Luis Clavijo: Professional development is a must

Today’s interviewee has had a very interesting teaching career. We talked about his work in South America and Russia, the role of technology, advanced teaching qualifications, the importance of teacher training, and other ELT topics.

Luis Clavijo is a Peruvian-born English teacher based in Bogotá. He started his teaching career in 1995 in La Paz, Bolivia. After working in a variety of teaching positions, Luis did his CELTA at the British Council in Bogotá in 2003, which allowed him to land a job at BKC-International House in Moscow. He then returned to Bolivia, joined forces with what used to be The British Council La Paz, a new language school then called The Language Works. A few years after that, he ended up opening his own language school and became involved in teacher training. Luis went back to Russia in 2013 and completed his Delta four years later. He has been working as a freelance online teacher since moving to Colombia in November 2020.

Luis Clavijo: Teachers should have access to professional development

You arrived to Colombia in the middle of the current pandemic. How would you describe your experience so far?

It hasn’t been easy because I’ve spent most of my time here in my apartment. I try to keep myself physically active, so I go to the gym. When it comes to teaching, I work exclusively online through Zoom thanks to having incredibly loyal students from my time in Russia. They have been studying with me for a long time, which is amazing. I work mainly in the morning because of the time difference between Colombia and Russia. I’m also open to teaching Colombian students here if an opportunity appears, and I’m thinking of setting up a project for teachers.

Was it easy for you to move back to Latin America after spending almost seven years in Russia?

I wanted to come back because I missed being in Latin America. The process itself was complicated due to the restrictions; it was difficult to find a combination of flights that would get me here. When a window to travel through London opened, I got myself on the plane and left Russia. Of course, living in Latin America presents its own challenges. Even though I am eligible for a Mercosur visa, it took the authorities more than two months to process my application.

You started working as a teacher in La Paz in 1990s. How has teaching English changed since then?

I didn’t have much contact with technology until I moved to Santa Cruz in 2012. We used overhead projectors connected to PCs because we couldn’t afford interactive whiteboards. By the way, I’ve never laid a finger on an IWB in my life. When I returned to Moscow, I had only a whiteboard and a CD player, so I decided to use my mobile phone and wireless speakers for playing audio files. Then I bought a tablet that came with a projector, and I feel that projecting stuff has made a huge difference because the visual content always attracts the students’ attention.

How did you cope with the switch to online teaching?

I actually started teaching online a few months before the pandemic due to unfortunate circumstances. I injured my ankle in December 2019, so the school asked me if I wanted to try doing some Skype lessons from home, and I agreed. Then I discovered Zoom, and that’s how IH Moscow started delivering online classes. I began experimenting with Google Docs and WhatsApp groups, which is something that I still use because I find it extremely helpful when teaching online. I decided to get the IH COLT certificate, which I obtained in February 2020, and we all know what happened the following month. Of course, my friends kept jokingly asking me if I knew something that the rest of the world did not.

What can you tell me about your CELTA experience? I see that got a Pass A grade, so what advice would you give to those considering this qualification?

I did my CELTA at the British Council here in Bogotá in 2003. Even though I had managed to save some money, I didn’t want to travel to an expensive place. Doing the course in Colombia was an amazing experience; I was really impressed by the school and the resources. When it comes to getting a good grade, I recommend doing a lot of reading before starting the course, and you should take the pre-course tasks seriously. There are also helpful preparation courses that clearly exemplify what the CELTA is all about. Of course, we did not use much technology when I did the course, but I think current CELTA trainees will benefit from being familiar with tools that can be used in the classroom (Vocaroo, Quizlet, etc.).

You then spent one academic year in Russia. Why did you decide to move there?

Bolivia was going through an economic crisis, which meant that a lot of students dropped out, so I decided to move to another country. I had job offers from Turkey and the Czech Republic, but I was intrigued by the idea of going to Russia. Winston Churchill described the country as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, so I thought it would be nice to go to Moscow. That year was a really interesting experience for me. I also did an exchange programme in the middle of the academic year and went to Istanbul for five weeks. We stayed at an amazing hotel a few blocks away from the Grand Bazaar, which was great. When my contract in Russia ended, I had a job lined up in Portugal, but unfortunately I couldn’t get a work visa because of my Peruvian passport.

What motivated you to set up your own school in Bolivia?

When I was looking for a job after returning from Russia, I was initially told, by my own friend no less, that my name sounds too Latino. Funnily enough, The Language Works called me back a couple of weeks later to cover for an absent teacher. Everything went well and I was hired thanks to positive feedback from the students. That job gave me an opportunity to get some experience as a senior teacher, and I became a DoS when the school was sold to new owners. I was trying to raise the standards in terms of hiring teachers because I believe that La Paz deserves better teachers than some random backpackers with an online TEFL certificate. Unfortunately, the owners disagreed with that, so I decided to step down from the role. I thought it was the right time to do my own thing, so I set up a school called Language Plus. By the time I decided to leave South America again, the school had grown a lot and I had three teachers working for me.

You then went back to Moscow and completed several teaching qualifications there. Could you briefly talk about the courses you took?

I was a little out of practice teaching groups, as I had spent years primarily teaching one-to-one, so I did the IH Certificate in Advanced Methodology, which was great as a pre-Delta course. I actually enjoyed it more than the Delta Module One preparation course. CAM spells out things explicitly and provides a lot of structure, which is what I needed at that time. Then I did the first two Delta modules in 2015, which was very demanding time-wise, particularly the two-month Module Two course. Fortunately, I was lucky to have an amazing tutor, Joanna Graham, who is always willing to support the trainees and go the extra mile. Academically speaking, it was a challenging experience. I did a ‘for and against’ essay for my LSA4 and intended to highlight relevant features. When I was teaching the lesson, it dawned on me that I was running out of time, so I had to repair instructions and go with my plan B. Fortunately, it proved to be a good decision and I passed.

What was your Module Three specialism?

I chose teaching one-to-one because that’s what I’ve been doing my whole career. I have a lot of experience in this area, so the creative process wasn’t that difficult, but I struggled a little with sitting down and structuring the assignment. It was necessary to make references to other parts of the essay and put everything together in a coherent way. Of course, I wrote too much and needed to trim it down at the end. I thought the final version was pretty good, so I was a little disappointed with a Merit grade.

You also worked as a translator. Would you say there are any transferable skills between translating and teaching?

Not really. The only thing that can help you as a teacher is the knowledge of typical mistakes that learners make due to translating directly from their mother tongue. Back in Moscow I made a list of some common errors Russian speakers make, and that was very helpful in my teaching practice.

I think my growing up in the USA influenced my attitude towards languages. My parents spoke Spanish at home and my dad would always tell me to speak the language properly, and then I applied the same logic to English because I wanted to fit in. I started to develop an interest in writing when I was studying in Chile, and I even won some awards in Bolivia. I always try to be as accurate as possible, which has helped me both in teaching and translating.

Your name also appears in Rory Fergus Duncan-Goodwille’s book The English Teachers, which was published last year. How did that come about? 

I met Rory in his role of ADoS at BKC-International House in Moscow. He is an amazing, knowledgeable professional, so I was more than happy to contribute to his book as an interviewee. I really enjoyed it, and it would be great to collaborate with him on another project again.

Would you recommend the Cambridge Train the Trainer course to those interested in becoming teacher trainers?

Yes, I would. I actually did the very first online Cambridge Train the Trainer course. It was similar to the IH Teacher Trainer Certificate I had done before, so it doesn’t really matter if you do the Cambridge or International House version. Both courses are very helpful in terms of communication with teachers and understanding their needs. If I were to open a school again, I would make sure that teachers have access to professional development and academic support. Sadly, this is not always the case anywhere else I’ve been to, and many language schools and institutions still don’t do enough when it comes to teacher training.

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.