Review: The Owl Factor

I enjoy reading ELT blogs because it’s really interesting to find out what those working in different teaching contexts think, and one of the websites I find thought-provoking is EDCrocks. Its author André Hedlund deals with topics such as neuromyths and questionable marketing strategies, which is great to see; I think it’s very important to draw attention to such issues in the industry. When this prolific blogger announced his first book, I knew that it would be worth reading, so I decided to get the ebook version from Amazon.

Review: The Owl Factor

The Owl Factor: Reframing your Teaching Philosophy is not your typical ELT book. Hedlund goes beyond this area and writes about education in general, so I believe that even those who don’t teach English at all may find it relevant. I’ve read quite a few books in the past few years as part of my professional development and it wasn’t always an entertaining experience, but I’m happy to say that this one was enjoyable to read thanks to the fact that it doesn’t focus on just one specialised area.

The author makes a strong start in the prologue when he demonstrates how the book was influenced by Greek philosophy. I have a soft spot for Greece, a country in which I lived for four years, and reading about it brought back some nice memories. He also invites the reader to imagine Anthony Hopkins playing Socrates, which would undoubtedly be a great casting decision. More importantly, the prologues stresses the importance of dialogue and emphasises that progress can be achieved without expensive gadgets. When I read that passage, I immediately thought of the Dogme approach, and it was nice to see it mentioned in one of the subsequent chapters.

Even though The Owl Factor includes a lot of references to philosophy, it’s not necessary to be an expert in this field because everything is presented in an accessible way. There are a lot of ideas related to the nature of teaching and learning, and I’d like to comment on a few key points that caught my attention.

I completely agree with the author when he talks about the role of knowledge. Common sense dictates that English teachers should be proficient English users who know how to teach. Unfortunately, some schools are happy to employ unqualified teachers who comply only with the first requirement. Of course, everybody has to start somewhere and it is perfectly normal not to feel confident in your first teaching role even after obtaining a relevant foundation-level qualification. What I really like is that Hedlund warns against getting stuck at that stage and not progressing beyond the initial training, which is a pitfall that new teachers need to be aware of. He recommends that teachers should continue learning instead of just relying on intuition.

A lot has been written on teaching methods, and I was happy to note that The Owl Factor doesn’t promote a particular way of teaching. Something that works in one teaching context may completely fail in another one. The author highlights a few advantages of student-centred approaches and at the same time says that teachers should be more than entertainers whose main goal is to make sure that their students have fun in the classroom.

Hedlund keeps referring to science and includes a lot of examples; my favourite one is this amazing experiment testing Galileo Galilei’s theory related to gravity. I absolutely love watching TV shows featuring Brian Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sir David Attenborough, and other presenters who try to popularise science. Again, it’s not necessary to have an expert knowledge of natural sciences when teaching English, but being aware of the most prominent theories about the universe may certainly help you prepare engaging lessons and participate in conversations on topics that may come up.

In addition, The Owl Factor includes a few fables used to support the author’s ideas. He is a very good storyteller and his book is easy to read. There were just a few issues with the tables accompanying the text; some of them were a bit confusing due to their formatting. I have no idea how converting books to the digital format works, and I’m sure everything looks perfectly fine in the physical book, but I used Amazon’s web-based Kindle Cloud Reader with its default settings and found some of the tables a little untidy.

When it comes to content, I feel that Carol Dweck receives too much space in the last section of the book. There is nothing wrong with mentioning her work, but I thought the author chose a one-sided approach. He talks about negative consequences of Socrates’ work and the idea that he might not have been a real person, and even points out that owls may not be as wise as we think, but Dweck’s growth mindset is accepted uncritically. Angela Lee Duckworth’s ideas are promoted in The Owl Factor as well.

To be honest, I prefer to err on the side of caution and at the moment I’m not ready to introduce terms such as fixed mindset or grit to my teaching practice. Even though they appeared in successful books and TED talks, there are some serious doubts about their classroom application. I hold a more sceptical position than the author, but I’m open to changing my mind once more relevant evidence emerges.

It’s important to emphasise that The Owl Factor isn’t a run-of-the-mill academic text full of hedging and passive voice constructions. The author explicitly expresses his thoughts, and there are a lot of personal anecdotes and references to pop culture. I find that refreshing because the book provides insight into his beliefs on education, which in turn makes the readers think about their own teaching philosophy. It provides plenty of food for thought, and that’s exactly what one expects from this kind of book.

As much as I like ELT literature, I have no problem admitting that I decided to read most of it mainly because I wanted to get my Delta. The Owl Factor: Reframing your Teaching Philosophy is a title that can be read for pleasure, and educators interested in philosophy and science will most likely enjoy reading it. I think that self-publishing a book is a pretty cool move, so if you like André Hedlund’s blog and other activities, this is a nice opportunity to support his work.

My four-year experience with Centro Colombo Americano

When I began working for International House, it meant that my time at Centro Colombo Americano came to an end. The institution has played a very important role in my professional life: In addition to spending four years there as a teacher (in Manizales and Bucaramanga), I attended in-person conferences in Armenia and Pereira, taught public schools students through a project run by the Cali branch, and delivered a webinar at an online conference organised by CCA Bogotá. It doesn’t make me an expert on all matters related to Centro Colombo Americano, but I’d still like to take this opportunity to reflect on my time there.

Manizales

Centro Colombo Americano is a network of non-profit organisations supported by the US Embassy. Apart from teaching English, these binational centres run public libraries, organise cultural events, and help Colombians study in the US through EducationUSA. They also participate in the Access scholarship programme, which allows young people from economically disadvantaged areas to study English, and other social projects.

I suppose that I should address an important point about this organisation: I was never asked to push any political agenda during my time at Centro Colombo Americano. I did include activities on US culture in my lessons, but they usually led to discussions involving a variety of opinions and I stressed that all points of view were welcome. Colombia’s relationship with the USA has been rather complicated, so many of my students often expressed strong criticism of some US policies. Nobody had any problems with that approach, and I felt comfortable working for the institute.

To be honest, I didn’t know much about Centro Colombo Americano when I received an offer to join it; all I wanted was a job. In November 2017, I was enjoying the last few weeks of my stint as a teacher in Villa de Leyva. I’d had a couple of interviews with language academies based in Cali and Bogotá, but both wanted me to deliver a demo lesson in person, which wasn’t a viable option because my classes were scheduled to finish in the middle of December, right before the main vacation period in Colombia.

Out of nowhere, I got an email from the academic supervisor of Centro Colombo Americano Manizales inviting me to teach a demo class through Skype. It took me a while to realise where that came from. Three months before that, I had sent my CV to dozens language institutes all over the country. Most of them never replied to my email, but it seems someone in Manizales liked what they saw and the institute decided to get in touch with me when they were looking for new teachers. The demo lesson went quite well, and a week later the academic director called me and offered me a full-time job. Compared to my contacts with other language institutes, the people from Manizales were really keen on hiring me, so I decided to accept the offer. It was amazing to secure a job before the vacation period, and after a trip to Bogotá to get my employee visa, I took a bus to Manizales at the beginning of January.

My time at Centro Colombo Manizales was very useful in terms of gaining teaching experience, particularly at the beginning. I taught split shifts and had to learn how to manage my time effectively. Fortunately, I could lean on my CELTA training, which I found extremely helpful at that time. It didn’t work very well when teaching 10-year olds, but it was still important for me to go through various challenges and get out of my comfort zone. It was also interesting to find out that other CCA institutes in Colombia are academically independent and use different approaches and materials.

In my second year in Manizales, I decided to get in touch with other potential employers. I had a full-time contract, so I was working long hours and didn’t feel that my salary reflected the amount of work I did for the institute. Even though I had passed my Delta Module One exam in June 2019 and indicated that I would do the whole diploma, the institute was reluctant to offer me improved terms, so I knew it was time to look for a job elsewhere.

My priority was to get a university job in Bucaramanga, so I travelled to the capital of Santander and taught a demo lesson there. I was offered the job, but the conditions were so bad that one of the teachers who played the role of a student during the demo lesson privately told me that I shouldn’t take it. Thanks, mate! You saved me from a lot of trouble. I paid a visit to the local Centro Colombo Americano instead and accepted their offer to join the institute.

By the way, you are obliged to undergo psychological evaluation before signing a contract with CCA. This involves completing a weird multiple-choice personality test with questions that are difficult to understand unless you are proficient in Spanish. The test is followed by an interview with a psychologist. In my case, one of the interviewers was very reasonable and asked only some basic stuff. Unfortunately, the other psychologist was probably the most unprofessional and incompetent person I have met in Colombia and the interview was a deeply unpleasant experience for me. Unfortunately, you have to deal with some crap if you want to teach English in this country.

Cerro del Santísimo, Floridablanca

Anyway, moving to Bucaramanga proved to be a good decision because I switched to being an hourly-paid teacher, which allowed me to complete my Delta. I wouldn’t have been able to do a three-month Module Two course while teaching in Manizales. Working for CCA Bucaramanga wasn’t that time-consuming and I used the extra time for studying. There were some issues with switching to online teaching due to the pandemic, but everything turned out to be fine. In fact, I’d much rather continue working online than deliver in-person lessons in a face mask.

The main reason I moved to Medellín and started working as an independent contractor was that staying at Centro Colombo Americano would have been a bad move for my career. In December 2021, I was paid exactly the same hourly rate as in January 2020. Continuing working in Bucaramanga would have been an excellent deal for the institute but a terrible one for myself. There didn’t seem to be an opportunity for an upwards move, and as a Delta-qualified teacher I feel that I can do more than keep teaching the same courses for the same money. There are supervising roles at the CCA institutes, but they are more about administration and don’t seem to involve any teaching, which isn’t what I’m looking for at the moment.

Another thing I struggled with was what I would call a tendency to fall for magic solutions in the academic area. For example, I attended seminars about the benefits of learning styles and multiple intelligences, and I was instructed by my superior to apply the PPP lesson framework in my classes. Obviously I decided to completely ignore those instructions and kept doing my own thing. Nobody had any issues with my work, but it was still disappointing to see that we weren’t on the same page in terms of teaching approaches.

Before the pandemic, I attended a lot of professional development sessions delivered by visitors from other cities. Some of them were really good, but I felt that most of those seminars weren’t very effective. Let me give you an example. At first, I attended a session by one of the senior teachers on in-class flipped learning. It was great because it was based on loop input and I love learning new things in a practical way. However, it was then followed by numerous sessions over the course of several months dealing with exactly the same topic. I didn’t feel that it was necessary to listen to someone speak about the benefits of in-class flipped learning when I had already been trained on that. I definitely learnt much more from experienced colleagues at the institute than from those externally-led sessions.

The main issue with the CPD programme was that there was hardly any follow-up. In fact, during my two years at CCA Manizales, I had just one 30-minute observation and two 5-minute ones. The academic department in Bucaramanga didn’t observe me at all and I didn’t receive any personalised advice on my teaching in two years. As a consequence, I felt isolated there because it seemed to me that nobody cared about what I was doing in my classes. I kept developing as a teacher only thanks to individual studying, figuring things on my own, and paying for teacher training courses.

I spent four eventful years at CCA and met many amazing teachers, students, and staff members there. That said, if you are a foreigner with no family links to the city, it’s difficult to see this organisation as a long-term option for experienced teachers. You’ll eventually hit a career ceiling and it will be necessary for you to look for a better-paying job elsewhere.

I understand that this blog post may seem overly critical, so I think it’s necessary to emphasise that in the context of Colombian private language academies Centro Colombo Americano is a good employer – after all, I voluntarily spent four years there! There are some absolutely terrible companies that don’t treat teachers well; you can read some horror stories in the Blacklist of Colombian Language Institutes Facebook group. Fortunately, Centro Colombo Americano isn’t mentioned in the group in a negative way, which is aligned with my own experience. I was always paid on time and everything was done by the book, including contributions to my health insurance and pension.

To sum up my ramblings, I believe that Centro Colombo Americano is an organisation that does things with good intentions. I left it because I want to make TEFL my long-term career, but I’d say that as an entry-level job it’s a pretty good option. It provides newly-qualified teachers with valuable experience, and you don’t need to worry about getting conned or having to teach scripted lessons. If you are looking for your first teaching job, I recommend that you get in touch with CCA and try to make a good impression because there aren’t many better places in Colombia to start your career in ELT.