Cristina Hernández: We need to consider the social aspect of learning English

In the latest interview for the TEFL in Colombia blog, I had the pleasure of talking to a teacher who has been involved in ELT for more than twenty years. We discussed issues in public education in Colombia, her experience with teaching English on TV, working in Kazakhstan, Test of English for Aviation, and other interesting topics.

Cristina Hernández is a teacher and teacher trainer from Medellín. She started teaching English in 1998 at Centro Colombo Americano Medellín. After working in various teaching roles, Cristina completed her CELTA in 2011, which helped her land a position at InterPress International House in Almaty, Kazakhstan. She then returned to Colombia and became a speaking examiner for Cambridge exams in Medellín. Cristina, who holds a Delta Module One certificate, also works for the British Council as a mentor for teachers in Colombian public schools. She is currently pursuing a degree in sociology.

Cristina Hernández: We need to consider the social aspect of learning English

I’d like begin with a question related to the pandemic. Many teachers in Colombia are still working online, but you’ve had to administer exams in person. What has your experience been like?

I have been doing the Test of English for Aviation and some Cambridge exams face-to-face, which has been a little scary. Fortunately, we follow strict procedures and nothing bad has happened. The candidates wear gloves and surgical masks, and we use face shields. The booklets are covered with acetate sheets, which we clean with alcohol. Exams are the only thing I have been doing in person. When it comes to my other work as a freelancer, I’ve managed to do everything online.

Let’s go back to the beginning of your teaching career. How did you become an English teacher?

I lived in the USA with my family when I was child, and that’s how I learned English. My mum, who is an English teacher, was worried that I would forget the language after moving back to Colombia, so I took an advanced course at Centro Colombo Americano Medellín. The academy urgently needed a substitute teacher for the kids’ class, which is how I started teaching, and then I got hired at the age of eighteen. It was very tough at the beginning, but I learned a lot from that experience. I call Colombo my alma mater because I received a lot of support there.

I imagine the resources you were using in 1990s were completely different from what is available to us these days. Looking back, how has technology influenced your teaching practice?

I’ve had the privilege of moving from the analogue era to the digital one. It’s been a lot of fun, and technology has certainly made our work easier. The issue is that some teachers try to use all this technology, but they have no methodology. I think that if you are a good teacher, you don’t need any technology at all. The best resources are enthusiastic teachers with the right attitude. When you have that, then all you need is to have students.

You also worked as a TV host on Telemedellín for a couple of years. I think you need to elaborate on how exactly that happened.

That’s a really funny story. My mum was zapping through TV channels and found this show on Telemedellín. She called me to take a look at it because the host was trying to speak English, but it was terrible! We were wondering why they decided to choose this person. There was a number on the screen, so we called it to complain. It turned out that was an old show and they were actually looking for a new host. They invited me to the casting and the next day I got the job.

It was a live show with some pre-recorded segments. The show was based on a gringo who moved to a new city and I was his Colombian friend. His character was a little dumb, so I had to teach him how to go shopping, make hotel reservations, and all that stuff. The show was done under a staircase in the middle of the mayor’s office where we had a little board, a few chairs, and a camera. People called our show when it was on TV, and we had a lot of fun.

Then I had the opportunity to do a second show, which was broadcast on a national channel called Señal Colombia. It was a little more structured with three different English levels. I played Smarty, a character who travels around the world and somehow ended up in Colombia. The show was aimed at kids, so I had to do a lot of physical comedy.

That sounds like a great experience. I don’t think there are many teachers with something like that on their CV. Anyway, you then decided to focus only on teaching and got a CELTA. What motivated you to get this qualification?

I was stuck teaching General English, and there was no way for me to access more senior roles beyond the classroom. So I took the CELTA, which was the best thing I have ever done in my professional life. It was very hard and stressful, but at the same it was amazing. By the way, we were the first cohort of CELTA trainees in Medellín.

Then you moved to Kazakhstan two years later. How did that come about? It doesn’t sound like a typical destination for Colombian teachers.

As a self-taught teacher, I love challenges and learning new things. I didn’t want to get stuck in a routine, so I uploaded my CV online. I got two interviews: One was with a school in Kazakhstan and the other one in China. I chose the former, and it was quite an experience. It really tested the theory that you can teach English through English. In Colombia, I was able to adapt my English to my Spanish-speaking students, but then I found myself teaching beginners in Kazakhstan while having absolutely no knowledge of the local language. I put my CELTA training to a good use and made sure that my ICQs and CCQs were genuine. Also, I learned about IELTS there, and it helped me become an exam trainer.

What can you tell me about the Test of English for Aviation? I’ve seen it advertised on social media, but I don’t know much about it.

At the moment, I’m the only official rater of that exam in Medellín. It’s tough for examiners because the skills aren’t linked to the CEFR at all, so you need to learn a new scale. The test is based on the idea of English as a lingua franca, and the most important aspect is whether the person is able to communicate in English in non-routine situations such as a fire emergency. The exam, which is accepted by the International Civil Aviation Organization, is aimed at pilots, air traffic controllers, and other professionals wishing to work in aviation internationally. It needs to be taken at regular intervals unless the candidate reaches the highest band.

You also did the IH Certificate in Advanced Methodology. From what I understand, it’s meant to fill the gap between the CELTA and Delta qualifications. Would you recommend it to other teachers?

After doing my Delta Module One, I can say that the certificate wasn’t really worth it. If you know that you are going to do the Delta, the CAM qualification is just redundant.

Do you plan to complete the other two Delta modules in the future?

Of course! I need to finish the Delta because I’d like to become a CELTA tutor. It’s currently on hold because of my university degree. I hope to graduate next year and do the remaining two Delta modules after that. Since I work for International House, I have a scholarship waiting for me, so that’s going to be my next professional development project.

Why did you choose to study sociology?

I have received a lot of training in teaching and pedagogy, so I decided to do something a little different. I currently work with public school teachers from around Colombia and train them in methodology, lesson planning, and other areas. Through this experience, I’ve realised that there is a big gap, particularly in some rural places. Some teachers don’t have the appropriate English level or knowledge of methodology. Colombian kids are often taught English using materials that aren’t meant for them. They are also told to learn English in order to study or work abroad even though they don’t have those goals, so that motivation becomes foreign to them.

My main reason for studying sociology is to design social bilingual projects. My idea is to take out the foreign from English learning. It’s a means to communicate with the world, and I believe that you can be a global citizen without travelling abroad. If you want to be a farmer, that doesn’t mean that English isn’t useful for you. For example, you can do online marketing to sell your products.

What challenges have you encountered as a teacher trainer? My impression is that public education in Colombia is underfunded and there is a lot of room for improvement.

It’s true that many teachers’ English level is low and they don’t have access to professional development. I think the issue starts at universities. I mean, how can you give a bachelor’s degree in teaching to someone who doesn’t have at least a B2 level? Another problem is that if teachers do reach a good English level, they aren’t going to work in small towns because it’s more lucrative to get a job in the private sector in a major city.

As a sociologist, I’m also interested in motivation for studying English, which is a challenge many teachers in Colombia have to face. I remember talking to a teacher who works in a rural area in Nariño. Her students keep asking her why they should study English when there are no foreigners where they live. I think bilingual projects need to address this issue, and that’s what I’d like to focus on in my work.

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