Back in February, after a spell of unemployment and semi-homelessness, I decided to sink most of what was left in my savings account into a trip to Phnom Penh to do a CELTA course there. I had previously spent some years working in China teaching EFL and thought it might be a good move.
I had never been to Cambodia before. One of the curses of my life is basically rushing in to a situation with no experience, no research. So it proved this time.
I had to have an online Skype interview with one of the tutors after applying for the course, a friendly and seemingly professional American guy. For most of the interview, the connection was terrible, he kept saying he couldn’t hear me, but I was doing my very best to communicate, and the result was that I was offered a position on the course.
I at once had to pay a $500 deposit, non-refundable. I was sent a lengthy pre-course study task to be working on and began making plans to tie up my affairs in the UK, and travel to Cambodia in late April, with a view to staying there and working there on a long-term basis. I exchanged emails with the school in Phnom Penh where I would be doing the course, requesting basic info on visas, accommodation, course times and requirements, etc. I let the school know that I would arrive in Cambodia on April 17 in time for the beginning of the course.
After the initial emails about basic info, I didn’t hear from the school again until I got to Cambodia. When I arrived I contacted them and asked if it would be OK to visit the school and make contact with the course tutor. I was asked to get in touch with the English Course leader, a person whose name I didn’t recognise and with whom I had previously had no contact. He turned out to be a guy from the north-east of England with a strong regional accent I could barely understand.
Just about the first thing he said to me was, “we’ve been trying to get in touch with you for ages, we weren’t sure you were still coming, are you sure you want to do the course?” I was astonished. I had not received any emails from the school for many weeks, there was no other way they had ever got in touch with me. I had paid a deposit, been clear about the time of my arrival, come all the way to Cambodia at the time I had said, I couldn’t believe my commitment to the course was being questioned.
He seemed resolutely unimpressed and told me he would have to discuss the matter “with the school” before he could give the go-ahead for my participation. He called again shortly afterwards to say there had been “a communication breakdown” between myself and the school, and that as long as I paid all my fees at once I could still do the course.
I did so of course, and turned up at the appropriate time to begin the course.
I am afraid that I almost at once began to feel I had made an awful mistake. The English “Course Leader” seemed to have conceived a dislike for me which he made little effort to hide. I found I had to endure incessant snide looks, eye-rolls and sneering remarks from him, a feeling of being unwelcome. The change of food was making me sick every day, I was ill and weak, (the school denied students the right to use the elevator, and so there was no choice but to climb 8 flights of steps several times a day in tropical heat.)
I discreetly asked the American tutor about the possibility of withdrawing from the course, I mentioned to him I was having difficulty with his English colleague and superior. He somewhat ruefully responded, “well, you wouldn’t be the first.” He also told me of course that it was unlikely I would be refunded ANY of the money I had paid for the course, which by now added up to nearly $3000. He advised me to talk to the Cambodian admin lady who was it seemed the only native on the staff who had responsibility for the CELTA.
I tried to do this the following morning, quietly beginning a discussion with the Cambodian lady only to be interrupted by the Englishman, who took her off somewhere. A few minutes later he reappeared and directed me to follow him to “where we are going to be today”.
I was led into his office, where I found the American already waiting. He sat by saying nothing while the Englishman gave me an aggressive ‘dressing-down’, blaming me for ‘bad behavior’ and disrespectful conduct. He also told me, “if I had interviewed you for this course, you would not be here.” (I was amazed by this, it seemed the very height of unprofessional conduct to me, to say that to ANY student, whatever they may or may not have been guilty of.)
I said that in that case I would be content to withdraw from the course and asked that my money be refunded. “It is not YOUR money,” was the gloating reply. “It is OUR money. You agreed from the very beginning that no refunds would be made, whatever your reason for leaving the course.”
I reminded him of the “communication breakdown”, the many weeks that had passed with no communications from the school, the attitude of unconcern from him when I first got in touch after arrival in Phnom Penh. I suggested that in view of that, and the fact that I was only just beginning day 3 of the course, I should be entitled to at least a partial refund of about 70% of what I had paid.
This just got him literally ranting and raving at me for what seemed like ages, denying that he had ever spoken of a “communications breakdown”, denying that he had tried to discourage me from even beginning the course, and refusing to consider refunding me anything. I was humiliated by the situation I was in, profoundly intimidated, and impotently angry.
I withdrew from the course, (I saw no way to continue with it given the circumstances,) and somehow got back home to the UK. Every email I sent to the English “course leader” requesting info on who to complain/appeal to was either ignored or the response was a baiting bullying attempt to get me to declare in writing that I had withdrawn from the course by my own free will.
The school has of course refused at every step to refund the money I so foolishly parted with, it has been a truly terrible blow for me, I am now receiving medical treatment for depression and anxiety, my personal circumstances are more desperate than they have been for many years.
You may be wondering what is the point of this story. One thing is of course, I would like to urge caution on any one considering doing a CELTA abroad in any country that you do not have some familiarity with. The CELTA is a money-making racket for these foreign schools who are allowed to cut the cake as they like to suit themselves, I don’t believe Cambridge really care about that, it seems there is no way to challenge them.
Another is I would like ANY advice or suggestion about what to do next. Has anyone else been in a similar predicament? How to cope with it?
Finally I would like to publicize my story, give it a wider audience. What is the best way to do that?
I really think people need to be warned of the dangers of doing the CELTA. In these uncertain times it may seem like a wise investment, a way forward, even a way out. My advice is NEVER do a course where you are told up front “no refunds under any circumstances”, ask yourself why they need to protect themselves with such a proviso.
I’m sorry to hear that you had this experience.
I’m surprised to hear this about a CELTA centre, and I suppose it shows that even if a centre offers a renowned course such as the CELTA, it doesn’t guarantee that the centre itself will be free from problems.
I understand why you are urging caution about taking the CELTA abroad. It’s important to remember though that the CELTA itself is a very good course. It is the centre providing the course which caused the problem here, which could happen with any TEFL course, not only CELTA.
I think what your experience shows therefore is the importance of doing thorough research about any centre before enrolling on a course. Check online reviews, Google the name of the centre, find out as much as you can about it. Centres offering “No refunds under any circumstances” should indeed be treated with caution.
I hope this hasn’t put you off what can be a very rewarding and enjoyable career. Have you thought about taking the CELTA in the UK? From what you’ve said, I am guessing that your funds are probably low, so it may seem like a huge financial investment, but the chances of a similar experience happening again, especially in the UK, are very small, and it would open the door for you to teach virtually anywhere in the world. In a lot of places, you would be able to save enough quite quickly to recoup the cost of both courses.
I hope that helps, and I’d be interested to know what you decide to do.
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