Ashley – Engaging EFL Teachers & Learners in an INTL Setting: Mexico

“All of the experiences of this trip have renewed my passion and pride for my profession, and reminded me of how much each country and culture has to teach me.”

When I was approached about going on this trip, I was immediately interested because it was a way to get credit while getting out of the classroom and into the real world. I was in the last year of my masters program and I had reached that point where I found myself saying out loud pretty often, “I just want to get into the real world and out of the library.”  While of course my classes and research have been so valuable, the lack of immediate real world application was becoming stifling. Also, I has traveled to Mexico before, and even though it was to a different state and many years ago, I had positive associations and I felt like this gave me preparation for the day to day realities of the trip – the people, the language, the streets, etc. I also wanted to go on the trip because I’d taught ESL in many different settings in the US, but I haven’t previously taught in an EFL setting. I thought this trip would give me insight into whether or not I’d like to make EFL teaching a priority in my future job searches.

While all these reasons made me excited for the trip I was also apprehensive, mostly, because I was worried that I didn’t have anything to offer the teachers in Mexico. It seemed like my motives for going on the trip were very self-centered – what could I get out of it, what would it do for my future, etc. I resolved that while this might very well be the case, I would at least do my best to be gracious and validating to the work they were willing to invite us into. I viewed this trip as another classroom, where I was on the receiving end of other educators, willing to be shown the gaps in my professional experiences that I need to work on filling.

Prior to leaving, as well as during the trip, we were asked to keep journals. After analysis of the journal entries I noticed three clear themes in what I was experiencing and recording. The first was the challenges and advantages that came with traveling with undergraduate students, the second was the practices of the EFL teachers, and the third was the exposure to indigenous languages, cultures, and histories.

The first theme was the interaction I had with the other students traveling, mostly undergraduate, pre-service, teachers. I noticed in our pre-trip meetings that there were some big personalities, and I felt quite a bit older than many of them in both age and experience. During the initial travel day on the trip I noticed that my expectations were low for the relationship I would form. I wasn’t feeling very connected to the other students, and this was exacerbated by travel exhaustion. While I was excited about being in Mexico and already loved the culture and the food, I wasn’t sure if I would make any lasting connections with the people on the trip. As my journal progressed it became clear that this was an inaccurate prediction of mine. I became very comfortable, connected, and close with several of the undergraduate students. My roommate, who I previously hadn’t known, became one of my favorite people to be with and process the trip’s experiences with. By the end of the trip I felt so proud to be associated with this group of students and world travelers, and was sad that my time with them all together was ending.

Aside from the personal relationships, I was able to experience the undergrad students from a mentor role. Those that I was grouped with in Oaxaca were given microteaching assignments and I decided that I would try to step back and be in a supportive role while they prepared their lessons. I brought materials that I lent them, listened to their ideas, and offered a few suggestions for implementation or things to be prepared for, but I tried to let them be as autonomous as possible. This was the first time teaching in front of English learners (not their peers pretending to be learners) for all of them. For the most part, all of their lessons went very well, and it was wonderful to see such a sense of accomplishment stretch across their faces as the lessons went on.

The second theme that emerged from my reflections was the practices of the EFL teachers in Mexico. In Oaxaca, our group was with Jose Julio, and it was such a joy to watch him teach. He clearly loves what he does, and his face just lights up as he interacts with his students. Being around an educator who is passionate, in any context, is always inspiring for me. The biggest difference I observed between the classes in Mexico and the classes I teach in the United States is the homogenous nature of the students. They all share a language, and can therefore choose to use that as a tool of interaction either with each other or with their teachers. In my classes there are groups of students with a common L1, but I’ve never had a homogenous student body. I’m not sure I could characterize this as an advantage or disadvantage, just a difference.

Another notable experience in the Oaxaca classrooms was the different formalities of the teachers. On one of the days we were observing the class, the teacher told us that his students had asked for about 5 minutes to talk privately, and for him to wait outside. When we came back in they were speaking to him as a group in Spanish for about 10 minutes. He was thoughtfully listening, and every once in a while he would say a sentence or two. After the class I asked him what that conversation had been about, and he told me that the students were expressing concern about their own progress as learners. He said that many of the other teachers were very strict with their students, locking doors to enforce punctuality, very strict homework policies, etc. His students were saying that he is not like this with them, he treats them like autonomous adults, and they were realizing that they were not putting as much effort into his class, into their own progress, as they should be, because he was not forcing them to. They were grasping that it was their responsibility to learn English, not just the teacher’s responsibility to teach it. They were asking the teacher why he treated them differently than some of the other teachers, and he was telling them that it is exactly for this reason. He wants them to take ownership of their own learning, or realize that they can try as much or as little as they want in the class, depending on how much they want to get out of it. The teacher said that while the students were initially expressing concern, that by the end they understood his methods, and overall he was very proud that his students had put thought into this topic and wanted to address it with him. I felt like this was a unique teacher/student interaction to have witnessed and learned from, and illustrated how students can respond to the varying teaching approaches present within a university staff.

The third theme that was present in my trip reflections was the exposure to indigenous Mexican languages and cultures. The treatment of indigenous languages was already a research interest of mine, but I didn’t go into this trip with the idea that there would be such a wealth of indigenous languages to learn about, or that this would be a main focus of our interactions there. This was first present in our trip to Monte Alban. The historical significance of the sight was clear, and it left me thinking about the Zapotec people, and how European histories are often better known and perpetuated than other histories. I thought it was especially interesting to hear about how active the city had been until about 800 AD when it was abandoned. It was also sad and poignant to hear how the Spaniards had used the rivalries between indigenous groups to their own advantage when conquering Mexico.

We had even more explicit exposure to indigenous language educational policies and practices in our university visits. In Oaxaca we saw a presentation on the development of a Zapotec language class, from conception to materials development and successful class outcomes. At UPN in Mexico City we were introduced to groups of students who were studying to be teachers in their heritage languages. These experiences were fascinating for many reasons. Initially, because I didn’t realize how many indigenous languages were represented at these schools. The students were very knowledgeable and patient to share them with us. The individual language presentations were a little overwhelming, since most were in Spanish as well as the indigenous language, but I felt like they were really tangible examples of the language. It was helpful to get an understanding of the formality of the languages by trying to use the greetings in different (imaginary) contexts. It is great to see how a university department is explicitly choosing, in both policy and practice, to elevate indigenous languages and make sure their students are trained to integrate their heritage into their education and future career prospects.

All of these experiences with indigenous languages reminded me of how important it is to acknowledge my students’ cultures while teaching, and to leave room for their culture to be bigger than I’d ever considered. As teachers, we can validate other cultures and the experiences of our students when we show interest in how they identify, but even we don’t have that opportunity, it’s important to remember that there is much about their background that we cannot immediately see, that we cannot assume. In the same way, many of the people we will meet in Mexico on this trip will have backgrounds connected to indigenous people groups, and not just to a “Hispanic” heritage or identity.

Since returning from this trip I have continued to reflect on these experiences. The exposure to Zapotec languages led to the selection of the Zapotec language family as a research topic for another paper I’m writing. The trip has also influenced my post-graduation plans. I’ve begun setting up a trip back to Mexico City to further explore the job opportunities and culture there.

In general, I feel like this trip reminded me of all that I love most about my profession. English, as with any language used as an oppressive force at anytime in its past, has a complicated presence in Mexico, but it is clear that the teachers we saw were teaching their students to use it as a tool, and not as something they needed in order to legitimize their ambitions. Indigenous languages are explicitly elevated, and treated as equally valuable as English. All of the experiences of this trip have renewed my passion and pride for my profession, and reminded me of how much each country and culture has to teach me.