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From EFL Freelancer to Founder and CEO: My Chapter in 'More Than a Gap Year' by Martin Hajek



Mohamed Oummih started teaching English at LaGuardia Community College, in New York City, before moving to France. Over the next 12 years, he taught English in-company, at university level, and worked as Director of Studies for an ESP-focused language center. After a year at the African Leadership Academy in South Africa, he got his DELTA, and a year later trained up as a CELTA trainer. He has trained teachers across Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America, and Asia. He founded English for Africa, a CELTA center in Morocco, in 2019, and has been running teacher training courses (TKT, CELTA, DELTA Module 1) in online, face-to-face, and hybrid formats ever since.


Read his chapter in 'More Than a Gap Year' and explore his remarkable journey from a freelance English teacher to a founder and CEO.


" One of the two most consistent things about my personality, since I first started to interact with institutions, is my passionate dislike of paperwork and bureaucracy. Indeed, one of the main factors leading to my entry into the world of language teaching, after being trained in dramatic writing and French literature in college, was the lack of paperwork I had to do in my first forays into the domain, as a language lab tutor at LaGuardia Community College in New York City, and then as a Business English trainer in Paris. I was a language development commando, dropping in on clients, motivating them, cheering them up, having fun, teaching them some English, and disappearing into the night. I was young, irresponsible, care-free, and possibly not very good at my job.


But I didn’t have much paperwork to do, and my students liked me, I think, in retrospect, mainly because I smiled a lot and was young—that’ll basically win you most popularity contests you might enter. For the first twelve years of my career, I had no training as a teacher, and apparently none of the companies I worked for thought this was an issue. I worked at prestigious Parisian universities, taught specialized classes in Business English and other English for Specific Purposes courses, and worked with a number of top French CEOs with just my wits to get me by, and, of course, youth and a smile.


The importance of a name (Mohamed or Maurice?)


If this doesn’t sound like much of a career, it’s because it wasn’t. I didn’t think of it as a career, nor did I think of myself as a person who had a career. It was a way to have a good time while paying some (though admittedly not all) my bills. I did, on occasion, want to throw in the towel, for mainly two reasons.


The first was because my first name is Mohamed, or to be more accurate it was because of some people’s attitude to my name being Mohamed. Several employers wanted me to change or hide my name, and so, for the space of a few weeks, I was known to my students as Maurice. I realize now how shocking this is, but at the time (this was in the early noughties) I really didn’t mind—but I also didn’t really feel like lying, and so I never did this again.


However, when it came to finding work in other countries, my first name became a source of much frustration. It was basically a non-starter: regardless of how much experience I had, or how well-written my cover letters and CVs were, no training plus no Anglo-Saxon-sounding name meant no work.


The second reason was boredom. I had been doing the fun, care-free, friendly teacher act for years, and while wanting to help people was second nature to me, I also wanted to do something different. And so I started to branch out into translation and interpreting, and finally hooked myself up with a job as a machine translation specialist (again, with no training …) at one of France’s top environmental services companies.


Welcome to Africa


Like most breaks, the one that finally got me fully back into teaching came about through an acquaintance who knew of a school in Johannesburg that was looking for an English teacher: the first African Leadership Academy. I wowed the top management in an online demonstration lesson by copying something I’d seen in Persian class (I was young, so I took an initiation to Persian class) and got the job.


And I loved it.


The founders of the school had brought together about a hundred students from all around Africa to be offered a world-class high school education, and it was my job to help the contingent from non-English speaking countries—about a quarter of the student body—to cope with the new English-language learning environment. I provided linguistic, emotional, and religious support to the mostly francophone and Muslim minority. It felt like an important job, I did it well, and it convinced me that teaching is where my heart was.


A year later, though, I was back in France, and faced with a conundrum: I wanted to continue teaching, but I knew that I would get bored again if I didn’t find ways to add variety to my career (yes, by now, in my late thirties, I had started to think about having a career). And this is why I went for the DELTA.


Trained to teach at last


It took me almost three years to get the DELTA, and to say it was eye-opening is an understatement. The variety and depth of English language teaching was revealed to me at last—more than just a relationship between a teacher and their students sprinkled with exercises and games, language teaching came alive to me as a space of nearly endless creativity. I loved designing lesson materials! I loved planning strange and new types of lessons! I loved how dynamic, humane, and fun my trainers were!


And it was horrible! The DELTA, I mean. As almost anyone who has taken this course will tell you, it is frustrating, painful, and mind-bogglingly tough. Coming to it without a CELTA, and only a few linguistics and didactics classes at French university taken seven years before (remember the Persian?), I somehow scraped through. And now, finally, I could travel to teach.


Moving around


Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Turkey, Rwanda, and finally Morocco, all in the space of one year. Sometimes I left of my own volition, and sometimes I was, well, helped out the door …


Because I couldn’t deal with the bureaucracy, nor the hierarchy, nor the incompetence. I just wanted to be in the classroom and do good by my students, but at least in those first jobs, that wasn’t always the top priority.


I was in Morocco, which is my parents’ country of origin, when I saw an advertisement to become trained up as a CELTA trainer. A few emails and an interview later, I was on a plane to Turkey to start a new career.


CELTA training rocks


It was when I joined the team of trainers and fellow CELTA trainers-in-training that I first felt that I was a part of a community of practitioners; in other words, the feeling most teachers have when they take the CELTA was what I experienced for the first time when I became a CELTA trainer.


Who is a CELTA trainer? At the most basic level, the CELTA trainer is a teacher, but they are also gatekeepers, standard bearers, and standard creators. For me, becoming a CELTA trainer was the opportunity to share the beauty of the classroom, and to engender beauty in the classroom. There’s a nobility in teaching, but not the nobility of selfless sharing; I’ve never felt myself imbued with a mission to make people better than they are, and I don’t have much time for the argument that teaching makes a difference. Perhaps it does, but in the grand scheme of things I’m happier not thinking about the difference I make than considering the possibility of having made things even worse than they originally were.


For me, the nobility that has always attracted me to teaching is the nobility of the vagrant lover, the dilettante, the artist who loves his art more than he loves the people who love his art. The mise en abyme of CELTA training is that of the artist making art by making others artists; once removed from the classroom space, the trainer observing the lesson, the trainer giving feedback doubles, triples, quadruples their presence in the magical scenario of a successful language lesson.


I realized this emotionally, more than conceptually, during the two months I spent in Istanbul training up to be a CELTA trainer. In the ensuing ten years of CELTA training, on a few rare occasions, reality has caught up to this dream-image of what teacher training can be. I would not hesitate to go through it again for those few moments: a trainee teacher overcoming their propensity to echo; a classroom that falls in love with a teacher who has learned to connect on a more human level; a team of trainee teachers who will stay in touch with each other until the end of their careers.


Setting up English for Africa

But even magic eventually gets boring to the magician, and I found myself on an umpteenth CELTA course, while working for the British Council in Singapore, wondering what it was all for. My wife was pregnant (I think that has a lot to do with it) and I was training teachers who were already pretty good, and living in a country where being pretty good was never good enough. I started thinking about Morocco, my family’s country of origin, and a place that I had lived and worked in just before moving to Asia, where the state of English language teaching was somewhere close to atrocious. I decided that I did want to make a difference after all by setting up a CELTA center there.


Within a few months of taking this decision, I was given official authorization to open up a CELTA center. I’m still stunned by how easy it was, given that I didn’t have physical premises, didn’t have a pre-existing language school, and didn’t even have any connections (my networking skills are pretty awful). Cambridge had just changed the requirement that new centers be pre-existing language schools, and I obtained authorization based on a site visit to the venue I had been planning to use for our first course.


I did have a couple of things going for me, though. Firstly, this wasn’t my first time setting up a CELTA center: I had obtained authorization for British Council Lyon’s CELTA center in France. Secondly, it was high time there was another CELTA center in Morocco. The one that was there had been enjoying an absolute monopoly for many years, and had used it to jack up prices and become almost the most expensive CELTA course in the world. Indeed, my decision to launch the authorization process really came to fruition when I applied for freelancer work in Izmir, and I was told that a quarter of the 40 candidates they were training that summer had traveled there from Morocco. The time had come for an affordable alternative to come to Morocco.


I also benefited from other trainers I’d met along the way as a freelancer, and who shared with me their experiences (and sometimes the documents they used) when setting up their own centers.


My struggles with marketing


Did I mention that one of the two most consistent things about my personality is my dislike of paperwork? The other: a profound and far-reaching antipathy towards marketing.


When English for Africa (EfA) was launched, on paper, it had a heck of a lot going for it. Low overhead costs (no premises unless they were being rented for a CELTA course), a growing market with a single over-priced competitor, and high quality (ahem, if I do say so myself).


What I didn’t have was a marketing plan. I started off posting about my courses on FB groups and getting really excited if a potential client wrote me a PM asking for information. Having no staff, I would answer and spend hours on what amounted to pretty unpromising leads. I eventually taught myself about other social media advertising tools, managed to create a presence on Google, and created my own website. The latter looked great to me, just as a really ugly baby will look great to a new mom. It was actually pretty bad, but slightly, if not a lot, better than nothing.


What I didn’t manage to do, in those first years, is set up an Instagram account (a fad, I kept thinking …) nor a Twitter account (though I did get a friend to do this for me). Nor did I pay for advertising, set up a YouTube page, or do any direct marketing, be it online or in person.


And of course, I ended up asking myself, “Why the heck not?” I knew I should be doing these things, that I should be boasting and preening and making myself look like the bee’s knees of teacher training in Morocco. I wanted the company to succeed, as did the people (in particular my family) who were depending on its success for their future.


From Maurice to Africa


Examples of poor marketing choices are plentiful in the company’s history, but so is my refusal to bow down to marketing logic. I named the company English for Africa because I believe in English being the future of Africa; that not being everyone’s position, I have had numerous messages asking me if our CELTA courses are only for Africans, and countless others questioning our legitimacy as a CELTA center.


Being from New York, and having taught English across the globe, I could have legitimately opted for a number of names for the company (Empire English? Talk like a New Yorker?). But I don’t feel attached to any of the countries I’ve lived in, nor do I feel represented by any institution, so I chose to name the company based on its purpose. And its purpose is to help bring high quality teacher training to Africa.


Did I know that Africa is perceived as being synonymous with poor quality, poor service, and scams? Or that Africa, as a brand name, doesn’t sell? I guess that, business man or not, selling just isn’t my top priority. And my name is not Maurice.


COVID-19 hurt us and then kept us afloat


The industry I was entering, like many others, was radically transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. From strict exclusion of online teaching as a vector for teaching practice assessment, it became the mode in which EfA ran its first CELTA course. The economy in Morocco was destroyed, and the purchasing power and investment in training collapsed locally. Although the size of our market, theoretically, expanded to include the whole world, competition expanded too: suddenly, it didn’t come just from our highly priced local competitor, it came from dozens of CELTA centers that were far better known, equipped, and staffed than my own.


But not having to hire premises for our courses did keep costs down considerably, which helped us to lower our prices and become a little more competitive. Perhaps the biggest boon from this period, for us, was the creation of the mixed mode course, in which the two trainers can divide the course between an online portion and a face-to-face portion. The online portion could be located abroad, and I could teach the face-to-face part of the course, meaning that expenses in bringing foreign trainers to Morocco, and paying for their accommodation, were no longer an issue. The problem? People didn’t want mixed mode courses—the market wasn’t ready for them. Finding the right option isn’t easy when you’re facing an entirely new challenge.


What’s next?


The ambition of EfA in the coming years is to launch CELTA courses across the continent. Purchasing power is low, but as English continues to spread, investment in high quality teacher training will be the tipping point for many on the job market, not to mention schools which increasingly require their teachers to be CELTA certified.


Other African endeavors I’ve touched upon already have also grown. The African Leadership Academy dragged me back into teaching in the late noughties, when Afro-optimism was in vogue, and it later gave birth to the African Leadership University located in Kigali, Rwanda. Afro-optimism isn’t in vogue, but as you’ve probably noticed by now, I’m not so interested in following what’s in style. I’m here for Africa, and for improving the quality of teacher training wherever I can. Maybe I’ll be able to help you too."


For those eager to delve into 'More Than a Gap Year Adventure,' I invite you to explore the book, now available since its release on February 14, 2024. You can find more information here: (https://teflincolombia.com/2024/02/14/more-than-a-gap-year-adventure/)

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