After realising he wasn’t qualified enough for his first TEFL job in his dream location of Japan, Christopher Walker went to Poland to get his CELTA certificate. Now, he lives in Bielsko-Biala with his family and is focused on his professional development through online courses and speaking at conferences.
How did your TEFL story begin?
My TEFL story begins in Japan in 2001. I couldn't find a good job after university (I read Physics but I wasn't very good at it) and I'd always dreamed of seeing Japan, and so I was overjoyed at getting a position with GEOS in Nagano (a private language school). But the dream turned into a nightmare within weeks – I realised very quickly that I wasn't qualified for the job, and that I was disappointing my students. I quit after half a year, and it wasn't until 2006 that I felt ready to return to the classroom. I did it properly then – I enrolled on the CELTA at IH Krakow, and immediately saw where I'd been going wrong. As it turned out, I wasn't the disastrous teacher I thought I was, and I started to pick up confidence right away, though having an excellent CELTA tutor made a massive difference. The CELTA was definitely hard work. Many of those around me struggled massively with the expectations, but in the end it helps to remember that teaching English involves going into a room full of warm, friendly people, and helping them to improve their own understanding of the language. It's easy to lose sight of that, and I probably did a few times, but if you remember what it is you're hoping to achieve in the classroom, it does take some of the pressure off, and then you can concentrate on the finer points of your approach.
Where did a career in TEFL take you?
I was hired by IH Krakow at the end of my CELTA, and stayed with them for a year before moving further in the direction of the Czech border to teach in Bielsko-Biala. I stayed for two years and then left to go travelling – if I was being fancy I'd call it a sabbatical – but I'd made something of a home for myself there and I returned in time for the start of the 2010/11 academic year. I then started dating one of the secretaries – we're married now, and have two lovely daughters. There are times when I feel like a piece of driftwood that's randomly washed up on this particular island, and that if I could choose to go somewhere else I would (Japan feels like an unfinished story for me), but I quite like my life here in Silesia. I work at a school that is very supportive of their teachers' aspirations, and I think that's also typical of International House on the whole. I've started to move in other directions, beyond the classroom: I've created a few resources which I sell online, and I've also started to go to EFL conferences as a speaker wherever possible. Maybe that will lead me back into a life of exotic adventures...
How did you progress in your career?
For the first few years after getting my CELTA, I didn't invest much time or energy in professional development, and I see that now as a mistake. I'm well on the road to rectifying it, however. To be honest, it wasn't until I got married that I saw EFL teaching as a proper career, even though it clearly is. I wish that I'd been more invested from an earlier time, so that I wouldn't feel now as though I was playing catch-up. But in recent years I've done a lot, starting with the IH Language Awareness Course under my previous DOS (Director of Studies), and the IH Certificate in Teaching Young Learners under the present one. I love these training courses – they add so much to what I ordinarily do in the classroom – and now it's more a question of 'What's next?' rather than 'Is it worth it?'. I'm on the point of completing the IH Teacher Training Certificate, which I did online and that was great. I'm also two-thirds of the way through an MA Applied Linguistics & TESOL with the University of Leicester. I've come a long way since the CELTA. I only regret it's taken me ten years to get this far – I know other teachers who have reached the same stage in half the time. I'm just lucky to be working at a school that does such a good job of underlining the importance of continuous professional development – I've become rather sold on the idea myself, and even did a talk on this year's IH Teachers Online Conference on this very subject.
Tell us what you love and enjoy about teaching
The first thing to mention here is certainly the student body, especially in Poland. I really enjoyed teaching my university-level students in Krakow, and I've even kept in touch with one or two of them despite the passing of the years. In Bielsko-Biala we don't get as many university students, but I'm consistently blown away by the abilities of some of the younger students that I meet. They work so hard to push themselves, and that makes it easier for me to keep motivated – if they can put in so much effort, I know I certainly can too! I teach a lot of exam preparation classes, and one of my regular working highlights is getting messages from my students to tell me they passed their exams, or that they got into a British university on the back of their results.
On a personal level, one of the greatest highlights I've had in recent years was giving a presentation at the IH Torun Teacher Training Day, and it was so successful that I’ve already been invited back for next year, which is nice. There are, of course, always difficult moments. Life can be tough sometimes when you're self-employed, a parent, and the sole breadwinner for your family – when there's no school, there's no pay, and that makes the winter breaks especially challenging. But I have the support of those around me, and especially my current DOS and the school director. I know that when I'm going through a really rough patch there's somebody who will listen, no matter what.
What advice would you give to someone who has successfully gained their initial teaching qualification and is ready to go on their own TEFL journey?
Be actively conscious about your journey. It's very easy to drift through the EFL world for a few years and then suddenly wake up one day and find yourself back in your old life. If you see that you're enjoying the EFL experience, invest as much of yourself in your teaching and your career as a teacher as you can. Look at the different courses IH offers, and choose one to do. The Young Learners course is particularly beneficial. But the key thing here is that the courses you do will act as milestones in your career, showing that it really is something more than a temporary job while you travel the world. Own your career – you'll find everything more rewarding if you do!