Taking the CELTA in San Francisco – feedback from our 2010 scholarship winner

Ascending the escalator from the Muni metro, I remember the feeling of seeing Market Street reveal itself to me for the first time. I had arrived in San Francisco a day before and hadn’t yet seen the city as I was knackered from the travelling and wanted to shake off the jet leg. I chose to be a hermit on the Sunday with the intention of being fresh for the course the next day. So, Monday morning I got into the city an hour early before lessons, just to soak everything up before heading into the school. I bought breakfast and essentially took one deep breath – it proved to be the only opportunity I would have to do so until after the course, as the preceding four weeks would pretty much be a blur.

Although I knew the course would be demanding, I didn’t realise just how consuming it would be. If you’re going to do the CELTA I suggest you do it at a time when you can put most, if not all, aspects of your life on hold – you will eat, sleep and breathe TEFL for a month. Every hour of every day was accounted for from the moment I woke up to the moment my head touched the pillow. The course wasn’t easy, and I can’t say I enjoyed every minute of it, but in a lot of ways it was a process not unlike learning a language – both frustrating and rewarding, and like a language, you know the only way your really going to get anything out of it is if you throw yourself into it completely.

The trainers at St. Giles, Gabi and Maureen, were great and were basically good cop/bad cop in their approaches. Gabi pushed us hard for the first two weeks, and I had a few ‘Simon, we need to have a chat’ moments with her, while Maureen, who taught us for the second two weeks, made you feel relaxed and confident about teaching, both effective and both necessary, and I learned a great deal from both of them.

As a course it was academically rewarding, yet I’d be lying if I knew how I did so exactly, or to say I remember everything I learnt over the four weeks. What was really rewarding was teaching a class of students from around the world and seeing them learn something new from me and then using what they learned in the following classes. Working with the other trainee teachers was also a great experience, as we all progressed together and became close doing so.

Now, the accent. Rather, my accent. First of all, it’s important to understand that the Northern Californian accent is so clean cut (in that overtly American way) that people from the region constantly sound as if they are selling life insurance or alternative lifestyle products to you regardless of what they’re talking about. I on the other hand, possess a so-called Estuary English accent, and I’m sure that to them, I probably sounded as though I were a Dickensian chimney sweep or I had just walked off the set of Get Carter. The accent wasn’t a problem when talking to my trainers or fellow trainees (well, most of the time) but when teaching a mixed group of international students, who were by then accustomed to the slow prolonged vowels and pronounced ‘r’s of my Californian peers, I may as well have been speaking Chinese. However, I worked on my speech, slowed my voice down and by the end the students understood me – I can say that confidently because they would use words and expressions I taught them in later lessons, in my accent no less.

Away from the school, I stayed with a wonderful homestay couple, who to my delight were hippies during the sixties, well, the man of the house preferred to be called an ex-radical – and listening to his stories that’s a tame word for it. So I had the real spirit of San Francisco at home, every evening, cooking me dinner, telling me stories – the protests, the free love, the music and spitting in Ronald Reagan’s face. They also drove me around on Sunday afternoons (my only free time) and showed me the area.

First let me get this straight, San Francisco, on the face of it, is a gorgeous city. It lives up to the postcards and the movies etc, and indeed most of Northern California is stunning. The city of San Francisco itself ticks all the boxes, but today, it’s a very clean-cut city, maybe too clean cut. Similar to the way American customer service is great, fast, friendly and reliable – but in a completely detached, glazed over and completely impersonal way. So when looking for a teaching job, I knew I wanted to go somewhere a little more rough around the edges. The first job I’ve taken is in a private school in Bari, a southeast Italian city on the coast, and an area I already know relatively well. I decided it would be a good starting point where I could get some experience (not to mention some money) and that first reference under my belt before venturing somewhere completely new – which I plan on doing later this year. It’s a beautiful region of the country that is as charming, backward, relaxed and at the same time chaotic as one might expect – and so far it’s been a joy. The students are really warm, as are the locals, as is the fantastic weather. The other teachers have also been really accommodating. I wish I had more stories to tell at this point, but I’m still all eyes and ears really, trying to take in as much as I can at this early stage.

I genuinely feel my training as teacher started when I started this job just under two months ago. Yet I know I wouldn’t have had the grapes to walk into a classroom full of Italian adult learners had I not had the experience and knowledge I gained during my time on the CELTA course.

Please note that the scholarship for 2011 has now been launched. The prize is a 4-week CELTA course and 2-week Spanish course in Barcelona, including accommodation and return travel to the UK. For more information, including details of how to enter, please visit the Cactus TEFL website.

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