Wednesday, September 8, 2010

talking to Chilean English teachers

On August 25th, I went to speak to the local group of Chilean English teachers. Stephanie, from the 4-month WorldTeach group, spoke first, but she's only been teaching a week and she's kind of quiet, while I've been teaching for a few months and I am...not quiet. This is, more or less, what I said, speaking unprepared, after Marcela introduced herself and me. It's long and rambley, because I made it up as I went along. I'm pretty sure I sounded more eloquent than this at the time.

Hi! My name is Chris Doherty, and I teach at the Instituto Superior de Comercio. I teach six cursos of primero medio, and we split the cursos in half, so I have twelve classes. I'm from the same program as Stephanie, WorldTeach: they have two programs that coordinate with the Ministry of Education's English Opens Doors, a 4-month program and an 8-month program. I'm on the 8-month program, so I arrived in Chile on March 17th, and in Valparaiso April 7th, so I've been teaching here for...four months.

I teach six cursos [classes] of primero medio [first-years]. We split each curso, so I have twelve classes. They're all at a very, very basic level: some kids know more stuff than they get to use with me, but often they're not able to make sentences, or if they can, they're not willing to. A lot of them believe they can't, because the English they've had is impossible. For example, Page 1 of the Ministry's English textbook is completely covered in long paragraphs of text with big words and complicated sentences; I have a couple of books from the United States, where Page 1 says "Hi, my name is ______. What's your name?" and nothing else. My students may or may not want to learn English, but many of them think they can't, because they see these pages filled with complicated text. It's like if you showed me a page filled with Russian--I'd give up, too. That may be the biggest problem: the students have little to no English, but the classes don't teach to their level.

So a lot of what I do is just to have a relationship with them. In reality, the amount of English I can teach them is very small. I see each student for an hour a week or less--classes are canceled for one thing or another. I can't bring them up to a conversational level in the time I have. But I can show them that English is possible for them, that if we start with basic things, like introducing themselves, they can learn. I treat them as individuals, and even with the students who cause problems, I take the time to help them pronounce and understand things. So even with the problem students, I have a good relationship. To see them for who they are, and to show that we think they can learn, might be the most important thing we can do as teachers--the most important thing any adult can do for a child.

I have only basic training as a teacher: in the United States, I'm a software engineer, so this is a little different. The way I teach is by having them use English. I don't explain anything, I just teach them the words and the meaning and then they practice using them. Explaining things doesn't work: with the educational culture here, if a teacher is talking, they don't associate that with something that might be important to them. In the United States, there's a real sense of hierarchy, with the teachers and then the students. Here, the students are much more on a level with the teachers, in a way that I think interferes with learning. I don't mean to say "No, Chile is bad," because it's a complicated question, and it deserves a complicated answer. The educational culture here doesn't come out of nowhere, it's very tied in with Chilean culture and history, how Chilean families are structured, and the effects of the dictatorship. You all face that every day, and you know more about it than I do. But I think it doesn't work very well for helping kids learn.
How do you deal with discipline in the classroom?
I have three boxes in the corner of the whiteboard, with one, two, and three frowning faces on it. The third box says "Inspector." This mostly works because it provides a predictable ladder of consequences: their name is up on the board, so they can't forget. It helps them to remember what I expect of their behavior. It mostly works...some kids only behave when they're a step away from the Inspector's office, so I've learned to put them there earlier in class. Also, I'm very lucky in that my school, the students want to be there. They may not want to work, but they want to be there, so if they behave really poorly, they might get kicked out.

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