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

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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

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

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.

Present not so Perfect

A feature of the English language that many Brazilian students find hard to use is the Present Perfect Tense – students usually grasp the concept: it uses the auxiliary HAVE or HAS and the main verb in the PAST PARTICIPLE. In Brazilian Portuguese, this tense can be used but most of the time we use  either the simple past or the simple present to refer to a situation. Examples: Faz tempo que ele mora aqui. “He’s lived here for a long time”. Ele saiu agorinha mesmo. “He’s just left.” So, in order to get them used to the new tense I have them practice it in Affirmative, Interrogative and Negative Sentences Example: I have been a teacher since 1986. Have I been a teacher since 1971? I haven’t been a teacher since 1971. Usually the students grasp the idea of duration – since 1989 / for 26 years, etc. Something that started in the past and comes to the present. Something that’s not over yet,present-perfect or that’s been finished recently. Let’s say that’s the basic usage of the Present Perfect. So we explain that usually with key words like since, for, yet, Present Perfect will be used. Is it a prescription? Yes. Does it work? Theoretically, yes. The students do the exercises fine. But when they’re in open conversation they drop these pearls: “I didn’t have a vacation, yet” or “I didn’t went to Poland, yet”. Bear in mind I’m talking about Advanced Students. Despite the bad rep grammar drills have nowadays, until someone comes up with a US$ 30,000 language pill, there will always be the necessity to practice until your Present is Perfect.

Lost and Found in Translation

This morning while I was listening to Richard Vaughan’s Podcast recorded in Madrid, Spain (http://www.ivoox.com/podcast-richard-vaughan-live_sq_f180769_1.html),  he mentioned an incident decades ago at a company where he was teaching. He was having lunch with a fellow American and when that “Puritan” American saw that every table had a bottle of “Agua Sin Gas” – chapitas-tapas-corona-sin-uso-agua-de-mesa-con-y-sin-gas-13606-MLA75273278_3475-Ohe was in shock at the level of sinfulness in a Catholic country. Yes, Virginia; you know “agua sin gas” simply means “still water” not the opposite of “holy water”. Another teacher started his lesson asking his students very tongue in cheek: “Today we’re going to be talking about Great Tits. Do you know what tits are? And one Spanish student shyly translated: “tetas”. After all laughed the teacher explained that he was going to be talking about birds and GreatTit002vocabulary related. In the UK many people know lots of birds species- it’s a national pastime, while most people in Iberian countries, for example, know very few bird species.

Translation activities in class were swept under the carpet for many years in favor of total immersion in Language 2. However, the knowledge the student has of their own mother tongue and culture can and should be used to help them tread around the traps of the language they’re now learning.

A simple exercise that I enjoy giving my students is getting them a hFound_in_Translationeadline and first paragraph of the day’s newspaper in their language and ask them to tell me the gist of the story in English. Then they’ll try to translate the sentence. Finally they will write it down (it could be assigned as homework if they ever had to do it).

I remember years ago a teacher of French (of course he HAD to be French) told my wife that a foreigner would NEVER learn to write as a native speaker. That statement is open to interpretation since many people can’t write well in their OWN languages. But I raise another point: does the average learner of a second language need to write like a native speaker or simply be able to write in a clear and objective way?

That leads us to what happened in France this week – all my students saw, heard and read something about the cowardly terrorist attacks in Paris and other areas. So many words came up for translation – Muslim, Censorship, Threat, Grey Area, etc.

As we could see this week some things never get lost in translation.

#JeSuisCharlie

Mo

Teaching Down Memory Lane

Distance and time make the heart grow fonder, they say. And that’s quite true. Today I remembered out of the blue a time back in the late 80s and early 90s, yimagees, not even cellphones were around back then. Which meant that I had to call in the school every day (at the time we didn’t have a landline at home – they were expensive and distributed in a very limited area. You could wait for years until the state phone company – Telesp – installed your phone or buy it on the black market). So I’d go to a pay phone some 4 blocks up my street to make a call and if the school wanted to contact me there was my next door neighbor’s phone who graciously would take down any messages. And if a student cancelled the class some 2 or 3 hours before the set time, I would have wasted my trip to that company. No flowers on the way, huh?

I was teaching for 2 language schools in São Paulo specialized in In-House Teaching. They’d hire a teacher, “train” them for 1 week and place them in different companies – usually multinationals like Unilever, DuPont, etc and the teacher would work with small groups of 4 to 5 people or 1-1 lessons. Little has changed in this industry regarding how teachers are selected – 1st – can you speak English? … 31st – can you teach?image

One of the schools, I can’t remember their name, let’s call it “Hello Brazil”, was located on Vanderlei street in Perdizes, a rather hilly area of São Paulo. Since I didn’t have a car at that time, I can assure you I was in very good shape going up and down those hills.

The school followed the “communicative approach” – a typical mantra in language teaching for the past 30 years – just talk and if possible throw in some grammar points. But with a twist: since teacher turnover was and still is pretty high in the language industry – many people choose teaching because they’re between jobs (if Brazilians), or need to fund their travels (if foreigners)- the school had come up with an interesting method – The students would keep a folder for the teacher in their office and teachers would be assigned to specific students on a daily basis – so that students would not be attached to any single teacher (the reason given was that in that way, students would be exposed to different accents, really?). Of course the system had its holes, some students liked my classes more and demanded I should be their regular teacher. They could tell the difference between a TEACHER and a person who teaches. The teacher at the end of every class would write a brief comment on what had been covered that day so the next teacher would have an idea. Of course, some teachers, need I say that?,  would forget to jot down any input or wrote in a secret code no one could understand.

Sao Paulo was already a gigantic city at that time and the offices of many corporations were based in the southern part of the city. Centro Empresarial de São Paulo – was oimagene of those office complexes located far from the school office or my home. Classes started at 12 noon so in order not to be late I’d make plans to arrive at least 30 minutes early. When the winds were in my favor I could even get there 1 hour earlier but what would I do while waiting? The “ground floor” contains stores and restaurants and some couches where I’d sit for a while and doze off. Security was already an issue back then. I guess it’s always been a biggie in São Paulo, it’s just gotten worse. So they had security guards walking around the corridors and hallways keeping an eye on anything or anyone suspicious. More than once they would wake me up asking if I was feeling ok. I don’t recall any drooling nor nightmare fits in my sleep (which doesn’t exclude their occurrence). The fact is that the guards were instructed not to allow any “loitering” in the premises. Basically you had to keep walking or they’d invite you to leave. At the right time I’d go upstairs to meet the students for their class and immediately vacate the building as soon as classes had finished.

Those days helped me build  and improve my teaching skills which no university would have been able to do.

Cheers and Teach well,

Mo