Task, activity and role: how much do we expect from students and teachers?

My first time teaching English as a Foreign Language was 12 years ago. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Netflix, no 50 second class to choose from while scrolling through your favorite app; I was lucky to have access to cable TV, and while my dad was retiring for sickness, I was watching The Apprentice on Sony (I’m not joking). It’s a distant year, but if I really want to look back with more critical insight, I had no experience, just turned 18 while the University was in magazine covers nationwide due to student protesting and this was an opportunity to be more independent. On my first day, I brought with me a Macmillan textbook to make sure I could be alone in a room with 20 people working in the Energy sector — I didn’t know who was the Minister at the time. Down the hallway, there was a library with the recent academic work, a cool vending machine where I could get free coffee, and just a short walk away, in another building, students who wanted to investigate how solar power could provide us with electricity. So I wore the t-shirt I bought at the chain department store at the mall, reading in kanji: Kyoto Protocol. I had no idea of what that was. Long hair tied up in a ponytail, my filthy high school backpack and a lot of insecurity from all the things I couldn’t predict for a whole hour of talking, I had to say what everybody else says: “the world speaks English, and the world can be yours!” It’s funny cause what we did next (the TED talk has 15 minutes and you prepare a lot for it) was basically playing a spelling game, nothing close to reviewing industry needs for the area they worked in, among finance, manufacturing and contract developments in Energy and Electronics: whoever spells Schwarzenegger right gets a round of applause and a participation point. I wonder if they’d be more interested in what I had to say if I could’ve Googled him beforehand and mentioned his acting career and where he was from, but you don’t bring politics to the class right in the first meeting, do you? I stayed there for a year, and after practice and debate around basic communication, which was all about common verbs like “have” and “do”, prepositions and verb tense rules such as third person conjugations, they moved me to the Legal Medicine Institute, a story I began to tell here. I remember walking from a music store to the place where they sell sugarcane juice, and bringing food with me casually walking into a 30 feet entrance hall in front of the Clínicas subway station in São Paulo, not very far from the Institute of the Heart where my step brother had his cateterism when he was a baby, and hearing an employee, who was my student, saying very kindly: “you should think about Japan, we can learn a lot from them”. I did, but I was a lot more involved with the music than the rest of the country. 10 years later, I had a considerable amount of experience in linguistic research and general English, a BA degree, published academic production and lots of people from different parts of the world playing a role in what I chose to do in life; but there I was, working for a Japanese family company.

What I learned from them was basically that it’s important to read, but more so to make sure that you understood what you’ve just read, and to look at it lightly. Visual elements will always help, and that doesn’t mean the board or different colors for your markers: if you’re learning the meaning of the word “run”, textbooks can print a picture of Usain Bolt to make sure you have a real life example; if the word is “sing”, you can try to pick an artist to make your class more interesting, and so on. But then you move to the next page, and that’s what I disagreed on. Can you imagine if we spent 20 minutes talking about the “Bad Guy” lyrics just because there was a picture of Billie Eilish on the book? Nobody would. The discussion would be terrible, students would start saying what they hate about every artist and go back to their mother tongue because of personal involvement, and the tricky part is they’d be paying for the class. Nothing you can do about it, except write on a Post-It: “watch out for L1 and politeness!” Good luck next time, cause the books aren’t getting a new issue until next election. And that’s pretty much where I want to get, but the topic is Education, specifically foreign language: they don’t need to understand what a singer does, they just need to learn the word. Advanced learners could answer the question: “did you know she was homeschooled?” And maybe you could have a spare 10 minutes to talk about how educational models are different in every town, state and country, talk about their experiences and point out to the common aspects in the curriculum; but in the end, the best you could get would be something like: “Billie is very smart, she can do a lot of interesting stuff”. Should we expect more from an advanced student? “Very smart”: maybe you could’ve used another word to describe her talent navigating the intensity of social media and rising demands in the music industry, where automatization rules and streaming is literally a war; where what you have to say doesn’t matter more than how you look and how many people click your links and like your posts; where how you act is more important than how you feel, in a culture that puts all the pressure into the public perception, since it can generate money through representation (sponsors), instead of people’s struggles and limitations. Still in the sentence level: “interesting stuff”. Can you imagine talking about drug use to alleviate mental health issues? The teacher stands in front of the class and explains: “canned Coke”, “canned corn”, “canned beer”, who else saw the aluminium stock go up last night in the Asian markets? No, here’s a better idea: I’ll give you 3 words and you have to think about rhymes. Cake, tape, safe. Let’s see what you come up with and later we’ll listen to a rap song (that’s J Cole, btw). Of course, no school manager would approve.

So let’s look at some numbers, I guess, cause we wanna be free from ideology in this country. No matter what your background is, Brazil has low English proficiency: the best estimates say 3% has fluent English (reported by Education First); the worst, less than 1% (even lower if your basis is proficiency tests). Fluency, of course, is defined by the Common European Framework of Reference, which says you should understand virtually everything spoken in formal or informal contexts, among other aspects which include summarizing TV stories and movie plots. Are we prepared? Maybe not, regardless of what they told us about globalization and the internet. But let’s be optimistic: kids are brighter than you think, and better than us at most of the things we stress about, right?Maybe: annually, 4 million high school students get tested in all subjects, while there’s a around 90 authorized TOEFL testing centers in the whole country. I hope you’re really passionate about probability, cause I’m really passionate about English — but sometimes, that doesn’t help at all. In a city like Santos, where I live, there’s an English school in every neighborhood. But students are interested in other stuff too, and of course they need support: they deserve it, and legally speaking, they have a right to have it. The National Funding of Basic Education (called Fundeb) consists of an incentive balanced in between State, cities and the Union — which has to complement spending and investment where it’s lacking, especially on infra-structure. That means to say a school needs food, safety, accomodation and skilled teachers before anyone thinks about a projector and a computer in every class, let alone what they’re going to do with it. Santos has nearly half a billion reais (around $113M) to attend to the needs of students, not just in foreign language teaching, but in general. With 46K students in the city, according to local newspaper A Tribuna, we could say Education is working, if we only cares for numbers and not at all for who manages the spending, much less for how the money is spent. If the real estimate is that there should be a minimum of R$300 invested in every student nationwide (about $70), how can you make people understand that Education is just a factor compared to job opportunities and wealth distribution? If you live in São Paulo, our wealthiest state, and you want to become a doctor, a private institution like Mackenzie will offer you Education for R$7K a month, and at the end of 6 years, you’ll have a diploma, after having paid R$1M3K. Sure, compared to the US, that’s nothing: about $300K. But I’m a teacher, and I walk to places because the bus ride is too expensive (and honestly, can you please let that sink in?). So here’s my question: do we value learning more when we’re paying for it or do we need to talk about what we’re teaching, why and how? When we have that discussion, maybe we can finally move on and ask what matters most, which is: to whom?

I think teaching a foreign language is teaching to deal with expectations. We have a set of perceptions in relation to otherness, which manifest themselves in contact with culture and identity, but also with language. In today’s world, that can be simplified by image, and there we are, dudes liking posts from girls in Poland, Russia and the Netherlands, with no idea of what’s really going on where they live. At least I know a few writers like Dostoevsky, I’ve studied theories from Bauman and well, if I’m allowed to refrain from making any personal comments, I know they ride bikes in Amsterdam and the beer is great. Do I talk about these things when I approach a stranger? No, I really don’t. But who’s to blame? My generation isn’t the answer, but my community isn’t either. And what’s left is my identity, which I hope I can still rely on, regardless of what brand I’m using to type in these thoughts. Learning has become easier, but living is getting harder. And I know teaching is how I chose to make a living, but there’s a lot of talk about classroom activity and approaches to teaching, which basically means I don’t know shit, if you’ll excuse the language. Whether or not you agree, when we think about tasks (just search for task based learning to make sure we’re on the same page), it’s not a question of what to say to the cab driver (Uber will give you a playlist); it’s what can I see in this person I’ll probably never meet, and how this affects my life, hopefully for the better. Do you agree that storytelling plays a role? Maybe you do, but social media is making sure you stay irrelevant, and the reasons are financial. The role of the teacher is to make the gaps more visible, and propose solutions, which nobody will approve until it’s inevitable, while we try to make the most of our lives with the least we’re allowed to have: vague subjectivity and unrealistic hopes for a more empathic human exchange, in our everyday lives.

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