When I first started studying English, it was in an environment that shunned the use of L1 in the classroom and favoured native English speaking teachers (NESTs) to Non-NESTs (NNESTs). In my very first class, the teacher did not speak a word of Portuguese. To be honest, as far as I remember, the teacher couldn’t speak Portuguese – he was a NEST. There’s only one thing that I remember from that teacher in particular – when he was trying to turn on the tape-recorder but was holding the power cord in his hand. It is only this goofy moment that I can remember from that particular teacher. Later on, I remember I had only NNEST as teachers, but the same restriction held true: no L1 in class!
As this was the experience I had when I was a language learner, it was what I believed in when I started teaching. I felt that I could never be a good teacher if I were ever to use L1 in the classroom. How often do we reproduce what we’ve lived? Many people I know claim to only “learn” how to do something if someone else shows them how to do it. They them start simply repeating the processes that they’d witnessed and that’s how the cogs of the machine kept moving. Every now and them, though, someone would look at the process and come up with a different way to make things move. If it worked, they’d be regarded as very creative people who had an awesome idea to make things simpler, while a whole lot of other people would look at the proposed solution and wonder how they could have missed such a simple thing. If, however, things didn’t work, that soon to be acclaimed creative fellow would then be called a crazy man whose far-fetched ideas were to be laughed at.
I honestly think that creativity is under-rated in our schools, but I just can’t help hearing a line from Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk whenever I see people praising every different and strange idea. Creativity is not the same thing as being wrong, and it’s not the same thing as having different ideas that might, once in a blue moon, work. What I believe in is that we need to know a lot about something if we want to be able to think about it more creatively. I’m not saying that knowledge and creativity are the same, but I certainly believe that the more you know about something, the easier it is for you to find creative solutions for the problems you have.
In the first year of my teaching career, I simply refused to hear about language classes that welcomed L1 in the classroom. It was, based on my experience and the kind of training I had, wrong in just so many ways that I couldn’t even fathom the possibility. I would attend seminars just to get practical ideas that I could implement in my very next class, and, looking back right now, I thought, after being in the classroom for a very short time, that I knew all that I needed to know. I thought that learning about the history of ELT, the myriad approaches and methods, and different things that people were doing was just a waste of time. What is funny is that this is something that I usually think about anytime I talk to a teacher who hasn’t been teaching long and who is reluctant to adopting a new approach to teaching based on his or her “vast” experience after being in the classroom for 3 years or so.
It was only after I attended my first large conference in ELT that I started looking at things from a different perspective. It was then that I first heard of the terms NESTs and NNESTs. It was the first time that it hit me: what I was doing in class was simply what I thought to be right based on what my teachers did in their classes. I had no clue whatsoever to why I was doing such things. Little did I know that there were people trying to find out different ways to help learners. Never before had I heard that there could be a reasonable way for people to use L1 in the classroom. It was during this conference that I also found out how passionate I truly was about being a teacher, on a very special session to me.
The conference I’m talking about is the National Braz-TESOL, in 2000 in São Paulo. To be fair, I was also fortunate enough to have, by then, two bosses who helped me immensely in this eye-opening process I had to go through, and one that I personally think all teachers need to go through themselves. It was in 2000 that I had the chance to attend a 3-day workshop on the use of Drama in the classroom by Ken Wilson. It was the first time I realized that, yes, it was possible to teach English in many different ways. It was on the very same conference that I first heard about the IPA and that there was a way for me to work on my pronunciation without having to live abroad. This and many other workshops have totally reshaped the way I looked at ELT. It wasn’t something done simply by repeating what had been done to me in my language classes – there was a whole world outside and all I had to do was look for more opportunities. It was only then that I started valuing the texts that those two bosses I had made available to us and that were not merely about grammar.
It was only after learning more about language teaching and learning that I understood how little I knew – something we are always told in our philosophy classes at school but we never really grasp it until reality hits. It was then that I realized that I didn’t have to fear using L1 in class as long as I knew when and how to use it. It was then I realized that I could learn many more practical ideas to implement immediately in class by learning more about theory than by just reading about practical ideas. The more we learn, the easier it is for us to find creative ways to better cater for our learners. The more we know, the easier it is for us to innovate. It’s the turning point anyone who wants to walk the extra mile should look for – use the right R: REFLECT, don’t simply repeat. And never ever wait for others to do it for you. If you want it, you have to get it yourself. Teacher development is easier than ever these days with all the online possibilities. My concern, however, is that there’s a new generation of teachers simply repeating what they’ve read online without thinking about how it could help their learners. Not everyone will be a trendsetter, but not everyone has to be a blind follower either. How many teachers do you know who had been teaching for longer than 5, 6, 7 (or more) years but who still think like teachers who have jus started teaching but truly believe they’ve already learned it all? And how many teachers who have just started teaching but are aware of the fact that they have to go beyond what their first employer has taught them? And, finally, what was your real eye-opener in your career? What’s your professional development story?