It could be a commercial for Tootsie Pops - all around the classroom the students appear to be determining how many licks it takes to get to the center of one.
But this is not going on while the instructor's back is turned; it's a clever method for teaching teachers how to explain pronunciation to non-native speakers of English. In five weeks' time, graduates of this course, offered through Midwest Teacher Training Program here in Madison, will receive a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate. It's a collection of letters that will unlock a world - literally - of job opportunities.
In this alphabet soup of acronyms, you may also hear TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and CELTA (the Cambridge University equivalent of a TEFL certificate), among others. English has become the international language, and non-native speakers of the tongue outnumber those who have grown up with it at home three-to-one. And the demand for English as a second language teachers continues to grow. If you've ever dreamed of spending more time in another country, acquiring a TEFL certificate may be your ticket to a rewarding career change and an immersion experience that you'll never forget.
In 1997, I had just acquired a secondary-education teaching license after studying as a returning student at Edgewood College. Finding full-time jobs in the area to be scarce, I signed up for an overseas job fair. The next thing I knew I was packing two suitcases for a year in Turkey. The experience was so extraordinary I published a book about it. But I was surprised by how much I had to learn, despite having teaching credentials and a B.A. in English.
Day one brought me a classroom full of bright-eyed, smiling sixth-graders. "Okay everyone, take out your books."
No one moved.
"Do you have books?" Silence. Smiles.
"How are you?" Everyone perked up and shouted in unison, "Fine tanks and you?"
Teaching English in this context is not like teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at an American high school.
Being a native speaker might be enough to get you a job - in rare cases - but having documentation that shows you have training not only gives you a boost, it'll make your teaching life easier. And besides, an increasing number of schools are making certification mandatory.
Renee Lajcak is an instructor at Midwest Teacher Training Program. She holds a master's in TESOL and draws upon her experiences teaching in Japan, Indonesia and Mexico. Since 1989, she's also taught at Wisconsin English as a Second Language Institute (WESLI), one of Madison's English-language schools. She acknowledges that, much as with university degrees, there are quite a few buy-it-online certifications out there. Overseas schools are more aware of this now, and though there is no industry-wide oversight of TEFL programs, a simple Internet search can make it clear to a potential employer that you either put in your time or sent in your dime. "Schools that don't care may not be your best place to work," says Lajcak.
The program at MTTP is offered four times per year and includes five intensive weeks - 130 classroom hours - of hands-on training. The TEFL course addresses both oral communication (speaking and listening) and non-oral elements (reading and writing). In most cases, TEFL teachers will start jobs without knowing the local language or will be forbidden from using it in class, so the course provides some essential instructional survival skills. Graduates leave with a strategy toolbox that is both effective and a little fun.
The exercise with the Tootsie Pop might seem silly, but imagine trying to teach someone who cannot pronounce English vowels how to do it correctly. This skill becomes very important when an English learner having difficulty with the various "i" and "e" sounds wants to talk about the sheet on the bed or how nice the beaches are in Panama. That Tootsie Pop is a sweet tool to show teachers, and subsequently their future students, how the mouth and tongue form the sounds native speakers take for granted. Additional coursework addresses matters of lesson planning and time management during class.
Brian Kersten, an MTTP graduate, called his experience "fantastic." "It was challenging in that we had class all day and then a lot of homework to do in the evening. It's not a free ride, and that makes it particularly good. But I also really enjoyed myself and felt that I had a lot of great support from the staff and the other students."
One thing that a good TEFL course should offer is some practice teaching. All these skills may look clear on paper, but trying them out with some professional observation and critiques is critical to a teacher's development.
"One of the highlights of the program," says Kersten, "is the chance to practice teaching to local immigrants. This is invaluable. It's a great service to the community as well."
MTTP pairs two trainees, who will spend 20 hours in a classroom with real students, drawn from the local community, giving them free English lessons. Each trainee has 10 hours of leading the course. "We give the teachers a lesson plan at the beginning," explains Lajcak, "and then we give them more and more freedom so that at the end, the teachers are designing lesson plans on their own." That's important, because "Overseas you don't know if you are going to be in a situation that is really structured - 'Here's the book, follow every chapter' - or less so; they just put you in a room with a bunch of students and say 'Teach them.' So we're trying to prepare students for every possibility."
MTTP also offers job placement assistance including a workshop for writing a résumé and building a portfolio. Graduates of the program have worked in 46 countries, and some alumni still return to make use of the job search resources.
Trainees vary in age from their 20s to those in retirement. Motivations for getting the certificate are equally varied. "Some are looking for overseas experience for their careers," says Lajcak. "Some are trying teaching to see what it's like. I've seen those who want a language experience, soon-to-be-retirees seeking something new, men and women in their 40s and 50s looking for a career change, or people who want to volunteer, heading for the Peace Corps, for example."
And, of course, one of the most popular desires is to travel and see a different part of the world up close and personal. Nancy Kaufmann began her studies at MTTP when she was 57: "I simply wanted to live in Germany for a few years - a lifelong dream of mine." Kersten, who was 25 when he entered the program, says he wanted the opportunity to experience life in another culture on a daily basis. "I saw teaching English as the best opportunity to get my foot in the door. It also seemed like a positive thing to be doing."
Kersten found a job teaching at a small, family-run school in northern Japan. "For the first few months, I was completely immersed in Japanese culture and lifestyle. I definitely had a leg up on my other friends, who worked for the chain schools and were somewhat separated from the culture. The job was a good challenge, as I had a lot of responsibility for designing and running each of my varied courses." Kersten found the position via Internet using Dave's ESL Café, one of the best sites out there for job searches and resources.
A TEFL certificate is not the only way to go. The UW-Madison offers a TESOL certificate to undergraduate students, as well as special students (college graduates) registered only for the TESOL program. The courses are more academic, and with a 21-credit requirement, the time commitment is much greater. Even more involved is a master's degree in TESOL.
The five-week TEFL course may seem less intimidating, especially for a student unsure of his ultimate goal, but a master's degree certainly gives a student much deeper academic knowledge. A master's might make someone looking for work in the United States more competitive in the job search; it's sometimes even a requirement to teach at certain institutions. In the overseas market, it can help a teacher advance to management or director positions as well.
Sandy Arfa, the director of the UW-Madison's ESL program, sees a bigger benefit to teaching English than just employment. "Sometimes you help people make a life by giving them the English skills they need. Even in other countries, giving them English gives them a chance to work, but especially here."
For those who become the foreigner on someone else's shores, the reward is no less. Says Kaufmann: "It has to be one of the best ways to get to know a people. At least half of my students here in Berlin are former East Germans. We were all at the point of tears when a banker related 'the happiest day of my life' [speaking exercise] telling about where he was and what thoughts went through his head on Nov. 9, 1989, when news of an opening in the Wall came over the radio. We all sat in silence for a while afterwards."
Midwest Teacher Training Program
19 N. Pinckney St., Madison, 608-257-8476. www.mttp.com
UW-Madison Program in English as a Second Language
5131 Helen C. White Hall, 600 N Park St., Madison, 608-263-3783. www.english.wisc.edu/esl
Dave's ESL Café