How to Explain TEFL to your Grandparents

For many, the phrase 'English Teacher' will conjure up images of a secondary school educator, encouraging teenagers to pick apart passages of Shakespeare and Proust. Perhaps they'll also think of the endless essays, group projects and poems from obscure historical figures.

Indeed, being a secondary school English teacher is a noble profession, but it's not yours. So how to explain to the layperson exactly what it is that you do in the wonderful world of TEFL? We have imagined a letter you might write to your grandparents. 

Dear Grandparents,

I'm giving people a life skill

As native English speakers, we take the value of our language for granted. We don't realise how lucky we are to have been born speaking the language that half of the world communicates in. But think about those that don't speak English, the roughly 1.5 billion people, all over the world, who have made the conscious choice to learn it.

These people are my market.

While it's true that many of them are learning as a hobby, perhaps in order to ask for a plate of jellied eels in London, or be able to watch their favourite TV shows in original version, many more are learning for a specific purpose.

What could that be?

They might need to prove their English skills for a job interview, for access to higher education, even for a visa application.

I know what you're thinking, how do they prove it? Anybody could put English proficiency as a skill on their CV and try to get away with it. Just like others do with French or Spanish, to get that dream job.

So as well as helping them to improve their English skills in general, my responsibilities include getting them through their exams, and making sure that they are qualified for any next step they wish to take.

There are so many exams and qualifications out there, that learners can sit in order to prove their level of English, and I have to know the ins and outs of each one so that I can teach it. I'm learning all the time too.

Among the examining bodies that I deal with are Cambridge University, Oxford University, Trinity College, the list goes on.

In short, Grandparents, what I teach these students plays a huge part in the next step of their professional and personal lives. Doing so even means working in the same sphere as some of the most prestigious centres of education in the land.

I focus on the 'How' and not the 'Why'

High school classes may focus on why a metaphor is used in a certain way, or why Dickens saw fit to include hyperbole in much of his writings. I, as a TEFL teacher, don't give things like that a second thought.

Rather than analyse great works of literature from centuries past, teachers like me look at English as if for the first time. To do my job well, I must look at the language as a foreigner would. A series of grammatical structures to break down, thereby giving learners the knowledge they need to build it back up.

I know that it seems complicated and boring to some people, maybe even to you, but actually it's a wonderfully logical set of rules.

If I can break it down like this, I can teach it!

I go where I'm needed

Remember those stories I tell you about the time I taught participle clauses in Japan? Or the one where I stood in front of 40 police officers explaining verb patterns?

These weren't holidays, oh no!

I travel all over the world to do my job, and go where I feel I could be the most useful. Perhaps next year I can up sticks and move to Thailand, or Argentina!

All of those people who don't speak English? Well, they live in every conceivable corner of the globe, and I could quite literally throw a dart at the map and book a flight to wherever it lands.

But don't worry you two, I'll be back for Christmas!

I'm a choice for students, not an obligation

If you have images of me in front of a class of bored, clock-watching students, you haven't been listening.

The beauty of what I do is the discretionary nature of my classes. Nobody is forcing my learners to be there, they come in their hundreds because they genuinely want to.

A TEFL teacher tries not to be in front of the class all the time, preaching about various elements of the language. The goal we strive towards is learning by doing.

After all, if you two wanted to learn French, what's stopping you from buying a textbook and doing it yourselves at home? It might be a better alternative than being talked at for an hour, right? So we try to breathe life into that dusty old tome, and make it much more enjoyable.

Our learners come for the enjoyment, the activities, the real-life practice, and the camaraderie of being with other people in the same situation.

Now do you have a better idea of what I do? TEFL is the most meaningful career in the world!

Lots of love,
Your Grandchild