Before arriving in Colombia I took a short TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) course, which at least provided me with the mystical teachings of jesus skills required. My first job teaching English here was for an institute. After arriving and settling down, I visited various English language schools, dropped off my CV, was invited to various interviews by some, and even did some tests to prove I knew the language well enough to teach it.
The tests taught me the first thing you need to know if you are considering teaching English as a foreign language – just because you are a native speaker, doesn’t mean you know the language well enough to teach it. The tests some of the language schools gave me proved that there were rules and parts of speech in my language that I didn’t know existed. I spoke the language very well, but instinctively, without knowing the basic grammar rules or structure. I remember in one interview in those early days I was asked to prepare a short ten minute class about the difference in pronunciation of the ed ending of the past tense. I then had to give the class to the academic coordinator. I was given the book the institute used and told which pages to look at for material. That the ed ending of the past tense had three different sounds was completely new to me, even though I used the correct sounds every time instinctually.
After being offered jobs in three or four institutes I chose the one offering the best salary. I worked there for about ten months and enjoyed it a lot. The first week or so I felt a little nervous, but I soon became more confident, and discovered many things about my language that were new to me.
After about ten months of working at the institute, someone asked if could give them private classes. I agreed and we started with two hours on a Saturday morning at the student’s home. One day she asked me if I could teach her at the office where she worked, and it wasn’t long before other people in the office started asking about classes and soon I was teaching there every morning and lunchtime. From there on the private classes blossomed and I stopped teaching at the institute.
All my students come from recommendations by students past or present. I have only ever advertised once, and that ad resulted in only three phone calls, and one student. That was more than ten years ago, and the student who started still has classes with me. So I guess I must be doing something right.
Don’t take things personally.
The biggest shock during this early period of my teaching career was that here work usually starts at 07:30, and the most coveted time for classes is the hour before starting work, and usually at the person’s office. I have classes every day except Sunday at either 06:30 or 07:00, and only the Saturday class is at my flat. So you need to be able to function early in the mornings. I usually get up between 04:15 and 05:00 each morning, and now my body clock is accustomed to it, in fact I usually wake up prior to the alarm clock going off, but in the beginning it was a struggle. The first time someone asked me if I could give them class at 06:30 I thought they were joking. They weren’t.
During my first year of teaching privately I learnt that not everyone who enquires about classes will start. Some people will ask for a discount so be prepared to either negotiate or stand firm and no matter how good a teacher you are, people are going to stop their classes at some stage, so learn to accept it gracefully rather than fretting over it. In the beginning when people stopped their classes I took it personally, and spent hours wondering what I had done wrong, now I accept it and move on.
I remember one such instance; I was teaching two girls at my flat at 06:30am, and they had said they were very happy with the classes. Then one day one of them said she was starting a new job and that the offices were on the outskirts of the city. I commented that it was going to be difficult to continue with the classes; however, they said they had talked about that, and asked me if it was possible to start the classes half an hour earlier. I agreed and the following week I was ready and waiting for them at 06:00am, but they didn’t come or phone to say they had a problem.