By Amanda Denney
As a former licensed teacher in the United States, with a university degree in English education, a question I’m often asked is, “why did you pay for an EFL/ESL certification?” Since you’re already a licensed teacher with experience, you don’t really need that extra piece of paper, do you?
I came to ITA’s campus in Leon, Nicaragua, with a total of 6 years ESL teaching experience; 4 years teaching secondary English Language Arts in Alabama, followed by two year’s teaching secondary EFL in Burkina Faso, Africa with the Peace Corps. Needless to say, the two experiences were vastly different. After having worked in the US public school system, I was burned out and, to be honest, a little sick of academic bureaucracy. My days consisted mostly of managing a bunch of bored teenagers and preparing them for the standardized testing that would define their futures. I cared about them, but not at all about the material, and neither did they.
Working with Peace Corps was an amazing experience because it made me fall in love with teaching again. I was not an English education volunteer; rather, I fell into this role because there was a need in my village. My students were interested in learning English, and they loved learning it from the crazy foreign lady who rolled into class on a bike every day. We had fun. For the first time in a long time, I was in control over my class, and I was teaching skills that were meaningful in real life. By the end of my service, I knew I had to continue teaching English abroad, and so I began exploring my options for doing so. The training I received in the Peace Corps was sufficient, but far and away different from what I learned in my TEFL class.
I came upon ITA…not by accident, but I certainly didn’t expect to pay for a TEFL certification course. I figured I would coast by on my previous education and experience. Through researching blogs, reading TEFL forums, and searching job posts, I realized very quickly that to be considered a prime candidate for employment, I would have to get my TEFL certification. ITA Nicaragua was an obvious fit for several reasons –the amazing directors, professors, and support staff; the location; the cost. Most importantly I think is it truly enhanced my ability to teach English effectively, and the skills I learned during the course will be skills that I carry with me throughout the rest of my career.
First, the lesson planning model used to complete teaching practicum is one the easiest to follow and most effective. Though I have a degree in education, scaffolding was never shown to me in such a realistic way. Essentially, the professors at ITAN break down a lesson into simple steps that help an EFL/ESL student move from gaining a new skill to producing language naturally. Because I always felt pressured to “teach to the test” in the US, I was mostly teaching students through practice activities- repetitive assignments where students match, fill-in, correct…but don’t actually make anything. Those activities didn’t encourage the language to stick because students weren’t really using it; they were mimicking it. True, these were native speakers, but even native speakers have to be shown how the language applies to their everyday lives. Only then can we make them effective communicators.
Second, the activities and strategies we learned about are designed to promote fluency, rather than just language acquisition. The difference between the two is that one asks the participant to regurgitate (seemingly) meaningless rules and words, and the other encourages the participant to actually interact and have real communication – a back and forth – in a different language. When I was in Africa, I was working with 75-100 students at a time. I had no resources other than a piece of chalk and a blackboard, and I had to hit certain standards. After a year of working with students, it was difficult to see their progress as speakers before my TEFL course in Leon, Nicaragua. As students they had come far; they knew words about travelling, could correctly identify regular and irregular verbs…but they weren’t speakers. Students couldn’t tell me in English about their day, describe their hopes and fears, or even joke with me after class- at least, not in the way they wanted to. This was a failure on my part, but I didn’t know at the time that it was possible to promote fluency with a hundred kids and limited resources. The strategies I learned at ITA Nicaragua make it possible to promote speaking and writing with some fluidity. I learned how to teach and model actual communication skills to non-native speakers.
Since graduating from the program, I have been working in Leon, Nicaragua for over a year, and am almost finished with my time here. I work in an international school teaching 5th grade and two secondary-level classes. I also teach a mixture of adults and teenagers in 4-hour long Saturday class. Each job has its perks and challenges. The skills I’ve learned at ITAN have made me a much more effective teacher, not only from the technical skills like writing a lesson plan and creating dynamic activities, but also the soft-skills I’ve had to use here: time-management, coping, cultural sensitivity, and classroom management. After a year, I can see a major difference in the progress of my students here compared to my students in Africa. Mostly, I feel like here, I’ve developed English speakers and not necessarily English students. Students are talking to me and each other, having real conversations, explaining what they think or how they feel and listening to someone else’s response. They are engaging with the language and making it their own. Even when not in class, we’re talking to each other about our plans, or fixing problems, or joking around — but we’re doing it in English. Communicating with a native speaker- something that would have terrified them 10 months ago- is now daily life for these kids. My classes at ITAN gave me the confidence and faith that I could draw such language out of my students.
I’m not sure where exactly I’m going next. Like most other ITA Nicaragua graduates, I want to keep travelling, and I will certainly be using my education degree to do it. I’m a career-teacher; I plan on being in education for the rest of my life. I never expected, however, that I would be doing it abroad. I never expected the opportunities out in the world for someone with a TEFL certification from ITA Nicaragua. Whether I’m back at home in the US or travelling abroad, what I learned during my course will definitely stay with me forever as a teacher.