Joko MacKenna

A lesson for experienced teachers in surviving the CELTA

Sometimes you have to unlearn what you've learned

The CELTA is known as the cream of the crop of the various intensive ELT teacher prep courses out there, and the majority of candidates who attend a CELTA are newbies to the world of teaching. There are, however, a significant number of folks who go for their CELTA after years of actual teaching in the real world.

Do a little research or talk to people who've completed their CELTA and you'll find that these experienced teachers are often the ones who have the hardest time with the rigors of the course. There's lots of reasons for this, but as an experienced teacher who's just successfully completed a CELTA, I thought I'd share how I felt about the whole thing, lesson plan style.

Name: Joko

Level: ajarn

Date: last day of the CELTA, sitting in the computer room with nothing to do.

Main aim: to discuss how to prevent previous teaching experience from interfering with success in a CELTA course.

Secondary aim: to share some general thoughts about the experience

Personal aims: In this article, I will be working on using writing management techniques to keep my blogger talking time (BTT) to an appropriate level.

Lead in: In your pairs, for two minutes, I'd like for you talk about learning to do something in a classroom as compared to learning on the job by actually doing it. What are the advantages and disadvantages? What kind of learning is more valuable? Who are you working with? How much time do you have? Go.

Setting Context: Imagine you've been living somewhere in Asia for a few years, teaching English as a second language. You think you're pretty good at your job; the students seem to like you, and you've never heard of any complaints.

You landed your first job after completing one of those TEFL-in-paradise training courses which was helpful in preparing you to step into a classroom initially, but that was a while ago now and you don't really remember that much about it except it was actually a lot of fun. You keep hearing one thing over and over from your senior colleagues: get yourself a CELTA.

There's a lot of time and money involved in earning a CELTA. You considered it initially when making your mid-life career shift, but was assured by many that the much cheaper TEFL certificate would be fine for starting out, and if at some later point, you decided you needed that CELTA, you could always get it later.

Again with your partner, I'd like for you to discuss what reasons you might have to decide to get the post-TEFL CELTA certification. What kinds of things might be happening in your life and career for you to make that decision? Please talk for two minutes.

Controlled Practice 1: In a moment, I'm going to give you a handout that lists some scenarios that might lead an experienced teacher to go back to the other side of the desk and earn a CELTA. You'll also see a box with some motivations. Please match the scenarios to the motivations in the box. You've got 4 minutes for this task.

A. job security

B. higher pay

C. career advancement

D. becoming an IELTS examiner

E. ability to work in more countries

F. personal development

G. living in Chiang Mai for a month

H. tuition reimbursement from employer

Now, please check in pairs. Did you all get the same answer? Great.

Controlled Practice 2: Again in your pairs, I'd like you to talk about what kinds of difficulties you think an experienced teacher might face when taking an intensive teacher training course like the CELTA. You have two minutes to talk.

Okay, I heard some great discussion out there. Well done.

In a moment, I'm going to ask you to flip your handout over to the other side. You'll see some sentences with blanks. Think of an appropriate word to add to the blank. I've given you the first letter of the word, and the first one is done for you as an example. Okay, take a look.

1. Experienced teachers tend to underestimate the intensity of the CELTA coursework.
2. Experiences teachers often rely too much on their previous k_____________.
3. Experienced teachers can have a tough time a______________ new methods.
4. Experienced teachers may have difficulty taking constructive c___________.
5. Disgruntled experienced teachers think that sometimes their tutors are full of s____.

Okay, check in pairs. What did you get for #2? Very good. #3? Yes, that's right. And #4? Yes. And how might that difficulty taking criticism manifest itself? Ah yes, that leads us to #5.
(answers: 2. knowledge; 3. adopting/adjusting to/adapting; 4. criticism; 5. shaving cream)

Freer Practice/Productive Exercise: Imagine again that you're that teacher who'd done a TEFL and are now going on to complete the CELTA. The course is at an end and you want to share your experience with other teachers via a blog at a TEFL oriented website like What was your experience like? Outside the context of the CELTA itself, what did you learn? Please write at least 400 words and you have the rest of class period for this task.

I ignored what my friends had told me and what I'd read online. I took the pre-course prescriptions about the intensity of the CELTA as pro forma warnings to scare off the lazy. I thought of myself as a pretty good teacher and all of my students survey feedback at work backed up my confidence. I thought the CELTA was going to be if not easy, then at least easier for me than it would be for other, less experienced candidates. I was a little bit cocky.

That was my first mistake.

I even went as far as contemplating 'tanking' my first teaching practice (TP), which with a CELTA, can come on your second day of training. My thought was that by purposefully delivering an awkward, poorly delivered, ill-conceived lesson, I could start low and show major improvement through the rest of my course. It just crossed my mind; I didn't actually tank my first lesson. I used all the skills developed over two years in the classroom and did quite well, by my own reckoning.

When I got my feedback from that lesson, I was mildly shocked to see that the tutor had given me more points that 'needed improvement' than things I did well. Wait, I thought I did pretty well.

The same thing happened in the next TP and the one after that. On that third TP, I even got a dreaded "Not to standard" on my level of 'teacher talking time'. Whoah. I got an "N"? But the students loved my lesson!

My second mistake was not realizing something very essential about what the CELTA tutors are looking for. It's not about delivery. There are no points given for being funny.

How much the students enjoyed the lesson is not a criteria in their assessment. Instead, they're more interested in content. They want a learning aim achieved; they want the students to be educated, not entertained.

I think back to when I was first leaving for SE Asia to become a teacher and some advice my mother gave me. She had been a teacher herself earlier in life. See, in my free time, I enjoy acting, videography and playing my ukulele at open mics wherever I can find them. Mom told me back then: "teaching is not an open mic night!".

I was paying thousands of dollars to learn something my mother told me.

Of course, the CELTA teaches one a lot more than platitudes about student-centered versus teacher-led learning. You also get a lot of really great examples of teaching techniques and how to stage a lesson in logical and effective ways.

My advice to experienced teachers is pay very close attention to how the input sessions are delivered. Emulate the classroom management methodology of your tutors while teaching the students.

The sooner you forget what you think you know about how to run a class, the sooner you'll shine in the eyes of your tutors. You must unlearn what you've learned.

Don't judge the methods. You may think their way of delivering a language or skills lesson is dull and formulaic, and you can do it better and make it more fun for the students.

You'll be sorely disappointed when you get your feedback and find you're not to standard. This can generate resentment and even anger and you may find yourself disregarding the tutors direction and thinking to yourself: I already know how to teach!

Fortunately, that was not my third mistake.

In the second half of the CELTA, I sorta figured this stuff out. I realized it wasn't about how well I delivered the lesson; instead, it was about what the students got out of it. It's not about me!

I copied every technique I could to reduce teacher-talking-time and found that I could get a lot more into that 45-minute lesson than I ever thought I could. There were no further "not to standards".

All in all, I think the experience is going to make me a much more effective teacher when I go back to work. If I had maintained my cocksureness and taught the way I always had, I'm not sure I'd be at this point now, a newly accredited CELTA graduate.



I have just finished Celta and I found it very unfair and disappointing.
There is a lot of discussion about there being a bias towards native speakers but in my Celta class there was a bias in favour of non-native speaking students. The very bad pronunciation of the non-natives was never picked up by the tutors - e.g. one student regularly had trouble pronouncing her V's she pronounced vowels as wowels (and repeated it about 5 times in a drill practice) . When I picked this up in students group feedback I was admonished and told I was being mean and made to feel really bad for even mentioning it. These students regularly got AS marks and the bad pronunciation was never mentioned. As a native speaker I found that the tutors were much harsher on me picking up on things in feedback which were not picked up on for the non-native students. I therefore found the marking extremely subjective. I really do not understand why when we were meant to be teaching English including correct pronunciation bad pronunciation was never picked up and why they were able to get AS grades. I did not expect to get a better grade as obviously I am able to pronounce English without having to learn it, and I have no problem with non-native speakers training to be English teachers I do however feel that it should have been pointed out to them so that they then could take steps to work on the pronunciation which they got wrong but this was never done.

By melanie, London (7th December 2019)

Great post !! I m attending Celta and find it nerve wracking... Do not like it at all. And having a really hard time with tp planning and teaching practices... Do we really in real life use the Celta way to teach ? Definitively no support... A lot of peer competition... It could be so interesting so productive .. This is at least my personal opinion

By La Canni, Italy (2nd January 2017)

What a terrific read your article was, Joko. And kudos for presenting it in a CELTA-approved format! While I didn't have the prior ESL teaching experience you had before attending CELTA, I did have years of classroom experience teaching soldiers in my former career.

I'm currently in my 2nd week of CELTA with three TPs under my belt, and my experience has been almost precisely that which you described in the first half of the article.

Would you mind sharing what techniques you used to help curb your TTT during lessons, as this seems to be my biggest recurrent problem? Thanks for sharing your experiences in such a fun, informative way! Cheers!

By Jeff McCaskill, Vancouver, Canada (5th October 2016)

I'll give you Above Standard for a very thorough lesson plan and being funny. Hahaha.
I just finished my CELTA a few days ago and you summarised my experience, exactly. I wonder how it is now, a year after your CELTA?

By Reyou, Indonesia (14th August 2016)

I have my CELTA, from Bournemouth, England. Unfortunately it means nothing to most schools over here, it's the degree they want to see. 'You have no TEFL or CELTA ,but no problem because you have a degree' - you can teach. Thai schools are full of foreign teachers who have no TEFL qualification whatsoever, but do have a 'degree' which in many cases was obtained through dubious channels. Just go in to a class and start writing stuff on the white board, and hope no one takes too much notice.
Last week one of these guys at my school marked down several classes for using the verb to dote, he had never heard of it. 'My mother dotes on me' He asked me why do the students keep writing 'dots on, dots on' ?
It seems to me that you need a particular kind of arrogance to walk into a classroom without the proper qualification under your belt.

By Jeremy, Udon (20th May 2015)

Yes, a great article by the enigma that is Joko. Congratulations on passing and getting the qualification under your belt. It's encouraging that you intend to use what you have learned when you go back to your school.

I agree with a lot of the smart replies here. Whilst it's a good qualification to have, to either see yourself through fresh eyes or to embiggen (Thank you, The Simpsons!) your CV, going through the pain/expense of getting a CELTA is going to be a hard sell for many teachers in Thailand.

Will it affect your salary if you are already working? Nope. Will it make you more attractive to employers in the future? Yes. Will that translate into a better salary? Maybe!

Will finishing the course make you better prepared in a Thai classroom? Possibly. It can give you a few ideas to draw from, certainly. Unfortunately; for most 'situations vacant' in Thailand, an academic approach to lesson planning and class structure is going to backfire.

I'd say that, if you have the time, the resources and the energy, then go for it and do the CELTA. But don't expect it to change your life and don't rely on it. Trust your own instincts in a Thai classroom, not what you studied on a four week course.

By Mark Newman, Thailand (18th May 2015)


Like always, an entertaining and thought provoking blog.

Although I have no direct experience with the CELTA, but experience tells me that one can get something out of almost all education and training if one keeps an open mind which it seems you did.

I suspect some of ideas you studied you will use constantly in the future, while others will be adjusted or throw out as not fitting your teaching.

Happy to hear you passed and thanks for sharing your experiences.

By Jack, Asia (17th May 2015)

Heck of a nice read and thank you for sharing Joko.

I have to admit I was very interested to hear about your journey doing the CELTA. I myself did one but it was at the very beginning of my teaching career, so I came into it very humble and just wanting to develop some confidence, learn how to sequence a lesson, etc. In essence, I was a blank slate so hit it to me!

Were I to do it today, I would probably struggle as many experienced teachers would. I think no matter how much we tend try to be reflective and humble practitioners we run the danger of ossification and becoming less flexible in our approaches. I'm also glad to hear that they were holding you to a standard of teaching, rather of entertaining (which is so common here in SEA).

Having said all that, it's debatable how "useful" a CELTA is for many schools here. I think it is what it is, and for teaching motivated adults in general it's solid. However, it doesn't immediately lend itself to the happy-go-lucky ESL field that tends to dominate in this region of the world. This is not a criticism of the CELTA, as I'm glad that they're sticking to what they knows works and is grounded in solid research-based best practices.

@Sam...yes definitely an issue and I myself take umbrage when Thai teachers deem to gauge my courses. The whole reason we are brought into this nation is that they aren't getting the job done, either from a pedagogy and a content level point of view. Full stop, that's it. Others can certainly chime in on this, but it seems too often we are brought in for our expertise and then we are criticized for doing things our way. Genius.

Bang-up writing again man and glad to hear you enjoyed? the course =)

By Aaron, Bangkok (17th May 2015)

Joko, great and hilarious post. The lesson plan format... priceless.

I actually am somewhat in the same boat as you, doing an M.Ed after having taught for several years. In all honesty, I've found many, if not most, of these teaching programs are generally aiming teachers in the same direction, no matter the level. I did the initial TEFL too, and remember thinking similar things about it as you said: it's not about you, it's about what the students get out of the lesson.

That said, as you well know from working in SE Asia, unfortunately many of the methods emphasized in CELTA and similar courses don't always pan out, primarily due to language deficiencies and cultural differences. I'm finding the same thing about my current M.Ed; many of the practices emphasized (differentiated instruction being one of the current hot topics) can't really be utilized in [non-international] schools here to the degree that they can in Western countries for various reasons, chiefly the resistance of both other teachers and students to change.

Funny enough, I actually got my class taken away from me by a Thai coteacher the other day because I was having the students do what the CELTA would term a "controlled practice" because she thought I was just being a lazy teacher; at my school, anyway, the role of a teacher is to yell at students for an hour straight without them having any engagement whatsoever, so I guess I just didn't fit the correct role.

I'm with you; I'm all for trying to be the best teacher I can, but I often feel that these teaching credentials programs overlook reality in lieu of some glorified "in a perfect world" construct. I guess it ends up being a balancing act between using what the courses have offered and doing what your experience has taught you that works.

By Sam, Chatuchak, Bangkok (16th May 2015)

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