Cast Adrift in the Classroom – What The CELTA Course Doesn’t Teach You

So I did my CELTA back in 2015, and 2 years later I got my first ever teaching job.

Coincidentally (or maybe not) I started my first teaching job the same month as my sister stated her PGCE training*.

However, while on the first day she was learning about teaching, I was being thrown in the deep end. Essentially I was shown the classroom and expected to go in and, er, teach.

And that’s what I did. Luckily the CELTA was a wonderful preparation for teaching English in a foreign country. I felt pretty much at ease as soon as the class began. It was only later in the term that I began to realise that the CELTA has big gaps in the curriculum. And I mean MAJOR GAPS.

*Postgraduate Certificate in Education, the 1 year University course in the UK that allows graduates in any discipline to become a fully qualified primary or secondary school teacher.

In this post I’ll talk about 4 things I noticed were barely covered in the CELTA, or weren’t covered AT ALL. These are: large class sizes, exams, classroom materials and maybe the elephant in the room – class discipline.

Large Class Sizes – Now With 400% More Students!

On the CELTA course my teaching practice sessions were usually in front of a dozen students. Sometimes it was less than that, depending on what the weather was like and other variables that help students decide if today is a good day to go to class.

12 students is a good, manageable number and is also the ideal class size that Ben from Ben Teaches English Overseas recommends.

By comparison my class sizes in an Chinese university range from 18 students (the absolute minimum) to 48 students. That’s four times as many students as you’d normally teach on the CELTA.


And I’ll just add that that class of 48 students was my first ever class in my first ever teaching job post-CELTA.

What a baptism of fire!!!

I don’t remember there being any CELTA input sessions on the topic of large classes. Early learners, yes. But 30+ students in a class, nope, there was not a thing.

I’ll cover my strategies for large classes in some future posts. But I’ll just add that if you’re intending to go and teach in a country known for large class sizes, then you might want to check out one of the related courses you can do on the subject. They’ll give you some tips and tricks to get you started.

Big class sizes are common in Asia (Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam) and also in countries like India.

Blackboard, No Blackboard, Sometimes No Anything

CELTA teacher training classrooms are generally well resources. There will be a computer and projector, a CD player, a blackboard and usually the furniture can be rearranged in horse shoes or other groupwork-friendly layouts.

By comparison my classrooms in China generally have fixed desks and are very cramped for group work.

On top of that resources are, ever, variable. That’s the hardest part of my planning. Some classrooms have blackboards. Some have whiteboards. Some have neither.

I prefer my classrooms have have blackboards as they’re great for drawing stuff that keeps the students interested in the class. And they’re also great props for use in ESL games.

Most have computers have overhead projectors, some have faulty sound systems, some have projectors that don’t show the R in RGB. Yeah that’s a hassle when you’re doing a lesson about colours!!!

Ah the crashed classroom computer. All part of everyday life of teaching English as a foreign language in China…

But you know what the biggest teaching resource problem for me in China has been?


Or lack of it.

For some reason it’s impossible to buy blu-tac or anything similar that you can use to stick cards to walls.

Actually chewing gum is on sale everywhere here. Maybe I could use that instead!

But I find I really miss not being able to stick stuff to walls. That was one of my core techniques while I was doing the CELTA. Getting students to assign cards to groups, or putting their writing up on display, or doing those relay type games, that is all currently denied to me.

And the moral of this story? Maybe I should quit my teaching job and start importing blu-tac into China. I’m sure they would find a million and one uses for it.

So This Student Took a Phonecall in Class…

There was one thing that wasn’t mentioned AT ALL in the CELTA: discipline.

Thankfully my Chinese students are eager learners and class discipline is generally good. After all I’m teaching young adults not kids. And they kind of chose to be at University, even if their parents and/or the state had a big say in what they actually studied.

Discipline reared its ugly head when one of my students answered a phone call during the lesson. I was semi-ashamed to say that I lost my temper and ended up removing him from the class.

What annoyed me about this incident was that at the time a girl was making a presentation in front of the whole class. She wasn’t speaking very loud and the 40+ other students in the classroom were struggling to hear her.

If I was speaking at the time then I would simply have incorporated the phone call into our class. One of my Chinese Mandarin teachers in Guangzhou had a wonderful way of incorporating unruly behaviour into the lesson. One day the crazy Thai girl in our class brought her crazy friend to our class. So instead of expelling the visitor from the class she made the girl introduce her friend to the rest of us. That was a truly inspiring moment.

I did much soul searching about that episode. I still think it was a good decision. All of my fellow foreign teachers agreed with my actions. And the student in question went on to get a very good grade.

So my recommendation is that you give some thought to discipline, especially if you’re teaching in a country well known for more unruly students OR you’re intending to teach kids.

Incidentally, discipline is more of an issue in Thailand, the Middle East and South America.

I’ve now learnt to incorporate unruly behaviour into the classroom. Sometimes the class is a little wild. I now find this to be a good thing – it’s more likely that they’ll actually do some speaking!

And By The Way, You’re Setting an Exam

I seem to remember there was one input session on testing. But I did my CELTA two years ago and I can’t remember a single thing about what they taught us that day. I think it was more to do with testing for English certificates of competency, like preparation for TOEFL and IELTS exams.

Luckily I had been given enough instruction in my new school that I knew it was a good idea to log attendance and homework/classwork scores so I had at least some idea of what my student grades should be like. That was enough for a couple of course administrators. But one was insistent on an exam.

So for my exam I fell back to an old favourite of mine.

You see I believe that if you are good at another language, then you can talk about ANYTHING.

So a favourite lesson of mine is to give my students literally anything, and they have to talk about it. In groups I do this by putting a load of stuff from my apartment into a bag, then giving each group an item to talk about. A bar of chocolate, a can of Red Bull, these are all really good props for getting them to speak about ANYTHING.

For my exam I wanted to do an individual speaking task. In groups it’s hard to rate individual student performance as some naturally speak more than others. And I’m ashamed to say I still don’t know all of my students’ names as I have 250+ students and most only have one lesson a week.

So the task I gave them was to show each student a photo of something on the computer, then they have to describe it to the class. Preferably without giving away the name of the thing. Thankfully my Chinese is now at the level where I can pretty much always know if they’re saying the Chinese name of the thing. So there was a whole lot of cheating going on!!! But that wasn’t really the point.

To keep the rest of the class busy I got them to write one sentence about each of the objects the other students were describing. This was actually a really successful writing exercise, and it allowed me to rank the entire class by writing ability. There was also an element of listening in that they had to listen to their peers in order to know what to write about.

I also got to learn some interesting Chinglish. Did you know for example that the Chinese often refer to staplers as book sewers?

So I did manage to muddle through my first exam. If you’re going to teach at High School or University level, then you’re probably going to have occasions when you’re going to have to set tests and exams.

In actual fact I’ve grown to like exams. They’re generally quite easy to plan. The class can end early once the exam is finished. And they do keep students on their toes. In fact my IT students got increasingly lazy throughout the term. Attendance nose dived, especially for the 8 am classes. So I ended up changing my mind and set an end of term exam. I’m really pleased I did so, because they generally did pretty well, and spoke a lot more than they did in a regular class.

Have you taken the CELTA or other teaching certificate? Did you notice anything missing from the training? Is there something else you wish you knew more about? Is blu-tac available in your country? Post your comments below.

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