If I knew then: A letter to me on my first day of teaching

Hi Moacir,

I know you’re shy and sometimes feel out of place and time. But listen to me: your choice of a teaching career was not by chance. Your Secondary School English teacher saw in you a great potential for languages, in his case – English – and dear old Mr. Santiago – the green cab driver at church, saw your potential as a teacher; and God led the way.

Yes, you will be scared sometimes. At times some students will seem to know more than you. And more mature as well (Chuckles). But you will inspire them to keep on learning and you will learn to get them to contribute to your lessons with what they already know.

Yes, teaching 8th graders will not be easy and due to your lack of experience and support you will feel as if you’ve failed and want to quit.  But years later you will come across some of your former students who will thank you for the lessons and for the inspiration.

You will have to wake up really early in the morning (5:30am) in order to get to your in-company classes in time and your last class will finish at 10:30pm. Hard work will not make you sick, though, just keep focused and do your best. Those crazy hours will also pass.

Mo in his first year as a teacher - July 1988
Mo in his first year as a teacher – July 1988

Remember to stay professional at all times with your students. Yes, you may socialize with them – but remember your job is to teach them not to simply be their friends.

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are “simply” a teacher, or because you are a language teacher who has never been able to travel abroad and who lacks international exposure.

In a few more years you will have had the privilege to visit and even teach in different countries. You will preach in English at a church in Cape Town, South Africa. You will be a teacher of English in the US, Canada and Ireland. You will speak English and Spanish in China. Hard to believe? Yes, but God has amazing things in store for us all. Just wait and see.

In 27 years you will have reached the top of your career as a self-employed teacher but there will not be time to rest in your laurels, you will have to be continuously reinventing yourself and selling your services, training new teachers, presenting conferences on ELT – yes, I know it’s hard to believe me since you don’t even own a landline phone  at home or a car but some day you will be teaching via FaceTime video (better than via satellite) across the globe. Don’t ask me for details, not even I know how it works today.

Keep on learning, growing, doing your best and you will reap the rewards. I know.

Cheers and great teaching,

Mo

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How to be honest without self-sabotaging

I’ve always been told “Honesty is the best policy” and I’ve always shared this advice. I agree with it and subscribe to it. Need I say more?confused

But here comes the “BUT”. Many times blunt honesty may cause as much damage as lies. Let me explain.

As a self-employed teacher I depend on my students’ regular payments to keep a steady source of income. “No work-O, no pay-O”, as I like to say.

At times, a student will be having classes for many months and years, but “HAVING CLASSES” would be a mild exaggeration.

Let’s go through a check list:

Is the student punctual? ✘
Does the student do her/his homework? ✘
Does the student want to do any sort of exercise in class? ✘
Does the student learn from speech corrections? ✘
Does the student allow the teacher to follow any class plan? ✘

Well, just based on this brief shortlist what would be the right thing to do?

My first instinct is to calmly say:

“STOP WASTING MY TIME. PAY UP AND SHUT UP!”

uh… I guess that wouldn’t be the best approach.

I could give them a self evaluation test saying: “It’ll be good for you to see your language progress along these years. You started with me at an intermediate level. Why don’t find out your level now?

The student’s response: “Ok”. Does it mean he or she will do the test right away? NO. In a week? Nope. And questioned about that they’ll simply reply – “I’m afraid to find out I haven’t made much progress”.

So the students know they haven’t done their part, their progress has been stunted (at best) and they’re spending money to keep a feeling of “I’m studying, at least”.

There have been cases that I’ve implied to the student (both implicitly and explicitly) that they should stop having classes “until they are able to focus a little more on their course”.

Does it work? ‘Fraid not. Some ignore the advice, others may get mad at me and stop the course and there my stipend goes out of the window. And me back to square one looking for a new student.

It makes me wonder that my “honesty” can be an act of self-sabotage where the only loss is actually mine.

That drives me to the conclusion that “as long as they’re paying, there’s hope”.

Good classes and don’t give up.
Cheers,

Mo

The NEST v NNEST Conundrum

Lately I’ve come across lots of discussions on the NEST (Native English Speaking Teacher) versus NNEST (Non-Native English Speaking Teacher). Even this quarter’s issue of the Braz-Tesol Newsletter dedicates most of its pages to articles written by Brazilian teachers (notorious NNESTS) in defense of language teaching not being limited to the place one was born.

Non-Native English Speaking Teachers
Non-Native English Speaking Teachers

I even found this site defending TEFL equality http://teflequityadvocates.com

Being Brazilian I couldn’t agree more: A good language teacher will have learned the structure of the language and is aware of steps and techniques that will allow learners to overcome hurdles along the way in their language acquisition process.

However, it must be pointed out that many NNESTs also lack enough language skills to teach highly advanced levels, Ilá Coimbra a NNEST wrote  that “In the Brazilian context, the general level of our English language teachers is B2 (or intermediate – high intermediate English)  far from being enough”; which would justify a language learner’s desire to have lessons with a NEST.

In the English teaching world prejudice against NNESTs or those who look like NNESTs is rampant. Many people would object to hiring a Japanese-American teacher simply because he or she looks “Japanese” no matter the language background they have. In China, Korea, and I’m sure other countries, an African-American teacher will find it hard to overcome prejudice no matter how big their NEST egg is (please, forgive me my pun).

Because of my light skin complexion and light brown eyes, I haven’t suffered – as far as I know – much discrimination as a NNEST. But a case that comes to mind was when I was a Program Director at Literacy Volunteers of America in Danbury, CT. To become a tutor I had to take their Certification Course (a 4-week program and was the only NNEST in a group of about 15 people). After my certification, I was hired as a part-time Program Director/Teacher Trainer/Tutor and I had to interview many prospective students – many of whom had come from Brazil. I knew that they wouldn’t discredit me for being Brazilian but they would immediately start talking to me in Portuguese. In order to encourage them to speak English I’d just say that my name was Mo and proceed with the testing. I taught many of them and always with the condition that they should use English in the classroom. It came to a point when out of a class of 6 students, 4 were from Brazil and sometimes they would talk among themselves in Portuguese. I’d ask them – “what are you talking about?” and they’d say “It’s not for you to understand“. At their graduation – I  finally came out – I told them I could understand everything they had said and I actually WAS from Brazil.

They were mortified, but that taught them a lesson about the possibilities in learning a language really well.

Literacy Volunteers of America
Literacy Volunteers of America

So NEST or NNEST? it will depend on the students’ needs and teachers’ skills and qualifications.

Good Lessons,

Cheers,

Mo

http://teflequityadvocates.com

Is time money? So invest it wisely!

We live in times when it’s almost a status symbol to say we don’t have time. We’re constantly in a rush. Sometimes it feels we’re running like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland: “I’m late. I’m late. I’m late for a very important date”!

Invest your time wisely
Invest your time wisely

This week, a student of mine, Rodrigo, was saying that to his defense he hadn’t had time to do his homework. He has 2 young daughters and a wife to care for at home. And his work is very demanding.

It sounded as if I gave him homework as a form of punishment. Actually, I couldn’t care less about it. Do it. Don’t do it. I won’t be any wiser because of that.

The only reasons I give students homework is to give them direction to review what was seen in class, to practice reading and writing and to expand vocabulary.

I asked Rodrigo: “Ok, let’s have a math class (incorporating other subjects to English): how many hours do we have in a week?”

After fumbling a little  – 24 hours in a day – 7 days in a week … and spilling some zeros on the floor, we settled at 168 hours a week. He has 1 hour of English class per week.

“Ok,” he said. “But I have to sleep”. “Right”, I said. “So let’s be very optimistic and say you sleep 8 hours a night – in a week? 56 hours – that still leaves you with 112 hours to expose yourself to English”.

In a year? 8760 hours – if he never misses a class he’ll have had 52 hours worth of  English classes. Will that be enough for any student to gain fluency?

You know the answer. So dear students, if you want to learn you will have to devise your own ways to better use your time – be creative, think out of the box.

Rodrigo likes football/soccer – great hobby – listen to podcasts about it. Read a news article online every day about the British League, translate one paragraph from the sports section in his local newspaper into English, etc.

The secret is not setting aside some crumbs of minutes to “STUDY ENGLISH” but to incorporate English in your everyday life.

Cheers,

Mo

Invest your time wisely
Invest your time wisely

How can I say…?

I constantly insist with my students that learning a language shouldn’t be their goal – their raison d’être. They study English or French or Spanish because they hope to use it when traveling, or for professional and personal development, for instance.

Today I’ve been reminded of Alice – a great, hardworking student in her professional life but who refuses to review or practice anything taught in class.

Alice loves to talk and her professional vocabulary is quite good since she is involved in billing international clients and can write quite well, having a good grammar domain. But she’s got a limited vocabulary when outside her professional jargon.

Her favorite question is: “How can I say ___X____ in English?”

One day, in a 20 minute interval, she asked the following list in Portuguese:

Teacher…, How can I say…

1. ócio

2. sovina

3. contestação

4. juventude

5. garra

6 pegadinha

7. sangue frio

8. costurar

9. não pisque!

10. sensível

11. sensato

12. retina

13. estar acordado

14. fábrica de dinheiro

15. medo

16. acompanhante

17. tenho o costume

18. sou banana

19. catarata

20. cicatrizar

21. médico

22. particular

23. meta

24. avental

Knowing that so many words would be gone with the wind as soon as she had walked out of the room, I decided to play a game with her. Instead of being her

Words carried by the wind
Words carried by the wind

human super dictionary faster than google translator, I wrote down the list on a sheet of paper and gave it to her. I told her: “Remember that words must be used in context, so look up the translations of the words but check the meaning in English to see if they fit the context you want to place them in. By looking them up and writing them down you’ll be able to remember them in the future.”

She agreed and left – this was in March – now June 2015 (at least we’re in the same year) she hasn’t done the so-called “homework”. I’ve challenged her a few times but she says she doesn’t like to be pressured. She is hard pressed enough doing her job.

So, for our next class we are going to sit down (or stand up – if based on the latest studies on how standing up is better to your health) and go over the list and see how much she remembers and can use in context.

Keep on trying,

Cheers,

Mo

CLOTHES MAKE THE MAN, THE MONK AND THE TEACHER

Having taught all sorts of students along the years, ranging from athletes and high school students to top executives in Brazil, the US and Ireland I have grown to appreciate the importance of how the teacher dresses himself. Nothing fancy, but a smart casual as they say in the UK and Ireland would be perfectly fitting for most occasions.

Clothes do make the man, the monk and the teacher
Clothes do make the man, the monk and the teacher

Of course, common sense rules, but what I’ve observed along my career with other teachers of English as a second or foreign language is that many don’t care about how they are dressed. They’ve embraced that “raggedy doll look” of torn jeans and a T-shirt although much appealing as a uniform they might be, I don’t think they are the right fit for a meeting room. There’s a case of a teacher who, not satisfied with the piercing and the tattoos, (not there’s anything wrong with them), also wears a bloody cap. DURING CLASS – INDOORS.  hello… has he not had time to comb his braids?

So, my advice to any teacher is:

1. dress properly (not talking about designer clothes)

2. Cleanliness is next to godliness (I kid you not)

3. Take off that bloody cap once indoors.

Good lessons to you all,

Cheers,

Mo

When enough is enough or not

How long should a student stay with the same teacher? That’s a question quite often asked.

Answers may vary – some schools rotate teachers at the end of a stage/level. Others change teachers month. There are schools which rotate teachers every class (which is a strategy to keep students attached to the school not to a particular teacher, given the high turnover in the industry).

My wife started learning English at a language school years ago, which rotated teachers at the end of every stage, but she had a teacher – Wallace* – who had noticed that students were not reaching higher levels at the expected pace. So Wallace tried an experiment staying with the same group of students from beginner to advanced in order to identify where the weakest link was. When reaching the Advanced level -C1 – students were more confident in language production and more fluent. But the experiment  was inconclusive whether the positive outcome was due to the same teacher or whether Wallace was a better teacher than average, or the rotation made students fluctuate and slide back in their progress.

A few weeks ago, my Student Rosie* told me of a dream she’d had that I was in her bedroom answering phone calls on her landline and had asked her not to disturb me. What would have triggered such a bizarre dream?

Well, the night before she’d been talking to her mother saying she’d have to get up a little earlier the next day because she had English class. Her mother asked her if she was still having lessons with that teacher who wore glasses and had a captivating smile (author’s imagination) and Rosie* nodded. Her mother asked how long she’d been having classes with me and she said “nearly 10 years maybe”.

Then I told her that it would be around 19-20 years – on and off of course. I moved to the US for a period and then to Ireland. But it made me wonder what would make someone pay a teacher almost long enough for the latter’s retirement.

For many years she was what we would call a regular student – using textbooks, doing or trying to do homework, etc. But in recent years, we’ve been basically having “communication-based” lessons, sometimes throwing in some work-related material or presentation she would have to go through.

She has achieved a fluent advanced English level – which does not eliminate mistakes. She still confuses he/she  and his/her/your. Sometimes, tenses are a nightmare, but she feels perfectly capable of carrying on a meeting or phone conference, or making a presentation.

Now, am I taking advantage of a situation and should tell her to terminate her classes? or is she still benefiting from those classes?

After a serious and hard analysis, I came to the latter conclusion. Both psychologically and linguistically she still can improve and she does, although slowly and haphazardly.

Sure, most people will benefit from a 3-5 year language program, but the same way that some professionals seek continuous improvement so some language learners require and can afford long-term language assistance.

Cheers,

Moknowingwilling

* all names have been changed to prevent any legal issues.