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.

Martin Higgins: The best institutions are in Bogotá

My next interviewee is a Delta-qualified teacher who moved into TEFL from another career. We talked about differences between private academies and universities, teaching other subjects, his own professional development journey, and other topics related to teaching English in Colombia.

Martin Higgins is an English teacher from the UK. He obtained a BA in International Studies in 2009 and an MSc in European Social Policy a year later. Before moving to Colombia, Martin was employed by Cambridge Assessment in various non-teaching roles. He also worked as a news reporter writing about Colombian politics. Martin started teaching English in Bogotá after taking a CELTA course in 2013, and he has been working at Universidad Externado de Colombia since January 2017. He successfully completed his Delta in 2020.

Martin Higgins: The best institutions are in Bogotá

Let’s start with your work before becoming a teacher. Could you briefly describe how you landed a job at Cambridge Assessment and what your responsibilities were?

I’m from Cambridge originally and had worked for Cambridge Assessment in various roles as a temp during the holidays when I was at university. When I graduated from university, jobs were pretty scarce due to the recession, and I wanted to work in politics, which turned out to be a very difficult sector to work in when you have no experience, no contacts, and no ability to work in unpaid internships for a couple of years.

By fortune, a vacancy came up in the Public Affairs department at Cambridge Assessment where I was temping at the time, and I got the role. At first I did the admin for the events team, but after 6 months I was promoted to the Unit Coordinator and got involved in more things related to my desired career path at the time. My boss was really good to me and supported me with my development, but in time I realised that working in politics wasn’t for me, so I decided to move to Colombia with my partner, who is from here, and to take up teaching.

In your role as a reporter, you dealt with topics such as illegal mining, same-sex marriage, and workers’ rights in Colombia. What was your experience like?

It wasn’t as interesting as it might sound. I was living in the UK at the time and wrote articles in the evenings for a mate who was running the Colombia Politics website. It was essentially churnalism, that is regurgitating news into English from other websites.

What prompted you to make a move into teaching?

Necessity, really. As I mentioned, I moved to Colombia with my partner and I didn’t speak any Spanish at the time, so this was the obvious career move. My father worked in EFL for many years and having worked for Cambridge Assessment, I was aware that the CELTA was the best way to start. After a few months working as a teacher, I realised that it was an enjoyable profession, and luckily I’ve been able to secure some decent roles here in Bogotá over the years.

You did your CELTA at International House Bogotá eight years ago. Looking back, did you feel ready for your first teaching job after taking the course?

I’m not sure anyone is ready after the CELTA, but you’ve got to start somewhere. I started off working with very small groups, so that was an easy way in before teaching large groups in my first university role.

What are the main differences between teaching at private academies and universities in Colombia?

The money and the hours. Working in private academies in Bogotá is pretty poorly paid, and the class times are usually first thing in the morning or in the evening. Not fun, but a rite of passage you have to go through I guess when you have no experience and cannot get a job at a university or bilingual school.

You have also taught subjects such as Diplomacy and International Relations Theory. How does that compare to teaching English?

It’s not entirely different. Most of what you learn in terms of lesson planning and classroom management can be transferred across to teaching other subjects. The key difference with teaching those courses was that I would have to spend a lot more time preparing for the classes by reading.

Have your degrees and experience in non-teaching jobs helped you in any way in your work as an English teacher?

Of course. Working at Cambridge Assessment certainly helped me organise my time better, which is an essential skill for teachers. Plus there are all the admin skills I developed that make life so much easier when you’re a teacher.

You spent four years working as an IELTS speaking examiner. Would you recommend this role to other teachers?

Absolutely. It gives you much more confidence in evaluating student’s level, and it’s a really good thing to have on the CV.

Some schools and universities in Colombia are finally returning to in-person education. How would you describe your experience working during the pandemic?

We are still teaching completely online. I can’t say I’ve particularly enjoyed teaching during the pandemic. Virtual teaching is something that can work, but only if the students choose it. The current situation has been imposed on our students and many of them don’t particularly enjoy it and would much prefer to be back in the classroom, as would I. Here’s hoping next year will see that possible.

Let’s hope so! It would be great to finally see the students in person. By the way, where did you do your Delta? Do you think that it has helped you in your teaching career?

I did it through Bell and their distance programme. I chose that school as I had worked there as a teacher before and I really like the institution. I was fortunate enough to find a really helpful tutor here in Colombia to assist me through Module Two, which was by far the most useful in my development as a teacher. After doing that, I really feel confident about entering any classroom in any environment and being able to teach a principled and interesting lesson.

I remember that you weren’t impressed by the structure of Module Three. If you could make some changes to this module, what would you do?

I would change the word count. It’s far too short and it hinders your ability to really explore the course design element properly, so you end up just trying to tick the boxes that the assessment criteria require, which leaves very little room for creativity.

Do you have any further plans for post-Delta development?

I would like to find some extra work in materials and course design in the long term, perhaps for a publisher. That’s a long term plan and will require more development, but I’m not sure if I’ll do any formal qualifications in the short term.

You have spent many years in Bogotá, so I imagine that you enjoy living there. Have you ever considered looking for a job in another city?

I’m very happy at the Externado and wouldn’t want to work anywhere else in Colombia – Bogotá is where my partner’s family live and the best institutions to work in are here. Who knows what the future holds, though.