by Clara HarlandEight years ago, I decided to make the move into TEFL. Even now, when asked whether this decision was the result of a vocational epiphany, I have to reply sheepishly that, no, I ended up as a teacher by accident and in the process stumbled across a job I loved. I made the move as a means of escape. I had graduated from university and had then spent most of the following two years making tea and photocopying stuff in offices, slowly building up a layer of disillusionment and cooking up plans of running away. Whittling my ideas down to ‘live in another country’ and ‘learn another language’, I decided that TEFL would offer me these opportunities and, drawn by daydreams of wandering along pretty cobbled streets and sampling cheap beer, I signed myself up to a Trinity course in Prague.
No clue about grammar
Unfortunately, what I hadn’t taken into account was my total lack of a comprehensive knowledge of the workings of my own language. This was thanks to a large gap in my education where ‘English Grammar’ should have been. I had only a vague idea of what a verb or a noun was and the thought flitted across my mind in the weeks before I left that this might not be enough to get me through the month. My suspicions were confirmed when my first tutorials in Prague revealed that I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing. I then spent the next few weeks trembling beneath a cloud labelled ‘The Grammar Fear’. I became terrified of being ‘found out’ by my tutors, absolutely certain that someone, at some point, would say “What do you mean you have no idea what the Present Perfect Continuous is?!” and I would be asked to leave. Combining this with all the nervousness of living in a foreign country and an acute shyness, it might have been reasonable to question what on earth I was doing there.
I stumbled through my first couple of lessons, narrowly avoiding having to teach anything too grammar-heavy. I was just beginning to think that maybe I could teach English after all and then promptly came unstuck mid-course. This particular lesson was all going swimmingly until the students began to ask me questions and I found that I couldn’t answer them. I had a nice, neat lesson plan with all the stages structured in a lovely logical progression. What I didn’t have was an in-depth knowledge of the target language. I had no substance to the lesson and at that point everything began to unravel until I was left a quivering wreck at the end of the hour, my students feeling just about as baffled as I was.
But that lesson was a turning point. After that, I began to speak openly to my fellow trainees about my problems with the grammar and it turned out that I wasn’t the only one feeling the presence of ‘The Grammar Fear’. The tutor who’d witnessed my shambolic lesson seemed genuinely put out that I hadn’t gone to him for help before and suddenly the pressure of attempting to maintain an image of knowing exactly what I was doing lifted.
I realised something that day which probably would have occurred to me earlier had I not been busy working myself into a frazzled sweat about the mere thought of speaking in front of people: learn the grammatical point of the lesson thoroughly first before even embarking on putting the rest of the material together. Over time, I’ve managed to fill the gap where the grammar should have been and can now deal with those pesky spontaneous questions students have a habit of throwing at their teachers.
And as for Prague and the means of escape? Well, it worked. My month there gave me the confidence boost and experience I’d been missing in my old life in London and I haven’t looked back since. Eight years on, and I’m still teaching English, my career taking me through Italy and back to the UK where I spent four years pitching up on farms in my battered old Ford Fiesta, with a whiteboard tucked under my arm and a mission to provide affordable language lessons for the growing number of foreign employees in my local area. Not a conventional career path, some might say, but yet another example of TEFL taking people down unusual routes to places they’ve only ever dreamed about.
Clara Harland is the author of ‘Escape From The Big Green Button’, a novel inspired by her experiences in TEFL.