Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

On Monday 6th July I started training on my first ever fully online CELTA course on Zoom. On the same day, Stephanie Wilbur also started online CELTA training for the first time, but on a different course. We’ve decided to compare our experiences over the next few weeks. This is a long post as it sets the scene, but hopefully the others will be a little shorter!

What’s your previous experience with CELTA?

Sandy speaking at InnovateELT Barcelona

SM: I’ve been a CELTA tutor since August 2014. In 2014-2015 I did courses full-time around the world, and since then I’ve just done courses in the summers in between my other job as a Director of Studies. I didn’t do a course last summer as I started my MA, so my last course was in July 2018. All of the courses I’ve done have been full-time, four-week, face-to-face courses.

Stephanie Wilbur headshot

SW: I became a CELTA tutor in June 2015 and I’ve have been working as a full-time trainer since then. I worked as a Teacher Training Manager from 2016-2017, when I did a course every month. Since then, I have been a freelance teacher trainer working on CELTAs and other training courses in the Middle East, Latin America, Central Asia, the US, and Europe. In that time, I have worked on full-time and part-time CELTA courses, but they have all been face-to-face up to now.

What’s the context?

SM: My course has 18 trainees based in a wide range of locations: the UK, Italy, Andorra, Poland, Romania, Jerusalem and Gibraltar; they’re from the UK, Ireland, China, Italy, Russia, Poland, Romania and Germany. Our students are also from many different countries: Turkey, Brazil, Chile – some living at home, and some based in the UK now. It’s one of the most international courses I’ve worked on. As I’m based in Poland and the course is run from the UK, time zones are a little confusing, and we’ve definitely had one student who’s arrived an hour early because of this! The other two trainers are based in the UK and have previously run online CELTA courses, so I’m definitely benefitting from their experience.

SW: I’m based in Slovakia and working on a course run from Gran Canaria. There are 11 trainees, all based in Gran Canaria as far as I know. They’re from Gran Canaria, Morocco, Poland, the UK, Ireland, Ukraine, and Argentina. Our students are all Spanish from different parts of Gran Canaria, mostly lawyers who are also participating in online courts sometimes have to miss some lessons. They’re mostly in their 30s and 40s. My co-trainer is in Gran Canaria.

How did you originally feel about online CELTAs?

SM: When I first heard about online CELTAs back in March, I was really worried that they would not maintain the standards of the face-to-face course. It’s hard now to put my finger on why, but I think I was worried that the technology was new to most of us as trainers, and we wouldn’t know how to train teachers to use it properly if we weren’t fully confident with it ourselves. I was concerned about how CELTA criteria designed for a physical classroom would map onto an online environment, and I also wasn’t sure how the extra layer of dealing with technology would impact on trainees who already have a lot to get their heads around. I originally felt like CELTAs run fully online should be a separate course with separate certification. As a recruiter, I was concerned that CELTA graduates from online courses would not be ready to stand in front of a classroom full of people and confidently teach them, and that as a school we would have to do a lot of extra training to get them to that point.

SW: Initially, I wasn’t completely sure about whether trainees who’d done courses online would feel fully prepared to teach in a classroom. I feel like a lot of trainers initially thought that online versions of the course wouldn’t be as high quality and we were biased against it. When we realised things weren’t going to change overnight and the world was changing, we started to open our minds more and we started to see what opportunities this situation has to offer. I’m still deciding how I feel about this, but in the near future current CELTA trainees will certainly be more trained for the environment we will probably have to teach in. There’ll be a much more blended world afterwards – we don’t know what level of safety there will be, but more people will teach, work and learn from home. However, the success of the online CELTA will depend on who the trainers are and what they’re bringing to trainees’ attention. Employers need to know what training they have to do after an online course to get teachers ready for the classroom. As trainers, we need to make it clear to trainees how it’ll be different face-to-face.

How do you feel now? Why?

SM: Over the past few months I’ve followed a lot of discussions between CELTA trainers who have been running courses online. I’ve also built up my own experience with Zoom, and learnt a lot from my colleagues at IH Bydgoszcz and other IH schools. I’ve completely changed my mind about CELTAs run fully online, and now know that they’re here to stay. They’ve offered so many people the chance to do the course who wouldn’t normally be able to.

The trainees I’ve seen this week are already better at giving and checking instructions and demonstrating activities than some trainees in week 3 of face-to-face courses I’ve worked on before. Their reflection is already deeper and more productive. They’re more aware of the students right from the start of the course: normally they’re so focussed on what they’re doing as teachers, that they forget the people in front of them. As on every course, the trainees are immediately taking what they learn from observing each other into their lessons the next day, but I feel like it’s happening across the board with the whole group, instead of just the stronger teachers doing this. These are all things I’ve seen reflected in discussions with other trainers.

There are a few possible reasons for this: not having a commute or having to get used to living somewhere new frees up time to focus on the course. Everyone being in their homes means trainees are relaxed, and therefore more able to take in what’s happening in input and feedback. When we observe lessons, our cameras and microphones are off. That means that if you need to stand up and move around, or have a snack, or have an emotional reaction to what’s happening in front of you, you can do it without fear of distracting the teacher. This makes it easier to maintain concentration when you’re observing. Trainees aren’t spending ages cutting things up, fighting with a printer or a copier, or worrying about where *that* bit of paper has disappeared to, so they’ve got more mental space to focus on what’s actually happening in the lesson and what the students are doing. Trainees are also not as aware of or distracted by the other people watching them – instead of looking for the trainer’s reaction to something they’ve just done, they just get on with it. Students might feel more confident too as only one teacher is obviously focussing on them, rather than a rather intimidating seven!

I’ve also really enjoyed the input sessions I’ve done, as I’ve been able to demonstrate various ways to use Zoom, and have also been able to incorporate technology much more easily. For example, when I asked trainees to look at a couple of websites which are useful for learning phonetic symbols, they didn’t have to find and start their laptops before they could explore the sites. Another benefit has been how easy it is to observe my colleagues. I’ve been able to watch a couple of their input sessions and they’ve watched mine, while still being able to get on with other work in the background.

SW: We know this is likely to continue for a long time. The reality might be that these trainees are more prepared for the next year of teaching than traditional teachers who are adjusting, fantastically but have old habits to break. New teachers don’t know any other way of teaching. What we’re providing them with on an online CELTA is a good thing for the future.

Technology skills are a big factor – logistical things like which link to use to go to TP (teaching practice) or input can be quite confusing. Trainees fresh out of university are generally not having a problem as they already have the technology skills and their study skills are fresh. They’re very supportive with those who are finding it harder. I emphasise that the trainees are there to support each other, as I do on every course. We have a couple of people who were unfamiliar with technology before they started and that’s been very challenging for them and us. They weren’t completely prepared for the learning curve of moving to an online environment and the pressure that adds on top of CELTA. Dealing with Google Docs, learning to use breakout rooms, understanding where to find all of the documents – we had one person drop out because of this learning curve. Some people might feel like they have to do a CELTA course because they want the qualification and now there’s time to do it. There’s pressure on them, so they dive in without being fully prepared. On the other hand, some people love all the online courses they’re able to do and get really into it. One person really enjoyed learning all of the technology that was completely new to them, and now knows how to talk about it and use it in the classroom after just one week.

Our trainees all had a 45-minute unassessed TP with feedback before they did TP1. That meant they’d had more lessons and some feedback by the time they got to TP1 – they’re further on before they got assessed for the first time. They were more insightful already at this point, and trying more challenging things. For example, some trainees were already negotiating meaning with their students in TP1. The pressure is off, and it’s not so scary by the time you get to the assessed part. I’m meant to be running my first face-to-face course since the pandemic soon, and I’d like to carry this over from the online CELTA so that they have unassessed TP before they get the pressure of assessment.

Observing lessons is much more comfortable and relaxed than in a classroom. 2.5 hours of TP always feels like a long time to sit still and observe. At home, we can move around, stand up, or stretch, and it doesn’t look awkward. I’m using my tablet to watch the lessons, with my laptop open to type everything up. Trainees aren’t watching our reactions all the time, they’re just thinking about teaching.

What are the challenges of the online CELTA and how have you dealt with them?

SM: Our course had extra sessions the week before the main course to introduce some of the functions of Zoom, particularly breakout rooms. We sent out a short tech questionnaire before the course, asking how familiar trainees were with Zoom, word processing software, presentation software, and internet functions. We also checked what kind of computer they’re accessing the course on and whether they have any recurring tech problems. This was a very useful needs analysis to help us find out who needs what tech help straight away. Trainees also had a 20-minute unassessed TP to familiarise themselves with managing the tech while teaching.

There was a big storm here yesterday and I thought I’d have a power cut, so I asked a trainee who was observing to start a recording if I dropped out of the lesson so I’d be able to watch it later. I think I’ll prepare a trainee to do that each day regardless of the weather from now on.

When trainees have had internet or other tech problems, I’ve had to decide whether their TP should be extended for a few minutes or not to compensate for this. Luckily our TP is at the end of the day, so I have the flexibility to do this.

The strangest thing for me is that I don’t feel like I know all of the trainees after a week. We had a very short getting to know you activity on day one, but then had to show them the Moodle where they’ll upload all of their documents. I can’t chat to them in breaks or just before and after input sessions as easily, so although I know the six trainees in my TP group well, I’ve only had limited interaction with the other twelve in the two input sessions I’ve done. I observed sessions run by the other trainers on the first two days so I could see the trainees in action, but haven’t interacted with them much at all.

SW: Our course had an extra day the week before when trainees had a Zoom tutorial and watched demo lessons. I taught my demo from where I was on holiday, so didn’t participate in the rest of the day, which was run by my co-trainer. That meant that I missed out on getting to know you activities, so my first input session was a challenge as it felt a bit awkward, but this was much better by the end of the week. I’ve made a real effort to pair trainees up with those from the other TP group (as I do face-to-face too) so they can all get to know each other better. At first the trainees thought I was Slovak with a really good American accent. They didn’t realise I was American until my phonology session later in the week!

One teacher had internet issues during her lesson. The video and audio were breaking up, and she was worried that if she put students into BORs, they’d disappear. She decided to keep them in the main room, but this increased her teacher talking time and reduced the student-centred activities. It’s a challenge deciding what to do in feedback in this case, as she’d clearly made a decision based on the circumstances, but that meant students got less speaking practice.

What have you learnt this week?

SM: These are the tips I’ve picked up this week. 

  • When I was teaching on Zoom before, my students all had course books. On the CELTA course, they don’t have any materials, so they have to take a picture of the activity before they go into breakout rooms (BORs), either on their phones or by doing a screen shot.
  • When students are doing a reading, display the reading text on the screen and get them to take a picture of the questions. If they’re doing this task in BORs, they need the reading text in a document which one of them can share (e.g. a Google Doc link for the reading, and the questions on their phones).
  • When monitoring in BORs, switch off your camera and microphone to make it less intrusive. (Thanks for the tip Rebecca!) Scott Donald called this ‘ninja mode’, a term I’ve already stolen!
  • I’ve found I’m spontaneously interrupting trainees more to help with tech problems, for example when a reading doesn’t display or when their video is off (if the students haven’t told them). Normally I would only interrupt during TP if a trainee asked for my help. I think it’s OK to do this at the start of the course while trainees are familiarising themselves with the platform, but I’ve told them I’ll only do this in TP1 and TP2, and after that they should ask for help if they need it.

SW: I hadn’t been teaching on Zoom before, apart from one small conversation class, so I’m learning as we go as well. It can be a challenge sometimes, but it’s really beneficial learning from our trainees as well – they’re more familiar with some aspects of the tech than me. Because of lockdown, trainees know we’re probably new at the technology. This has levelled the playing field as we’re all learning from each other. You have to be open about learning along with them. I’ve found the Teaching English Online course from FutureLearn and Cambridge really useful. Here are some things I’ve realised this week:

  • Put all the links for rooms in one place to simplify things for trainees.
  • A Zoom tutorial before the course starts is essential.
  • Remind trainees that sometimes students should switch the camera off. This is the procedure I’m teaching them for reading lessons to students them some space.
  • You can move from one BOR to another directly, rather than going back to the main room each time.

How do you organise TP feedback?

SM: BORs are great for reflection on TP! I’ve adapted an idea from CELTA trainer discussions. I set up a Google Doc with a table for trainees to write strengths and action points for each teacher they saw. Above the table I display the criteria we’re working on at this point in the course, so they know what to focus on.

I did this in pairs in BORs, one teacher from that day and one observer, so there were three sets of criteria and tables in the document. I told them to start with other people’s lessons and finish with that of the teacher in the pair, i.e. if ABC taught and AD are discussing the lessons, they discuss B and C’s lessons first, then A’s. They have 15 minutes to complete the document and I look at their notes while they’re doing this but leave them in peace in the BORs.

For the other 15 minutes of our feedback, they read each other’s comments, then I talk about general strengths from all of the lessons and one specific strength and action point for each teacher. I also add any Zoom tips based on problems that day, and perhaps demonstrate one or two techniques trainees should find useful in future lessons.

Afterwards, I send them the link so that everyone has access to some written follow-up to the feedback from that day, not only the teachers.

This is different to how I’ve done feedback on face-to-face courses, when I often feel like we spend a lot of time on what problems there were because I set up more of a carousel, with each teacher getting individual feedback from each of the three observers, and having little time to reflect on the lessons they saw, instead talking about their own lesson three times.

I feel like this approach to feedback has been incredibly positive. Around 20-25 minutes of our 30-40 minutes are focussed on strengths, with only about 5 minutes on action points, and another 5 or so on how to work on the action points. Trainees are learning from and focussing on each other’s strengths, and I’ve seen them putting this into action straight away.

SW: I think it’s important to give trainees space to talk about things together without me being there. I leave them in the main room and tell them I’ll be back in 10 minutes. We also talk about the importance of trainees giving the students space, for example through activities with the video off, which creates a different dynamic. By removing yourself from the discussion by switching the video off or leaving the room, you’re not tempted to keep stepping in and solving problems. I used a Padlet I set up as their observation task. I started columns of positive points and constructive criticism for each teacher which trainees added to as the lesson went on. I could watch who was participating and what was happening, keeping trainees active in our morning TP.

What else would you like us to talk about?

Over to you: if you’ve got this far (thank you!), what questions would you like us to answer in the next three weeks?

Comments on: "Online CELTA week 1: Compare and contrast" (11)

  1. Really interesting, thank you!

    One thing I’ve been struggling with when teaching online is monitoring the students. So hard to get a grip of what they are up to. How do you encourage trainers to do this, and how do you observe them monitoring? Do you get them to take you with them as they visit BORs?

    I’d also like to hear about the effect on your input sessions. Is it all synchronous or a move towards flipped input?

    Do you feel like you are bonding with the trainers like you would on a face to face course? Had anything you’ve done helped with this? (I’m thinking of all the between session times you naturally hang out and talk on a face to face course).

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    • Thanks for those questions Amy. They are all things I’ve been thinking about and I’m sure Stephanie has too, so we’ll see if we can answer them in the next post.

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  2. geoffjordan said:

    Very interesting, clear and well-organised reflections. Thank you.

    I hope you’ll go on to discuss the content – what do you tell participants about how people learn an L2 and about different approaches to ELT?

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    • Thanks for the comment Geoff. I think that might be a question for another blog post, perhaps looking back on the whole course. It’s not a timetable which I have designed on my course, so I can only really comment on what I talk about in feedback and how I steer trainees there. I’m not sure about Stephanie’s course.
      I’d be interested to know about your experiences of working with brand new teachers, many of whom have minimal language awareness, and how you would structure input to build their confidence with the language and how to clarify it (at whatever stage of the lesson) while also pushing back against the huge shadow cast by the apprenticeship of observation. I often find this is a big issue on CELTA courses, and that some trainees find it hard to transfer input to intake in terms of dealing with language and resisting the urge to lecture, regardless of what input sessions they’ve actually attended or the feedback they’ve received.

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  3. All very interesting and useful so thanks you two for the time and trouble! I’m also interested in how you have adapted your input sessions. I do lots of modelling in my f2f courses. Do you do this eg for a language ‘ presentation ‘ demo … or use off the peg videos such as the ih London series? If you go ‘ flipped’ how does that work? Are you getting trainees to do classic PPP grammar lessons or flipping the language input to give more time to practice and remedial work? All a bit mind boggling to this very experienced but not online tutor!!!

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  4. […] On Monday 6th July 2020 I started training on my first ever fully online CELTA course on Zoom. On the same day, Stephanie Wilbur also started online CELTA training for the first time, but on a different course. We’ve decided to compare our experiences. The post below covers week two. Here’s week one. […]

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  5. […] course. We’ve decided to compare our experiences. The post below covers week three. Here’s week one and week […]

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  6. […] decided to compare our experiences. The post below covers week four, the final week. Here’s week one, week two and week […]

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  7. […] did my first online CELTA, and blogged about it with Stephanie Wilbur. It was fascinating comparing our experiences of the […]

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  8. […] In July 2020 I was a tutor on my first online CELTA, working with two tutors who were on their second online course. We did all of our input synchronously, following a similar timetable to a face-to-face course. When I first heard about online CELTAs, I was sceptical that they could work as well as face-to-face courses, but now I’m definitely a convert. I had the opportunity to compare my first-time experiences with Stephanie Wilbur, who was doing a course at the same time as me in a different centre. Our meetings each week to reflect on the courses and compare our findings were fascinating discussions, leading to a series of blogposts.  […]

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