There is no magic bullet

A new academic year is upon us, and I can’t wait to teach again! It remains to be seen if or when we will return to physical classrooms, but I feel cautiously optimistic about 2021. It can’t get any worse than the previous year, right? The unexpected switch to remote teaching inevitably caused huge issues in the ELT industry. A lot of students decided not to join online courses for various perfectly understandable reasons, which inevitably led to economic problems and job losses in many institutions.

Private language academies now have to convince potential students that paying for English classes is a good idea. Colombian economy has been hit hard by the pandemic and many people need to think twice before spending their money. Businesses are looking for ways to dig themselves out of a hole, and those involved in education are no exception. Some may consider copying their competitors’ practices or even trying something completely new. When it comes to ELT, I have encountered a few ideas that definitely wouldn’t represent a step in the right direction, and I’d like to write a few words about them.

There is no magic bullet

Hiring unqualified teachers
Giving a teaching job to someone whose only qualification is being (or looking like) a native English speaker is usually a recipe for disaster. If you want to avoid the risk of poorly delivered classes full of incoherent rambling, you should hire someone with relevant teaching qualifications. I mean, this is just common sense.

There are plenty of experienced teachers in Colombia looking for work right now. They are ready to hit the ground running, and they deserve to be given a chance to do so. Local teachers are the backbone of any ELT community, and that’s why supporting them should be their employers’ priority. In fact, I believe that providing existing teachers with incentives to get their CELTA, Delta, Master’s degree or other qualifications would be a better long-term strategy than looking for quick fixes from abroad.

Relying on a magic method
I can’t imagine myself teaching from a script. Schools that claim their unique method is the best way to teach aren’t my cup of tea. It’s certainly useful to be familiar with different teaching methods and techniques, but having to use only one of them seems like a missed opportunity to me. Why would you restrict yourself to repeating the same thing again and again? It must get boring pretty fast.

I really don’t think there is just one way to teach. It is imperative to take your teaching context and students’ needs into account instead of applying global solutions. Building rapport and personalising your lessons is much more useful than following some random ‘method’ imposed from the outside.

Peddling debunked myths
I spent most of my life believing the theory that says the left side of the brain controls logic and the right side is responsible for creativity. I heard about it at school and accepted it as something that is true. When I started teaching, I noticed the theory again in some coursebooks, so I decided to read about it a little more. It turns out that the whole thing isn’t true and there is hard data to prove that.

While the left/right brain myth is relatively harmless, some theories are actually applied in teaching practice, and that’s where problems arise. The theory of multiple intelligences is quite attractive, but even its Wikipedia page says that it isn’t supported by evidence. According to the article Each to their own, which was published in The Guardian in 2005, Howard Gardner himself made some damning remarks about using his theory in teaching.

The Harvard professor never intended his book on multiple intelligences (MI) to be a blueprint for learning, but he was aware that many educationalists were adapting his ideas. The shock came on a visit to Australia.

“I learned that an entire state had adapted an education programme based in part on MI theory,” he says. “The more I learned about this programme, the less comfortable I was. Much of it was a mishmash of practices – left brain and right brain contrasts, sensory learning styles, neurolinguistic programming and multiple intelligences approaches, all mixed with dazzling promiscuity.”

One idea that always seems to pop up is called learning styles. Again, I understand the theory’s appeal, but the problem is that it has been debunked many times. Asking your students to fill in a learning styles questionnaire and then building your classes around the results could actually have detrimental consequences. I recommend that you read The ‘Learning Styles’ Myth: Don’t Spread Fake News by James Egerton. It’s time we stopped wasting our time with this.

It would be unfair to blame the people who came up with these ideas. They thought that they were onto something good, but their theories turned out to be incorrect. That’s quite common, so we should simply move on and focus on something more useful.

Adopting fads and hoping they work
There are some ideas that need to be researched more in order to determine how effective they are. Take growth mindset, for example. I can’t deny that its premise sounds good because self-improvement is undoubtedly a good thing. The issue is that it still isn’t completely clear how growth mindset can be used in the classroom. It all seems to be based on wishful thinking. You should read Philip Kerr’s post A measured approach to mindset interventions for more details. I am not in favour of utilising new ideas in our teaching practice just because they are popular at the moment. Shouldn’t we be primarily concerned with finding out if our students will actually benefit from them?

I understand that it’s tempting to look for simple solutions, but that can lead to losing track of what is truly important. If you want to provide high-quality classes, you have to support your teachers. They need to have access to books and academic papers and be encouraged to read them. They need to get relevant training, be observed, and receive individual feedback on their performance in the classroom. Professional development is a long-term commitment, and I don’t think that taking shortcuts is likely to produce positive results.

The curious case of native speakerism in Colombia

A lot has been written on the topic of native speakerism. In short, some people believe that a teacher’s passport is more important than their actual qualifications and experience. That kind of thinking obviously isn’t very enlightened, but it’s something non-native English speakers have to deal with if they decide to get involved in teaching.

Fortunately, there are people who fight against this type of prejudice. If you aren’t familiar with the work of Marek Kiczkowiak from TEFL Equity Advocates & Academy, you can watch him being interviewed on the subject of native speakerism in English and Spanish. I believe that he provides relevant arguments to support his point of view. Most of that is common sense, but convincing people to change their long-held beliefs is the tricky part. I think Hugh Dellar made some great points in his post The curse of native speakerism, which was published just a few days ago.

Dealing with native speakerism

My own experience with native speakerism has been rather peculiar. When I got my first teaching position in Colombia, another teacher and I delivered classes to professionals involved in tourism. Both of us were referred to as ‘nativos’, even though neither of us qualify as native English speakers and we wouldn’t be able to get a visa in some Asian countries. I just figured that it was probably a marketing ploy to promote Colombia Bilingüe, which is an ambitious programme run by the Ministry of Education. Our classes were free of charge, so I just let it go.

Fast forward a few months, and I started teaching in a private language institute. When I introduced myself to my students, I openly talked about my origins. I described some traditions from my country and taught a few Czech words to my students. After the course had finished, the students were asked to fill in a survey and evaluate my performance. To my surprise, quite a few of them said that it was great to be taught by a native English speaker. Hold on, that doesn’t make much sense…

Then I realised that it wasn’t just my students who thought that way. I had sent my CV to the language centre of a university, and its director decided to interview me via Skype. It was quite an ordinary conversation until the director said, ‘Our new teachers have to take a language proficiency exam, but since you are a native English speaker, you don’t need to do that.’ I didn’t want to take the job anyway, so I didn’t respond to that. I guess they didn’t even bother to properly read my CV.

It all got even stranger when I spoke to a teacher born and bred in the USA who told me that some Colombians didn’t believe that she was from her country of birth. Then I read Cristine Khan’s research paper that focused on the same issue, and it confirmed my suspicions that it’s not just about your passport or accent. I think it’s obvious why I am incorrectly considered to be from an English speaking country while genuine native English speakers have their identity questioned. In many people’s eyes, a ‘nativo’ is simply a white foreigner.

I think this misconception stems from the way stereotypes work. If you look like a native English speaker, then you must be a native English speaker. To be honest, it makes me feel quite uncomfortable at times. I often get asked by students or their parents for private classes because they want to be taught by a ‘nativo’. When I tell them that I am not a native English speaker, they can’t get their head around it. If I am too busy to offer private classes, I recommend that the students contact some of the local teachers who might be available. Of course, there are many amazing Colombian teachers here. Some of them actually grew up in the US and their accent is more “native-like” than mine. Sadly, my suggestion usually isn’t met with enthusiasm.

As you can see, we are dealing with something completely irrational. If you wish to get involved in TEFL in Colombia, you need to be ready for the fact the country is still a bit conservative in some respects. I have already mentioned that your CV should include a photo when applying for a job. It’s really strange to see that some irrelevant features can be so advantageous. I know these stereotypes won’t disappear in the near future, but I feel it’s important to share my thoughts. When someone brings up this subject, I always say that looking at someone’s passport and complexion is a pretty unreliable way of judging their ability to teach English. We need to move on from those unhelpful ideas and make sure that teachers are given equal opportunities to prove their worth.