This post has been inspired by three things:
A) I got my CELTA certificate from Cambridge officially today.
B) I read a few posts by other people on getting Pass A’s and Pass B’s.
C) None of them was by a non-native speaker.
For most of my faithful blog readers back home (the handful few who stand by me despite my being sporadic at best) these might not even mean anything. For people I kept complaining to over and over again about how intensive the CELTA course was, this would maybe ring a bell. But maybe I should elaborate just a bit, because that’s what I always do.
In three lines (what’s with the three’s today, don’t ask me): It is a certificate given by the University of Cambridge that lets people teach English as a foreign language after a month long course. The course includes input sessions, teaching practice, written assignments and lesson observations. 75% of the course takers receive a standard Pass and 25% receive Above Standard grades of Pass A and Pass B.
There you go. And now for the facts.
When I first came to Hanoi, I was absolutely clueless as to what I was supposed to do with my time. That’s where the belly dancing classes came in, really. I was done spending frustrating hours searching on the internet for a job only to find that almost everything I liked required me to be proficient in Vietnamese. And then one evening we invited my husband’s colleague for dinner, and it was he who remarked that I have no distinguishable accent when speaking English and that I could consider teaching English while in Vietnam. Definitely piqued by the idea, my research was now directed towards finding how I could make myself qualified to be an English teacher without any degree in English. That’s where I got to know that there are actually quite a lot of certificates to choose from, and TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) seemed like a good one. On finding a place in Hanoi which offered the course, the husband and I promptly fixed an appointment and met with the proprietor who called herself the CEO and Managing Director of an institute which comprised all of three rooms and a visitor’s area. Not one to judge a book by its cover (novice mistake in this case) I listened with rapt attention when she went on about how there were no courses available at the moment but would I be interested in teaching there until the next course? It was like Diwali and Bihu and Holi had all fallen on my lap in one day. To be handed a job like that without even having to look for it? Unbelievable.
Three days later I was being given my “training” which was basically a fifteen minute session on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and a few pointers on work ethics, when she dropped the bomb. “Could you not mention to our students that you are an Indian?” she said. Before I could even begin to gather my thoughts on that, she continued “Our students are very conscious about where their teachers are from, so could you tell them you are a native speaker, and that you are from London, maybe? You could explain your features by saying that your Mom is Indian.”
Now, I am proud of the fact that I am from India, and more still that I am from Assam. While people outside make jokes at our expense about how we live in the jungle and don’t know Hindi or English, I love to flaunt my near-native proficiency despite the fact that I had never lived outside Assam until after my marriage. And here was this lady, who, for the sake of protecting her own business, was asking me to lie about my ethnicity. Forget the fact that I am an able teacher. Forget the fact that before me, they didn’t even have a non-Vietnamese teacher and that I could actually be of some help to them. No, the only thing that was important was that I needed to fool my students into believing I am a native speaker.
I would have loved to say I didn’t take the job. It was a tough decision. On one hand I had my principles and on the other, an opportunity to get some experience before getting an actual certificate. In the end I decided to take the middle road. I took the job, but diplomatically evaded questions directed at where I am from. I realized a little too late that I was thrown in for remedial classes for a group of TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) aspirants, and while I didn’t have enough time to deal with the foundation of the language (which was given in Vietnamese really) I was to merely brush their test-taking abilities. After two weeks with one batch, they were “discreetly” asked to write their feedback of me during a class while I was still standing right in front of them. Post feedback, my “boss” told me a lot of students liked my teaching and yet a few of them didn’t understand me because I didn’t speak Vietnamese. Already having decided I wasn’t happy taking the middle route, on the last day with the batch, I proudly announced that I am Indian, but only after almost all of them had come up to me and asked me if I could take a few more classes because they found my classes so useful.
To say that left a bitter aftertaste is an understatement. Along with losing my faith in that institute, I lost faith in the TESOL as well. I was now even more obsessed about finding the right certification course so I could stand tall as a teacher no one could dismiss just on the ground of being non-native. And finally I struck gold with CELTA. The admission process itself is rigorous, which includes a pre-interview written task and then a personal interview. The University of Cambridge definitely doesn’t dole out certificates to people for money. I was probably more nervous about being rejected for the CELTA than for my MCA final presentation, which is saying something. And after the interview was over and I was selected, there was this HUGE pre-course task which took me the better part of two weeks to complete.
On the first day of the course, I was all fluttery and nervous to be in a room with more native speakers than I have probably met in my entire life (you have to understand I never even left my state before that). I struggled with conversations because I couldn’t quite keep up with the different accents (my knowledge base was restricted to movies) and I was never more conscious of the fact that I am, in fact a non-native speaker. And then our course tutor informed us about how we would be graded on the course and how most trainees would pass with a standard grade and how the rare 25% would pass with an above standard Pass B or a Pass A. On that day, all I was thinking was I’d be lucky to get a pass.
I put my life on hold for four whole weeks, weekends included. I lost sleep over lesson plans, and lost appetite after feedback on my lessons. But over the days, I realized a few things about myself. Being a non-native speaker meant I was taught English as a separate language all throughout school, with grammar being an important component, and that in turn meant I know my grammar like the back of my hand. And that, is a major advantage. Being blessed with a good memory meant I could remember the students’ names, and that in turn meant I built instantaneous rapport with them. And guess what, not having a distinguishable accent meant the students could understand my instructions easily, and that in turn made them feel more at ease with me.
I made bloopers too. Quite a lot of them, in fact. So while in one lesson I didn’t quite pitch my tasks right, in the other I didn’t do suitable error correction. In one lesson my listening and speaking task didn’t quite go hand in hand, and one other, I didn’t make my lesson quite as student-centered as I could have.
But in the end, what worked was being systematic, and good time management. The written assignments I didn’t devote too much time on (worked well though; didn’t get a resubmit on a single one) but I did do extensive lesson planning. During the lesson, I had to think on my feet quite a number of times and change my lesson plan, but I managed that too. And what I was rewarded with is a Pass B.
So here’s to everyone who ever doubted the ability of a non-native speaker to teach English. And here’s particularly to the lady who wanted me to lie about my being an Indian: Part of why I got this grade is because of how I was taught as a student myself. In India.