Even though I had English lessons for more than seven years at school, I didn’t really learn English in this context. Neither did many of my friends. For many years, English was seen as that unimportant subject that needs to be in the syllabus but doesn’t really need to be learned or taught. Without concrete expected outcomes or perceived value by policy-makers, English teaching in schools was more of a nuisance that an integral part of one’s education.
As a consequence, materials were often simplified to cater for the symbolic number of contact hours that schools offered and teachers were not even expected to be proficient in the subject matter they had to teach. For many years, we paid a high price (literally) as we grew dependent of language centers to have access to effective approaches to language development.
Times seem to be changing as the bilingual fascination takes over the country. Schools are desperately trying to embrace systems, methods and materials that promise the kind of communicative empowerment that for many years was entirely ignored. The government creates parameters and new learning goals for schools to follow. English triumphantly marches to central stage with its chin up, leaving the dark ages of the verb-to-be-seven-year-revision reality. All sounds good and the urge to applaud the current initiatives cannot be controlled. So why should we worry if we are finally witnessing an ongoing trend and the desire to professionalize the teaching of English as a foreign language in our educational system?
In a nutshell, before we sigh in relief, we need to look at the priorities being set. There is a naïve illusion that methods, technology and prescriptive materials can make up for the teacher. Investments to ‘simplify’ the work teachers do revolve around solutions that can be sold as the desired easy-fix to the historical chaos and mayhem that English teaching has been dwelling in. As it turns out, spending huge amounts of money in the integration of content and language, cutting-edge devices, academic resources with detailed plans for teachers will not compensate for the fact that teachers will cling to their beliefs when they close their classroom door. Beliefs that are often based on a lack of professional development initiatives or pedagogical support. Beliefs that are limited by the fact that many of these teachers are still struggling with their own proficiency in the language. Beliefs that are shaped in a university system that overwhelms novice teachers with theoretical background that often mismatches their real-life practice. Beliefs that are created spontaneously since ‘anyone who speaks the language can teach it’. Beliefs that are impacted by a life of little pay, little respect, too much work, too much stress.
It is quite moving to see so much action towards a bilingual country. It is the kind of respect and attention that a foreign language deserves (and I find it unnecessary to mention the endless list of advantages that people will find in the process of learning a foreign language). However, like many other things in Brazil, a commercial drive forges alliance with the unawareness and the lack of understanding to make an extremely complex scenario sound simple. There is no simplicity in the fact that we have fewer people willing to become educators or the fact that English teachers need to develop their own knowledge of the language and of foreign language acquisition to be more effective practitioners. We won’t professionalize English language teaching by proposing ‘teacher-proof’ answers. We professionalize it by understanding that teachers are central to education and they deserve more investments, professional development, respect and value rather than a set of gadgets and lesson plans that are not be adapted or even understood.
Vinicius Nobre is a managing partner at Troika, a start-up that aims at professionalizing education. He has worked as a teacher, teacher educator, academic manager, international examiner, course designer and is the author of course books to regular schools with Pearson, “Getting into Teacher Education: a handbook” with Cengage and “Teaching English Today: Contexts and Objectives” with SBS/DELTI.