Jennifer Soto: We need to adapt to this new reality

The idea to conduct interviews for this blog represents a nice opportunity to get in touch with professionals involved in different educational contexts. Today’s interviewee is a Delta-qualified teacher and entrepreneur who decided to set up a company that provides its services fully online. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did!

Jennifer Soto started her teaching career in 2011 at Universidad Central de Venezuela, where she obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Modern Languages. After completing her CELTA in 2015, Jennifer began working for the British Council in Caracas. In 2018, she was promoted to the role of Academic Coordinator and obtained her Delta. She then moved to Colombia, where she co-founded in January 2020. In addition to online classes, this Medellín-based company provides translation, content writing, proofreading and editing services. Jennifer currently lives in Canada.

Jennifer Soto,

Most teachers got involved in online teaching only because of the pandemic. You co-founded in January, so I assume that you decided to make the switch to online classes by choice. What prompted you to do that?

I’ve always wanted to create something of my own in the typical ‘I want to be my own boss’ way. However, I wouldn’t use the word ‘choice’ to describe my circumstances. When I relocated to Colombia with my husband, we knew that we would be moving again relatively soon, which meant I couldn’t commit to working with any company. I started teaching private classes thanks to my colleagues’ recommendation and soon realized that it was the perfect moment to create a website and develop the idea of offering different language services online, working with other language professionals and giving people solutions for their language needs.

What does a typical class with your company look like? What methods and resources do you use?

I learned a lot in the British Council and many of the ideas are applied in our classes. We use the communicative approach and a typical class will start with the teacher and the student discussing a topic to break the ice and start showing what the focus of the class will be. After that, they will read, watch or listen to something that will be the framework for the rest of the classwork. The student will focus on the main aim of the lesson and then do speaking or writing activities in which they can use what they’ve learned so that they can internalize the information.

Our students will always have the opportunity to practice and communicate in the language they’re learning. Teachers are not the ones speaking the whole class like in a lecture; they interact with students, ask questions, play games, etc. Students will be working, analyzing, and using the language instead of just sitting in front of their computer receiving information.

We use some coursebooks as guidance, but we also like to utilize authentic materials like movies, songs, news articles, etc. This gives students a variety of sources to work with and shows them real examples of the language. Students sometimes suggest topics or materials and we adapt our lessons to include their ideas. We try to personalize our courses as much as possible and students are completely involved in their learning process.

You deliver your classes via Zoom. Why did you choose it? Have you tried any other tools?

We were already familiar with the platform, which has many useful features for online lessons like having breakout rooms for activities in pairs or small groups. Zoom makes it easier for teachers to plan more dynamic activities. It is definitely user-friendly, so it was easy to adopt even for those who hadn’t used Zoom before. That said, we are thinking of working with Microsoft for Education to give our learners a more complete and better experience with a combination of programs. It would allow us to use Teams to teach our lessons, upload our material and students’ production to the cloud and have live chats with other students and teachers.

Jennifer Soto,

Let me ask you about something that most teachers in Colombia have had to deal with. Do you think that students can get the most out of online classes if they don’t have access to a PC and have to use their phone?

The experience certainly won’t be the same, so the teacher needs to adapt their lesson or give those students alternatives. Writing on the teacher’s screen might be too complicated for phone users, so the teacher can ask them to write their answers in the chat box. If there’s a reading activity, the teacher can send the text in advance so that the student can print it or have it on their phone, and so on. Although using a phone is not ideal, it can be done, and students can actually improve as much as if they were working on their computers. Of course, it will depend on how motivated they are and how much support their teacher gives them.

I have a colleague who teaches Math through WhatsApp in Brazil, and if he can do that, then I can teach languages! Seriously, we are lucky that we can do so many things with our phones. We actually have a WhatsApp group where our teachers and students share links, videos, quizzes and even memes to practice English outside the class.

Most of us switched to online classes practically overnight, so it took us some time to get used to the new situation. What would you recommend to teachers who are new to this?

To switch to online learning as well. I wasn’t that new to online teaching, but my experience was mainly in the face-to-face environment, so when we decided to found, I started enrolling in online courses myself to learn how to utilize some methodologies or tasks. I took the Teaching English Online course by Cambridge Assessment English, watched tutorials on how to use the platforms, used one new feature each class and, little by little, it became natural, and I’m still discovering new interesting things to make my lessons more dynamic and enjoyable. There are plenty of resources that will help you a lot. The good thing about the pandemic is that we are learning and adapting, and I don’t think that’s something negative. Sometimes, if not forced to do something, we never actually do it.

That’s really good advice. By the way, I noticed that you started making YouTube videos. I really liked the one about Venezuelan words that come from English. I hear those words all the time, but I hadn’t realised they were taken from English until I saw your video! What plans do you have with your YouTube channel? I imagine that coming up with new ideas for videos can’t be easy.

I’m glad you liked it and I hope you also like the other videos me, my partner and our students have made. That video in particular was my first one ever; I wanted to do it about something that amazed me and thought that others might feel the same way. We sometimes take languages for granted and simply use words because it’s natural, but when you dig deeper, you end up discovering amazing facts and learning that your language is in fact a combination of languages.

Our plan with the YouTube channel is to keep making videos that teach, motivate and entertain our viewers, who are not only English learners. It’s definitely a challenge to come up with ideas that can be of interest as it seems everything has been done already, but I think we are focusing on producing content that can be useful. We recently collaborated with English teachers around the world to make a video about accents, and I loved the experience, so I hope we can continue doing things like that to motivate others.

I completely agree with what you said in the video. Speaking of Venezuela, the country’s own crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic. I imagine this must have affected the primary and secondary education in a terrible way. What about ELT? Is there now any market to speak of?

I still have family there, so I’m aware of the situation and it has definitely worsened their education system. I know there are many teachers making a lot of effort and sending assignments by e-mail and working with WhatsApp. When it comes to online classes, I doubt that’s an option for many as the internet service is too unstable and there are many blackouts.

Regarding ELT, there’s definitely a market precisely because of the crisis as many want to have opportunities abroad or work remotely for international companies and they need English for that. I know most English institutes are offering online lessons, but again, the internet and electricity are still an issue.

You have experience with teaching Italian and Spanish. How does that compare to teaching English? I am particularly interested in Spanish, which is your mother tongue. I can’t even imagine myself teaching my native language; I think I would fail miserably if I tried to do that.

I used to think the same, but I do my research and prepare my lessons just as I do for my English and Italian lessons. Yes, I’m a native speaker, but that alone doesn’t make me a qualified Spanish teacher. I take what I learned from my CELTA and Delta and apply it to my lessons based on research of the different aspects of the language. This is very important for me as a native Spanish speaker because I may sometimes consider some things obvious, or I may forget my students don’t know the nuances as well as I do and it may be difficult for me to understand why they’re having certain issues with the language. So I try to see myself as a Spanish learner as well and try not to forget the learning process, and I definitely apply knowledge from English to my Spanish lessons.

Could you talk a little about your experience with obtaining your CELTA and Delta? Where did you take the courses and what was it like?

I took both courses in the British Council in Caracas. I would say they were both the most challenging yet rewarding experiences in my career. The CELTA was a face-to-face course that took one month; it was really intense and I ended up not wanting to speak or hear English at home! It changed all I knew about teaching because my tutors showed me techniques and resources that I had never thought existed, and I realized there that teaching is a collaborative job and that the most important individual in a lesson is the student. That should be obvious, but the course helped me to teach with that in mind.

I chose the distance option for my Delta, so it was done online except for the in-class teaching practice. It was a whole new experience that required a lot more discipline and organization since you don’t have a set schedule, so you need to have excellent time-management skills. I was teaching, working as a coordinator and doing the Delta at the same time, so it definitely meant investing a lot of my free time.

While CELTA gave me great tools to teach, taking the Delta was what made me a real teacher. Getting to know the learning process more in depth, understanding students’ different needs, strengths and weaknesses, analyzing why we do certain things in certain ways or learning how to change some activities based on your specific group, all of that was extremely useful. I love learning and I could write a book about all the things I learned from the Delta, but I will just say that it changed my life as a teacher.

What do you think of the fact that those qualifications can be now done 100% online?

I find it amazing. It means more teachers from other parts of the world now have the possibility to take the courses, interact with colleagues from around the world and get to know the different teaching realities. The pandemic has already changed the way we teach, and if we don’t adapt to this new reality, we’ll end up being left behind. I’m sure tutors are adapting the materials and sessions for the online environment as it’s obviously a different experience in many areas. I think we should embrace it and take advantage of it because we will still be able to apply many of the things learned in an online CELTA to our face-to-face lessons.

Ndana Chibanda: ELT in Colombia is a mix of fun and hard work

Welcome to a new section of the TEFL in Colombia blog! After receiving positive feedback on the first few articles, I decided to get a little more ambitious in terms of my posts. I plan to conduct a series of interviews with professionals involved in teaching English in Colombia. My intention is to talk to people from different parts of the country and cover a variety of teaching contexts. I have no idea if I will succeed, but I believe this idea is worth pursuing.

My first interviewee is Ndana Chibanda, a Zimbabwean-born English teacher. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Botswana, majoring in Sociology and History. Her teaching career began in 2001 in Manizales. After spending three and a half years working for Centro Colombo Americano, she moved to South Africa to work in the healthcare industry. Ndana was involved in training staff members and designing learning materials. She then decided to get a teaching certificate from Global Language Training before accepting an offer to return to Colombia for a second stint with the same employer. She has been teaching English at Centro Colombo Americano Manizales since May 2016.

Ndana Chibanda

Let’s start with an obvious question. Why did you choose Colombia?

I decided to participate in the AIESEC exchange programme. They offered me three options: Egypt, Colombia and India. When I was at university, I met a lot of Colombians. Then I travelled to Scotland and Switzerland for two of our international conferences and made so many friends there. They recommended Colombia to me, so I decided to choose it.

How did your family react? Colombia is now a fairly popular destination, but that definitely wasn’t the case in 2001.

They hoped I would choose one of the other two countries. I remember they told me to be careful, especially with my luggage, and they mentioned the usual stereotypical stuff that was common all those years ago. They were more open to my coming back in 2016, though.

Why did you return to Manizales? Most teachers look for a job in major cities like Bogotá or Medellín.

I spent 12 years living in Johannesburg, where life is very fast-paced, so I needed a change. I actually considered going to Panama, but I didn’t know anybody there. Besides, Centro Colombo Americano’s director contacted me on Facebook because they were short of native English speakers, so I decided to come back. It was an easy choice because I love the people from Manizales. It’s great how small the city is and that everything is in such close proximity. I also appreciate the sense of security that I feel here. The only thing that gets on my nerves a little bit are the constant rains. I am not saying that I will stay in Manizales forever, but I am happy where I am now.

What are the best places you have visited in Colombia?

I loved the weather in Ibagué. I am a summer baby, so the sun and I are best friends. Cartagena’s old city is beautiful. There are absolutely stunning beaches in Capurganá, which is a remote village close to Panama. I enjoyed the island life on San Andrés as well, but after five days the heat was just too much.

Let me ask you something about your daily life. I stick out like a sore thumb, so everybody knows I am a foreigner. How do strangers treat you?

Being Black African, I tend to blend in a lot. When I was in Capurganá, I blended in even more. Most people in Manizales think I am from the coast until I open my mouth and start speaking Spanish. My accent gives me away!

In my case, people aren’t surprised at all by my foreign accent. Speaking of that, do you think our students should aspire to speak English with a perfect “standard” accent?

I don’t think so. They should aspire to be understood. I believe people have accents for so many reasons and that’s the beauty of learning a new language. Of course, if sounding like an American, British, Australian, South African or another native English speaker is their goal, then by all means they should go ahead and try to achieve it.

What are your long-term plans? Do you plan to stay in Colombia?

This is my fifth year on an employee visa, so I am going to apply for a resident visa next year. I am not sure what will happen, though. I had plans to visit my family in December, but Colombia is one of the countries that South Africa hasn’t opened to. I love Colombia, but not being able to see my family is tough.

I planned to go to Europe for Christmas, but that’s out of the question now. Let’s hope the situation improves and we will be able to see our families soon. By the way, you appeared in Reshaping Our Destinies, a short film dealing with the lockdown in Manizales. How did that come about?

The film was made by our theatre group at Centro Colombo Americano Manizales, which was created two years ago. I decided to join them at the beginning of this year and we started working on Reshaping our Destinies in June. There are some impressive indoor shots that were made using a cell phone. It was a really amazing experience and I am very happy to be involved with the group. We are currently working on a new project.

It’s great to hear the theatre group is active even though the institute’s doors are closed. It has been more than seven months since we last taught in a physical classroom. How do you feel about that?

To be honest, at first it was hard for all of us to adjust to having to teach from home. We were all navigating foreign waters in a sink-or-swim situation, but things have definitely gotten much better and I have been enjoying this “new normal”.

Do you think this long period of online classes will lead to changes in teaching English in Colombia?

It definitely has to. The future is uncertain because we don’t know how long we will have online classes. However, from my experience in Manizales, a lot of students prefer face-to-face classes, so there has to be a mental shift too. Also, we need to consider the rural areas and how much access to the internet they may or may not have.

Ndana Chibanda in Reshaping Our Destinies

Has the way English is taught in Colombia changed since your first stint in early 2000s?

Oh, for sure! Back then, we didn’t use laptops in the classroom. We used just the hard copy books, blackboards, and tape recorders for listening exercises. We didn’t have the apps and online tools that we have today, so we had to be super creative in the way we taught. I am grateful for the advances in the teaching field, but I miss the calibre of students we had back then.

I think there is a fine line between a meaningful use of technology in the classroom and a gimmick that isn’t that helpful in terms of language learning. Playing with robots and electrical circuits is fun, but many of those activities can be done in silence or using only the mother tongue. What is the best way to utilise this hi-tech stuff in ELT?

That is a very difficult question. I totally agree that, at the end of the day, most people learning a language want to be able to communicate effectively; so hi-tech tools should be used to achieve this. However, in the same breath, things like the Maker movement have been gaining reactions and we have seen our students trying to communicate in English while doing these kinds of activities. There are many tech tools out there that do help students improve their English, and those are the ones we should be taking advantage of.

That’s a very good point. And finally, what advice would you give to those who are thinking of teaching English in Colombia once this pandemic is over?

To be honest, I would say be prepared to work a lot. ELT is a lot of fun, but a lot of long hours too. Also, I would say immerse yourself in the Colombian culture and learn the language. You should most definitely travel around the country. Colombia is incredibly diverse with so much to see and do, so don’t miss out on it! Doing all this will definitely make your experience more enjoyable.