I met him in the MATESL program at the University of Illinois and he’s remained a close friend. I was excited to interview him about his job in Honduras, and he didn’t disappoint.
There are a lot of interesting topics covered here: ESL versus EFL, academic contexts versus vocational contexts, perceptions of non-native teachers in ESL contexts, insights from his experience as a program coordinator, and of course, some travel tips.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Kris: Give us a brief summary of your background and how you got into teaching.
JJ: I studied foreign languages in undergrad with an orientation towards English teaching; I studied French and Italian as well. Up until that moment, I didn’t know English at all. When I was in high school, I studied English, but I couldn’t speak at all. But when I started at the university, I really wanted to learn another language, and English is really useful. And I love, I really love teaching. That’s what I knew I wanted to do from high school.
So I graduated from college in 2009. After that, I worked in a couple of schools: elementary schools, high schools. In 2010, I got a job in a private university (UNITEC) as an EFL teacher and I worked there for almost three years. In 2012, I started my application for my Fulbright scholarship with help from my university. Then, in 2013, I left the university and went to the USA and I got my masters in teaching English as a second language at the University of Illinois.
Kris: Can you talk about your current job a little bit?
JJ: I’m a coordinator of the EFL program for TECVOC (vocational technical degree). It’s actually a very innovative program. This university has undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees. It’s mainly for engineering, finance, economics, those areas. But now, when I got back (from the USA), we started this program. It’s an alliance with the government. They’re giving full scholarships to people who want to study English to become call center agents, because the call center industry is growing a lot here. A lot of the companies are looking for people who can speak English and work in customer service and support.
So the government and this university are working together. They’re giving scholarships to students who are interested. They just finished high school. They’re with us for eighteen months. And they get a lot of intensive English study and other remedial classes like math and Spanish. And also they get classes in customer service and tech support. So they finish after eighteen months with a call center agent technical degree.
The English part, the EFL, is at the core of the program, and it’s kind of a challenge because the students who are accepted to the program… the government wants to target low-income families, so people that don’t have the opportunity to go to college. Those people usually have some weak academic skills and they know very little English. And we have to take those people and teach them English and bring them to a level that is acceptable in a call center, which in CEFR is a B1+ or B2 if possible. So we’re taking them to that level.
We have six levels of English, but we also offer a lot of extracurricular activities like clubs and a lot of tutoring hours. My job is mainly to coordinate English classes. I do a lot of class observations and help teachers with the methodology of the class, but I also need to organize different activities outside of the classroom for students to practice their English.
Kris: What is the biggest challenge at your job and what is the thing that you enjoy most about it?
JJ: Both things have the same answer, which is: the students that we have. The students are our challenge and also the thing that I enjoy the most. Because, as I just said, these are people that never thought of going to the university, let alone a private university, because at this university people pay some money. So what gives me a lot of reward is that I know that I’m really helping people that need help. Most of our students have very little in life and education is going to really make a difference. And not only education, but learning English is going to make their lives completely different.
But again, because of their background, it’s a real challenge to bring them or take them to a level that’s acceptable in a call center, so like a B1 or B1+. They have to be more or less fluent. And right now, we just finished the first generation. We are now trying to make some changes and think of some other ways to help and get our students some more practice. The good thing is that we’re getting a lot of support from the institution, resources and people. So we have a lot of hours for tutoring, more than twenty per week. And we have tutoring sessions on Saturdays as well. And teachers are giving extra time to run a club about conversation and pronunciation or grammar – we have a lot of problems with grammar in English.
We’re also noticing a lack of experience in the call center itself. They need to learn how to deal with angry customers and people with different accents, from all over the world. So now we’re realizing some things we maybe need to implement for the future.
Again, the students – I really enjoy working with them, because I know that this will help them. Even if they don’t work in a call center in the future, just learning English, that aspect, is really going to help them.
Kris: Can you talk a little bit more about the motivation levels in the classes? Do the students like learning English?
JJ: I would say around 90% of our students are really motivated. They’re here because they want to learn English. And some of them just say it plainly, openly: “I don’t want to work at a call center, but I want to learn English.” So that really makes a difference between my program, the TECVOC program, and the other EFL programs here at the university. The undergrad students have to take the course because it’s required. But for our students, they really want to be in the classroom and they ask for tutoring and they’ve asked for those things that we’re implementing. We’re doing it because it’s been their initiative. But they need more from us, so we’re trying to give them what they need.
In that regard, I think our teachers are really lucky because you won’t see a class that’s motivated to learn in that many settings. That makes the job of the teacher an easier one, right?
Kris: Absolutely. I’m going to change the course of the interview a little bit. I want to talk about when you taught ESL in the United States. You taught EFL in Honduras, and then ESL in the United States. I know they’re probably completely different contexts, but are there one or two major differences that you can talk about?
JJ: Well, as you just said: completely different contexts. When I taught in the writing courses at the U of I (Illinois), it was a more academic setting, preparing the students to write research papers. And I was teaching undergrads. I can’t remember the names of the courses anymore, but I think it was 112, which is the second one in the sequence. They have to take two. In the first course, they learned more paragraph structure, and the second one is more about the research paper structure. So that was the course that I was assigned. Most, or all, of my students were Chinese. There was maybe one Korean student, but the rest were Chinese.
Those students have so much more discipline than the students here, just because the cultures are completely different. Our culture is very, very – I’ve come to realize it now that I’m back – very relaxed, laid back. Students are not that serious, I would say, about their learning. Even though they’re motivated, few students realize that it takes a lot of hard work to get quality results in the end. Which is something I thought my students in the States already knew. It was part of their culture to be very disciplined, to go the extra mile.
We don’t really have a focus here on writing, because it’s more oral, but whenever we ask our students to write something, most of the time they would cheat, plagiarize (laughs). That’s something that, there (in the US), the students knew, and I don’t think that they would dare to do something like that. Or maybe if they did, it was more discreet. But here it’s very open. People just plagiarize. But again, our program is not really focused on writing.
But again, that discipline and… just the two different goals. This one is more technical and that one was really academic.
Kris: On the same topic, what do you think about the perceptions of you as a non-native speaker? Were there any negative perceptions of having a Honduran guy teaching them English in Illinois, or was that not a problem?
JJ: That’s a very interesting question, Kris. (laughs) I think the students in the ESL service courses there are more used to non-native speakers. I think that’s the general sense or the environment in the ESL courses: that they hire teachers who are native speakers, but some of them are not. I couldn’t see a negative attitude from the students.
But there were differences between the first group that I taught and the second group. With the first group… maybe it was because I was also really nervous to teach, not only teaching people different from my culture, and I knew that Asians were more disciplined and really serious about their studies, but also I was teaching a writing class, which is different from teaching English in an EFL context.
So maybe because I was nervous, my experience was not as positive as I hoped it would be. But with the second group, I think I had better rapport, I already knew the content… it was better. And by the end of the semester, I remember, with the second group, they were asking me questions about my culture and “Tell us about where Honduras is located,” what places to go, and some things… I thought they wanted to know more about me. So if anything I would say they were intrigued.
Kris: Wow, that’s awesome. Let’s do two more. You’re not in the classroom right now, right?
JJ: Yeah, I’m not.
Kris: I was going to ask you about a tool: textbook, app, worksheet, teaching technique… anything like that that you found helpful for teaching. But instead, since you’re the coordinator, let’s do this: what’s something that’s helped you do your job better?
JJ: Something I really liked about teaching at the U of I, and something I learned, was to use more sharing resources, working collaboratively with other teachers to create materials and to create lesson plans. That’s something that I… it was a first for me. Here, all the teachers are very stingy. They don’t want to share what they have. So when I came back I said we really need to implement what they’re doing there (at Illinois). So we started using Google Drive the same way that we used it there. And I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved here. Teachers are working on PowerPoint presentations and handouts together, we have everything in one place, we know that all teachers… the teachers now have a rich database of resources they can use in the classroom. Working “on the cloud” and working collaboratively is really something that I encourage teachers to do.
Kris: Yeah, that’s fantastic. Perfect. Alright, one last question: if people are visiting Tegucigalpa, like I will be one day, what should they definitely do there?
JJ: The name of the city means “silver hill,” because there were a lot of silver mines, and also the city is very hilly. It’s not flat at all, so it’s very different from most cities. So you definitely need to go hiking. There is a very cool park called La Tigra and a lot of nature there, so we definitely need to go hiking there. There’s another park close to La Tigra called El Picacho. It has a big Christ statue like the one in Rio, and from there you can see the whole city.
Nightlife is really good. There are some options, bars you can go to, different kinds of music. I’m a musician, so I like going to artistic things. So the Philharmonic orchestra has a performance every month that’s free on Sundays, I think the first Sunday of the month. So those are some of the things that you can do.
Juan Jose Reyes is the EFL coordinator for the TECVOC program at UNITEC in Tegucigalpa. You can reach him at email@example.com or on his LinkedIn page.
Featured Image Credit: Ian Mackenzie