A Modest Proposal Revisited: Teaching English in the Real World

En un comentario al post anterior, alguien me pedía el texto de un artículo mío de hace ya varios años. Aquí está. 

EFL ‘Howl’

I have seen the best teachers of my generation lying on a classroom floor, their lessons bleeding, their mind faltering, their methodology scattered over the desks where thirty-odd unmotivated students chatter, work on their homework for other subjects and make plans for the next weekend. I have seen them try "affective learning" and humanistic activities with a group of teenagers who wanted nothing out of the subject but a passing mark, and who interpreted their "heart-to-heart" approach as a sign of lack of control over the classroom and started a full-scale riot. I have seen them struggling to get a grip on themselves while repeating to themselves the mantra “misbehaviour is only a symptom of lack of motivation and communication”, their self esteem oozing out of their pores every time the phrase is uttered. I have seen them poring over books with titles like "Get the best out of your students through yoga exercises and subconscious tapping", "A multicultural approach to the teaching of language skills" and "Drama, poetry, dancing, chanting and prancing in the language classroom". I have seen them, and myself, try all this in a state secondary school where the students are unmotivated, the tape recorder does not work, a VCR is a utopia, discipline is non-existent, teaching of other subjects is almost Victorian (Dickensian, I should say, thinking of "Hard Times" and Mrs Wopsle in "Great Expectations") and the pay is short of a pittance. I have seen them try and fail, only to try again in the following lesson. I have seen their best intentions crumble as their discouragement rises. I have seen their despair, their frustration, their relentless effort leading nowhere.
I have seen this, and I have said to myself “somewhere along the line, something has gone wrong”. Something must be done to help real teachers in real classrooms. Something to avoid their turning to the “tried and tested recipes” other teachers resort to - threaten students with low grades or extra homework, treat them as juvenile delinquents, create an atmosphere of terror through displays of power, use psychological (and even in some cases physical) violence. Something to bridge the gap between belief and practice. Something to allow teachers to do their best teaching.

Howling down

My poor imitation of Allen Ginsberg aside, a quick browse through a professional library will show that most books were written by teachers who work in small schools with highly motivated students who travel to England for the sole reason of attending a language course. These teachers (who usually work at only one place with reasonable timetables and an equally reasonable salary) have resources that overworked and underpaid teachers in the “real world” envision only in dreams: computers, libraries, administrative staff, a group of colleagues in the same circumstances willing to work as a team, opportunities (very often paid) for reflection and professional development and, most of all, time. By the same token, those teachers will rarely face a class of more than 12 students, and if they do, those students will be strongly motivated. What is more, their students will be doing nothing but learning English: there will be no other subjects in the curriculum, few other concerns in their minds.
Needless to say, the predominant teaching reality in the rest of the teaching world is far from what has been described in the previous paragraph, if not the opposite. Teachers have to face large classes of students who have as little as three weekly periods of language teaching squeezed in between ten other subjects. Classes in which, in many cases, discipline and motivation are foreign notions. Classes which take as much as five minutes to quiet down and as little as five seconds to return to a state of chaos. Classes in which students will be more interested in doing a last-minute review for their coming Mathematics test than in reading an article about their favourite rock band or preparing a poster describing their neighbourhood- let alone listening to a taped radio programme about the history of the Volkswagen Beetle. Yet the teacher, overworked and underpaid as s/he is, spends Saturday mornings (and a substantial amount of his/her meagre salary and free time) at seminars by or about what the teachers mentioned in the previous paragraph have produced. Attending such seminars, or simply perusing the literature on the same subject, may at times approach an exercise in utopian visualisation, and at best feels like driving a Ferrari in a shanty town: the streets are much rougher than those the car was designed for, and the vehicle is likely to be vandalised the minute it gets out of the garage. It just does not work. Not because there is something inherently wrong with the ideas, but because they have emerged from a different teaching reality.

A modest proposal

Based on what I said before, I strongly believe it is essential to select a corpus of “Real World methodology", a selection of material that supports those teaching in schools where conditions are far from adequate (i. e., anyone working in public and some sectors of private education, be it in Argentina, Brazil, the UK or Japan), material bringing real help for real situations in real classrooms. Material which, rather than reinvent psychology, addresses classroom situations. Material written by people with chalk-white (or marker-black) fingers, people who have been there, done that and reflected on it.
Participating on Internet discussion lists brought my attention to the fact that far-from-ideal teaching conditions are not exclusive to Latin America, as I had first thought, but seem to be the reality of schools all over the world. This makes the proposal, if anything, more urgent. It also highlights the extent to which teachers discredit themselves by submitting to the dictums of academia: home-grown ideas, useful and valuable as they may be, seem to lose all value when opposed to the flashy, five-syllabled, chart-and-graphed, pseudo-scientific, highly abstract writings of the guru-like “credited authorities in ELT”.
Teacher trainers seem especially prone to being seduced by the glamorous gurus. Most students leaving teacher training colleges these days (i. e., the future professionals) seem to be under the impression that methodology and teaching are divorced. They cannot be blamed for thinking so if they have devoted more class time to the discussion of suggestopaedia and the silent way than to class management and control. They cannot be blamed if they have been trained in using rather than creating and authoring material. And they cannot be blamed, either, for turning their backs on public education in search of an environment in which they find better working conditions, if they have not been prepared (or encouraged) to deal with the challenges that public education involves.
Reversing this situation, however, is not half as hard as it sounds. The tools are readily available- a few books, some minds, some will to change. It may involve as little as selecting a collection of articles and titles and passing it on to other colleagues so that the list grows with the recommendations of as many teachers as possible. It may mean adapting some theories or approaches to our reality and making these variations known to other teachers. It may mean producing some material and even some theory, or summarising and processing existing theory. It may mean getting involved in Action Research and professional exchanges. What it does not mean is providing teachers with a collection of “recipes”. Nothing could be further from my thoughts. There is nothing more practical than a sound theory; there is nothing as useless as a bunch of recipes. I propose a grassroots, hands-on approach which, far from spoonfeeding teachers or preaching on what can and cannot be done in a classroom, provides teachers with tools for reflecting on their teaching reality. I am drawing attention to the need for more Action Research and creative work, and for the sharing of this work among as large a group of teachers as possible. If anything, I am asking teachers to assume their role as professionals of language teaching rather than VCR technicians who can fix and adapt what other people designed but cannot build an operating model all for themselves.

So far... (The Road Ahead)

Teachers rarely suggest each other things they wouldn’t try themselves, yet when one reads the latest methodology books the reaction is often “That would never work”, “I would never do something like that” or (perhaps the most discouraging of all) “That would be great but I have not got the time and/or resources”. The place where most of the change I am envisioning will take place is the staff room, over a cup of coffee. A few teachers with a few minutes in between lessons exchange information which I have found to be more valuable and sensible than most things books teach: “I have done that exercise, but I have changed...”, “You may try this technique I have found somewhere and which has worked well with my students”, “Is anyone interested in this article/video segment/activity I found...?”, “In my experience, that does not work because...”, “That’s a good idea; however, I would also...”. Given the right staff and the right attitude, much will come out of very little. But, most important of all, what other teachers will suggest will always come from experience, and not from the latest theory or as a way of supporting the point an author is making.
Other changes will have to take place where the seed becomes a bud: at teacher training courses. I will be so bold as to mention my own experience. A few months ago I was offered a teaching position at a teacher training college. Its title, “Visual Aids and Multimedia in ELT”, was challenging, and a number of decisions had to be made. At one end lied a semiology-based course on media studies with glimpses of language acquisition theory, a bit of neuro linguistic programming and the like. At the other end, the ever-present temptation of reviewing published material, handing out a bunch of recipes showing “how I go about it” and then “try to do the same in your classroom, thank you very much, goodbye”. Neither option would have been satisfactory: the first would have filled the students with useless data and half-baked ideas that would not have taken them one step closer to becoming better teachers; the latter would have meant transmitting tips and recipes, but would leave them in the lurch when push came to shove and they had to prepare their own lessons. The most realistic, practical and committed solution (at least the one I could come up with) was basing the course on a relative lack of theory and an absence of recipes, and as much common sense and creativity as thirty trainees (all of them working as teachers already) could muster. I also made a point of not doing anything in class that trainees would not be able to do in a real teaching environment, with real students and real timing. So far, this has meant asking them to prepare activities and account for them (building their own theory as they do so), sharing their ideas, criticising each other’s work, as well as adding and contributing to it. Some months (plus a few strikes and bank holidays) after the beginning of our weekly lessons, I have found this approach to go a long way, with new and exciting ideas being produced almost every meeting (some of them similar to the ones found in the literature on the subject, others which to the best of my knowledge are new) and, most important of all, with the students developing a critical, hands-on attitude rather than good reading habits.
These are just two ideas in the direction of what I believe would be a positive change. Time, trial and error will tell if these are the right steps or not. Whatever the path chosen, however, it is clear that something must be done to bridge the gap between the theory we look up to and the reality we go through. Otherwise, all the things which are available to more privileged students (in schools of English, in private lessons, taking ESP courses in their offices) will never be available to those who cannot afford to pay extra. Otherwise, we will be failing in our mission as teachers, which is to bring the best of our knowledge to all of our students.