What should come first: CAE or CELTA? A B.A. or improving my language proficiency?

I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about this, but I’ve reached that age when I’ve turned into a kind of Agony Aunt to my younger colleagues and friends. The 20-somethings come to me with their career choices and, boy, do they ask difficult questions! Their fork in the road often goes along the lines of, “Should I do a CAE or a CELTA?”, “Should I go to college or work on my language?”, or “What do teachers need more (urgently): language or methodology?”

You’ve probably seen these questions before, too, especially if you’re in one of the Facebook communities for teachers. To be honest, I don’t actually remember thinking things so thoroughly when I was their age, but this generation seems to be much more conscious of their strategic steps than I was. Kudos to the (late) millenials!

And since this generation energize me so much with their love for the profession, I feel I own them my two-pence. Here’s what I often say, but of course please feel free to disagree in the comments:

#1 Do some research on your choices.

Many people think CELTA is an exam, like the TKT. Others even seem to assume it’s a language proficiency test. Also, there are those who believe you need the CAE or the CPE to take the CELTA. None of that is true.

With university it is no different. Even those who want to pursue a B.A. in English Language & Literatures* don’t always know what it entails or what it brings to the table. You’ll hear many say the B.A. in the field is good for nothing, when I personally learned a loooooooooooot from mine (and I’m far from being the only one).

You need to know what you’re choosing: what the choices are, what they can be used for, and if there are any prerequisites. Read up on the courses/exams, take mock tests for the exams, talk to people who have done the course or prepared for that exam, etc. Make sure you have all the data you need to make an informed decision.

#2 Ask yourself where you want to go.

Where do you see yourself in 5, 10, 15 years? Do you know anyone who is the kind of professional you want to be by then? What kind of qualifications does this person have? And not only qualifications: what kind of experiences and attitudes does this person have? Do other similar professionals have similar qualifications, experiences, and attitudes, or are there other ways to get there?

For instance, if you want to work in Academia, a CELTA or another TESOL certificate won’t make much of a difference (the route is B.A., Masters and doctorate – and a lot of publications!). Conversely, if you want to work as a teacher trainer in a language school, it doesn’t usually matter much if you haven’t majored in English (the B.A. doesn’t hurt, mind), but the TESOL certificate and diploma route is a more guaranteed way of getting there, at least in bigger schools.

#3 Take a long hard look at yourself.

No matter what you’d like to be doing in the future, if you’re staying in the ELT business, you are probably going to need both a reasonable degree of language proficiency and knowledge about teaching.

Which do you need to tackle first? It depends on your current state. If you don’t have enough English to follow the B.A. or TESOL certificate you’d like to take, then language proficiency naturally comes first. (Notice that the B.A. is likely to help you with language as well, but if you’re way below the university entry standard, your degree will be harder than it needs to be.)

Also, if you feel you’re making many language mistakes in the classroom, if you don’t feel confident about your language proficiency, or if you get feedback from your seniors suggesting you improve your language skills, then it’s likely that the proficiency route is the one you need to take now.

If you’re satisfied with your language proficiency for the time being (as in it’ll never be perfect, but it’s good enough for your teaching context now), but you are not so sure about the steps you are taking in the classroom or feel you don’t really know how to help your students, then it’s probably time to go learn about teaching and language learning.

#4 Don’t feel guilty you’re choosing.

To each of the questions in the title, replying “both” is the easy way out. However, of course people need to make a choice. Even if you want to do all of it, which is laudable, there is only so much time and money a person can dispose of at any given moment. So of course you’ll have to choose at least what you’ll do first.

There’s no shame in that whatsoever. It’s your career. It’s your time. It’s probably your money as well, as most employers don’t pay for their employees to do those things. You can’t possibly do everything at once, so prioritize. And don’t let anyone guilt-trip you out of doing what you feel you need to do!


*I’m trying to translate “bacharelado/licenciatura em Letras Inglês” here, but to me there is no direct translation.

Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher for 16 years and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Language Testing from the University of Melbourne. She's a moderator for BrELT and has been elected to the BRAZ-TESOL Advisory Council for the 2017-2018 term.

8 thoughts on “What should come first: CAE or CELTA? A B.A. or improving my language proficiency?

  1. Ná, you know I love you, don’t you? Thank you for this amazing post.

    You are and will always be my first and beloved Agony Aunt! haha :)

    I don’t make many mistakes in the classroom as you said in your example, but I’m not confident enough and my slips/mistakes put me off a little bit, so I’m getting closer and closer to the conclusion that the best for me now is the proficiency route.

    Thank you my dear! <3

  2. Hi Natália,

    I’ve done CELTA, DELTA and have an MA in Linguistics (done in that order). My BA was in a totally different field. For what it’s worth, I found the DELTA to be the hardest thing I have ever done. It involved a lot of work, reading and discussions. It was also the one that improved me most as a teacher and that I found the most rewarding. In comparison, the MA was a piece of cake.

    Maybe it would have been different if I had done the MA first, but we shall never know.

    • Mmm I haven’t done the DELTA, but my M.A. was easier than I anticipated. Maybe it’s just the way M.A.’s are. Still learned a lot, though. There were loads to read, about 400 pages a week.

  3. I’m so glad someone finally brought this up! I’m constantly being judged by the choices I made regarding my professional life (mostly by those who are closest to me, although I’ve already been heavily criticized by complete strangers!). Spilling the beans here, I don’t have a B.A. in languages, nor do I think of getting one anytime soon. College was hell; it turned out to be the very thing I DIDN’T want for my life. It only served to show me what path I did not want to take, honestly. When I started working in the field, I saw how much I could learn from other sources – hence my taking the CELTA, thank you very much. However, I don’t judge those who are taking / have taken their B.A. and are heading to their master’s or whatnot. I just know what works best for me and for me only. I know exactly where I want to be and am doing whatever I can to get there (hello, DELTA! see you in 2018, hopefully). It’s just hurtful that sometimes people have the nerve to come to you and offend you just because you made decisions different from theirs. I’ve been called a phony for not having a degree, undeserving of the title of teacher. I’m glad I’m confident enough in my own choices, knowing there’s more to being a teacher than a piece of paper. Keep up the good work with this column, Natália!

    • Glad it helped someway, if only to validate how you feel. I really don’t understand this need to judge others based on a piece of paper or the lack thereof, whatever that piece of paper may be (for some it’s the CELTA certificate or even a CPE, for others it’s a B.A. diploma or a M.A.). We need, of course, to fight to improve teachers’ conditions — and that includes fighting for better qualifications and for the recognition of our career as a profession –, but we will never achieve that by looking down on one another.

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