By Rose Gimenes
I have been working as a language teacher in Brasil since 1987 when I was still a graduating student. At that time, it was very difficult for me to make a link between theory and practice. I have always focused my teaching actions on my practice and as a consequence regarded theory as less important. In fact, I thought that the time I was ‘wasting’ at reading theory was somehow stolen from the time I had to dedicate to plan my lessons. I have to say that it was very difficult to my teachers helping me to change the slanted view I had on theory. Controversially, I had so many questions unanswered and very often my practice did not match my expectations. In such circumstances, I used to recur to technical books which were mostly focused on ready-made recipes that usually left me alone with all my questions, not mentioning the feeling of frustration for my teaching not to be as effective as I wanted it to. It was like being from separate planets, me and my students.
My journey towards the theoretical background I have today started in early 90’s with Paulo Freire’s ideas. Reading him made me feel as if we were in the middle of a conversation, his texts dialogued with me and I could directly relate his ideas with the context of my lessons and my students. Teaching is a political thing, every time I plan a lesson, every time I select a text I have to bear in mind who is the people I am teaching, their beliefs, their context, the reasons why they need to learn a foreign language. It is not possible to teach without regard that every lesson is in favor of something or against something and a teacher needs to take sides, the side of their students, not the oppressive system we all belong to. In his words: “The more the oppressed, the poor people grasp the dominant syntax, the more they can articulate their voices and their speech in the struggle against injustice.” Paulo Freire
Little by little I started to make a connection between my practice and the way it could be illuminated through the study of theory. I had already worked for public and private schools, I had also worked for language institutes such as FISK, CNA, Yázigi where I was in touch with language courses and seminars and lots of theory studies both concerning methodology and language skills. I learned that having a good repertoire in terms of techniques is not enough, you have to know what to use, how to use, to whom you may use it and why you are doing so.
Later on in my career I returned to University in order to make a post-graduation course sponsored by Sociedade Brasileira de Cultura Inglesa aimed to public school language teachers. This course opened a new perspective in my teaching exactly because all theory we studied then and all group discussions we had were very effective in terms or relating theory and practice . In the course called Reflexão Sobre a Ação o Professor de Inglês Aprendendo e Ensinando, I revisited all theory we use to study at graduation courses in general besides to get in touch with new ways of understanding teaching and material production. Reflecting upon my practice, evaluating it and taking action to change what is necessary to change is another positive aspect I gained from theory study. Seeing in retrospect is very important for a teacher, otherwise we start making things in sequence without paying enough attention to the whole.
Pedagogically thinking, authors such as Carl Rogers, Freinet, Piaget, Vigotsky can help me to understand how my students develop their learning process and how I can help them to match their learning needs with their wants. Other relevant aspect I would like to mention is how it was important to me to have been exposed to authors such as Graddol, Crystal, Rajagopalan among others who guided me through the history of language teaching, how English became an International language since colonization times and some perspectives for the future of EFL teaching. I had never heard before terms such as Lingua Franca, Inner, Outer, Expanding Circle, world language and so on. Having returned to the University for my Post-graduation Studies was definitely the best thing I did for my career and my students were the most benefited from that.
I strongly believe that every reading has its importance to contribute not only to the professional but also, to the cultural background of a teacher. Together with academic reading, literature is also another powerful resource in our improvement as teachers and also as human beings. Tales such as Through the Tunnel, beautifully written by Doris Lessing were so effective in making me think how a person has to be self-motivated to want to learn something and when it happens, the learning experience is so pervasive that it becomes part of a person’s history. Educating Rita, the movie, is another example of a nurturing story which can give ‘concreteness’ to theory making it almost touchable by the changes learning process can promote in someone’s attitudes towards life. The Teacher Man by Frank McCourt, Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones, Three Cups of Tea by Gregory Mortenson, Freedom Writes by Erin Gruwell are examples of inspiring people and inspiring material to provide us with food for thought about meaningful the teaching experience can be.
I also believe that another important aspect for every language teacher is to study the language itself, especially when you are a non-native teacher as we are in Brazil and do not have full time contact with the language. English is taught as a foreign language in Brasil. It means that our TV, newspapers, official documents, books are produced in Portuguese and our students do not make use of another language unless in very specific situations such as studying, surfing the net, or for professional purposes. Living immersed in this Portuguese language universe can lead us to reduce opportunities to language practice in our daily lives. Neglecting our language studies can lead us fatally to a poor performance as teachers and not being trusted by our students.
I am convinced that a combination of factors such as theoretical, language and methodological studies can contribute greatly to a good performance in the classroom. On the one hand, living in the cyber-era makes all sorts of teaching material much more accessible than it used to be at the beginning of my career on the late 80’s. All theoretical material, ready-made printable activities are at our computer keyboard reach. You can get in touch with people from all over the world in a question of seconds. Sharing ideas, talking to other teachers and also taking part in discussion forums or online courses is very common practice nowadays. Communicating with our students, recommending them good studying material, giving them feedback, studying tips and even belonging to the same social network is part of modern teachers’ life. On the other hand, it is also very easy to get confused in the midst of such diversity. How not to get lost or in conflict in the waves of this cyber-chaos? As it is not wise to trust in ready-made recipe moreover we must keep navigating in chaotic times, we have no choice but resorting to… guess what?
I conclude this text by reinforcing the importance of theory in our teaching both to understand better the context we live in and as a consequence make good choices concerning what material to use, why to select the material in question, being able to adapt or creating and making adequate choices among so many options. Separating wheat from chaff is a trick business that can be immensely facilitated by the assistance of theory.