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.

Cambridge Delta FAQ

My posts about the Delta qualification have attracted quite a lot of visitors, which shows that many readers are interested in professional development. Since I have finally passed all three modules, I feel that this is the right time to publish this post addressing frequent questions about the diploma. As always, this article is based on my own experience and I recommend checking out other sources of information as well.

Cambridge Delta FAQ

Is it worth the money and effort?
First and foremost, you need to be sure that this qualification is right for you; I can’t imagine anyone doing this just for fun! For example, you are expected to have a Delta if you wish to become a CELTA trainer. However, if your main career goal is to teach at an international school, then it would make more sense to pursue another qualification. I did the Delta because I wanted to improve as teacher and I’d like to become a teacher trainer in the future.

This certificate certainly isn’t cheap. If you really need to save money, then the most economical option would be to do Module One and Module Three as an independent candidate without taking a preparation course. Module Two can’t be done without attending a course, and I believe the most affordable ones are provided by ITI Istanbul and ATI Ankara.

Should I get a Delta or an MA in TESOL?
This depends on your career goals and the country in which you wish to work. Some places prefer a Delta, others feel that a relevant master’s degree is more valuable. Delta is accredited by Ofqual at Master’s level in terms of content, but there are clear differences between the qualifications. I decided to do the Delta because it is considered to be more practical. It makes sense to do both of these qualifications, though. My MA is in an unrelated field, so I’ll probably have a decision to make at some point in the future. Some universities provide Delta-qualified teachers with credits and exemptions in their master’s programmes, which is something worth exploring.

How much teaching experience do I need before doing the Delta?
There are no official requirements for any of the modules. In fact, Module One and Three can be done by anyone who wishes to do so. Module Two is a bit trickier because you need to convince a provider to accept you into their course. The Delta handbook recommends having at least a year’s ELT experience, but I think it would be a very bad idea to take a Module Two course with so little experience in teaching.

I took the Delta Module One exam in June 2019 two years after doing my CELTA, which was still relatively early, and then I managed to pass Module Three in June 2020. Finally, I started my Module Two in January 2021 as the least experienced teacher in our group of trainees. Everything turned out to be fine in the end, but having more experience in various teaching contexts would have been an advantage.

Do I need a degree or CELTA to do the Delta?
No; see the question above. However, it helps to have both before doing the Delta. A degree is a visa requirement in many countries and it’s something important for making progress in your teaching career. It may also be useful in terms of academic writing because you need to be really strong in that area in order to pass M2 and M3.

Having a CELTA isn’t essential, but it provides you with teaching foundations and helps you familiarise yourself with the way Cambridge teaching qualifications work. It has its drawbacks, which is understandable since it’s just a four-week course. My Delta Module Two tutors kept mentioning CELTA’s shortcomings during the course and it was nice to understand what they were referring to.

What’s the best way of doing the Delta?
Everyone’s circumstances are different. If you can afford to take time off from work and do the full-time Module Two course, then it could be a good option for you. There is a plethora of possibilities, so you should choose the one that suits you best. You can do in-class, blended, and even 100% online courses, and each of them has its own pros and cons. The most important thing is to make sure that you can dedicate enough time to the Delta because there are no shortcuts and you’ll simply have to work very hard to get the diploma.

Can I do the modules in any order?
Yes, and this is an advantage of this qualification. I think the most logical way is to do the modules in the traditional M1 → M2 → M3 order, but it’s good to have the option to choose another strategy if your circumstances require it. For example, when I finished Module One, I decided to do Module Three next because it was much more convenient at that time. There are no Module Two providers in Colombia and fully online courses weren’t approved in 2019.

Some tutors actually recommend doing Module Two first, but I think it would have been too early for me at that stage of my teaching career. I felt that doing the other two modules before M2 helped me prepare for the most challenging one. I definitely wouldn’t recommend doing Module Three first, though. I struggled with it because I hadn’t gone through the experience of writing background essays for Module Two LSAs.

What is the most helpful resource for passing the Delta?
ELT Concourse. There is so much information that it may seem daunting at first, so you need to take it one step at a time.

Is it as difficult as everybody says it is?
Yes, but it’s doable. Let’s check the 2019 worldwide pass rates:

Module One: 57.6%
Module Two: 83.3%
Module Three: 78.1%

The good news is that you can sit the Module One exam as many times as you wish. Module Two is a bit trickier because you need to pass the internal coursework in order to be eligible for two LSA4 retakes, otherwise you need to repeat the whole course. Module Three can be resubmitted once. If your second submission fails, you’ll have to select a completely new topic and start afresh.

How much hoop-jumping is needed to pass the Delta?
A lot. Module One isn’t only about your knowledge, but you need to know how to answer the questions. The essays in the other two modules are about cramming key information into the main body of the document with strict word limits. Every single detail counts and you need to make sure that you haven’t forgotten to include something important.

I certainly wouldn’t describe working on the written assignments as an enjoyable experience because they made me want to tear my hair out at times. That said, I guess this is necessary since Delta is a standardised qualification and not allowing candidates to have much freedom in writing helps with marking the assignments. It does feel like unnecessary torture at times, but by successfully completing the diploma, you prove that you are capable of following specific instructions and complying with strict requirements.

Can I call myself a Delta-qualified teacher after passing Module Two?
I wouldn’t do it. You need to complete all three modules to obtain the full diploma.

Will having a Delta on my CV help me get a better job?
When it comes to Colombia, International House, British Council, and a few reputable universities do recognise the Delta. However, run-of-the-mill language institutes and many universities often have no idea what it is, so you’ll be offered the same terms as someone with no certificate because the word Delta doesn’t appear in the institution’s salary structure. From what I understand, this happens in some Asian countries too. It’s a bit sad, but it leaves you with two options when applying for that kind of job: Ruffle some feathers and try to educate the employer about the Delta, or look for a better position somewhere else.