An interview by Martina Bednáriková
Federico Espinosa, ELTForum 2014 presenter, knows that it is important not only to succeed but also to fail, although it is definitely not easy. Learning to manage failure is actually the hardest part of our profession, because in teaching every moment matters, every day.
Slovak Chamber of English Teachers (SCET): Tell us how you got involved in teaching. Have you always wanted to teach? What do you like about it? Is there anything you dislike?
Federico Espinosa (FE): I started my teaching career working with the US Peace Corps in West Africa. I originally trained as a chemist and worked as a chemistry teacher – but because I was teaching in a French speaking country, I was also asked to teach English. I found language education much more enjoyable than science education and I never looked back.
After Peace Corps, I got my CELTA in New York City, then moved to France where I worked as an English language assistant at a high school for one year, then as a university lecturer for two more years. In both these jobs I got lots of experience teaching students with a variety of levels, interests, and needs. I also gained valuable experience in materials development as many of my classes were based on authentic materials rather than coursebook exercises.
Currently I teach for AKCENT International House in Prague. My work for IH includes young learners, business English, Cambridge exam preparation in addition to the usual general English classes. I have been tangentially involved with teacher training over the years and I look forward to working in it full-time in the near future.
SCET: What are your main teaching cornerstones? What do you believe in as a teacher?
FE: Effective learning evidences great teaching, and this is impossible without the creation of an appropriate learning environment. It has been my long-held belief that so much of what drives a lesson – particularly a language lesson – is the possibility of comfortable and engaging exchanges between the participants. For a student to learn well, they must have the motivation to learn; not only the overall long-term motivation of “English is useful, so I want to learn it” but also the motivation of “this particular task is interesting to me and I want to discover more about it”. This then charges the teacher with creating lessons focused around the needs and interests of the students so that exchanges are meaningful and personalized rather than arbitrarily chosen by a course book syllabus. This is the idea that drives my talk on need analyses, focusing on identifying student needs and adapting a course to suit these, adapting continually over the course.
This is where reflective practice comes into play. The final element of good teaching is being able to take a step back after a lesson and think about what worked, what didn’t work, why, and how to change future lessons. Involving students in this with continual feedback and suggestions gives the teacher a very legitimate external perspective on the course, and gives students the feeling that they have some control over their class and their own learning. This sense of participation in course planning ultimately positively impacts learner autonomy and motivation. It is their class, after all.
SCET: You travel a lot while teaching. Which country did you like the most as an EFL teacher, and what was the most memorable experience you’ve had while teaching abroad – the one that has made a long-lasting impact on you?
FE: I have worked in the United States, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali, France and the Czech Republic. These have all been very different experiences and teaching contexts, and it is difficult to narrow it down to one superlative.
The award for most international and culturally interesting would have to go to New York due to the mixed-nationality classrooms I taught in, and the benefit of being able to have open discussion across 6 or 7 nationalities about how perceptions of various topics can differ; excellent and genuine exchanges of information.
West Africa takes the most personally enriching award, having given me the experience of working in classrooms with no electricity, no running water, more students than desks, and chalkboards made of painted cardboard. Teaching classes of 70+ students at a time in these conditions, especially when teaching chemistry, taught me a lot of about the importance of teacher resourcefulness and using what you have available to you. West Africa also takes the award for being a memorable introduction to teacher training, as experienced Peace Corps Volunteers train new PCVs in the middle and the end of their service.
France by contrast takes the plethora of resources award. Never have I taught in an environment that places so much value on education and provides so many benefits to teachers. I mean, the vacation time alone….. Le sigh. France also taught me a lot about materials development and course design due to the responsibility I was given at the university.
Lastly, the Czech Republic has been memorable and interesting as the first time working full time for a private language school. Professional development is taken much more seriously here at International House than anywhere else I have worked, and the opportunities for both teacher development and teacher-training opportunities have been very rewarding.
SCET: Let’s move on to your personal learning style. Has your own learning style or strategies changed in any way over the years?
FE: In 2012 I began a distance MA in TEFL/TESL and started delving deeply for the first time into theories of second language acquisition, teaching methodologies, lexis, pedagogical grammar, syllabus design and so on. The aim of this all is to develop the approaches and methods I use with my students in my class, but a side effect has been introspective analysis of how I best learn a language and what it is that makes me a “good language learner”. As I learn Czech now, and looking back at the ways I approached learning other languages such as French, Susu, Chinese, Hebrew and Arabic (I like looking at the structure of non-western languages), I can see things from a more complex perspective. When I make up my own flashcard sets I now aim to have meaningful context in them, when I listen to conversations on the metro I make note of structures and phrases rather than just isolated words, and when speaking I pay closer attention to what I say and how I say it. One drawback is that this knowledge seems to have made me more averse to spontaneously having a go at speaking when I don’t feel I have mastered a certain language point due to a fear of acquiring fossilized errors. Overall, I think it has helped inform both my learning and my teaching.
SCET: Do you remember your first presentation? What helped you overcome nervousness back then? Has the preparation for your presentations changed in any way with your experience?
FE: My first presentations were back in my days as a chemistry, presenting my research progress every so often at weekly lab meetings. These were short and to the point with a small group of colleagues. My undergraduate research thesis involved a full presentation of my research open to the entire university, but the only non-chemistry students in the lecture hall were my friends who were only there for moral support anyway, sharing none of my interest in intramolecular hydrogen bonds raising the pKa of my synthetic targets.
This experience from another field was helpful when I began teaching, and also when I began presenting at conferences. My first ELT presentation was at TESOL France Toulouse in 2011, presenting on ways of teaching modal verbs for a lesson plan swap shop. I remember being extremely nervous at the prospect of presenting in front of so many of my peers when I only had a couple of years of experience. The talk was well received, however, and I realized that even among experienced peers, new ideas are still new ideas and most everybody who attends these conferences comes in with an open mind. Over the years that followed I have given many other presentations, which has made me more comfortable with the idea, and better able to anticipate what the participants will expect. This knowledge makes preparing for talks less stressful, as I now leave myself the flexibility to adapt during the talk based on participant numbers and questions.
SCET: What makes you get up in the morning and where do you get energy for all that you do?
FE: I have worked with many British people over my last few years here in Europe, and as a result my habits, routines and even language has shifted a bit. Due to this my energy comes in the purest of forms: Black tea, no sugar, a bit of milk.
Federico Espinosa has been an English teacher since 2008, having taught in a variety of contexts from sub-Saharan African secondary schools to New York City Language Schools, French Universities and most recently at AKCENT International House in Prague. He has been actively involved in ELT conferences in Europe for the last four years, having served on the TESOL France Executive Committee as the founding regional coordinator of TESOL France Bordeaux, and spoken at TESOL France and TESOL Greece. When not teaching Federico plays the horn with the Orchestr Univerzity Karlovy v Praze and rides his bike around Prague.
WORKSHOP: THE NECESSITY OF NEEDS ANALYSES
CPD, COURSE DESIGN – UPPER Secondary/Adults – ALL LEVELS
FRIDAY 16:30-17:30 in DUBLIN