Julie Pratten offers seven top tips that everyone should know when starting off a career in ELT, and reminds teachers why they went into the profession in the first place
As someone with three decades of teaching experience in over 25 countries I realise how difficult it is for EFL teachers to find work that truly inspires them and makes their heart sing. Ideally, we should all be spending our lives doing what makes us jump out of bed in the morning. What I have realised is that we really should do what we love – we need to think about it and not just go with the flow. Like many other teachers, I started off wanting to be a ‘proper’ teacher and trained as a primary school teacher; however when I completed my training there were absolutely no jobs and I was forced to look elsewhere.
I opted for adventure and the chance to travel. It was after spending a year training horses in the mild climes of Lake Konstanz in a sleepy village called Uberlingen that I hit the trail of an EFL teacher. I remember to this day arriving at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof at midnight and dragging my suitcase along the Kaiserstrasse, in the red-light district, to the sleazy hotel I’d been booked into by a language school I’d taken up a one-year’s teaching job with. With many years of teaching under my belt, what do I wish I’d known back then?
1. FOLLOW THE DREAM
If teaching really is your calling, try to work out what kind of teaching you enjoy. It may be general English, teaching young learners, business English or you may want to go into coaching. There are also other possibilities on the fringe of ELT. You may find the teaching children with dyslexia is what you’d like to do. This could be within ELT or you may want to consider retraining. But whatever you opt for, try to establish early on what you love and do that. It’s good for your health and good for those around you.
2. DEVELOP YOUR NICHE
Once you have thought about your dream – and it may even take a few years to research it – try it out and decide if it really is your dream. It may even involve retraining, but even if whatever you decide to try doesn’t turn out to be your dream job (as you’d imagined), it will give you more skills to fall back on if you are between jobs later on. And you will be one step nearer to achieving your goal. Don’t give up – you will eventually find your niche, and when you have, nurture it, refine it and put your mark on it.
3. FIND YOUR TRIBE OR CREATE A NEW ONE
Everyone needs a tribe. Collaboration really is the key to making progress and achieving results. As an only child and someone who always liked my own company, I have always really done things on my own, and creating projects was always something I loved, so the concept of creating a tribe is only something I have experienced since starting Heart ELT just over a year ago. Before I started Heart ELT, I only had a handful of Facebook contacts, wasn’t a member of any groups and had absolutely no presence on social media. As we all know, Facebook has its pros and cons, and the same goes for Google groups, but whatever channel you choose to use it is easier than it ever was to start a group, an initiative or a discussion. This is a great starting point for finding or creating your tribe a la ‘birds of a feather’.
This is the year of collaboration – I am sure of it. So many people in our profession are starting to realise that if we get together with others we can strengthen our skillset. At the same time, if we can find like-minded people who share our vision, we can really change things. And the world really needs change right now, more than ever, doesn’t it? My own personal experience of this started last year when I began a journey to create crowdsourced ELT books to raise funds for children who have little or no access to education and to support teachers who are working in a disruptive or low-resource classroom. Through my experience of establishing a team and working with ELT professionals all around the world, I have the best on-the-job training possible. Obviously, I have made mistakes along the way and I hope I have learnt from them. Volunteer work is very different to the work I have done in the past and one problem I have faced is that teachers who volunteer to help have many other commitments on their time.
5. PASS ON YOUR LEGACY
EFL teachers have such a wide experience as they have usually travelled the world as part of the job and many have acquired a Mary Poppins bag of wisdom and intercultural competence. Many of us have also stepped well outside our comfort zone – we have no choice. Is there any other profession where you have to spend your whole career reinventing yourself? So how do you pass on your knowledge? Networking has to be number one on my list, that’s why I think the mainstream conferences have got it all wrong. We need shorter formal plenaries and much longer coffee breaks and stand-up buffets! I think many people would agree that they go to conferences for the networking because this is how we pick up most of our invaluable tips, suggestions and pearls of wisdom. That’s why the coffee table is always the most popular place.
6. BE A MENTOR, A TUTOR– A SUPPORTER
Another thing I only realised recently is just how many people are out there at the end of an email, a messenger thread or a Skype call who are willing to offer support in your hour of need of mentoring when you are having a presentation meltdown. Again, social media really helps and a few kind words of support mean so much when you are having your doubts about your interview, struggling to finish an assignment or searching for the right course.
7. TEACH WITH YOUR HEART
Finally, on top of the list of six, this is the one we all know about already. However, now and again we need to remind ourselves why we are teachers. If you became a teacher and remained a teacher, I believe it was your heart that led you there. It belongs on this list as I personally didn’t realise at the time that it was my heart that guided me down that road, ‘the road most-travelled’ by all of us. If you have any doubts about how you got on this road and why you didn’t take the first turn off or any turn offs on the way, I have a hunch why. It’s because you are guided by your inner core, your ethical stance as human being, your desire to be a lifelong learner and an eternal adventurer-discoverer of the globe of knowledge.
Julie Pratten is the founder of Heart ELT Publishing, a charitable publisher that produces crowdsourced books to raise funds for children who have no access to education, and to support teachers working in a low-resource classroom. Julie has taught for over three decades specialising in business English and soft skills, and is the leading author of banking and financial English publications. In 2015 her publishing platform Academic Study Kit was the joint winner of the David Riley Award for A–Z of Business English. Julie is a regular speaker at international conferences and a visiting lecturer at the University of Brighton. Doing things differently in collaboration with others is what inspires her. See http://heartelt.org and www.academicstudykit.com for more info.