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A Portable Career, Teaching English Abroad

by Angela Williams

It was with a mixture of anxiety and excitement that I started my first day on the CELTA course at the British Language Training Centre in Amsterdam. CELTA, which stands for Cambridge Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults, is one of the foremost initial qualifications for English Language teachers. I am not a particularly gregarious person, in fact I’m quite shy so I was horrified when I heard that we would actually start teaching on the first day of the course!

Fortunately, the group of guinea-pig students was very small and they were an easygoing bunch. After my heart had stopped beating at the rate of a galloping racehorse’s, I discovered I had an ability to build rapport with students, and that teaching can be enjoyable! Whether they learned much from me on the first day is debatable but at least the ice was broken.During the CELTA course I learned mainly classroom management and how to introduce a variety of activities to a lesson. Activities needed to involve either one of the four skills; reading, writing, listening and speaking, or incorporate grammar and new vocabulary. There was very little focus on teachers learning grammar. Of course most native speakers naturally use good grammar but as a teacher one needs to know the all the grammar terms as well as being able to explain them. We were expected to brush up on that subject in our own time, which outside the 120 hours that comprised the full course, included ten hours per week study time.

Watching my fellow students teach, and discussing which part of their lessons had worked best was also extremely valuable, if at times stressful. Looking back I would say the most essential skill I acquired was how to personalise exercises for students. To get maximum involvement students need to communicate their experiences and the way they see the world, rather than filling in exercises that someone else has come up with.

I got my first professional teaching assignment in 2005 at an electronics firm in Hoofddorp. I’d placed an ad on Marktplaats and the HR officer of the firm got in touch with me. After a lengthy email correspondence and a face-to-face meeting I got the contract. I spent hours preparing lessons in those days. For a two-hour lesson I’d easily have a two-hour preparation time, which were of course unpaid hours. Nowadays, I have a store of tried and tested lessons and I’m not at all fazed by students asking me to explain things like the present perfect continuous tense, or the third conditional. Something that in the early days would have sent me into a fit of panic if I didn’t have the information to hand.

Now I have a wealth of teaching experiences behind me and have taught at; Ahold, ECN, Murata Electronics, KPN, RBS, ABN Amro, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Allen & Overy, Bayer Europe, the list goes on. But like any profession, I’m still learning and even though I cover a lot of the same points in class, every student is different and needs a unique approach.

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It’s good to inject some fun into the classroom. I usually do this through games, role play, telling anecdotes but very often my students provide the fun themselves. Recently I was teaching a business English course for secretaries and one of my students said to me.
‘I’m sorry Angela, I have to leave class early today. I’m going soliciting.’
Although we were in Amsterdam and the Dutch are a broadminded lot, I was pretty sure that my student wasn’t heading towards the red light district. It was a familiar case of False Friends – an English word that looks similar to a Dutch word but with a totally different meaning. She was seeking work and going for a job interview, the Dutch verb for which is, soliciteren. I explained to her what she’d said and we all had a good laugh about it. It’s important to always laugh with students and not at them!

False friends type errors happen all the time but malapropisms are less frequent amongst Dutch speakers. When they do crop up, it’s usually to comical effect. In class I encourage lively debate about current affairs and one afternoon I chaired a discussion about animal welfare. The touchy subject of Halal slaughter reared its head. One of my students explained to me that the government had come up with a typically Dutch compromise, the animals would be seduced first and then have their throats cut. The joker of the class said he usually preferred to sedate his victims first and then seduce them…

At present I get most of my business English assignments from a language agency based in Zuid-Oost Amsterdam. As well as finding me work, they also provide regular trainer workshops and feedback on observed lessons. Alongside this I have students for private lessons and they come from all walks of life. I’ve tutored; lawyers, marketing managers, football coaches, stockbrokers and also housewives or students who want to improve their language skills. Even in the recession I’m rarely short of work and although I’ll never get rich, I’m sure of having a portable career, that because of the variety of people I meet, still provides me with an enjoyable challenge.

My details
Angela Williams
Blog: http://amsterdamoriole.wordpress.com
Twitter: @su_carey

Useful links
British Language Training Centre: http://www.bltc.nl
British Council teaching opportunities: www.teachingenglish.org.uk

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