What kind of people become TEFL teachers?


I’ve been in the business since 1996 and I’ve watched a wide range of people enter a classroom and teach. I’d like to present a few of my favourites – names have been changed to protect the innocents.


Bob was a favourite of mine. In his late forties, he had worked in publishing for years. After being made redundant, he took a TEFL course and started working in a small language school in central London. Something of a pedant, he was known for his insistence on correcting every minor grammatical error and abhorred Americanisms, which to him included such inoffensive terms as ‘cool’, ‘how are you doing?’, ‘wanna’ and ‘gotta’, and the insertion of ‘like’ in phrases such as ‘I am really like confused by your explanation of like the present perfect man’.


The funny thing was that a minorityof his students, mainly graduates from countries as varied as Brazil and Russia, really appreciated his classes as he fitted their preconceived idea of what a teacher sounded and looked like. His classes may not have been as much fun as those of other younger and hipper teachers but they felt that his hour-long lectures on dangling participles (sounds painful, doesn’t it?) would help them improve their English. However, although they learned the terminology for complex grammar structures, their speaking skills actually deteriorated while studying with him! They always paused for two minutes to analyse some fiendishly complex common phrase such as ‘How are you today, Vladimir? When they were finally ready to respond, the person asking the question had invariably got fed up of waiting and walked off.


Sally was a ray of sunshine in a dark and dingy school in smoggy East London. Unlike the other teachers, she was rarely hung-over, had no hygiene issues and didn’t view her lessons as an excuse to watch her favourite gross-out comedies over and over again. Instead, she was unusual in that she prepared her lessons the night before, learned her students’ names, gave them homework  – which she actually corrected – and was generally able to answer their grammatical questions without a) providing Byzantine explanations which sound impressive until you actually realise that the future present perfective passive active noun doesn’t exist in any language or b) glaring out the student in the style of Lee Van Cleef in Spaghetti westerns before spitting out the phrase  ‘That’s how we say it in English’, thus ensuring that student would be so traumatised that they would never dare to ask a question in class again. Her students adored her and the transformation in their level of English was astounding. Most impressive of all was that the most timid of students started smiling and speaking in English after a couple of weeks of her classes. The grey haired lady with the infectious smile was able to work wonders.


Andy was an actor. Times were hard and his swarthy looks were rarely required by casting agents. He did a nice line in voiceovers but needed a more regular income. He couldn’t work full-time but was able to arrange his working hours around his auditions. He made an ideal cover teacher and proved a hit with private students (those who prefer to have individual classes). While his knowledge of the intricate details of English grammar may have been less than comprehensive, his strength was assisting students with their pronunciation issues. You could always recognise one of his students because they invariably used mellifluous intonation to massacre syntax (word order) and tenses.


The bottom line is that good people skills and a modicum of intellect will probably be enough to make someone a capable teacher. You need to be patient of course, especially if you are teaching low level classes. Some teachers are extroverts but they can overwhelm students with their energy. Indeed, some great teachers I’ve worked with have been fairly introverted and many learners respond to their ability to create a calm atmosphere in the class and listen to rather than talk at the students.


There is no archetypal TEFL teacher. The great ones have a great passion for teaching, communicating and a love of English and have developed a style which keeps them and their learners motivated.