10 Unexpected Lessons Learned in 20 Years of TEFL Teacher Training

Oxford TEFL is celebrating its 20th birthday this year. Here’s what they would like to share with our wider community of travel program providers, organizations, and businesses. This article was written by Duncan Foord, the Oxford TEFL School Director.

20 years is something to celebrate!


Since 1998, we’ve been offering training courses for English teachers in Barcelona and since 2002 in Prague too. We also now have associate centers in Kerala (India), in London and in Cadiz and Malaga in the South of Spain.

The four week intensive “CELTA” format for training English teachers who are starting out has remained pretty much unchanged in those 20 years and for good reason, as it is based around practical experience in the classroom with feedback from expert trainers, the perfect preparation for people who wish to set out on a career in teaching English or simply travel the world for a few years and work while they do it.

From the business point of view it has been fun, fascinating and frustrating in equal measure.

10 major takeaways from 20 years in international education

Here are 10 lessons we learnt along the way, mostly unexpected, though to be fair we did not have much idea what to expect exactly when we started out!

  1. The customer is only half right

You only take a four week CELTA course once, so while you can reflect on that experience and evaluate it to a certain extent, you have nothing to compare it with. It’s not like going to a restaurant or taking a language course, where you can try various and compare them. As a course provider you have to work out what feedback to take on board (stuff you can improve on) and what to discard (criticism of features that are intrinsic to courses of this nature and would be similar elsewhere).

Oxford TEFL forges strong relationships with their students—even their first ever ones!

2. Actually, the customer is in fact only a quarter right

Buying a teacher training course is not the same as buying a pair of shoes or hotel room for a night. The customer is investing their money, time and trust in your expertise and experience. They want to be the best teacher they can be in four weeks time and have a qualification to prove it. They trust you to take them there and in many ways don’t know what to expect, unlike with shoes and hotel rooms. What they get is a powerful experience, but one that can be stressful and exhausting at times. Nearly all feel by the end that any pain was worth the gain, but it makes for a challenging and fascinating dynamic for everyone involved in the course.

3. Marketing is a mystery

You would think we would be better at marketing after 20 years. I am not sure we are! Providing an excellent course, telling people about it, getting people to review it, strategic promotion and PR do not guarantee, it seems, any consistent results. 20 trainees this month and 6 the next. Why did that happen? True, the sector is subject to some volatility with an international client base meaning currency fluctuations and political factors can have an effect, but after 20 years we are still baffled at times.

4. You need to keep things fresh

Some of our staff have been working on our courses for more than half of those 20 years. At the start this is not an issue of course, but 10 years and 100 courses later, there is a risk of boredom and complacency. Burn out is also a potential problem, particularly in such an intense high stakes, people driven endeavor, where trainers are dealing week-in-and-week-out with issues of anxiety and self esteem. Some trainers move on to take on different challenges in the profession. Those that stay work hard on developing and changing course materials and activities, sharing expertise with others, action research and peer observation.

The TEFL classroom should be lively.

Through a consistent effort to develop their skills and examine their practice trainers can tap into some rich seams of motivation. One of the great things about training teachers is that every individual trainee and every group of trainees is different and requires different approaches. The trainer needs expertise in language and the methodology of language teaching, but they also need to develop skills in coaching and counseling and understanding not only how languages are learned but also how teaching is learned.

5. Scaling the business doesn’t necessarily happen

The language school sector is traditionally resistant to scaling, at least compared to other service sectors. Starbucks can replicate all over a city and around the world. Language schools find it more difficult to create a brand that will be consistent in all contexts, due mainly I think to the fact that the service /product is heavily reliant on the people involved in delivering it-the teachers, who can’t be replicated. Training even more so in the sense that the experience someone has on a four-week course will be more influenced by the training team and team leader than the logo on the course file, the materials or even the premises and resources on offer.

6. Scaling the business can happen a bit

In the early years in Barcelona, we grew very quickly. At one point, we were running three courses per month for some months! Great we thought, world domination will surely follow. Sadly (or happily) it didn’t. Other schools and entrepreneurs in the city noticed the demand and saw an opportunity. Supply ended up growing with demand and we soon stopped growing. However, at this point we switched strategy and went for growth by opening courses in other cities, with franchise and sales agreements.

We opened a center in Prague and associate centers in London, Kerala, and the south of Spain. This allowed us to leverage our marketing investment. Visitors to our site had more options which of course drove up sales.

7. Technology—what difference does it make?

In 1998, websites were fairly new and rudimentary, social media like facebook and instagram did not really exist. As search engines and social media have developed, marketing practices have done so too. Marketing costs have remained similar, with spending transferred to different media as technology and trends develop. In terms of the market itself, online courses have appeared as an alternative and cheaper option to traditional face to face training with teaching practice.

Despite limited credibility, this type of course has been a game changer. It has undoubtedly attracted people who would otherwise have chosen a face to face course and therefore restricted growth in numbers taking CELTA courses. On a more positive note, low cost online courses have attracted people who in 1998 would have set out with no preparation at all other than their fluency in English and willingness to give teaching a go.

8. The song remains the same, more or less

As noted in the intro, the format of the four week face to face course has changed minimally in 20 years, which is quite a surprise looking back. In terms of demand and demographics the world still needs teachers, increasingly more so in Asia and a bit less so in Europe. The teachers on these courses themselves are increasingly people who have not learned English as their first language. In 1998 about 10% and in 2018 nearer 50%. In terms of technology, it would have been tempting in 1998 to predict a more robot driven 2018 with teachers obsolete or working with students in high tech edu-labs or some such. Maybe that is still to come!

In the meantime, the unexpected lesson for us has been that cautious rather than gung-ho technical innovation, at least in this field, can make for a solid business model. Teachers and learners in our context at least tend to take access to resources and connectivity for granted and want to focus on developing more complex and eternal skills related to communication and motivation.

9. Remember the big picture

We started out naturally enough concentrating on delivering on a promise of for weeks excellent teacher training. As we grew we realized that was only part of what people wanted. The course is not an end in itself, but a means to an end and the end is not the same for everyone. For some it is traveling the world and earning money, for others it is the first step to a career in teaching in their home town. As a result we developed a careers service and associated facebook page to ensure our graduates maximize their options for reaching those goals. For non Europeans we offer Visa support to ensure that as well as teach effectively, they can teach legally!

10. Don’t do it just for the money

Yes, you want to make a living, but, as has probably become clear, if you have been reading the other lessons, don’t expect a Bill Gates type result! This niche activity is high fun-low margin, strictly for enthusiasts (or masochists, perhaps). In four weeks, you help people transform themselves from enthusiastic trainee teachers into embryonic professionals with confidence and basic skills sufficient to secure paid teaching work pretty much anywhere in the world and, in turn, start to transform the lives of their English language students. Do that 10 times a year and by December, you’ve changed the lives of 100 or more people substantially and positively.

Three cheers for Oxford TEFL!

This article was written by Oxford TEFL. GoAbroad would like to extend our congratulations on reaching 20 years of changing lives with TEFL certification!

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