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Going the full distance

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Pam Womack, Celta trainer at British Study Centres Manchester, tells Melanie Butler about the pleasures and perils of blended teacher training courses.

Imagine flying half way round the world. You get off the plane and almost the first thing you have to do after you arrive is give a 90-minute demonstration lesson to students you have never met, in a school you have never been in before. And all that in front of your new group of trainee teachers.

That is what happened to British Study Centre’s Pat Womack when she arrived in Hong Kong as Teaching Practice (TP) tutor for an online Celta course. Pam, who has been a Celta trainer for some fifteen years, took it in her stride. ‘I had read the students’ applications and their student profiles,’ she explains. ‘And I am used to teaching demonstration lessons to online students.

‘We do it all the time for the local online students who come to BSC Manchester.’

BSC, as the newly enlarged British Study Centres group is affectionately referred to, is now the second-biggest Celta provider in the UK. But its course for teachers at Hong Kong young learner specialists Monkey Tree is the first time their teacher-training team has been involved overseas.

The Hong Kong teachers were not typical Celta newbies. They all had classroom experience working with younger learners and many had done initial training before.‘But teaching adults,’ says Pam, ‘was a relatively new field for them. They needed the more in-depth approach you get in Celta, with areas like teaching grammar and vocabulary. Plus, they were used to explaining grammar to the younger learners, whereas Celta is about eliciting language and ideas from our learners.’ The seventeen days Pam spent in Hong Kong were mostly spent observing the teaching practice. Six separate 45-minute lessons a day. ‘It was very full on. Not only for me, but for the trainees.

Remember, most of them were fitting this in around a full-time teaching load.’ Some teachers commented that the face-to-face observations made an immediate difference to their teaching. For Pam, the sheer time and commitment needed to complete an online Celta, even stretched over fourteen weeks, are something candidates need to consider very carefully.

The Hong Kong teachers had some advantages. ‘Of course, this wasn’t the first time they stood up in a classroom. Teaching a group of adults is not like standing in front of a class of six-year-olds, but they had some of the classroom management skills. You could see the confidence was already there. They were very motivated, very enthusiastic. Their experience stood them in good stead really.’

Another advantage for some trainees is that they all worked for the same school group. Several worked together in the same branch, giving them a chance to tap into the kind of peer support group which is the cornerstone of face-to-face training courses.
Loneliness and isolation can be the biggest barriers to online training, as Pam knows well.

‘I’m actually doing an online course to train as an online tutor,’ she admits. ‘I can see it from the other side as well now.’

‘The Online Celta has quite a lot of community work, including forums and live rooms, which helps trainees feel part of a group. Somewhere you can go in the middle of the evening and ask a question to your tutor or peers.’

Pam is a great fan of online training. She likes the fact it is self-paced – you can study when you like, and look at the same materials again and again. You can even access the course for a year from the course start date.

‘That’s really valuable when you’re a new teacher.’

So what changes would Pam like to make to such courses?

‘That’s easy. More time. And a better internet connection.’

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Christine Wu (centre) said ‘We came out of this program feeling more confident and we credit this to the both of you.’