An Interview with Neil McMahon - Head of Teacher Training, Buenos Aires
We speak to Neil McMahon, Head of Teacher Training in beautiful Buenos Aires, Argentina.
"You’re helping the world to communicate and understand each other better and that’s got to be a good thing."
Neil McMahon is a British born CELTA and Delta Teacher Trainer with tons of experience and worldwide travel under his belt. He started by backpacking across the world, then went on to work in Prague as a teacher, and eventually Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru and many more places, as a Quality Inspector. Neil has now been settled in Buenos Aires for over 15 years, a place he loves. He talks to us about soaking up the Argentinian atmosphere, the best things to do and places to visit while studying or working there. He also gives us some great advice on preparing for the CELTA and eventually progressing your TEFL career.
Your first degree was in Russian Studies in the UK, have you always been interested in other languages and cultures?
Yes, I have. I remember enjoying French lessons at primary school, probably because it was mostly doing crosswords and singing songs, but then also really enjoyed studying Latin and Russian at secondary school. Then once I had travelled to Russia on a school trip at 14 I was hooked forever.
What were your reasons for starting a career in teaching English?
"I also did a year backpacking around the world, and so wanted a career which would let me continue to travel"
Basically, because I love studying and travelling. Once I’d finished my degree, I didn’t see any obvious way to keep studying, so teaching seemed like the best alternative. At the time I didn’t realize how much more studying teaching English would allow me to do. I also did a year backpacking around the world, and so wanted a career which would let me continue to travel, but also to live in different places and really get to know them rather than just rush through them in a few days.
Why did you decide to move to Prague?
At the end of my certificate course, I went for an interview for a job in Moscow and when I was offered that job, I asked if they had any others as well, and they told me about one job in a secondary school in Prague. As it happened I was already going there the following week on my way to a friend’s wedding in Croatia, so I asked if I could consider it and let them know when I got back from Prague and to my amazement the interviewer said yes. So I went to Prague and one night on my way back to the campsite walking along the river I thought, yes, I’d like to come back and live here for a while.
How did you get into working as an online tutor?
IH developed their Certificate in Online Tutoring (IH COLT) course and offered it to all the schools in the network. I just saw it as a new opportunity to study and develop my teaching, without really thinking about where it might take me. Within a year I was tutoring the course myself and the following year I got involved in the LANCELOT project which pioneered live online teaching.
What are the pros and cons of learning online, do you think?
I think its strengths are also its weaknesses. As most of the communication is asynchronous, it allows for natural reflection and perhaps deeper understanding of issues, if the participants are motivated to push themselves. This can really benefit reflective learners, whether they’re teachers developing or learners of a language. But the lack of face to face communication means there’s a lack of holistic experience when it comes to oral communication. I’d never recommend doing a CELTA entirely online for example, as that continued reinforcement of teaching practice in the tutor’s delivery of input sessions is a crucial element that can’t be reproduced online.
As a Quality Inspector you’ve had the chance to visit some amazing places like Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, to name just a few! How did you manage to secure such an exciting job?
"It’s been great for my development as I’ve incorporated so many ideas from the schools I’ve visited into both my teaching and training"
Yes, it’s been a fantastic opportunity to visit all of those different places and to see how the schools work in such different contexts. Again, I kind of fell into it in my quest for development and further study opportunities. I was travelling to London at New Year for the annual conference and they offered the chance to stay an extra day and do the inspector training, so I applied and was accepted on to the training course. And it’s been great for my development as I’ve incorporated so many ideas from the schools I’ve visited into both my teaching and training, not to mention making lots of great friends along the way.
You have now worked in Buenos Aires for over 15 years! Why did you decide to settle here?
Well, I started going out with my now wife at the end of my first year here, so she claims all the credit, but I don’t think she should take all the blame. I was also quickly enamoured by the people, the weather, the food and the football and have a much better quality of life here than I would back in London or Prague, for example.
What are your favourite things to do in Buenos Aires?
I’ve become very Porteño in my free time over the last decade or so, and really enjoy the traditional Buenos Aires pastimes of barbecuing with friends, drinking Mate in the park, running around the lakes, watching an opera at the Colon or going sailing on the River Plate. And, of course, once my two young boys are old enough, I’ll be taking them to the Bombonera every other Sunday to watch Boca, as I’ve been a season ticket holder since I arrived.
Do you have any insider knowledge on the best places to eat and drink?
"Luckily our CELTA candidates are always getting invited to one by our TP students, so everyone who comes here will get to feel Porteño at least for a day."
I think everyone will tell you the best culinary experience is here is a family barbecue, which is an unforgettable experience. Luckily our CELTA candidates are always getting invited to one by our TP students, so everyone who comes here will get to feel Porteño at least for a day. But Porteños also love eating out any day of the week, and my personal faves would be Los Inmortales or La Americana for pizza, Chiquilin or La Cabrera for barbecue and, of course, my mother-in-law’s for milanesas.
For more information about the course in Buenos Aires, please click here.
What kind of profile do you think is suited to the CELTA course?
"If you love languages and love working with people, you’re going to love CELTA!"
Anyone who is motivated to learn how to become a language teacher will get so much out of the course. As it’s so intense, you need to be ready to work harder than you ever have before and being organised and quick to get down to work help relieve the stress a little. And if you love languages and love working with people, you’re going to love CELTA!
What advice would you give to those looking to prepare for their CELTA?
Rest your mind, rest your body and do everything else you enjoy in life, because once the course starts it’s CELTA, CELTA, CELTA 24/7.
To see more information about our TEFL preparation course, please click here.
From your experience, what is the best way to manage the intensity of the CELTA certificate?
Time-management is key. I’ve always said that lesson planning will take as long as you’ve got and remember having Friday afternoons free for planning the next week’s classes when I first got here as a teacher and I’d often end up only planning one class. You can’t afford to do that on a CELTA. You need to be realistic about how long you can spend on each part of the lesson plan and stick to it. Get as much done as you can the first evening if you have two nights to plan, and make sure you always get enough sleep.
How did you find the Delta changed the way you taught?
"It also opened the way to a much wider range of methodologies and techniques and so I became a lot more experimental"
Whereas on the CELTA you learn how to teach effectively, when you do the Delta modules you discover why what you do in the classroom is effective (or not!). This made me a much better reflector, which in turn helped me develop my teaching more effectively – it’s a virtuous circle! It also opened the way to a much wider range of methodologies and techniques and so I became a lot more experimental and also had many different ways to solve any problems that came up in class.
As a Delta trainer, what improvements do you often see in Delta candidates during their diploma?
I think the most obvious improvement is how their confidence grows as they develop during the course. When you know why you are doing what you are doing and you know that it is effective and why it is effective, that gives your actions and beliefs a confidence and authority that pre-Delta teachers don’t tend to have.
What kind of jobs can Cambridge Delta graduates expect to progress towards in the TEFL industry?
Personally, it helped me to become an academic manager, a teacher trainer and also a materials writer and I think these are the three main paths which Delta may take you down.
For more information about the Delta in Buenos Aires, please click here.
What has been the highlight of your TEFL career so far?
I think one of the best things about teaching and training is they both bring highlights every day. Helping students or trainees really get something while also making them laugh is just as gratifying as organising an online conference for hundreds of teachers.
Why do you think EFL teaching is such a good industry to go into?
Because you’re helping people to help themselves, to better themselves and share themselves. You’re helping the world to communicate and understand each other better and that’s got to be a good thing.
Thanks Neil! Click here to apply for a CELTA or Delta course in Buenos Aires - home to the tango, an amazing atmosphere and huge barbecues!
For more information about Buenos Aires, you can see the Lonely Planet guide.