Dispute

I had to be up at 6:30 for a medical the University wanted me to take for insurance purposes.  After finally getting to sleep at 3:30, I was roused by the numerous and loud alarms I had set for myself to avoid oversleeping again.

The medical was interesting.  I was very anxious that the health centre would turn out to be some dodgy back-alley affair, but thankfully it took place at an international health centre.  The impressive building and wide open interiors were sparkling clean.  It made me jealous on behalf of my shithole apartment.  The usual queueless rabble crowded the front desk and my guide did the appropriate shoving and waving to get me seen to.  I watched the people behind the desk: one man in a lab coat stood up from his computer, opened an official looking locker, and took out an encrusted saucepan to drink from.  Soup, hopefully.

Sleep-deprived and anxious, I was led through a battery of tests.  The first was a dreaded blood sample.  I was horrified to see that I would have to sit on a stool and stick my arm through a window in a pane of glass for the nurse.  I have an embarrassing habit of going grey and falling over when I have blood taken.  I warned my guide, went through the painless sampling, and draped myself over two chairs to wait for the tunnel vision and cold chills to dissipate.  The other tests seemed odd or excessive: an x-ray (alarming), an ultrasound on my stomach (“He should work out more,” the doctor told my guide), blood pressure and some kind of body water/conduction test with electrodes.

By the time I was dropped back off at the University, it was only 09:30.  I was starved and shaky, so resorted to McDonalds again, my oasis of Westerness.  I was still experiencing what I assumed was culture shock.  Nevertheless, I had plenty of time before a meeting with the Assistant Director of Studies at 17:00, so I went home for a nap.

Unfortunately the meeting was not a success.  I had already discovered that the school was not part of the University, but a private school renting office space.  I’d already had clues that they wanted me to teach IT as well as English, which wasn’t what I was there fore.  Before the meeting I was taken to a room to sign the contracts.  It seems typical that the employment contracts school are required to send to the government are different to the contracts that the employer-employee have.  “Which one is legally binding?” I asked. “They both are,” was the spurious reply.

The government’s version of the contract omitted a schedule of amendments, which included all my negotiated changes as well as my salary.  The government caps the limit of a foreign teacher’s salary, presumably to keep China self reliant – at half my agreed wage.  It’s to my benefit, but the dishonesty was off-putting.  Apparently I was also to be put on a three month probation at a reduced wage.  Payday is the 10th of each month. “So on 10th of December, I’ll be paid for six weeks?” I asked. “No, just four,” was the reply.  So was I to work for free?  The questions was to go to the accountant, and meanwhile I was to sign…

The meeting took things a step further.  It transpired that now I was to be hired as an IT teacher, not to teach English.  The responsibility was pawned off on me by my predecessor, who hadn’t wanted it either.  I had also been promised that I would teach adults, but all the students I’d seen so far were undergraduates.

I asked the ADOS to reconsider the changes to the agreement.  She would take it to the Director, but any compromise seemed unlikely.

I had gotten in touch with another teacher who had worked with the school.  He had nothing but nightmares to report: refusal of personal leave, lengthy enforced overtime, sly games with his housing agreement, being screamed at by the Chinese staff.

I’d done plenty of research about the pitfalls of accepting teaching jobs in China, and had rejected a dozen offers before settling for what I thought had been a trustworthy company, a University school.  Now, I’d learned that I’d been lied to about the nature of the school, its students, the job and the salary.

These practical things are easy to describe.  Harder to expound upon are the nebulous emotions and thoughts that fueled my decision to walk away from the job.  I’d felt ill at ease – at best – since I arrived.

Two fortuitous things happened that same day.  The first was that my lost luggage had been found, abandoned at Heathrow by Virgin Atlantic.  It was battered and there were some damaged contents, but nothing serious.  I tipped the delivery guy generously for reuniting me with 80% of my worldly possessions.  The second thing was that I’d been given my passport back by the school.

I booked a night at a hostel in Xi’an’s tourist-friendly old town, then started looking for flights home.

—db

Soon to fly

It’s been a long few months of training and preparing, but things are finally ready for my journey to China.

Whilst I was on the CELTA training course I was put in touch with a University in Xian who was looking for a teacher.  After long talks, giving a demo class via Skype, and contract negotiations, I was offered a great-sounding job with them to start November 1st.

There are some horror stories out there about TEFL teaching in Southeast Asia, especially China, as unsavory types catch on to the idea that “rich” foreigners (many irresponsible uni-dropouts and hapless travel bums included) can be duped into taking poorly paid jobs in terrible conditions with only a few well-worded lies.  Thankfully after being very careful, exceedingly dubious and with a bit of experience in that corner of the world, I landed a well-paid job with a reputable language school.

It’s taken a while to organise my work visa, as these require official documents inviting me to China that are approved by the Chinese government.  The papers came via international mail early this week, and I was able to apply for my visa at the consulate in Manchester.


China Town, Manchester

China Town, Manchester


It was great to visit Manchester again.  I was there in 2011 for Chinese New Year and had a great time wandering around China Town and enjoying the festivities.  Walking through China Town this time, I reminisced and wondered what the year ahead will be like.

Although it’s been a busy, anxious week – hoping the visa gets approved, catching up with as many people as possible, and packing my few surviving possessions – I’m trying to look ahead positively.  I set off on a 24-hour journey this Monday, flying via London and Beijing, and arrive in Xi’an on Tuesday with just a few days to settle in before I start work the following week.

Thanks to all my loved ones for their kindness and support!

—db

Not dead yet

Unfortunately I forgot to post this about 2 weeks ago.  Here it is, nice and late.  Enjoy —db

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It’s been three weeks since I last posted. In that time I had a birthday, was best man at my best friend’s wedding, appeared as a guest on a podcast – and completed the first half of my CELTA teacher training course.

They weren’t kidding when they said that the CELTA course was brutal. “Don’t expect to have time to work or have a social life,” I was warned. I’ve disappointed so many friends by cancelling plans or forgetting to reply to texts. Did I mention the disclaimer the school had me sign, acknowledging how tough it was going to be?

Tough indeed. By the end of the first day of classes I was exhausted. From 9:30 to 6 my class of 16 listened, observed, scribbled frantic notes and tried to wrap our heads around the finer points of grammar.

By day three, two people had dropped out of the course, and another was on the verge.

Day four, I’d been granted permission to miss the day and attend the wedding. After a relatively leisurely morning of drinking tea and eating pastries, putting ribbons on the car and feeling rather dapper in our wedding finery, the groom and I took off for his big day. I’ve never been prouder of the man. As for the best man, he had a speech to deliver. Standing in front of a group of people and saying actual words in a coherent sequence has always made me nervous. You might wonder why I’ve thought about teaching all these years. As it happened, it was good practice for teaching class and reminded me that it’s not something to feel too nervous about.

But there was no time for frivolity. Marriage is a serious business. Vows and speeches went without a hitch (so to speak), but after the delicious “breakfast” I had to retire to a quiet room to work. I must have looked pretty peculiar in the little “restaurant lounge” wearing a cream waistcoat and pink rouche, bashing out lesson plans into my laptop and trying not to sweat.

Day five back in class, I’d done just enough work to scrape by my first two sessions of actual teaching. Everyone else had taught their first class whilst I was stuffing my face with wedding cake and wondering how many of the complimentary marshmallows I could stuff into my waistcoat without being noticed. Now I had to catch up with Thursday’s teaching class on top of Friday’s.

The Cambridge CELTA course (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) is one of the most highly regarded TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) courses available, mainly because it provides 120 hours of learning, with several hours of actual teaching practice in front of a real group of English language learners. And so, last Friday, I stood in front of a dozen or so men and women, young and old, from countries such as Iran, China, Poland, Italy and Brazil, and tried to teach them something.

Amazingly, this exhausted young man managed to provide two half-hour classes without going dumb, falling over, or leaping out the window. Success!

The weekend wasn’t much easier. There were lesson plans to write for the following week, and the first of four 1,000 word assignments to prepare, not to mention reading and revision. It’s amazing how little native speakers think about the grammar of their language (the foreigners on my course already had a great understanding of grammar terminology, as they’d been taught much as my students will be taught – a much more structured and detailed process than simply acquiring English as a toddler).

This second week … happened, with even more classes to teach (one of which was a more standard 60 minutes long), one or two mammoth 11 hour days of class/teaching time, and two more assignments to write.

The class is smaller now, but there is an increased level of enthusiasm and even a buzz, as we all find ourselves creeping towards becoming half decent at teaching. We are into a bit of a routine, are more familiar with terminology and technique, and are beginning to think about where we might want to fly out to after the course ends. I’ll give more info on my own job hunt in another post, but for now just wanted to let people know that I’m still alive. Huzzah! The best the average CELTA student can claim to be after two weeks:

Not dead yet!

—db

Challenge accepted

So I heard last week that I’ve been accepted onto the 1 month CELTA training course!  This should give me what I need to teach spoken English.  It begins in 3 short weeks, meaning that by the time I qualify (hopefully) in mid-September, I’ll be ready to fly.

After using highly sophisticated up-to-date deduction techniques (not really) I have decided to teach in Xi’an, China.  This will give me a mix of Western comfort and a good “genuine Chinesy feel”, and a good balance between availability of work and plenty of things to see or do nearby.  More on this in later posts.

It’s weirdly easy to find teaching work in China.  One of the reasons I decided to take the course was because work is so hard to come by in the UK (at least, in the North).  I’m in the wonderful position of being highly qualified in English (i.e. not in a specialised enough subject to win me jobs on its own merit) and being perfectly over-qualified for any job that’s currently available.  I can’t even get the jobs I don’t want.  The luxury of being an English-speaker in China, where the percentage of English speakers is about 7%, is that if you’re qualified to teach there’ll be dozens of jobs available at any given time.  It’s not a position I’m used to being in!

Whilst looking for work in Xi’an, I’m being especially picky.  I don’t want to jump in too deep, and I want to allow myself enough free time to get accustomed to the new lifestyle and to explore.  I visited China for about a month in 2012 and really liked it, despite the difficulty of the language barrier.  My favourite cities were Chengdu and Xi’an, and although the salary is proportionately much lower than in bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing (approximately one third) the living costs are also much lower.  On top of that, I’d be earning about the same as I’m earning now on UK minimum wage, only in China this is enough to live quite comfortably, and far more than Chinese teachers get (sorry, locals). Research never equals experience, but I’m hoping that I will also have a little room to save money.

Although it’s a big life choice, I’ve not been afraid of taking big leaps.  I’m very happy I’ve made the choice and that University of Sheffield has granted me a space on the course.  Fingers crossed the course goes well!

—db

CELTA/TEFL: What to expect from your interview and pre-interview task

So you’ve decided to apply for a TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) course, and you’ve been asked to come to interview. Daunting! Worse, they’ve probably asked you to complete “a pre-interview task”. What should you expect?

If you like, you can read about my experience with the CELTA interview at this post here.

 

The pre-interview task

My experience with the task was not too terrifying. I don’t believe my English BA and MA were much advantage in this case. My task testing my knowledge of:

  •  tense and verb forms, i.e. “past continuous” or “future perfect”
  •  word meanings connotations, i.e. “fat” and “plump”
  •  modal verbs, i.e. “You must” expresses obligation
  •  pronunciation theory, i.e. “How many syllables are in the world ‘telephone’ and on which syllable is the main stress placed?”

It also questioned:

  •  how I would explain the meaning of certain phrases to a class, i.e. “Would you mind if I opened the window”? How do I get across the point that this is a polite question?
  •  what, from experience, makes a good learning experience

The questions were fairly clear (even if the answers weren’t!) and there were examples to help. Needless to say that you are free to use Google to help find answers, however presumably that’s not the point. My task from the University of Sheffield in England had a front sheet with useful resources, which I will list later in this post.

You will probably be asked to bring the completed task with you to the interview. Expect to go through your answers with the interviewer.

 

The interview

At my interview, the interviewer went over how the next hour would go. He warned me that although it might seem that he would be “prodding a bit”, it was only to assess my knowledge and reactions, and not to grill me. Retrospectively I can’t see much of a difference, but it reassured me at the time!

We went through my answers to the pre-interview task. As expected, I fluffed a few definitions for terms like “future perfect continuous tense” – something that school never prepared me for, and that the average person probably wouldn’t need.

Despite this I was told my understanding was “above average” and that most people starting the CELTA wouldn’t know any better than I did. Gradually it dawned on me that I was being tested more for how I responded to apparent failure and my own willingness to learn, as well as capacity for understanding, than I was for simple correct answers on the page.

it might help you to bear that in mind: even though you might have given wrong answers, this is not necessarily going to stop you getting a place – but arguing or showing an unwillingness to develop will.

 

The at-interview task

At my interview I was surprised by a second assessment, and asked to complete this during the interview at a separate table. My heart did a little twist. A test!? With no access to Google!? How dependent I am on instant access to data!

I needn’t have worried. The first part of the task was to correct the spelling and punctuation in a paragraph littered with typos. This I did easily (although I was told off for correcting the “writer” for redundant words and clarity – oops!) and I don’t think many people would really struggle. Mainly it was misspelled words and a bit of clumsy phrasing.

If you get a similar task, just take your time and, once you’ve finished, re-read the whole thing again to be sure you haven’t missed anything. Nerves won’t help you with this one, so allow yourself to relax, take a sip of water, and pretend you’re just proof reading an e-mail before you send it to a friend.

The second part of the task was to write a page on a given topic. I was offered a few choices, which were all simple questions on the theme of teaching. This isn’t an assessment of your answer, i.e. the content of what you write – rather, it’s testing your ability to write off the cuff, like you might have to in class, without the aid of a spell-checker or time to proof-read a dozen times. It’s also testing your handwriting – being the son of a doctor, I’m surprised my writing is legible at all!

 

In summary

  •  Don’t worry! Neither the interview or the task is scary
  •  You don’t have to be a grammar expert…
  •  …But a little knowledge will impress the interviewer – see resources below
  •  Brush up on your general spelling and punctuation
  •  Show a willingness to develop – that’s what the course is for!
  •  Display your enthusiasm for teaching

 

Resources

 

If anyone has any experiences of a CELTA or TEFL course interview and tasks, please post your comments here! I’d love to hear about everybody’s individual experiences, and make this page more useful to people about to undertake their TEFL qualification.

— db

Interview for the course

This week I attended an interview as part of my enrollment for a CELTA course.

I’d considered taking the CELTA course abroad. Many people choose to do this, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each option. In the end I opted to study in my hometown of Sheffield, as I already have first-hand experience of China, and this way I can save money on accommodation instead of paying for a hostel in Beijing for the duration.

Initially I hadn’t expected there to be an interview, especially for a 1 month course. The more I looked into the CELTA and similar courses, the more I realised that I should be prepared for an interview to secure my place.

Not only that, but all schools expected me to complete an ominous sounding “pre-interview task”. Mine was e-mailed to me following application. Thankfully it was only a 2-page document with a few questions on grammar, as well as serving as an early assessment of my capability to teach.

Around noon I walked into the Language Centre of University of Sheffield. The small reception area was empty but for the reception desk – I was half an hour early.   As usual I was prepared with a book to read as I waited, but it wasn’t easy to get engrossed. The lunchtime school crowd soon filled the room and adjoining corridor, bustling into the street or pressed against the glass partition, texting and chatting. Sheffield’s large Chinese population was well-represented here, with only one non-Chinese person there. He sat next to me and wrote neat Hindi script in his notebook.

I didn’t notice my interviewer approach, although you would spot him in the street. Will is not a small man, but equally apparent is his welcoming smile and open attitude. We shook hands and I was led to his office, where a neat-and-tidy couch and table in one corner was in stark contrast with the cluttered desk and busy bookcase on the opposite side. One part of the room was clearly set aside for visitors and arranged with a purpose. I wondered when I would be asked to sit at that round coffee table, and why.

Will and I both mopped our foreheads; it’s been a humid month in Sheffield with an unusual amount of sun, and apparently we were both suffering. For the next hour we went over my answers to the task and talked about my reasons for wanting to take the course. I was also given an “at-interview task” to complete at the coffee table, which testing my writing and editing skills.

Presumably I did well, because I was offered a place on the waiting list. Hooray! The courses book up fast – I’d missed the July-August course by the time I’d submitted my application – so the list is a place for accepted candidates to wait for a day or two before being found a slot. Pending that, I would need to formally accept the offer and pay the deposit.

Immediately came the caveats: a full A4 printed sheet of what the student should expect from the course. I gathered that people often underestimated how intensive the four-week CELTA course was. This was something I’d already read a lot about during research: for a whole month, you will have no spare evening. You will have no weekends. You will have no time for work or socialising. You will probably not have much time for sleep. Because of the compact and intense nature of the course, missing two or more days could put a person so far behind that they would be unable to catch up.

I discovered that the course starts a week earlier than I expected, which would mean I would have to take a day out of studying to celebrate the happy wedding of my best and oldest friend about four weeks from now.   It had been made clear to me that if any absence was anticipated that I should discuss it in advance, and so I’m waiting for approval before actually signing onto the August-September course.

We will see!

–db

Re-begin

9th July 2014

This is the day that I decided to give up on making a living in the UK.

For years I’ve been a struggling writer wading through corporate jobs and lack of literary success.   If you want you can read about that in my old blog (no longer updated):

davidbrookes.wordpress.com

In October 2012 I took off on a 5 month tour of India and Asia, including China.  If you want you can read about that too, in the travel blog I shared with Lisa Cooper (no longer updated):

overunderpants.wordpress.com

It was these travels that gave me something more to love about the world.  I owe credit for this endeavor in no small part to the ex-pats I met out there, especially in China, who showed me what was possible if I had an interest in it.

Since I returned to the UK last year  I’ve taken a sequence of crappy office jobs.  Agencies and employers are surprised to find that I have two degrees.  They wonder why I’m settling for twelve grand as a typist or temporary receptionist.  They wonder why, if I have qualifications in writing and a published novel, I’m taking two week assignments with a temping agency instead of “being the next J K Rowling”.  It’s difficult for people to understand just how screwed up the job market is at the moment (let alone the publishing industry).  To these people, I smile patiently but have no answer for them.

I’ve long considered teaching English, ever since I undertook my BA at Bretton Hall University in Yorkshire.  Unfortunately attempts to pursue this recently were less than successful, in part thanks to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s grand efforts to screw the curriculum and throttle the training of new teachers, especially in English.  I was told a few months ago that last year there were over 50 funded training slots for new teachers in the current scheme.  This year there was about 15.

The idea of teaching English as a second language abroad is one I’ve been playing with for 18 months now.

Today I applied for a place on an intensive 4-week CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) course at the University of Sheffield.

After that: the world!

—db