Jennifer Soto: We need to adapt to this new reality

The idea to conduct interviews for this blog represents a nice opportunity to get in touch with professionals involved in different educational contexts. Today’s interviewee is a Delta-qualified teacher and entrepreneur who decided to set up a company that provides its services fully online. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did!

Jennifer Soto started her teaching career in 2011 at Universidad Central de Venezuela, where she obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Modern Languages. After completing her CELTA in 2015, Jennifer began working for the British Council in Caracas. In 2018, she was promoted to the role of Academic Coordinator and obtained her Delta. She then moved to Colombia, where she co-founded in January 2020. In addition to online classes, this Medellín-based company provides translation, content writing, proofreading and editing services. Jennifer currently lives in Canada.

Jennifer Soto,

Most teachers got involved in online teaching only because of the pandemic. You co-founded in January, so I assume that you decided to make the switch to online classes by choice. What prompted you to do that?

I’ve always wanted to create something of my own in the typical ‘I want to be my own boss’ way. However, I wouldn’t use the word ‘choice’ to describe my circumstances. When I relocated to Colombia with my husband, we knew that we would be moving again relatively soon, which meant I couldn’t commit to working with any company. I started teaching private classes thanks to my colleagues’ recommendation and soon realized that it was the perfect moment to create a website and develop the idea of offering different language services online, working with other language professionals and giving people solutions for their language needs.

What does a typical class with your company look like? What methods and resources do you use?

I learned a lot in the British Council and many of the ideas are applied in our classes. We use the communicative approach and a typical class will start with the teacher and the student discussing a topic to break the ice and start showing what the focus of the class will be. After that, they will read, watch or listen to something that will be the framework for the rest of the classwork. The student will focus on the main aim of the lesson and then do speaking or writing activities in which they can use what they’ve learned so that they can internalize the information.

Our students will always have the opportunity to practice and communicate in the language they’re learning. Teachers are not the ones speaking the whole class like in a lecture; they interact with students, ask questions, play games, etc. Students will be working, analyzing, and using the language instead of just sitting in front of their computer receiving information.

We use some coursebooks as guidance, but we also like to utilize authentic materials like movies, songs, news articles, etc. This gives students a variety of sources to work with and shows them real examples of the language. Students sometimes suggest topics or materials and we adapt our lessons to include their ideas. We try to personalize our courses as much as possible and students are completely involved in their learning process.

You deliver your classes via Zoom. Why did you choose it? Have you tried any other tools?

We were already familiar with the platform, which has many useful features for online lessons like having breakout rooms for activities in pairs or small groups. Zoom makes it easier for teachers to plan more dynamic activities. It is definitely user-friendly, so it was easy to adopt even for those who hadn’t used Zoom before. That said, we are thinking of working with Microsoft for Education to give our learners a more complete and better experience with a combination of programs. It would allow us to use Teams to teach our lessons, upload our material and students’ production to the cloud and have live chats with other students and teachers.

Jennifer Soto,

Let me ask you about something that most teachers in Colombia have had to deal with. Do you think that students can get the most out of online classes if they don’t have access to a PC and have to use their phone?

The experience certainly won’t be the same, so the teacher needs to adapt their lesson or give those students alternatives. Writing on the teacher’s screen might be too complicated for phone users, so the teacher can ask them to write their answers in the chat box. If there’s a reading activity, the teacher can send the text in advance so that the student can print it or have it on their phone, and so on. Although using a phone is not ideal, it can be done, and students can actually improve as much as if they were working on their computers. Of course, it will depend on how motivated they are and how much support their teacher gives them.

I have a colleague who teaches Math through WhatsApp in Brazil, and if he can do that, then I can teach languages! Seriously, we are lucky that we can do so many things with our phones. We actually have a WhatsApp group where our teachers and students share links, videos, quizzes and even memes to practice English outside the class.

Most of us switched to online classes practically overnight, so it took us some time to get used to the new situation. What would you recommend to teachers who are new to this?

To switch to online learning as well. I wasn’t that new to online teaching, but my experience was mainly in the face-to-face environment, so when we decided to found, I started enrolling in online courses myself to learn how to utilize some methodologies or tasks. I took the Teaching English Online course by Cambridge Assessment English, watched tutorials on how to use the platforms, used one new feature each class and, little by little, it became natural, and I’m still discovering new interesting things to make my lessons more dynamic and enjoyable. There are plenty of resources that will help you a lot. The good thing about the pandemic is that we are learning and adapting, and I don’t think that’s something negative. Sometimes, if not forced to do something, we never actually do it.

That’s really good advice. By the way, I noticed that you started making YouTube videos. I really liked the one about Venezuelan words that come from English. I hear those words all the time, but I hadn’t realised they were taken from English until I saw your video! What plans do you have with your YouTube channel? I imagine that coming up with new ideas for videos can’t be easy.

I’m glad you liked it and I hope you also like the other videos me, my partner and our students have made. That video in particular was my first one ever; I wanted to do it about something that amazed me and thought that others might feel the same way. We sometimes take languages for granted and simply use words because it’s natural, but when you dig deeper, you end up discovering amazing facts and learning that your language is in fact a combination of languages.

Our plan with the YouTube channel is to keep making videos that teach, motivate and entertain our viewers, who are not only English learners. It’s definitely a challenge to come up with ideas that can be of interest as it seems everything has been done already, but I think we are focusing on producing content that can be useful. We recently collaborated with English teachers around the world to make a video about accents, and I loved the experience, so I hope we can continue doing things like that to motivate others.

I completely agree with what you said in the video. Speaking of Venezuela, the country’s own crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic. I imagine this must have affected the primary and secondary education in a terrible way. What about ELT? Is there now any market to speak of?

I still have family there, so I’m aware of the situation and it has definitely worsened their education system. I know there are many teachers making a lot of effort and sending assignments by e-mail and working with WhatsApp. When it comes to online classes, I doubt that’s an option for many as the internet service is too unstable and there are many blackouts.

Regarding ELT, there’s definitely a market precisely because of the crisis as many want to have opportunities abroad or work remotely for international companies and they need English for that. I know most English institutes are offering online lessons, but again, the internet and electricity are still an issue.

You have experience with teaching Italian and Spanish. How does that compare to teaching English? I am particularly interested in Spanish, which is your mother tongue. I can’t even imagine myself teaching my native language; I think I would fail miserably if I tried to do that.

I used to think the same, but I do my research and prepare my lessons just as I do for my English and Italian lessons. Yes, I’m a native speaker, but that alone doesn’t make me a qualified Spanish teacher. I take what I learned from my CELTA and Delta and apply it to my lessons based on research of the different aspects of the language. This is very important for me as a native Spanish speaker because I may sometimes consider some things obvious, or I may forget my students don’t know the nuances as well as I do and it may be difficult for me to understand why they’re having certain issues with the language. So I try to see myself as a Spanish learner as well and try not to forget the learning process, and I definitely apply knowledge from English to my Spanish lessons.

Could you talk a little about your experience with obtaining your CELTA and Delta? Where did you take the courses and what was it like?

I took both courses in the British Council in Caracas. I would say they were both the most challenging yet rewarding experiences in my career. The CELTA was a face-to-face course that took one month; it was really intense and I ended up not wanting to speak or hear English at home! It changed all I knew about teaching because my tutors showed me techniques and resources that I had never thought existed, and I realized there that teaching is a collaborative job and that the most important individual in a lesson is the student. That should be obvious, but the course helped me to teach with that in mind.

I chose the distance option for my Delta, so it was done online except for the in-class teaching practice. It was a whole new experience that required a lot more discipline and organization since you don’t have a set schedule, so you need to have excellent time-management skills. I was teaching, working as a coordinator and doing the Delta at the same time, so it definitely meant investing a lot of my free time.

While CELTA gave me great tools to teach, taking the Delta was what made me a real teacher. Getting to know the learning process more in depth, understanding students’ different needs, strengths and weaknesses, analyzing why we do certain things in certain ways or learning how to change some activities based on your specific group, all of that was extremely useful. I love learning and I could write a book about all the things I learned from the Delta, but I will just say that it changed my life as a teacher.

What do you think of the fact that those qualifications can be now done 100% online?

I find it amazing. It means more teachers from other parts of the world now have the possibility to take the courses, interact with colleagues from around the world and get to know the different teaching realities. The pandemic has already changed the way we teach, and if we don’t adapt to this new reality, we’ll end up being left behind. I’m sure tutors are adapting the materials and sessions for the online environment as it’s obviously a different experience in many areas. I think we should embrace it and take advantage of it because we will still be able to apply many of the things learned in an online CELTA to our face-to-face lessons.

My experience with learning Spanish

The first time I spoke Spanish was on a plane from Barcelona to Bogotá. I was equipped with a few basic phrases, so I managed to order a bottle of water and say ‘Thank you’. The next few weeks in Colombia proved to be rather tough in terms of communicating with people. Moving on my own to a new country without really speaking the language was pretty dumb.

In my defence, I didn’t have a lot of time to learn Spanish. In April, I made the decision to move to Colombia and immediately bought my ticket so that I couldn’t change my mind. I quit my job at the end of May. Then I took a month-long CELTA course, and in July I was on the plane. During that limited time I went through a few lessons on and Practical Spanish, so I had a vague idea about the way Spanish nouns and verbs behave in sentences.

Learning Spanish isn't always easy

My original plan was to stay in Medellín, where I booked an apartment for a few weeks. I got lucky because the guy managing the place speaks English, and he and his brother helped me a lot. Obviously, they couldn’t stay with me all the time, so I had to sort out many things on my own. Even simple stuff like getting a local SIM card and a public transport pass was a bit tricky. For the first week in Medellín, I spoke exclusively in English to other people and when they responded, I just said ‘no hablo español’. Such a strategy proved to be very ineffective and it only made me feel stupid. I quickly realised that it was time to change my approach.

The first point to note is that Latin America isn’t known for high proficiency in English. Most people don’t speak the language, even at places where you would expect it. Talking to people in English will clearly mark you as a tourist, so if you want to integrate into the society, you have to take that into account. In fact, now I speak English only at work. Colombia’s low level of English proficiency makes the country a great place to learn Spanish because it offers you an opportunity to have an effective immersion experience.

Even though I never took a Spanish class, I managed to make progress quite fast. Six months after my arrival, I had an interview with a psychologist before getting a new job. A few months after that, I led a parents’ meeting on my own and talked to them about their kids’ performance. Both of them took place completely in Spanish and I felt really comfortable.

I believe that it’s necessary to start speaking Spanish right from the beginning. Even if you make loads of basic mistakes in your speech, it’s still preferable to speaking English. The locals will appreciate your effort and try to help you. Jumping in at the deep end is challenging, but it can be fun as well. You can start with transactions in supermarkets, where you will learn numbers and short phrases. It will be difficult at first, but then you’ll inevitably celebrate small victories. I don’t like using apps like Google Translate when talking to people since it takes too much time and I don’t want to attract attention to myself by taking out my phone. I prefer to check new words in the Span¡shD!ct dictionary at home. Many words and structures are similar to English, so learning the basics isn’t that difficult.

One of the best things about living in Colombia is eating out. You don’t really need to cook at home because there are so many places where you can have lunch for an affordable price. I am a big fan of small restaurants that offer ‘menú del día’. Those places are great for practising Spanish because you are forced to talk to people who tell you very fast what dishes are available that day. Some places make it trickier because they have many options for different prices. At first, I had no idea what those words meant, so I just ordered random food and learnt it that way. When you get more confident, you can ask the waiter or waitress to describe the food to you. Restaurants are great for learning Spanish because the conversations there aren’t that predictable and you can also practise small talk.

Making local friends is helpful as well, but talking to them isn’t always easy. At the beginning, I really struggled in big groups because my Spanish wasn’t good enough to react quickly. It took me approximately three months to start participating. I found one-to-one chats more effective thanks to having more time to organise my ideas. You can find some tips for finding communication partners on Real Fast Spanish. Even better, finding close friends or a romantic partner will inevitably lead to amazing progress in your Spanish.

Speaking the local language has other practical advantages. Travellers to Colombia are always told not to hail taxis on the street. Well, I have done that in every city I have visited without any bad experiences. I communicate with taxi drivers exclusively in Spanish and usually drop a few hints that I have been living in Colombia for some time. This seems to work well because I have never had any unpleasant taxi-related issues.

I recommend that you read this article on Medellin Guru about the likelihood of being charged extra money for goods or services on account of being a foreigner. I usually avoid places that cater for foreign tourists, so my experience is limited. In fact, I am aware of only one attempt to overcharge me. It happened when I ordered a few drinks at a Playa Blanca beach bar for me and my companions after confirming the price with the barmaid. Suddenly, the bar’s English-speaking manager appeared and tried to charge me a ridiculously inflated amount. I called him out on that and paid the original price.

I am now reasonably happy with my Spanish because I can comfortably communicate with other people. I know it’s far from perfect because I still need to work on expressing hypothetical situations and in the past, and some irregular verbs still drive me crazy. Some accents (Bogotá) are easier to understand than others (Santander), but that’s part and parcel of living in such a diverse country.

Learning a new language can be very frustrating and you will feel completely lost at times. However, such experience is very useful for teachers because you develop sympathy for your students. I know I will never be mistaken for a native Spanish speaker because of my accent, but I don’t lose sleep over that. As a result, I believe that it’s beneficial for my students to have realistic expectations when it comes to their accent in English. Intelligibility is much more important because it is necessary for successful communication, and I think that’s where our priorities should lie.