Olga Chaves Carballo, Ph.D.
Professor Olga Chaves-Carballo is a full professor at the Escuela de Literatura y Ciencias del Lenguaje, Universidad Nacional, Heredia, Costa Rica. She holds a Ph.D in Education with Emphasis in Pedagogical Mediation from the Universidad de la Salle, Costa Rica, a Master’s Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language and Educational Administration from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Illinois, USA. She has been teaching for more than 30 years from primary school to higher education.
At Universidad Nacional she has taught different courses for the English majors and the Master’s program and now she is the coordinator of the Accreditation Committee and a member of the Committee of Academic Development. She was also a teacher trainer for el Plan Nacional de Inglés CONARE-MEP for 5 years. She was a member of the social justice project Think, Share and Act (TSA) for three years. She is also a researcher in professional development, teacher training, global education, and teaching skills. Her work has been published in the Global Issues in Language Education Newsletter from Japan, Linguagem e Ensino from Brazil and journals from Universidad Nacional, University of Costa Rica, Instituto Tecnológico and Universidad Latinoamericana de Ciencias y Tecnología. Her interests are volunteering, learning Italian and Mandarin, reading, writing and traveling. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can you tell us a little bit about your English learning and teaching journey? What motivated you to learn and teach English?
When I was 12 years old, my primary school teacher taught me the first words in English; they were pineapple and orange. Right then I told my mother that I would learn that foreign language and travel around the world. I was a country girl who had to walk to school in the woods and through moody hilly roods. We did not have books at school nor electricity at home. Nevertheless, I was determined and passionate to pursue an educational degree.
In high school, unfortunately, I did not have good EFL teachers, and even though I was one of the best in English, I could not speak a word. My major was English at the University of Costa, but I was always in disadvantage since I came from an unprivileged public high school where I did not learn much. The first two years were very hard to me, but I continued being inspired to learn English through big efforts. Without having a degree yet, I started teaching English to afford my studies and to learn about teaching; I worked hard in my different language schools and government institutions. That experience shaped my personality and developed my skills to become a great teacher.
Then, I found out about that I could apply for a scholarship to a college in the United States, and I did. It was exactly 30 years ago that I was admitted to Albion College to study my senior year. This experience changed my life. I learned more about the history, the people, their beliefs and traditions. I felt that I really wanted to become a teacher of the language that I liked so much and I thought that by teaching, I could help others learn English which was and is such an important language.
After college, I pursued a Master’s Degree in Costa Rica and I realized that I had my skills, attitude and education to continue being a great teacher. Since I always wanted to learn more about the culture of the United States, I also graduated from a second Master’s Degree in teaching from the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale, Illinois. Feeling very well educated and prepared to teach, I have been teaching for more than 30 years and I am still learning.
What is it like to teach English as a Foreign Language in Costa Rica? What are some of the challenges that you have experienced as a NNEST in Costa Rica and abroad, and how have you overcome those challenges? How do you incorporate those experiences in your teaching?
I have been teaching English for more than 30 years. It has been a great challenge since I have lived experiences where materials, equipped classrooms and technology were completed absent at the beginning of my teaching journey. Moreover, English was not considered to be a priority in anyone’s profession. While teaching for many years I relied just on a board, chalkboard, tape recorder, a typewriter, and some old handouts. English was taught in a very traditional way, and changes were very difficult to implement due to the lack of innovation, access to modern technology and new methodologies. Finding a very good job was also hard since we were not well-paid and teaching schedules were tough; for many years I had to teach in three different institutions to make a living; besides that, I have been a private tutor since I was 19; first for a very good reason: I needed the money, second, it’s been very rewarding to teach English to those we have more difficulties or those whose interest is very high.
The heavy teaching schedule together with a very oppressive teaching environment from some school administrators is what has been the greatest challenge for me. Besides, in some learning environments, students are not motivated to learn and there is too much pressure to accomplish good students’ outcomes. We many also lack good teaching resources, a high income and sometimes motivation for teaching. As a teacher always feel very tired since we have too much work to do even on weekends. In spite all of these drawbacks, I have developed my skills to accomplish good results. I keep on learning and looking for better teaching opportunities; I get involved in good teaching practices through research and professional development courses, seminars, and other opportunities that keep me motivated. The best reward is having my students enjoy learning English and becoming excellent speakers of English.
Your work is grounded in humanist thought. What does it mean to be a humanist EFL professional?
Being a humanist EFL professional means believing strongly in teaching a foreign language with an integrated view of education to build respect, growth, responsibility and inspiration in life. Teaching is based on the student centered approach where students feel self-confident and enthusiastic in the process of learning by experiencing lessons full of opportunities to develop language skills through activities that incorporate real-life situations. Students participate actively in the variety of achievable tasks in groups, pair work, role plays, debates, discussions and the like. They develop their social skills with principles of tolerance, respect, cooperation and understanding in order to achieve language goals. This humanistic perspective guides students to achieve language goals in a more social and an emotional environment where the professor is a guide, a helper, and a counselor who loves teaching. With this perspective of teaching, I enjoy my job very much and I feel very satisfied and rewarded when I see my students’ outcomes and personal and professional growth. This view of teaching keeps me motivated and energetic to teach with enthusiasm, love and understanding to those whose language goals are met through better teaching practices.
You advocate for the development of EFL professionals’ cross-cultural competence and knowledge of the target culture. Why is it important for EFL/ESL educators to incorporate these two components in their classrooms? How can teacher educators encourage pre-service teachers to develop knowledge of the target culture while also 1) nurturing knowledge of their own cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds; 2) developing awareness about the fluid and dynamic nature of culture; and 3) problematizing assumptions about cultural deficit?
It is paramount to incorporate cross-cultural competence and knowledge of the target culture in the classrooms in order to develop students’ thinking skills and understanding of the English language. Teaching English in a non-native speaking country is not only teaching linguistic skills but it is teaching the target culture as accurate as possible without any prejudice or any bias perspective. Cross-cultural understanding helps students develop attitudes and thinking that contribute to learning English better. In fact, the study of culture in the classroom aims at helping students achieve an integral understanding and mastery of such communicative system.
Teacher educators can encourage pre-service teachers to develop knowledge of the target culture by first developing the appreciation of their own cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. Pre-service teachers’ acknowledgement of language and culture interdependence contributes to the achievement of cultural understanding and the acquisition of tolerance and empathy towards those who speak English. If they are able to recognize the connection between language and culture, they will learn about the traditions and beliefs of other people and through this knowledge they will learn to respect and appreciate others’ cultural background. By developing this understanding well, they will be able to teach culture to their students without transmitting misunderstandings, prejudice or any other negative attitude toward the people who speak English.
You have used service-learning projects in your EFL classes before. What does service learning look like in the EFL classroom? How do you encourage your students to interrogate structural inequality and move beyond “false generosity” while doing their service learning? What advice would you give to our readers who might be interested in implementing service-learning?
In the EFL classroom, service learning teaches students to become more aware of social issues in relation to like human rights, poverty, environmental problems, discrimination, animal protection, and other topics. I encourage students to understand the benefits of service learning. In order to develop awareness, they start reading about the issues they are interested in; they also watch videos and research about them. I also motivate them by telling what I have been doing for years and how I feel about it! In other words, I teach with the example. I also feel very passionate about service learning and I have become more involved in it after so many years.
After they have developed their interest and awareness, they get involved in social service projects of interest with my guidance, experience and support. I teach them to take a stand and advocate for what must be right and support those projects that contribute to making society a better place for everyone. They become advocates of what they believe should be improved for the benefit of others. Through critical thinking, volunteering, dedication and action, they become more concerned citizens who want to make a difference and who want to develop an attitude and social responsibility to always support and help those in need.
My advice to the readers who might be interested in implementing service-learning would be first to research on how EFL teachers can carry on service-learning in their classrooms, to motivate themselves to implement it and to experience personally the challenge that service-learning provides. It is through the initiation of social justice projects that teachers can really learn about organization, leadership, action, and hard work. This does not only change their lives, but also contribute with to a well-rounded humanistic education where students learn the real meaning of social awareness and volunteering.