Ten Myths: What Do We Truly Know (?) About English Language Teachers in Chile

Analysis of 2012 National English Test - BookCoverPreview

After the recent test of English results were announced in June, for the SIMCE Inglés 2012 for students in 3rd year of high school, one thing quickly became abundantly clear: there are a lot of misinformation and myths circulating, and being circulated, about teachers of English in Chile. Obviously, this is not a good thing.

I’d like to mention a few myths (ten) that are related to the teaching and learning of English in Chile that were often repeated in the days following the announcement of the results:

Myth #1. Mineduc tested the level of English of the teachers for the first time. (Not true) The first test dates back to the year 2005.

Myth #2. 34% of the teachers of English in Chile had a level of English that made them unable to effectively teach English. (Not true) Only 2784 teachers were tested, which is less than one third of the total number of teachers in Chile. In other words, even if all of these teachers had failed, completely, it would not have amounted to 34% of the total number of teachers of English in Chile.

Myth #3. Half of the teachers of English are unqualified. (Not true) This myth is based on the number of teachers who hold a university English pedagogy degree. Following this logic, you would be considered, “unqualified”, regardless of student performance, if you do not hold an English Pedagogy degree. Obviously, we are abusing the term “qualified” if we do not take into account teacher performance, the capacity to achieve student learning.

Myth #4. Poor results are because teachers are teaching English in Spanish. Let’s assume this statement is true (it’s not). This myth (the Monolingual Myth) is an extension of the Native Speaker Myth.

It dates back over 140 years, to the time when the USA was trying to “Americanize” its immigrants. Many states even had laws prohibiting the use of any language other than English in the classrooms.

Another more practical point: Quite clearly, if the teacher could only speak English, then it (English) would be the only language used in the classroom. Therefore, you must use English to teach English. And let’s not forget – the classroom would have included speakers of multiple languages, and it would have been impossible for the teacher to know, for example, French, German, Italian, Russian, Polish, etc. So it made perfect sense to only speak English in the classroom, because nothing else was possible for the teacher.

In other words, it is a clear and apparent fallacy to believe that you can take a child in Chile, in an English as a Foreign Language context, in 5th grade, age 11 – 12, and begin to teach this child English, only by speaking English. We have no right to wonder that this is a formula that has a low success rate.

It has been a massive failure – a language policy of trying to wait until a child is in 5th grade, 12 years old, and then teach English in English. This is a missed opportunity, and a national failure.

On the other hand, teaching English in English, works brilliantly– when you begin early- in Playgroup, Prekinder, Kindergarden.

That’s what all of the successful private schools in Chile do, start early, and teach English in English. Again, that policy works, brilliantly.

No private school waits until its students are 11-12 years old, in fifth grade, and then tries to begin to teach English in English, because it is much too late. That’s why successful schools in Chile start teaching English, in English, at the earliest possible ages, 4, 5, 6, in Kindergarden.

Despite research to the contrary, Chile has its best results when we start early, teaching English in English, and not when we start late, in 5th grade.

It doesn’t work in Chile, although in theory, many people believe it can work. Our Chilean experience simply points to the desolation and failure caused by this approach – starting late and teaching English in English.

Myth #5. If teachers had a higher level of English, the students would have higher levels of achievement. (Not true) Intuitively, this sounds good, but it is yet another fallacy. This is a gross oversimplification of the teaching and learning process and ignores all other aspects involved, for example: motivation, materials, class size, curriculum, methodology, number of hours, etc.

It’s like saying the pilot is the most important element in flying a plane from one place to another. Now, no one disputes the importance of the pilot, yet everyone knows the pilot can not do everything alone – it takes a team. Teaching is no different, it takes a team (parents, students, administration, leadership) to be successful.

Myth #6. If we stop testing students, we could spend the money on teacher professional development, and therefore, students would improve their level of achievement. (Not true) This is an extension of Myth #5, that believes teachers magically have the ability to do everything by themselves, alone.

However, it does not consider the importance of issues like class size, student motivation, age at begin of English learning, number of hours, contact with the language outside school, self-esteem, future aspirations, etc.

To put it another way, teachers are important, but teachers by themselves, alone, are not the magic bullet.

Teaching and learning is simply too complex, affected by a very wide and enormous array of variables. Consequently, it is wishful thinking for one variable (teaching), to be the “solution to the entire problem” of poor performance.

When thinking of solutions, we need to think like doctors do when you get sick. Doctors prescribe treatments that include a number of adjunct, supportive measures, for example, bed rest, fluids, vitamins, in addition to the main remedy (antibiotics for 14 days).

It is this holistic, many-faceted approach that ensures a successful treatment. Again, this is what is needed for ELT in Chile, namely, a holistic, multi-faceted approach that addresses a number of issues that need attention urgently.

Myth #7. Students can’t learn English because they can’t even read in their mother language, Spanish. (Not true) On the 2009 PISA test, for instance, Chile was recognized as being one of the most improved nations in reading. Contrary to popular belief, Chile is not a nation of illiterates, no matter how much this gets repeated in the popular press (in so many words).

Myth #8. Students are not interested in learning English in Chile. (Not true) The whole country of Chile, in the majority, is interested in learning English, because it truly “opens doors” of personal, professional, social and economic opportunity. This is true all over the world due to the use of English as the language of globalization.

Myth #9. If you are a poor student, you can’t learn English. (Not true) Being born poor, or living in poverty, does not mean that you were born with less intelligence.

It does mean, however, that there are obstacles placed in your path that are not in the path of the economically advantaged student.

Yet it is an unacceptable notion to believe the poor are incapable of learning.

That is called “learned helplessness“, and “hopelessness“, which results in underachievement.

Yet intellectually, a poor child is not inferior to a rich child. A poor child, with teachers who believe in the capacity of the poor student, all students, to learn, will learn. The poor child learns because the teacher does not accept the notion that being poor means you can’t learn.

Myth #10. Universities are doing a poor job training teachers of English. (Not true) For the first time, I find myself defending the Chilean university English Language initial teacher training (preservice) system.

In my view, not a single university in Chile produces teachers who can’t teach, or who do not have a love for their profession.

I’m serious.

All teachers believe they can teach, all teachers love their profession.

What we do not have, nonetheless, is a well thought-out way of helping teachers of English to maintain their knowledge, skills and abilities, to stay up to date after they graduate. Continuous Professional Development, in Chile, is a synonym of career progression, but not professional practice. For this very reason Edcamp Chile came into existence, to help teachers share their practice with one another.

Yet let me be clear. There is no requirement to ever learn anything new after you graduate. None.

There is no professional body, no language association of English Language Teachers, nothing and nobody, that has any conceptualised approach to serving the professional development needs of English Language Teachers throughout the course of an entire career, from graduation to retirement.

Without such an all, career-encompassing system in place, we will continually become aware of deficits in teacher performance. It is unavoidable, inevitable, when we look at the current system in which no value is placed on teacher in-service learning needs in a systematic, holistic manner from pre-service to inservice, from initial teacher training to retirement.

Again, when we look at the medical field, doctors spend their entire career staying up to date and current on developments in their field. To not do so would render the doctor guilty of negligence at worst, malpractice at best.

Teachers have nothing remotely similar to this, and it produces the deficits we are seeing nowadays. In my view, when you want to talk about poor initial training of teachers, first ensure you communicate the standards against which teacher training programs and their graduates will be measured.

To this very day, these standards do not exist, although they are currently being articulated by the team at Universidad Alberto Hurtado. We will begin to see the effects of having standards some five years after theyare put into place, when the first cohorts to begin training under the new standards will be evaluated in the INICIA evaluation.

Secondly, when this is put into place, you now test these English pedagogy program graduates, using the standards. You can not legitimately include teachers already in the field, because those practicing teachers have to be measured against a different set of criteria that reflect their experience as practicing teachers.

It is for this reason that I consider it premature, at best, to label initial teacher training of English teachers in Chile, at this moment in time, to be deficient.

It runs the risk of overgeneralizing an undeserved ethos of, “failure” on an entire community of teacher training programs, many of which, are graduating excellent teachers.

What happens with these teachers after entering service is currently a fully under-researched, “black hole” in our knowledge of the ELT profession in Chile. What are teachers doing to maintain their knowledge, skills and abilities? What incentives exist? What financial support is available? Quite simply, this is a fragmented area, not united by a single policy, dependent on a number of factors.

In conclusion, here are some questions that I would ask you to consider if whether or not you are now able to answer them:

How many teachers of English are there in Chile?

What qualifications do the teachers have?

Does every school (every student) have a qualified teacher of English?

Has the level of English of the teachers ever been tested?

What are the entrance requirements to study English Pedagogy?

Do all teachers of English have a performance evaluation?

How often are the teachers actual ability to teach English, tested?

Are there any alternative teacher qualification programs?

Finally, “How do students learn English, in Chile?

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About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
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