The Travel Diaries: Part 1- China Regina.

As a young 19 year old, I was absolutely convinced that I knew everything. By 22, it was confirmed. By 25, I realised I did not. As a young man, I was angry, and into issues. I tried to conquer peoples’ heads by quoting Christopher Hitchens or by reading Buddhism for Dummies. “Follow the eight-fold path.” Now, take the popular show, South Park and Eric Cartman. In this show, Cartman is somebody who thinks he knows it all. He also thinks his bullyishness is a way to live. To put it lightly, as a child, I was a dickhead. I was a smug pseudointellectual who thought that the word pseduointellectual was clever.

At the age of 24, I set off around the world, very determined to find myself and my purpose. After all, I had recently completed a year of volunteering. I needed money and a point to exist. My Bodhi tree was economy travel.This means little legroom, but at least two meals. I was to carve my own path as a teacher,, and it took a while. I arrived in Tianjin, China and encountered a wealth of pollution, diarrhea and stress. I became an expat, and expats, in my experience are deeply confused people. This is a huge generalization, which is also true.

I flew into China, and what struck me greatly was the amount of pollution. The plane landed and we were surrounded by chimneys pumping the air full of coal. I was from Northern Ireland and I had landed in a beast. Probably a dragon. A communist dragon. A ‘communist’ dragon.

Days passed in China and I surrounded the streets in panic and anxiety. I knew absolutely no Chinese, and traffic lights were just a suggestion. I once saw a man get knocked off his scooter in the city’s busiest street, and my coworkers were reluctant to phone for an ambulance. Unless you are in the party, you are nothing. You are less than a number in a country with 1.3 billion people.

Smiling in his leather jacket, my boss took me to work. The walls in my workplace were entirely green with little bluetak marks. You had to use a fingerprint scanner, and everything in the place screamed marketing. All of the local Chinese staff wore pink uniforms, and many of them had plastic smiles. If there was a meeting, all of the staff would gather in a room and nod in agreement. There was a strange collectivism, and it made me deeply uncomfortable.

Two weeks of training, and the job began. I was a fully trained teacher. I taught three year olds, which mainly involved them jumping on flashcards. And, I taught teenagers, which mainly involved ignoring the textbooks and Flash videos, and hoping for the best.

Now, I have spent three years in for profit education, and this company tried to teach 3 important ‘values:’

1. You are a big important family. Yes, yes, you will have to go to compulsary unpaid training events which are far away. But, you will have cookies. Big smiles now. Now, ignore the teacher who ran away in the middle of the night. And, ignore the teacher who got fired for kicking another teacher in the testicles. They were not family.

2. Negativity: All negativity was banned. You will certainly have to teach 12 extra hours a week in the Summer for no extra money. BUT, you will get watermelon on Wednesdays.

3. Broken promises: Hey hey, you won a teaching competition, so you won a free trip to Shanghai! Oh wait, you did not re-sign your contract, so I guess we will delete that email.

The situation was so bad that you had to either laugh or hold a dirty protest. But, smearing shit on the walls is frowned upon in the teaching profession. That sort of behavior leads to complaint calls or a verbal warning. WIthin the first two weeks, I had to attend a conference in a hotel where I had to stand on a stage and fire a glitter cannon, on my off day. Within the first four weeks, i had to teach in a shopping centre. This involved learning a dance on the spot, bending my knees really low and asking 3 year olds, “what’s your name?” The marketing team nodded in approval, whilst I took public clowning 101.

The pollution in the air made me really sick. I was often on an IV in a hospital. Notably, one evening I was on a IV in a military hospital. Soon, a man drove a moped into the treament room. He then pulled out a packet of cigarettes and some beer bottles and had a party. My mouth would have dropped if the saline didn’t keep it open.

Still, there were upsides. I had a small but committed friend group. We would stay at the local bar until 5am, drinking, eating and watching a sheep dog called Skipper drinking out of the toilet. One night, my friend and I were eating street food whilst a member of the Chinese Mafia threw some ham at my head. Later on, he threw a beer bottle at me and we knew it was time to move on.

Life was intense. It backed and forth between shitty work, laughter at silly work and endless inequalities and pointless burecracy. Two final pointless and intense events summarised the year.

First, my work held a “didn’t we do well?” conference after the intensive Summer course. We were not permitted to sit beside people we knew and liked. One teacher actually open a beer during a particularly boring speech. One of our company’s core values was humility, which explains the 30 minute presentation about why we are better than all of our competitiors. One of the bosses decided to give us a 1 hour presentation on The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, steps 1-3 in 5 minute chunks, then translated into 5 minutes of Chinese. Bored, I went to the bathroom to hide, finding most many other people there to do the same thing.

My final conference was at a 5 star hotel. Our job was to stand between parents and children at the tables and pump them up by jumping and clapping. Important, there was a buffet, and we were not to touch it We had 2 sandwiches and should be grateful. I dared to take a cup of coffee and was stared at by the local pencil pusher. He then told me, “you should stop being sick!” and stormed off, which is excellent advice to give to a sick person.

Then, my last day of work came. My final lesson to give to students was contractions. It is/it’s, etc. I performed in front of parents and although it was very hard to make that exciting, they shook my hands. I was free, free from the madness of that ridiculous year.

Although, this blog post may be seen as quite depressing, as a writer I must write as I saw it. I love China, I love the Chinese, but that year was damaging. After I got off my final flight home, I smelt the fresh air of Northern Ireland. The skies were blue and I saw my friends again. I knew that this experience was how to NOT be an ESL teacher. The next step, Korea was how to do it, and along the way, I fell in love.


South Korea and a giant golden thumb.

Hello, here’s a giant thumb given from France to Korea for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. This thumb symbolizes many things to me: history, the OK sign, and a transition to a very different culture. Northern Ireland doesn’t have giant thumbs. It has regular sized Catholic, Protestant or secular  thumbs. (But they look the same). A bee string may make some thumbs bigger, but not quite as symbolic and that’s ok. Frankly, if Belfast had peace walls made out of thumbs, they should be preserved. The Dalai Lama or the Archbishop of Canterbury could carve hopeful messages into the thumbs and tourists could hire taxis to receive partisan thumb histories. We could drink craft beer from thumb shaped glasses and destroy Belfast’s dark tourist industry.

On the 20th of July, I made the move to South Korea. Specifically, Namyangjiu. I am an ESL teacher who has experience living and teaching in China and a bit of experience teaching in London and Essex, England. Frankly, I needed a new experience and Korea seemed like a great option. I have the opportunity to combine ESL and NGO work and I love it. I love the challenge of using a native language to teach a non-native language, I love the collaborative and relational aspect to work, the small classes and the ideal class lengths. (50 minutes).

On my weekends off, I go into Seoul and flaneur around the city, getting off at interesting subway stops, verbally shooing away the humilitity and hoping to see a temple or a shady tree. Here’s a tree.

On reflection I may have talked too much about giant thumbs, until next time.

An overview of the CELTA Course (and how not to implode).

It has been over a month since I finished the CELTA Course at International House Belfast. Now, there are many blog posts on the internet about this course, so don’t expect this to be anything revolutionary. (For revolutionary writing, please see my post about eels or margarine). Instead, see this as an overview of my experience and a guide to the course. There’s a lot of information here, but I hope you find it informative and interesting.

The full time CELTA is notoriously intensive, takes place over four weeks and aims to take non-teachers to teachers within this time. The certificate is awarded by Cambridge University and is considered to be one of the two internationally respected qualifications to Teach English as a Foreign Language. (alongside the TESOL). To define intensive, consider my schedule. I got up around 6.30 every morning and worked until about 11pm every night, 7 days a week. Although, I allowed myself a slight leniency to these times on weekends. The course requirements are a submitted portfolio, that is comprised of four assignments and nine assessed teaching practices. (TP practices). You must also view six hours of observed practice, three of which may be from recorded DVDs.

Each course is led by at least two tutors. I was lucky to have two highly competent tutors, who were rigorous in their assessment of us and who also provided support when needed. Each day from nine to 12 we had to attend input sessions. (with a break in the middle). These usually bordered on the experiential, and covered a certain area of TEFL practice. For example, conditionals, the future tense and classroom  management. They were usually fairly fun and are also a useful way to introduce potential activities to use with students in the classroom. From 12 to 1 we had Teaching Practice Preparation time (TP Prep) which was allocated time to prepare for lessons and to go over your lesson plans with the tutor and other students. The idea was that we were offered lots of help and support in the beginning by the tutor and less help as time went on to make us more independent. In week 4 the help we were offered was, “do you have any specific questions?” This was frustrating, but really helped to make us autonomous. From 2-4.15 was teaching practice and from somewhere from 4.15-5.00/5.30 was teaching evaluation (more on this later). Next, the assignments.

The assignments respectively focus on the needs of the learners, your language analysis skills for teaching purposes, on your ability to choose authentic texts and design tasks for receptive (reading or listening) and productive (speaking and writing) purposes and a self-evaluative piece on your progress throughout the course, where you reflect upon tutor comments, your strengths, weaknesses and observations of other teachers. You must pass three out of the four assignments and if you have more than three mistakes, then the assignment must be resubmitted. You can resubmit each assignment only once or it is classed as a failure. I passed assignments one, three and four on the first attempt and had to resubmit assignment two, which then passed on the 2nd attempt. Having to resubmit more one or more assignments is common and I believe everyone in my course had to resubmit at least once (although this may be incorrect).

Next and probably the most highly weighed component for assessment purposes is Teaching Practice. CELTA states that trainees must teach 6 hours of lessons, in at least eight separate lessons, one of which must be 60 minutes long. These lessons must be taught to learners with two different English language lessons. For us, these levels were elementary and intermediate. We all taught nine assessed (and one unassessed) teaching practices. The students are very much real and are not natives drafted in to perform an acting role. They are sourced from the community and pay £1 for us to teach them for an afternoon. (Asylum seekers get our services for free). This was immensely rewarding and it was nice to get to know the students. Thankfully, the students were lovely and willing to learn. Now, 6 hours of lessons may not sound like a lot, but, the preparation required for each lesson was immense. Each lesson required prepared exercises, a lengthy cover sheet, two or more sheets of language analysis sheets (covering lexis, phonology etc), and several running order sheets which noted each stage, the aim for each stage,  the time allocated for each stage, the interactions for each stage. For example, pair work (S-S) group work (SS-SS), teacher to students (T-SS) and Student feedback to teacher (SS-T). Finally, using these interactions, we had to state what our exact procedure was going to be. It takes, on average three to four hours to write a 40 minute lesson, and this is extremely demanding,as you have been in class all day and also have assignments to write. Each lesson was either a language lesson (grammar, vocabulary or functions) or a skills lesson (reading, listening, speaking, writing), and your aim of each lesson is assigned to you two days prior. You have to choose and follow a certain tried and tested framework for each lesson (Test, Teach, Test, Text-based approach, etc) and the one you choose is up to you to decide. Note, you are taught to “teach the learner, not the plan,” so you must be prepared to deviate from your plan, whilst still achieving your primary aims for the lesson.

After each teaching practice, you, your tutor and your fellow colleagues give you feedback on your own teaching performance. Your tutor will be scribbling furiously through your teaching, laughing along at your jokes and will pretty much give you a minute by minute breakdown of their perceived perception of your performance. At the end of each lesson you will receive a sheet that rates your lesson ‘To Standard,’Not to Standard’ or ‘Above Standard,’ along with a lesson feedback sheet that reflects on your ‘good points’ and ‘areas to progress on.’ I shall not lie, this sheet will either make you smile or want to cry. It’s helpful to remember here that you are just starting out as a teacher. The CELTA is indeed a thriving beginning point, but you will continue to grow throughout your career.

The required observations in the course are amusing, particularly the DVD observations which are designed to be as authentic as possible, and so they don’t edit out when the teacher drops things.

Back to the intensity, I will say it once and I will say it again, CELTA will at times make you want to scream from your eyeballs. The hours are long, and the workload is beyond anything you have ever seen. However, as my tutor said to me once, “try not to panic.” If you prefer to take a bit more time to reflect on the course, there is a part time option offered at many centres.

If you do take the full time course however, remember the following things. Use the support network around you. CELTA is a journey, a tough journey, but nonetheless, it is a quick one. There are usually up to twelve trainees on each CELTA Course and they are probably going through similar things as you are. It can be very helpful to laugh along to how tough the course is with your fellow trainees, as self-deprecation is a useful tool. I tend to over prepare things, but this is a good idea with CELTA. Do the pre-course task, read at least one good teaching book before the course starts and a good grammar book as well. If standing in front of a crowd and teaching is a problem for you, remember that it gets easier as it goes on. By the end I was really able to work the room. A little hint that I found useful was to lie to myself and pretend that I didn’t care how my teaching went. In reality, I cared enormously, but this technique really allowed me to calm down and even enjoy the process. The course will hammer into you the importance of reducing your Teacher Talking Time (TTT) and increasing your STT (Student Talking Time). Listen to this advice by making your lessons as student focused as possible, You’re not a guru and we are all learners, so help the students to help themselves learn. Chances are, that on days you teach you won’t have an awful lot of time to eat. But be sure to stuff something down to your stomach before TP begins. Really enjoy your lunch on the days you’re not teaching. Go for a walk and breathe deeply.

My most important advice is to develop a routine to keep yourself sane (or in perspective) and remember that whilst it is a highly respected and in many ways brilliant course, your performance does not determine who you are as a person. Regarding routine, I would get up every morning (which is a great start), get ready, catch the bus or get a lift and go to Subway for an egg and cheese sub and a coffee. I would then walk to the centre and use the photocopier and print out lesson planning material before the mad and fun day began.

If you plan to do a CELTA course, be prepared to work really hard. Yet, see it as a linguistic pilgrimage and you will climb the grammatical mountain.