NNEST of the Month
dsr158 [at] psu [dot] edu
Ana Wu: Could you tell us your background and why you decided to become an educator?
Davi Reis: I was born in the mountainous, Brazilian state of Minas Gerais and lived there until I was 22 years old. Portuguese was the only language I knew and spoke until my EFL instruction in the public school system began, in middle school. While in high school and on a vocational track to become an Electronics Technician, I was peer-pressured into learning English, as many of the textbooks in that field were written in English. Although EFL was a required component of my high school curriculum, the general consensus at the time was that to ‘really’ learn English one needed to attend private EFL language schools. So, after much financial scrambling, I enrolled in the locally well-known and established ‘Instituto Cultural Brazil-Estados Unidos’ (ICBEU). Despite my instrumental motivations for enrolling, I started to almost immediately think of myself as a member of an imaginary English-speaking community (Norton, 1995). So from day one, I thoroughly enjoyed each of my classes at ICBEU and always looked forward to them.
With each new semester, the desire to become more and more involved with English grew stronger. After much thinking about just how I could make it happen, the thought of becoming an EFL teacher occurred to me. At first, I didn’t wholeheartedly embrace the idea. After all, I was enrolled in the Business Administration program (a highly profitable career path in Brazil at the time) and certainly did not want to follow in my mother’s footsteps (an educator herself) after watching her spend hours and hours planning lessons and grading student work for very little compensation. However, in early 1997, I could no longer ignore my desire to make English a bigger part of my life and the idea of becoming an EFL teacher had considerably grown on me. So despite much protest from my family members and friends, I decided to switch my college major to Letters and Literature in order to become a credentialed EFL teacher. Concurrently, I had decided to take the teacher training course at ICBEU, a two-semester program for those interested in a career path in TESOL. I was now thoroughly enjoying what I was doing and even got hired as an EFL teacher by a few schools despite my lack of both experience and expertise.
Flash forward a year and a half, and I found myself packing my bags. As chance would have it, soon after changing majors, I had the opportunity to apply for a college scholarship in the US and was able to complete my BA in TESOL at the University of Northern Iowa. Later, I completed the Teacher Education program at that same university (along with a Master’s degree in Educational Technology) and became a certified K-12 ESL teacher in that state. My next job took me to Colorado, where I taught middle school ELLs (English Language Learners) both sheltered instruction and ESL classes for a year. After this admittedly challenging experience, I moved back to Brazil in hopes of a new beginning as a now-qualified EFL teacher. To my surprise, however, my professional qualifications and experiences were said to make me overqualified for most EFL teacher positions, yet underqualified to become a university professor at most institutions. Though I did find a couple of jobs for the year, this situation prompted me to apply for a doctoral program. Since 2005, I have been a PhD candidate at Penn State University with the Department of Applied Linguistics. After finishing my dissertation, I hope to become an ESOL teacher educator and researcher, and to help empower my students to live more intentional and meaningful lives.
Ana Wu: You said that with your degree in TESOL and teaching experience, you were considered overqualified to teach EFL in Brazil. Do you think those schools didn’t hire you because they couldn’t pay you fairly or do you think that they were threatened by your qualifications and experience? Do you think that the same schools would have hired less qualified native speakers?
Davi Reis: Regarding your first question, it really is hard to tell. In some cases, the schools where I applied for a job may well have been concerned with how much they were willing to pay me or with whether or not I would be content working for their relatively low wages. In other cases, it may have been that I was unfortunately perceived as a potential threat to their business and pedagogical practices. In several job interviews, the interviewer turned out to be the school’s coordinator or owner. Given the competitive nature of EFL in Brazil and the somewhat provincial nature of many EFL schools in my state, these coordinators and school owners might have felt intimidated by my professional experiences and qualifications. In other words, I may have been perceived as a possible risk to the status quo or at least as an annoying reminder that these schools were not as isolated or autonomous as they wish they were. In addition, back in 2004, my situation was somewhat unusual in that particular context and therefore raised some suspicion (despite my attempts at easing their concerns and being open to the interviewers’ questions). Was I an exchange student returning home? Was I trying to make a buck while working on more ‘ambitious,’ unrelated professional projects? These are the sorts of questions that the schools may have asked themselves in an attempt to place me in one of these existing categories. Teaching EFL for a living, as a qualified professional, was not quite on the radar for many of the schools where I was looking to get a job, unfortunately.
Now, would these same schools have hired less or (un)qualified native speakers? Unfortunately, many of them did, though thankfully not all. The bottom line is that many of these private schools prefer to hire instructors (qualified or otherwise) who will attract students, accept less-than-ideal working conditions without rocking the boat, and be happy with relatively low wages. As we all know, many native speakers of English (though certainly not all) would fit this ‘job description’ if it meant that they would get to experience another country and its culture. In addition, I believe that many school coordinators and owners actually prefer less experienced teachers (especially if they happen to be native speakers), as this allows them (the school administrators) to keep themselves in a position of unchallenged authority.
Ana Wu: From your experience as an EFL teacher, did you feel that Brazilian teachers had a second-class status when working with native speaking teachers (qualified or less qualified)?
Davi Reis: To the best of my knowledge, despite the fact that there were many more NNESTs than NESTs where I was working (Belo Horizonte), the latter group was often exoticized and assigned a higher status than the former. Regardless of their professional qualifications, NESTs were viewed not only as native speakers of English, but also as ‘chic imports’ from inner-circle countries (Kachru, 1981) such as England and the US. It’s almost as if by having a NEST as a teacher students were actually gaining membership to a higher social class. Sadly enough, many Brazilians associate being ‘hip,’ ‘trendy,’ and ‘fashionable’ or ‘wealthy’ with being intrinsically ‘better.’ This cultural assumption permeates many aspects of Brazilian society, including foreign language teaching, and gives NESTs an unfair and dubious advantage. Therefore, as far back as I can remember, NESTs were assigned more prestige and were often perceived as more ‘authentic’ or ‘capable’ than even the most hard-working, experienced, and motivated local teacher. To make matters worse, many of these NESTs did not seem to mind the higher status they were assigned, choosing instead to bask in their perceived superiority rather than attempting to challenge stereotypes and empower the local teachers.
With that said, however, I must also say that a handful of the native speakers teaching in the same schools where I taught were well-qualified, experienced, committed, and extremely helpful. Many of the local teachers were able to work alongside these qualified NESTs, allowing the local teachers to both motivate their students to keep learning English and to become familiar with other English-speaking contexts and cultures. I remember, for example, how a colleague from England was always happy to engage with the local teachers whenever we had any comments or questions about his views of certain cultural tidbits we were working with in a given unit of instruction. I consider these qualified NESTs as strong allies who can help us all, as a field, to weaken the native speaker myth and the NS/NNS dichotomy.
Ana Wu: As an EFL instructor, did you have to integrate American or British culture in your teaching? Did your students demand knowledge in those cultures? Did you think it was necessary (or important) to teach language with reference to the socio-cultural norms and values of an English-speaking country?
Davi Reis: For the most part, yes, I did have to teach cultural aspects of both American and British English. Usually, the schools where I worked did not really have a clear policy on this matter. However, in most schools where I worked the textbooks were selected for my courses without my input, so the textbook’s content ended up dictating how much ‘culture’ I had to teach, whether American or British. More often than not, these textbooks portrayed native speakers of either variety as ideal target models and there was little inclusion of non-native, bilingual, or World English speakers. But I do hope this situation is improving now. When I last taught EFL in Brazil (2004/2005), the popular TV shows ‘Friends’ and ‘The Cosby Show,’ for example, were almost a curricular staple in this one school. I felt as if teachers who were not at least peripherally familiar with these shows were at a serious disadvantage. So whether we liked it or not, when teaching those lessons we had to elaborate on the cultural dimensions brought up in those shows.
In regards to your second question, I believe there is a mismatch between what EFL learners in Brazil (especially school-aged children and young adults) expect from their EFL learning experiences and what they usually end up needing English for. In other words, although most students and parents would concede that English is a lingua franca indispensable for international communication, what they are frequently after is the cultural capital of inner-circle English-speaking cultures as a symbol of higher status. This situation compromises students’ chances of succeeding at learning and using English for intercultural communication, as school administrators often struggle between providing what students want versus what they believe students need in order to succeed in the world.
As to your last question, I did think it was necessary to ‘choose’ either American or British English as a beginning EFL teacher. In my mind, these were the only two desirable options.
I considered English as the language spoken in the US and Great Britain, rather than a language for international communication. In addition, this was also how schools advertised themselves (i.e., as either American English, British English, or both, but rarely as English for international communication). So when I first started teaching EFL, back in 1997, I blindly accepted this dichotomy and ended up trying to emulate both accents depending on the school, probably failing miserably at both. I wish I had been exposed to the notion of World Englishes then, but better late than never!
Ana Wu: Some language centers offer in-house training. How accessible are professional development opportunities for EFL teachers in Brazil? What kind of support do instructors need? Do you think there is a recognizable need for TESOL, Inc. to step in and help close the gap?
Davi Reis: From my experience, professional development opportunities are relatively plentiful in Brazil (at least in Belo Horizonte). However, quantity does not necessarily imply quality in this case, as the nature of these opportunities is many times a reason for concern. More often than not, private schools try to cram a language teacher education program into one or two weeks’ worth of a ‘workshop’ or ‘refresher course.’ These workshops are usually mandatory for all teachers, both old-timers and those new to the school (regardless of their level of expertise or prior experience). Beginning teachers, however, may find themselves overwhelmed by potentially-biased information which the school wants them to accept. As such, these opportunities for professional development often end up training (rather than developing) its teachers on the school’s preferred pedagogical practices and principles, regardless of their pedagogical soundness. In addition, many of these training sessions focused too much on the experiential and practical side of teaching and too little on research, rather than attempting to strike a healthy balance between the two. While working as an EFL teacher in Brazil, I had to attend several of these workshops. Because I was fortunate enough to work for many different institutions, I was exposed to conflicting views on EFL teaching and thus tended to always take in the information with a grain of salt. But the picture is not all grim. A handful of pedagogically-responsible schools (i.e., those which try to strike a balance between the capitalist enterprise that is teaching EFL and their educational goals) offer training sessions that are both requested by their teachers and well-attended. These schools try to ‘think outside the classroom’ and invite the participation of teachers, school administrators, and researchers into their decision making and daily-functioning.
On the whole, however, I believe that more in-depth, ongoing, and transformative types of professional development opportunities are still absent from the private-school, EFL scene in Brazil. Although peer-mentoring and classroom observations are common, the overarching goal of these activities leans more toward evaluation than support. In addition, perhaps due to Brazil’s history, higher authority figures (e.g., teacher supervisor, school coordinator, level chair, etc.) are not necessarily the most prepared, knowledgeable, or helpful, but rather the most influential (often-times wealthy, well-connected, and white individuals).
In this light, I do feel that EFL instructors in Brazil need a lot of support, especially the less experienced ones. Although I believe that TESOL, Inc. has a lot to offer in this context, the Internet may be improving this situation by encouraging local EFL teachers to become more and better connected with other schools and peers, as well as finding relevant information online. In a way, the Internet has made the English-speaking world that many private EFL schools once claimed ownership of, more accessible to all teachers. I should note, however, that Brazil is a country of contrasts and paradoxes. So I would not be surprised if other EFL teachers in Brazil, regardless of native speaker status, may have had very different experiences and diverse views on these issues.
Ana Wu: Teaching middle school in the USA must have been a very rich experience for you, somebody who completed his formal education abroad, a NNEST, and a new immigrant. What were your most vivid memories? What advice would you give to foreign-born graduate students in applied linguistics or TESOL programs who plan to be a K-12 teacher in the USA?
Davi Reis: Professionally-speaking, teaching middle school to at-risk ESL students in Colorado was one of the most challenging experiences I have ever had – physically, mentally, and emotionally. Although I had been teaching English for over six years, teaching full-time at a public school was a completely new businessto me. Thankfully, my internship experiences and student teaching had all been in public schools in the U.S. This helped me tremendously in assessing what I was up against and how I could try to make a difference. There were days when I thought about quitting. But there were also days when I felt like a hero in the classroom! I had a self-contained classroom of over 20 students (mostly from Mexico, but a handful from countries such as Sudan, S. Korea, and the Dominican Republic). The job was physically exhausting because I had to be on my feet from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm, Monday through Friday. Given my students’ behavioral difficulties and high energy, sitting down was not an option! Although there were breaks during the day (e.g., lunch and afternoon recess), there was always so much on my plate that I barely had time to plan my lessons! From making photocopies in the library, participating in school-wide activities, or making home visits, there was never a dull moment. In addition, I always had to deal with emergencies such as student fights, calls from concerned parents, and truant students getting caught shoplifting at Wal-Mart! Mentally, as a new public-school teacher, it was extremely draining to try to get used to a new school district, a new school building, and all of the other contextual factors that played a part in my classroom’s day-to-day routine. And finally, the most challenging part by far was the emotional toll of working with at-risk youth and trying to change their lives for the better. It honestly felt like swimming against a strong tide. I remember a mother once who came to me in tears because she simply did not know how else to help her son (one of my most challenging students). Despite our combined efforts (including the principal and the school counselor), “Victor” (a pseudonym) just did not seem to respond to my teaching. But looking back at these experiences, I am happy that my students had someone on their side while I was their teacher – someone they could look up to as a role model. At the end of the year, most of them had come to appreciate our time together and had learned valuable lifelong skills in addition to English.
If your future plans involve working in the public school system, I commend you for taking such a noble step. Whether you are an international student in TESOL or Applied Linguistics, an experienced NNEST, or a new immigrant, the public school system has much to gain from you. But I do have a piece of advice, though I am only able to say this in hindsight myself. I would encourage you to think of ‘difference’ as a source of growth, not deficit. Unfortunately, the native speaker myth and the idealized notion of a native speaker are still quite strong and prevalent in many social and professional contexts in the US. So do expect to be questioned, challenged, or even attacked by others during your college years and/or professional career. But while this is sometimes the case, I have found that in most cases people are in fact open to learning about the issue and considering a different perspective. So we can all become agents of change by helping others to understand why we chose this profession and why we think others can benefit from our professional expertise and insight. If we choose to avoid this topic, perhaps because we understandably tend to feel somewhat otherized or exoticized as individuals and as professionals, we are in fact denying both ourselves and those we interact with a chance to engage in meaningful dialogue that can lead to changes in what we all think, say, and do. And if ever you feel embarrassed because you simply do not (and cannot) know everything, just ask! Although there will always be those who think you should know everything, there are many more who are happy to teach us what they know and even happier to learn something from us, who come from other countries and cultures.
Finally, as a word of caution, I believe it’s crucial that you first identify your long-term career goals and reflect on your strengths as a teacher before committing to an ESL position with the public schools. Unfortunately, though I believe that public schools both deserve and are desperate for ESL teachers (especially those who can teach other content areas as well), it is not for everyone. So try to find out as much as possible about the school district where you are applying in order to make sure that you will be a good fit. For example, find out what kind of ESL instruction the district provides. Is it pull-in, pull-out, or sheltered? How many other ESL teachers/specialists are there in the district? What kinds of resources would be available to you if you got the position? Figuring out the answer to these questions before accepting the job offer will help not only you, but the students you will eventually have in your classroom. Also, as a word of encouragement, despite the hard work, stress, and low pay involved with ‘working in the trenches,’ I believe that TESOL professionals in general, and NNESTs in particular have a tremendous amount of experience and expertise that, sadly enough, doesn’t usually make its way to the public school context. So if you’re up to the challenge, the better you’ll be for taking it, and the more enriched your students’ lives will be.
Ana Wu: As a foreign-born NNES master degree candidate with extensive teaching experience and a second degree in another field, what challenges did you have during your graduate studies and how did you overcome them? What advice would you give to people with similar background as yours who are considering studying in the USA?
Davi Reis: Graduate school did present a series of challenges. First of all, I was also going through my teacher education program. Although this allowed me to add a K-12 ESL teaching certification to my BA in TESOL, it made for a more labor-intensive graduate school experience. Secondly, although Educational Technology is a major strand in the general field of education, it took me a while to figure out how I would converge my interests in TESOL with those in Educational Technology. Third, becoming comfortable presenting in front of others did not come naturally to me, so I had to work at it. Finally, learning the genre of academic writing well enough to write my master’s thesis wasn’t easy. Up to that point, my writing skills were extremely weak and I just could not envision myself as someone who would eventually be able to finish it. In trying to overcome all of these challenges, I found it absolutely essential to identify role models whom I could try to emulate. I was fortunate enough to have more capable peers and professors who helped me to become more comfortable in my skin and a better writer. So learning from and collaborating with peers and professors is a must. But the most difficult challenge during that period was trying to cope with the stress from attempting to balance my graduate classes and my work as a graduate assistant. After a few unproductive all-nighters, I realized that having an established routine and ways to consistently release stress (e.g., spending time with your family, going for a walk, or playing with your pet) worked much better for me than short-term solutions. My thinking goes something like this: if we must make time every day to sleep, shower, and eat, we can also make time for taking healthy breaks and enjoying life. Tending to all aspects of your life will likely have a positive impact on your professional life as well. If even Barack Obama finds time for his daily gym routine, so can we!
In terms of advice for those considering study in the US, it is important to keep in mind that it can be a challenging and taxing experience, filled with unexpected twists and turns. At some point, no matter how well you might be doing academically, you are likely to feel homesick and may start wondering why you chose to do it. During those times, remember that these are understandable feelings and yes, you CAN get through it. All in all, studying in the US can be a very worthwhile, mind-broadening experience that may change how you see the world. So embrace the opportunity! On a practical level, my advice is that you try to identify your short- and long-term career and personal goals before committing to such a big step. Think about what you feel strongly motivated to do or pursue. It should see you through.
Ana Wu: I learned a lot from the wisdom and knowledge you acquired through your experience. Thank you for such inspiring and insightful interview!
Davi Reis: Thank you, Ana, for the opportunity to share some of my personal and professional experiences with the NNEST community. I feel truly honored. I hope my narrative can both encourage and inspire other teachers to pursue the transformative world of teaching and learning, regardless of their background.
Kachru, B. (1981). Models for non-native Englishes. In B. Kachru (Ed.). The other tongue: English across cultures (pp. 31–57). Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Norton-Peirce, B. (1995). Social identity, investment, and language learning. TESOL Quarterly, 29, 9-31.