Sandra Gaviria: Lesson observation doesn’t need to be a stressful experience

Today’s interviewee is an experienced teacher and coordinator based in Medellín. We discussed the future of online teaching, approaches to assessment, native speakerism in Colombia, the importance of teaching writing skills, and other topics related to ELT.

Sandra Gaviria has been working for Universidad EAFIT in Medellín since 1992. She started teaching English after obtaining her BA in Modern Languages at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana and MA in TESOL at West Virginia University. Sandra was promoted to her current role of academic coordinator in 2000. She is involved in curriculum development, test design, teacher training, and other activities in the academic area. Sandra also holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a Master’s in Educational Innovation.

Sandra Gaviria: Lesson observation doesn’t need to be a stressful experience

Let’s start with the beginning of your teaching career. What was your main motivation to become an English teacher?

It was kind of an accident. I was fascinated by English speakers, but there weren’t many opportunities to talk to foreigners here in Medellín at that time. I love languages, so I decided to study English and French because I knew that I would enjoy it. I initially focused only on learning the languages and the idea of teaching didn’t really hit me until I did my practicum. That experience helped me find out that I was born to be a teacher, and I have been involved in ELT since then.

You did your master’s degree in the USA. How did that come about?

When I was in the third year of university, a Colombian professor brought a group of foreigners to a summer course at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana. They needed a host family for one of the participants, so I volunteered and spent a month with a Japanese student at my parents’ place. The professor then told me to contact him after graduation regarding an opportunity to become a teaching assistant in the US. I worked for a year and a half in Medellín to save money because I had to pay for all of my expenses. Fortunately, everything went smoothly and I was able to do the degree at West Virginia University.

After returning to Colombia, you started teaching at Idiomas EAFIT, which had opened only a year before. What was your experience like and how has teaching English changed since 1990s?

It was a new programme, so it wasn’t as structured as it is now. I remember that when I became a teacher, we didn’t have any assessment rubrics and I had to design my own tests. The curriculum was provided by the textbook, but the teachers were practically on their own. I spent eight years working as a teacher before my current position opened up. Our programme needed something more official, so I decided to standardise things after becoming a coordinator. It was very challenging at the beginning, but it was absolutely necessary.

By the way, the city of Medellín is often praised for its transformation in the last few decades. What is the most significant change that you have experienced?

As a child, I would go many years without seeing a foreigner. That changed completely, and before the pandemic we would get many students from abroad learning Spanish or participating in exchange programmes at our university. Seeing people from abroad on campus and in Poblado was very common. They became part of the landscape, and I hope we will soon see foreign students return to Medellín.

I see that you have written a lot of blog posts and other articles on a variety of topics, and you have a degree in journalism. Do you think there are any transferable skills between journalism and teaching?

I think that these areas are connected because every English language teacher should know how to write. I mean, it’s not necessary to be able to write literary pieces, but a teacher’s writing skills have to be at a good level. Writing is one of the most neglected skills when it comes to teaching English. Having students write is not just about giving them the topic, but it requires structure as well. It’s also about the flow of ideas, organising paragraphs, etc. Every language has its own rules, so writing in Spanish isn’t exactly the same as in English, and being aware of that can help teachers guide their students.

You also worked as a master’s programme instructor at Universidad de Caldas. How would you describe your time in Manizales?

I enjoyed it very much. I learned a lot because I had to prepare completely new things, and that helped me with my day-to-day tasks. I’m still in touch with some of the people from the master’s programme; one of them is actually working with us at EAFIT. It was great from a professional point of view, but it was very exhausting. I had to travel a lot, so I didn’t have any break for a long time. Also, those small planes that fly to Manizales don’t provide the most comfortable experience.

What can you tell me about your MA in Educational Innovation from Maharishi University?

I was expecting that to be more technology-oriented, but it was a little different. What I really loved about that programme is that every single student needs to learn Transcendental Meditation (TM). We also ate healthy food and did in-class meditation together. It’s a small university, so we all felt very close to each other. They use a block system, which means that you concentrate only on one subject at a time. The institution created an ideal environment for students and I enjoyed every second of my year there.

Let’s talk about March 2020. Schools in Colombia were closed practically overnight, which must have been very tough for you as a coordinator. How did you deal with the sudden switch to online teaching at Idiomas EAFIT?

The most important part was that we worked as a team and made sure that all the teachers received sufficient training to start teaching online. We cancelled classes for an entire week to get ready for delivering lessons through Teams. It was very tough for me because I worked day and night and kept communicating with our teachers and students, so by the time we got to Semana Santa in the middle of April, I was exhausted and needed that one-week break. We got the hang of things a few weeks later, which allowed us to start experimenting with new applications. It’s been a very interesting process because it forced us to make quick progress in online education.

I know that you’re back to in-person teaching at EAFIT. How has it been?

Our classrooms were designed for small groups, so we can have only a limited number of students in them due to the current restrictions. I have to say that it’s great to see our students back on campus. The university also acquired amazing 360-degree cameras and high-quality microphones, which gives us the option to run hybrid courses as well. Of course, working with two groups of students at the same time isn’t easy, so this is another challenge we have to deal with. In addition to that, we continue offering fully-online courses.

Do you think that some students may prefer to attend online courses even when the pandemic is over?

I think so. My prediction is that the working professionals are going to be interested in continuing to study online. Commuting to our early morning and evening classes can be time-consuming, so I imagine that those courses will stay online. On the other hand, the undergraduate students at our university will most likely prefer to learn in the physical classrooms.

One of your many responsibilities is observing teachers and giving them feedback. Would you like to share some tips for teacher trainers who are involved in lesson observation?

I’ve learned throughout the years that the more you help to lower the teachers’ anxiety, the better. I usually announce the observation beforehand and I’m also open to negotiating the date of the observed lesson. The teachers generally give me a lesson plan, but I don’t require them to follow it to the letter. I believe that you need to be able to adapt your lesson based on the students’ needs. The teachers need to show that they can be flexible.

I often think of my role as an observer. My presence in the classroom influences what happens in the lesson because some students may think that I’m there to observe them. Sitting in the corner and taking notes may not always be the best option, so I prefer to write my thoughts down at the end of the lesson. I also think it’s a good idea to break the routine from time to time and do things differently to make the teacher feel more comfortable. Sometimes I enjoy the lessons so much that it’s hard for me not to participate!

In addition, my years of experience have taught me to be more understanding. I know that I’m looking at just one snapshot, so I can’t generalise and think that’s what happens every day in that particular teacher’s classroom. I believe that it’s very important to listen to the teacher during our post-observation meeting to find out what their perspective is. When we identify something that needs to be improved, the teacher needs to come up with a plan with concrete actions that should be implemented into their teaching practice. I think the teachers need to be involved in the process rather than just being told what to do.

You are also involved in testing and curriculum development. What are the biggest challenges in these areas?

Some Colombian institutions claim to adhere to the communicative approach, but their tests are very traditional. That type of assessment is decontextualised and doesn’t really integrate skills, so at EAFIT we decided to move away from it. We don’t give our students paper-based summative tests, but our assessment is more ongoing and involves a variety of activities. There is a project at the end of each unit, and we aim to make our students think beyond English and focus on ideas such as sustainable development, protecting the environment, and helping the community.

Have you had any experience with native speakerism? I think that Colombia is one of the countries where this issue is very common.

This is an issue especially when it comes to the corporate courses because those students often ask for native English speakers. It makes me upset because we are a team of qualified, hard-working professionals who studied hard to become language teachers. I find it really strange that some companies would rather hire someone with no training in language teaching at all. Sadly, sometimes it’s just a matter of having a gringo name. Some students don’t want to be taught by someone born and raised in the USA just because their name doesn’t sound foreign.

We can certainly see some situations that make no sense at all. Is there any way we can change people’s attitude?

Like any other idea that’s embedded in the culture, it won’t change overnight. It would help if people who have hired foreigners with no training shared their experience and compared it to being taught by a qualified teacher. I hope the idea that training is more important than the teacher’s passport spreads through word of mouth. We try to lead by example, so our language centre has a well-defined hiring process and we are very cautious about hiring backpacker teachers who just need a visa. Our teachers are qualified professionals who are proficient in the language they teach, and they also receive relevant in-service training. I believe that emphasising the importance of teaching qualifications and training is the best way to approach this issue.

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.