First word of 2016: Empathy

This time of the year comes loaded with written or spoken lists of resolutions, best quotes, funniest videos, etc. The dictionary publishers love posting word of the year, decade, or century.

Well, for 2016, I’d like to post my first word of the year, which also consists of my resolution: EMPATHY – to learn to be more empathetic along the year.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary presents the following definition:

Simple Definition of empathy

  • : the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings

I remember the first time I heard the adjective for this word in Portuguese: empático. I must have been 8 or 9 visiting my aunt in Sorocaba and a friend of hers had popped in for an afternoon cup of tea. I don’t recall the context but we were all sitting in the living room, I was listening to the grown-ups talking and I must have said something during the conversation that the lady said to me: “você é muito empático, menino” (you’re very empathetic, boy). I had never heard that word before and unsure of its meaning I just mumbled a “thank you”. I knew the words “sympathetic”, “apathetic” and “pathetic”. Later I asked my parents the meaning of “empathetic” and hearing their explanation I could see myself as being called “pathetic” or even “sympathetic”. But empathy didn’t seem to be something to aim for.empathy 2

Later I came to realize the importance of understanding (at least trying to understand) the reasons why people behaved the way they did and also to try to understand the difficulties that my students had in learning something that seemed as clear as day to me.

 

A few years ago I started learning French in an attempt to understand and remember how my students feel when learning English. And I found out that when learning a language motivation and commitment are key. You can’t expect to learn another language by studying 30 minutes once a week (in the best of times).

As a teacher I must cultivate empathy towards my students thus getting less frustrated and trying to find new ways of teaching by motivating and sharing with them different learning strategies. But the law of cause and effect will still be valid: Little time practicing, little learning. More time practicing, more learning.

So this year I’ll try to wear comfortable shoes but not forget what it means to go barefoot.empathy

Cheers,

Happy New Year

 

Mo

Speak and Grow Fluent

I’d say most of my English Language students are upper intermediate or advanced which would lead us to believe that they are comfortable enough to speak using their Second Language.

However, living in a gigantic monolingual country as Brazil, and not working in a

Living on a monolingual island

company that requires international contacts, language learners can find themselves stranded on a single-language island or continent (Portuguese).

Today one of these students – whose class lasts only 90 minutes once a week  – when she doesn’t cancel or must finish earlier – became frustrated when trying to say something in English and blurted out in Portuguese – “tá ficando cada vez mais difícil falar inglês” (it’s becoming increasingly harder for me to speak English). Didn’t she know any of those words or the necessary grammar to say that? Yes, she knew all the words and the structure but CHOSE the easiest way – spitting it out in her mother tongue.

Dear students, I’ve got news for you. If you don’t practice your target language you will NEVER feel comfortable using it. No matter what academic level you’ve reached. And here comes my point:

My student in question likes to play tennis – 2 or 3 times a week – how about English? Once a week, sometimes. I rest my case.

So how can you feel more comfortable speaking in English?

  1. No one to talk to? Talk to yourself. I’m sure you do that in your mother tongue. Do it in English or whatever language you are learning.
  2. Read aloud a paragraph or a page. Everyday. It can be a transcript, an interview, a news story, a cake recipe… . It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re listening and producing sounds in your target language.
  3. To speak you must learn to listen. Focus on a poem, a song, etc and listen to it. Then read it aloud. YouTube has thousands of videos with poems and songs+lyrics for you to practice.
  4. Look for opportunities to use your target language. Can’t travel abroad? Look for a friend or co-worker who’s also learning and practice with them. Look for a place where that language is spoken. For example, São Paulo has a few English language religious services – visit them – it’s a FREE and enriching exspeaking-in-tongues__mediumperience. My favorite English Bible class website (www.believes.com.br) meets every Saturday in the morning. Also Calvary International Church is a great diverse and inclusive community (www.calvary.org.br) and Sampa Community Church (http://sampacommunity.com/1/

Now my students will be saying: “Come on, teacher. I’m too busy. I don’t have time for all that. It takes too much effort.”

Congratulations. You’ve got my point.speaking in tongues

Cheers and happy conversations,

Mo

Can one learn a Foreign Language at a regular school?

Can a student learn a Foreign Language (usually English and/or Spanish) attending classes at a regular school in Brazil? This question has surfaced lately here in this country and many reasons lead to a capital “NO, STUDENTS ATTENDING REGULAR SCHOOLS IN BRAZIL CAN’T AND WON’T LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE”.

Some of the reasons are:

“Classes are too heterogeneous.”

“There are up to 50 students in a classroom. Impossible to teach a language.”

“Teachers are underqualified and unprepared to teach.”

“A regular school has more important goals than teaching a foreign language.”

“Teachers don’t care.”

“Students lack motivation and/or clear objectives.”

“The textbooks are not ___________. (multiple choice) 

a) adequate

b) in sufficient number

c) up-to-date

d) interesting

e) all of the above

“Students cannot fail English classes. They are automatically approved to the next grade.”

“English or Spanish taught as foreign languages have been devalued as school subjects. Not as important as Maths, History or Portuguese.”

“It’s impossible to teach a foreign language using the students’ mother tongue 90% of the time.”

English teaching in Brazilian public schools
English teaching in Brazilian public schools
ENglish Textbook for secondary public schools in Brazil
English Textbook for secondary public schools in Brazil

Phew! The list is long. Should I continue? But I guess you get the gist.

The situation is so bad that some Brazilian congressmen have raised their voices proposing the end of the teaching of foreign languages at public schools due to their failure in reaching any positive results.

Well, let me tell you of my own experience growing up in Brazil and attending public schools from 1st grade to university.

Back in 1976 I was in 5th grade and according to the Ministry of Education, that would be the year for me to start learning a foreign language. Unfortunately, there were few foreign language teachers, and my school didn’t have an English teacher that year. In 6th grade we finally got an English teacher – we would have classes twice a week (each lasting 45 minutes). The teacher very wisely chose not to use a textbook – everything was based on copying from the blackboard and/or dictation. I must say that it was my best contact with English for the next 3 years. In 1978 we moved house and school, in the 7th and 8th grades the new teacher (new to me) used the same basic textbook that her students in 5th grade were using. Needless to say, I had learned more without a textbook. My wife, at roughly the same time – also studying at a state-run school, had her first contact with French (they had no English teachers available, either) but she says that much of the foundation of French grammar she learned in that first year. Both she and myself learned way more than the verb to be or “être”.

The goal and the expectations back then were different from today. Now the emphasis is on oral communication. Back then, we had to learn the grammar and to be able read and write for academic purposes.

But the key factor was that we were lucky to have as our very first foreign language models, teachers who cared, who were motivated and who had a teaching method imperfect as it might have been.

Could I speak English when I started high school? With the exception of isolated words, no, I couldn’t. But I was able to read and interpret basic texts which qualified me to proceed with my studies at university.

Can one learn a Foreign Language at a regular school?

Yes, if both teacher and students reach a consensus on their goals and motivation. And if the Ministry of Education reestablishes the teaching of foreign languages as a relevant discipline and not just one more public policy that looks good on paper but is void of any relevance in real life.

Cheers,

Mo

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

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

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

Growing through trials

Going over my lesson plans in 2014 I came across some notes on the book of James. The author emphasized how God has been patient with us for thousands of years. And sometimes we can go through hardships that are like those the people of Israel  had when they journeyed in the wilderness.

In Deuteronomy 8:15 we read:  He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock.”

Why does God put us in the wilderness? So that we can see what’s in our hearts.

The author of the book of James starts saying that “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). Does he really mean that? Is he making a mistake? Has he been drinking? What drug is he on?

It takes supernatural revelation in the midst of trials  to reveal our needs.

In the book of James we are admonished (I like this word), to consider trials pure joy. Why? Is it because we must suffer in order to pay for our sins or for our ancestors sins? Is it to appease angry gods?

Hardships will help us develop spiritual stamina. In Luke 2:52 we read:  And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” – growing up Jesus most certainly didn’t have it easy but he grew physically, mentally and spiritually.

God wants us to stop going round the same mountain.

We were never promised to always have smooth, sunny days. Storms will come. Let us learn to grow with and despite our trials.

Cheers,

Mo

Sometimes the rain comes
Sometimes the rain comes