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.

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.