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CELTA, DELTA, MA? When is the best career moment for extra qualifications?

2nd September 2019

By Matt Duncan

CELTA, DELTA, Trinity Dip, M.A. in Applied Linguistics… there is an increasing number of courses on offer for the aspiring English language teacher. Navigating the opportunities and understanding the realities of what each brings is key if you are to make it all worth your while. Many will start off their career attempting the CELTA or Trinity TESOL (also known as TEFL-I qualifications), the two most popular entry-level courses on offer in TEFL. Ironically, what most teachers end up doing for their first jobs is nothing like the small groups of adult learners neatly grouped into levels, and so why the expectation and desire to put ourselves through it? Well, obviously, in order to get a job. Not to say that it is essential for your first teaching position. In fact, most countries require a 120-hour teaching qualification, with only the UK, USA and Saudi Arabia actually stipulating that a CELTA/TESOL is required (Deady, 2019). These shorter courses can be done in a combination of online activities and an intensive weekend of observed teaching, so it seems clear that a much more demanding (and expensive) CELTA or TESOL is not chosen simply for box-ticking purposes to get a job, but for other reasons as well. 

In my case, I didn’t just want to do a CELTA to jump through a hoop and get a job, but, really, I wanted a safe place where I could get up and actually try teaching for the first time, while getting some supportive feedback in the process. Standing up in front of a room and ‘teaching’ is a daunting task for anyone who has had absolutely no experience whatsoever, and in some ways the entry-level qualification is a kind of cultural rite of passage into the tribe of the English Language Teacher. Indeed, in many ways, the camaraderie and support from fellow trainees is just as useful as the knowledge and techniques that you pick up. Interestingly, I have noticed that teachers from other fields coming into TEFL tend to have worse things to say about courses such as the CELTA. Given its levels of tribal indoctrination, perhaps arriving with a blank slate is the best state in which to take it on for most. 

For many, that will be enough. They will find a comfort zone and a job they love (or at least tolerate), and that will be that. However, others may look further in terms of qualifications, whether out of choice or necessity. In my situation, it was a bit of both, and this is probably the case for most. There are those (far keener than myself) who are ready to thrust themselves into one of the postgraduate level teaching diplomas immediately after their initial qualification. However, there is a requirement on the DELTA and Trinity Dip (also known as TEFL-Q qualifications) of at least 2 years of prior teaching experience. This is an important detail to think about. Not only do you want enough time to develop your own style of teaching in a range of different settings, but you will also need time to decide if this is, indeed, the career path that you want to commit to in the long-term. If the CELTA/TESOL is the rite of passage into the tribe of the EFL teacher, then the DELTA/Trinity Dip is a rite of passage into ‘Elder’ status within that tribe. Not to say that age is a factor, but someone undertaking such a task would usually be fully committing themselves to a career (or at least a long period of working) within the world of TEFL. 

Certainly, the intensive version of the DELTA is certainly not for the faint-hearted, as I found out when asked to sign a disclaimer before I started it. It stated that I was fully accepting the responsibility for any possible psychological issues stemming from the course! Despite the pressure-cooker atmosphere of such an experience, I would say that it is a good opportunity to check-in on your teaching behaviour, develop knowledge and a method of practice, as well as simply to open more doors to teaching opportunities and ideas, especially in the fields of Academic English, teacher training and materials writing, to name a few. In the case of Academic English, the increased opportunity is partly due to departments within universities being under pressure to have teaching staff qualified to postgraduate level, in order to improve positions on competitive league tables. These courses count, as they sit at level 7 on the National Qualifications Framework. This is the same level as a Master’s Degree, although with far fewer ‘credits’, which is the measure of level of content of the course.

Famous agencies such as the British Council (who helped create the DELTA) are also very welcoming of such qualifications, and in some cases willing to fund them. These courses are also increasingly done via distance learning, apart from the observed teaching sections of course, and this allows for more flexibility in terms of working and learning at the same time. I took the DELTA and did Module 1 (a written exam) and 3 (a research project) via distance, with Module 2 being the aforementioned pressure cooker intensive course. A word of warning for those teachers who work in more English for Specific Purposes (ESP) roles (Business English, Academic English, etc.) and want to do something similar. The face-to-face DELTA Module 2 is very much EFL, and it was interesting to see some colleagues coming from EAP (English for Academic Purposes) backgrounds having to quickly re-adapt back into that. There does, in fact, seem to be a gap in the market for widely-recognised English for Specific Purposes-related qualifications. Perhaps, then, doing a diploma before specialising in a particular field would be easier. 

But then, could there be another option to avoid all of this stress? By taking a Master’s Degree in something like Applied Linguistics and/or TESOL? Having also done one, I wouldn’t say that stress would be in any way avoided. I think they are different beasts in many ways. Sure, the diploma requires a certain amount of research and academic writing, and, of course, there is also a practical focus to a Master’s course in TESOL.  However, a teaching diploma does involve much more attention to what goes on in the classroom, and a Master’s is more focused on developing knowledge, while also building on research skills. Why did I do both? Well, following my DELTA, I realised that I wanted to specialise in a particular area of EFL, and one which would allow me to stay in the UK, which I had decided to call home once more. My target was the burgeoning world of EAP in the UK. Being someone who hadn’t really done anything too academic for a while (except the DELTA), I felt that I needed to go through the experience that my future students would also be going through, in order to teach it better. Overall, I believe that I did this, and I also gained a better understanding of the expectations and community practices of an academic department at postgraduate level (which many of the international students are entering into).  Incidentally, having a diploma counts as ‘prior accredited learning’, meaning you can do one module less on the Master’s (and save money), but the Master’s must have ‘TESOL’ in the title, as it wouldn’t cover an M.A. in just ‘Applied Linguistics’, for example.

So it seems that the possible cop-out answer to the title question is: ‘it depends’.  It depends on your level of confidence, the stage of your career, your commitment to sticking with TEFL, as well as your particular career targets and country of choice. One general piece of advice would be to take on all of these extra qualifications before having children for those of you who would, as juggling work and study is already a challenge enough without throwing a baby or two into the mix as well. Although, I am sure that there are teachers with the super-human powers to make this a possibility, too.  I am just not one of them! Was all the money, time and frazzled brain that was consumed worth it in the long-run? I can only speak for my own case, and those that I know of, but I would say ‘yes.’ Once you have weighed up the pros and cons and decided that it is for you, embrace it, don’t be overwhelmed by it and keep a good grasp on your sense of humour and perspective, as they will see you through it all and out the other side.  

References: Deady, K (2019) Where on earth should I teach English abroad?.

Matthew Duncan

Matthew is an English language teacher with over 14 years of experience, now working in EAP and specialising in EAP with learning technologies.  He has taught in China, Japan and Spain before establishing a career working in universities in the UK.

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