Helen Dennis-Smith, latest winner of the British Council's TeachingEnglish blog award, looks at some of the challenges of entering the profession later in life, and offers a few tips.
When I told people I was planning to train in teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL), there were comments like 'Isn’t that just something people do in their gap year?!'. In fact, I too had done some English teaching, unqualified, when I was much younger, but it was not something I wanted to do as a career at that time.
However, some time later, while my children were growing up, I worked as a teaching assistant. At one school, I worked with groups of children arriving in London with no English. How inspired I was to experience that they grasped the new language and joined in with their peers! This was the incentive for training in TEFL.
So, aged 55, I approached my Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) with some trepidation, and two years later took my Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults (DELTA), leading to my current teaching job in London.
Challenges mature teachers need to overcome
In my first school, I was one of only a tiny number of mature teachers. This was largely because the school did not pay well, and there was a limited number of teachers who would tolerate working long-term for such low pay. I took the job purely to get a foothold in the industry and stayed two years until I was in a position to take the DELTA. The challenge was to establish some credibility among staff. The younger teachers failed to understand my motivation. The older ones simply thought I was mad! Students, by contrast, seemed genuinely to appreciate the emotional maturity I brought to the classroom, and I quickly gained respect there. Age is on your side as a new teacher as very few students will suspect you have little or no experience!
Another challenge was getting to grips with technology. This was not so much in my first job, where little was available, but in my current job, where there is a wide range of technology available. Picking my way through what I needed, or actually thought useful, in the classroom took some time. Now, however, I am often quick to take up new suggestions and it has become second nature to employ much of what is on offer to me.
What mature teachers can bring to an English lesson
Your whole life experience should go with you into the classroom. Whatever your background, you need to think carefully about how to apply what you know to what you teach. There will always be experiences you can bring to your lessons – your life as a parent, the places you've been to, the people you've met – that younger teachers may not have.
In my case, a previous career in business has given me a good understanding of the global issues our students face as they try to work with people from other countries. It's also especially useful for teaching business English, of course.
Six tips for people entering the profession later in life
1. Do some research! Make sure you know what you are taking on. Look at the job prospects around you and the salary levels. Can you live on the salary you see advertised for starting jobs? Find some teachers to talk to and find out what it is like to try to find your first job. For example, in the UK, it is relatively easy to get summer work, but not so easy to find work in the winter, so training in the spring brings some advantages, as schools may keep some of their new summer staff on during the slower months.
2. Where do you want to work? My CELTA tutor actually burst out laughing when I said I was planning to work full-time in London and told me that I had no chance. She was wrong, but it took persistence to find a first job, including speculative applications and many follow-up calls, and even going to schools with my CV in my hand.
If you want to work overseas, as many do, make a careful analysis of the contracts on offer and the types of location available. Will you be paid a salary, or simply for lessons delivered? Is accommodation part of the deal; if not, is it affordable?
3. I’ve already touched on technology, which may or may not be available in your school. If it is, never, as a mature teacher, try to be too cool with your younger learners. In fact, I have found it is often better to lean on the younger 'tech-savvie' students to teach you how to do things. Not only do they exercise their English in the process, but they genuinely like to show off their skills too. It is important to keep reasonably up to date with the technical language they use, to know about the popular social networks and the popular websites, so at least you know what they are talking about, even if you do not use them in your classroom teaching.
4. Don’t forget that your career will be shorter than that of your younger colleagues, so you need to decide what direction you want it to take. To get started, you need to develop your teaching methodology and practise as fast as possible. Mature teachers don't have the luxury of staying in survival mode for long. We need to start tinkering with our teaching methods early and develop our own style, rather than staying in a 'CELTA mindset' for a long time. Doing this will help you towards your dream school job and also put you in a position to apply for DELTA sooner rather than later – a stepping stone to jobs in top schools.
It is also worth considering whether you want to head for the management route or not. In my case, the answer is no. I have been a manager for much of my working life, and it is a relief to leave such responsibility to others and simply enjoy my classroom time.
5. Keep learning. Attend continuing professional development (CPD) sessions and workshops; learn from your colleagues, watch webinars, join English language teaching (ELT) chat forums, whatever is available to you. Be open to new directions as you keep learning. It would have been all too easy to say I was too old to do any of these things, but I have been encouraged all down the line by colleagues, managers and also by my students to keep embracing new ideas. My students have loved hearing about my new exploits and have even read and responded to my recent blog post themselves.
6. Above all, make sure you enjoy what you are doing. I love my new, later-life career and would not change it for anything right now.
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