach 2 or 3 hour classes. I don't generally prepare lesson plans (never really learned how to do it properly), and I "shoot from the hip" so to speak, but I still consider myself a good teacher (my students do to, according to their feedback).

I had no idea what ICQ and CCQ were, so I had to look them. This is all stuff (terminology, how to make lesson plans, etc) that I'm very interested in, but never learned in all my years of teaching (about 5 or 6 now between America and Taiwan).

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

One way in which we're different - I don't shoot from the hip unless it's warranted (as in, if I see that something is not working and I have to make a few in-flight decisions about my plan and how/whether to change it). I always have planned my lessons - I just didn't plan them in great detail. Generally a few clear notes on a piece of paper and I'd handle the rest as it came up. I've always come into class prepared and planned, just not in as much detail and without considering some of the things I really ought to have considered.

I did well on that system, but I do think that learning to do a proper lesson plan has helped me immensely. I absolutely won't be doing CELTA-style plans from now on - I don't have that kind of time and I am not paid enough to put in that kind of time - but I have internalized the things that doing those plans has forced me to consider and I probably will raise the level of detail in my plans and work harder to stick to them with appropriate timing.

Hall Houston said...

That is great, Jenna! I'm all for professional development.

I've considering doing a CELTA (or maybe even a DELTA), even though I have an M.A. in Foreign Language Education. However, similar to what "The Expatriate" said, I don't know if it would really make a difference in my current position. I was curious, where in Taipei did you do your CELTA?

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

The CELTA makes basically no difference in my current position (my company doesn't really seem to care), but it will make a difference in future development.

We didn't do the CELTA in Taipei. We did it in Istanbul - it's not offered in Taipei as far as we could find.

Fez Miester said...

nice to feel that perspective, I don't think i'll be getting an A, but ;z I never minded a B anyway, - I'm facinated by the multi-intelligence ideas related to ESL and if you notice that difference ~learning styles in individual cases. I'll Crack a grammar Shed next week!
Fez Miester

Unknown said...

Hey there,

This is just the thing I was looking for. I know you said that you've no idea about the criteria for grades, but I'm not sure whether to appeal mine. I saw that you mentioned people's grades and your own yet you didn't know what they got. Well, I too had very positive feedback from all of my written assignments and I got 6 out of 8 'above standard' - I've been awarded a 'Pass B'. Do you think I have grounds for appeal then?

I too am an experienced teacher, but more than not getting a 'Pass A', I'm annoyed at the difference. There were people on my course and others that got 3 out of 8 'above standards' and even had to submit one assignment a second time, yet they still got a 'pass B'. I think this is madness.

Any advice?


Jenna Lynn Cody said...

My advice would be not to "appeal" your grade, but to e-mail your tutors and ask why. You can even note the disparity - and do so with the most openminded and genuinely inquiring tone (i.e. no defensiveness - I am pretty sure that defensiveness, especially among experienced teachers, is something they look for in terms of detractors to performance) that you can muster. See what they have to say before you go out guns blazing.

Who knows? Maybe they'll come out with a good reason that you can reflect on that will help you in your teaching (I promise you that in a few years, especially if you move on and go for a DELTA, nobody will care if you got a Pass A or B or whatever. It mostly helps in the job market immediately after your course).

If I had to guess the reason for the disparity, it would be in something that (I have guessed) makes a huge difference but isn't as "talked about" - how you react to post-practicum feedback. If you're open to constructive criticism, you reflect intelligently and show success at improving, even if your original practicum grades were average, that puts you in a much better position to get a higher course grade. It's all about how you react to and reflect on your performance, not just the performance itself.

Konstantinos Kemparis said...
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Konstantinos Kemparis said...

So far I have done 7 TPs. 6 out of 7 have been awarded with S+ (Above Standard). I have also completed 2 of the 4 written assignments that we have to complete during the course. The 1st one was on Language Focus and the second one was on Language Related Skills (using an authentic text to detail a 60-minute lesson). Both of them got a Pass with very good comments. They were both accepted and submitted at the first time, without having to write them again.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

If you've gotten that many S+s on your assessed teaching and had good comments on your writing assignments, you seem to be on track.

Since your teaching, with those S+s, is good enough to earn a Pass A, the thing to think about is *how* good your writing is: is it good enough to be accepted the first time and maybe get a Pass B, or is it to a very high standard, a sterling standard, that could earn the extra distinction?

Another important area to consider is your reaction to feedback. When deciding whether a person will pass, get a B or get an A, tutors do take into account how receptive you are to feedback and how clearly and accurately you assess your own strengths and weaknesses in your written follow-up to your assessed lesson and its feedback. So make sure you don't get defensive if you get negative feedback, and that you really focus on what the tutor says in the oral feedback and let it guide your written feedback. That's the best track to an A. Giving good recommendations to other teachers in their feedbacks - including positive feedback - can help too.

Konstantinos Kemparis said...

Well, the written reflection on every TP is very important, you're right!
I'm trying each time to elaborate both on my strengths and weaknesses in a way to improve myself when it comes to doing the next TP.

My tutor reads them, makes a comment and then signs them. Wihout being a perfect teacher- I think I'm not perfect at all, and with the fear of being characterized as an arrogant, all the written comments I had been given so far for my reflections following every TP are: "Shows awareness", shows awareness and clearly understands what to focus on", Have nothing to add", "Absolutely".

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Then I think you are on the right track. I'm not a CELTA tutor (I'm in the middle of getting a Delta now, so I'm not even ready to think about that yet) so I can't say what your tutors may or may not be thinking but it sounds like you're doing all you can do and are definitely heading in the right direction for a Pass A. Good luck!

Konstantinos Kemparis said...

Good luck Jenna with your Delta course. Please keep us informed. Yesterday I did my last TP. I also got an S+. So 7 out of my 8 TPs were graded with Above Standard. Two more assignments on the way to finish the course.

Konstantinos Kemparis said...

My CELTA journey is almost over. Next Wed we'll meet the assessor. Jenna, will we be informed about our grades the day the cambridge assessor comes? How much time do we have to wait in order for our results to be despatched?

Miss Khalid said...
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Unknown said...

This was a fascinating post, which I found via Sandy Millin's excellent blog. I'm about to do a CELTA in Berlin and can't wait: I've studied languages before so I'm hoping some kind of innate language awareness will help enhance the things I've learnt about English grammar! Thanks very much for the post - I don't at all expect an A, but I'm gonna try my best to just pass the course well!

Courtney Celeste said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences.

Tony Bittner said...

Well, this article was posted 7 years ago, but anyway congrats on your CELTA mark. I took the course this year in Cambridge, UK and got a Pass A. It was difficult because apart from all the exhausting lesson planning, the lessons delivered needed to be flawless. I've been looking for a job since then, but unfortunately despite my qualifications (I'm a BEd in TEFL), I can't get hired without a work permit. I'm planning to get onto an MSc in Linguistics at The University of Edinburgh this coming September.

Steven Levithan said...

Great write up. I also got a Pass A, and in my case I had no prior teaching experience so it can definitely be done. I've shared some advice for getting higher grades as well as my own lesson plans and assignments as examples at slev.life/celta-pass-a-examples (where I also referenced this post).