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.

Who teaches Cactus’ foreign language evening courses in the US and Canada?

We are fortunate to have a hugely talented pool of teachers, and consider the standard of the teaching on offer to be fantastic. All of our teachers are experienced, enthusiastic and either native speakers of the language they teach, or of native speaker level. To give you an idea of the kind of skills and qualifications they have, we spoke to Spanish teacher Enrique Gonzales (pictured), Brazilian Portuguese teacher Alice Ishii and French teacher Christelle Durandy.

Enrique Gonzales

Enrique is originally from Trujillo, Peru and has been living in the United States since 2006, first in San Francisco and now in New York.

He has been a foreign language learner since the age of 7 and started teaching English in Trujillo in 1999. He later worked as a private tutor in English, French, and Spanish to foreigners living in Peru. He has a degree in Mass Communications and several years of classroom experience.

Enrique has been working with Cactus since 2007 and is currently teaching group and private Spanish classes in all levels. He always tries to get his students to expose themselves to the language as much as possible and New York is a great environment for Spanish learners – they can easily find people to listen to, talk with and plenty of cultural and artistic manifestations to experience a variety of accents.

Alica Ishii

Alice is one of our Vancouver-based Portuguese teachers. Alice was born in São Paulo, Brazil, and graduated from USP -University of São Paulo with a major in Portuguese Language and Literature and minor in English as a Second Language. She gained her certified teaching degree in British Columbia at SFU – Simon Fraser University in 2000 and also taught ESL for 10 years in a public school first in British Columbia and 5 years in Wisconsin, at the Technical College. She has been teaching in Vancouver for Cactus since 2008.

The reason she has a passion for teaching, especially adults, is that she can really interact with them, exchanging experiences and learning about different cultures, customs and connecting with a wide range of people.

At the end of each year when she sees her students’ improvement her enthusiasm rises and as a result she wants to learn more. Therefore, she’s always in constant learning process, doing research, experimenting, questioning and adjusting lessons plans to her students’ needs.

Alice’s top tips for successful language learning are:

1. Organise your schedule: manage your time and material

2. Review each class : 15 minutes each day

3. Practice/Use the target language at home, with your friends, family

4. Listen carefully to tapes, podcasts and watch films, clips, songs in the target language as many as you can

Christelle Durandy

Christelle has lived in the US for five years, although originally comes from France. She currently teaches for Cactus in New York –normally two or three sessions a week.

She’s been teaching for 10 years, and is a graduate of the University of Rennes. She also has a GRETA (certification) – GRETA (GRoupements d’ETAblissements) is a national network of public and adult education centres in France.

When asked about what she most enjoys about teaching she said the interaction; finding personalized ways and keys to make the students understand, and their happiness when they do.

Cactus offers 5 and 10-week evening language courses in New York, Boston, San Diego, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto. Languages offered include French, Spanish, German, Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese and Russian. Please visit the Cactus Language Courses website for full course listings, to test your level, or to book.

Independence Day – a great time to visit the USA

The 4th July is a federal holiday that commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on 4th July 1776, an event which brought about the ‘birth’ United States of America and its independence from the UK.

Independence Day is a day of parties, picnics, barbeques, parades and fireworks, when people are proud to fly the American flag. Being in the US for Independence Day will give you a great insight into American culture, and a great chance to party!

Celebrations take place all over America, but these places will offer some of the best festivities. Taking an English course in one of these cities at the start of July will mean that you’re right at the heart of the action – it will be an unforgettable experience.

New York

New York is a city that many people consider the cultural capital of the US, and as such is home to some of the biggest Independence Day celebrations in the country. The renowned Macy’s fireworks display is usually held over the East River in New York City and has been televised nationwide on NBC since 1976. In 2009, the fireworks display was returned to the Hudson River for the first time since 2000 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of that river, and in 2010 the display will once again be held over the Hudson.

In addition to the fireworks display, there are also numerous street fairs, historical re-enactments, outdoor concerts and plays to go and see. More information can be found on the About.com website.


More than 200 events make up a week packed with activities during the annual Boston Harborfest, which begins in late June and continues through to Independence Day. Celebrations centre around the city’s strong maritime and colonial heritage, and therefore take place on the Harbor Islands, and in historic downtown. Some of the festival’s main events include the Boston Chowderfest, when some 12,000 participants choose the best chowder from Boston-area restaurants, and the reading of the Declaration of Independence from the balcony of the Old State House.

The Boston Pops Concert and Fireworks Display is also one of the festival’s main attractions, and is completely free.

San Diego

Independence Day in San Diego is always party central.  The shores of Mission and Pacific beaches are buzzing with people all day long .You can head to one of the many carnivals complete with fairground rides, the Freedom Days Parade or the San Diego County Fair on the Del Mar Fairgrounds, to name a few. The real action starts after dark though with the superb Big Bay celebration fireworks display.

San Francisco

There’s lots going on for Independence Day in San Francisco, but an undisputed hub of entertainment will be Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, where you’ll find music, dancing and a spectacular view of the fireworks. As you’d expect, the Golden Gate Park is also a great place to head to, where there’ll be a music extravaganza to celebrate the day.


Probably the biggest 4th July celebration in Seattle is the ‘Family 4th’ that takes place at Gas Works Park with the stunning backdrop of Lake Union. It has been labeled as one of the top 5 fireworks displays in the country and is well-known for being a particularly innovative display.

Another Independence Day attraction in the Seattle area is the Tacoma Freedom Fair on the Ruston Way waterfront. Throughout the day visitors can enjoy music, an air show, the International Marketplace, and, fo course, a firework display at the end.


If you’re in Denver over the 4th July you definitely won’t be short of things to do! The celebrations kick off with a new event at the Civic Centre Park on 3rd July – a free community concert featuring patriotic favorites performed by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, accompanied by an innovative light show and fireworks display.  From 3rd-5th you’ll also have the chance to visit the Cherry Creek Arts Festival – an outdoor event which attracts more than 350,000 visitors who come to see the range of performing arts and exhibits.

On 4th July itself the Four Mile Park in Denver plays host to a true ‘old-Fashioned’ 4th of July Celebration, with festivities including visits from Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Uncle Sam; the reading of the Declaration of Independence and performances by the Denver Concert Band and other local musicians.

Cactus offers English courses at a range of levels in New York, Boston, Seattle, San Diego, San Francisco, Denver, Fort Lauderdale and Honolulu

5 cheapest places to learn English in the US

One-week general course (20 lessons per week)

Prices start from £229 for a 1 week course from 7th September 2010

1. New York Penn Plaza, New York Tribeca

2. New York Penn Station

3. Boston Campus, San Diego, San Diego (La Jolle), San Francisco, Seattle

4. New York Times Square, New York Soho, Boston City

5. San Francisco Downtown

One-week general course (20 lessons) + single room with a host family + breakfast + dinner

Prices start from £549 for a 1 week course from 7th September 2010

1. Seattle

2. San Diego

3. San Francisco, Boston Campus

4. San Francisco Downtown

5. New York Penn Station

One-week general course (20 lessons) + single room in a shared apartment or residence (no meals)

Prices start from £539 for a 1 week course from 7th September 2010

1. San Diego

2. New York Tribeca

3. Seattle, New York Penn Plaza

4. New York Soho

5. New York Grand Central

Please note: prices were correct at the time of writing, in July 2010, but are subject to fluctuation according to changing exchange rates.

Cactus offers a range of general, intensive, individual, combined and exam preparation courses all around the world. For full course listings, including prices, and to book please visit the Cactus Language website.