By “reasons to avoid a TEFL course”, I most certainly don’t mean to avoid all TEFL training. Any training is better than none, and there are well-known and well-respected courses such as the Cambridge CELTA and Trinity CertTESOL that are available and recognised all over the world. There are, however, plenty of courses that you probably should avoid, especially if you also have the option of taking a more respected one (and most people do).
A standard length for a TEFL certificate course is 100 to 120 hours of (usually face-to-face) training with six to eight hours of observed and graded teaching practice. If a school asks for teachers with a TEFL certificate or “CELTA or equivalent”, that is what they are expecting. If any of those things are shorter, especially the observed lessons, you really are not qualified to teach English. In fact, four weeks of training with observations that add up to just one-quarter of a normal weekly teaching timetable is already incredibly short for a teacher training course, and most countries would be scandalised if their school teachers were only trained that much.
2. Lack of assessment
The cheapest and shortest courses often give you a certificate just for attending. That is not so bad I suppose, as long as the certificate is clearly marked as a Certificate of Attendance and the course is called something realistic like “Taster Course” or “Introduction to TEFL”. Such a certificate cannot, however, be used to show your teaching ability or knowledge, because none of that is tested on that kind of course. The same is true for courses who do demand written work from you, but in which everyone who sends it in passes. Many online courses work this way, with no-one looking at the essays that you send in and trainees being allowed to try the online quizzes over and over until they get them right. The most important kind of assessment is assessed teaching practice, and no decent schools will accept a TEFL certificate that doesn’t include this.
3. Mainly online or weekend courses
As well as a weekend or purely online course being almost worthless, schools which mainly offer these qualifications but also have a (less popular) four-week face-to-face course are usually to be avoided.
4. Entry requirements
In general the more difficult it is to get on a course, the better the course is. Having said that, the Cambridge CELTA and Trinity Cert TESOL are qualifications specifically for people with no teaching experience, so you are not expected to know all the grammar and jargon before you even start. A popular course provider will usually, however, expect you to do a pre-course or pre-interview task and start reading the titles that they recommend as soon as possible. Most schools also ask for at least a Bachelor’s degree and ones which don’t should make it very clear to you how difficult it will be to find a decent job without one. The language level for non-native English speakers should be set at around IELTS 7.0 or Cambridge Proficiency.
5. Number of course providers
However good the training that you get on a course, if it is only offered by that one school you will spend the rest of your TEFL career having your qualification questioned or ignored. Some course providers might be well known locally, but few people only teach in one country or area for more than a couple of years. This is even true of qualifications which are offered by universities, and for that reason, many universities offer the Cambridge CELTA rather than their own certificates.
It is difficult for anyone to understand the confusion that is TEFL accreditation, especially when the main guarantees of quality of the Cambridge CELTA and Trinity CertTESOL are their own names. This means that it is very difficult to be able to work out which other courses are of a similar standard. It is, however, possible to spot the dodgy courses by what they say about accreditation. Some courses don’t mention it at all, which is never a good sign. Others claim to be accredited by organisations that do not ever accredit TEFL courses, e.g. IATEFL and TESOL. In fact, any mention of organisations like these is just smoke and mirrors to convince you of quality which doesn’t exist. Other tricks include claiming to be accredited by an organisation that doesn’t list that school on its website, setting up their own accreditation organisation that only or mainly accredits themselves (look for how many schools the accreditation organisation website lists), using organisations that will say that they accredit anyone for a fee (look for lots of unconnected qualifications or qualifications like online degrees on the accrediting organisation’s website), and even listing accreditation organisations that don’t seem to exist at all! Any links to online universities or those apparently based in obscure island nations should also, of course, be avoided.
7. Overstressing trainee satisfaction/feedback
Having lots of unhappy trainees is often a sign of bad management and other problems, even though when that happens most complaints tend to be about accommodation, admin, airport pickups, etc. The main reason that the complaints tend to be about these other things is that most trainees obviously do not know enough about language learning and teaching to be able to judge a course academically, because if they did they wouldn’t need the training, and no courses would need accreditation when they could be judged by a trainee satisfaction survey! In summary, very little can be judged from trainee satisfaction, and the dodgiest course providers are often the ones who spend the most time trumpeting their happy “graduates”.
8. Rapid expansion
There is a good business reason for a rapid expansion of TEFL courses, which is that a course can never be internationally recognised while it is only available in a few places. The practical consequences of a new course springing up once every couple of weeks, however, tend to be dodgy local partners, trainers with little experience, overburdened admin staff who never get back to you, and the possible sudden disappearance of the course due to overambitious expansion.
You could perhaps blame Cambridge and Trinity’s complete lack of marketing efforts for the proliferation of dodgy TEFL certificate courses, but their rather staid efforts do at least match well with their statuses as exam boards and an organisation connected to one of the world’s top universities. The newer courses have no such worries about cheapening the idea of education, with special limited-time money-off offers, “free courses” that aren’t, affiliate marketing (paying bloggers to recommend their courses), stressing the beach nearby more than the training, paying you to recruit your friends, and spreading downright lies about other courses on their own websites or on TEFL forums. Examples of the barefaced lies include the false rumours that the CELTA is an advanced course and that a certain number of people have to fail it. I would avoid all companies who spread such fibs, as well as those who seem to spend much more time on marketing than academic standards.
10. Class sizes
A course which I saw a video of recently seemed perfectly happy to show the trainer standing in front of a hundred people with a microphone for their one-week “Advanced TESOL Certificate”. Reputable courses will have no more than 16 trainees on one course (with at least two trainers) and will run two parallel courses if there are more people than that.
The normal name for a four-week TEFL course that is mainly for people with no teaching qualifications or experience is a “TEFL certificate”, e.g. the Trinity CertTESOL. In TEFL, a Diploma is a qualification for people with at least two or three years of relevant job experience and usually an initial teaching qualification. A Diploma such as the Trinity DipTESOL or the Cambridge DELTA can get you credit for an MA in TESOL, TEFL, ELT or Applied Linguistics. If an “Advanced Certificate” were a common name for qualifications in TEFL, it would probably mean the same thing as a Diploma. Some course providers, however, try to make their basic teaching courses sound important by giving them big names. Courses that do not stick to the definitions I have given here should usually be avoided.
12. A lack of staff
The biggest potential problem with lack of staff is a lack of tutors. Even with only 8 to 12 trainees in a course, there should be at least two full-time tutors so that you can get different perspectives on your teaching and there is always someone to go to when you have problems planning your lessons etc. If the tutors are also running around working in the regular school, answering every email, doing the airport pickups, etc, that is not a good sign. The same is true for the school owner answering every email and telephone call – you have to ask yourself if the school has more than one member of staff in it!
13. Infrastructure and materials
You would be surprised at the number of TEFL courses that have websites that are full of typos, and even totally incoherent sentences produced by SEO experts with minimal levels of English. You would think that they’d easily be able to find a native speaker who could correct the mistakes, being in the business of English teaching and all… This is never a good sign, and the same can be said for websites that haven’t been updated, have dead links etc. You might also be able to spot the same lack of quality and attention to detail in the course materials and videos that are available for public consumption, and you could ask them to send you a sample if you have any doubts about the course. If you get the chance to see their physical premises, a slackness in keeping the building in a decent condition can often be a sign of a deeper malaise.
14. Guaranteed jobs
Anyone with a well-respected TEFL certificate and a degree can find a job within weeks, as long as you are flexible about location etc. In fact, a native speaker with no TEFL certificate could find a job in a crappy school within weeks, if they wanted to. This means that schools which go on and on about how all their graduates get jobs are using up precious website space that probably should be for something more important and contentious like accreditation and true equivalence to the Cambridge CELTA. What is even worse are schools that actually offer you jobs at the end of (or as part of) your TEFL course. The reason why these jobs are there for you, and why many schools will pay for your training in order for you to work for them, is that they are jobs which no one would otherwise take. Expect to be teaching big classes with few materials and very little academic support if you take such a “guaranteed job”.
15. Financial stuff
Things to look out for include courses that are very cheap, being asked to make payments in the names of people rather than schools, and a lesser-known qualification being almost as expensive as the CELTA.