As a Spanish and English as a Second Language teacher in the United States, two questions frequently pop into my mind: 1) How do the school systems in the US compare to my (mostly) Central American ESL students’? and 2) How do teacher challenges with students vary between cultures?
As I’ve been pondering these questions, Leesa Truesdell (our director) introduced me to Stephanie Vargas, a Spanish as a Second Language and English as a Foreign Language teacher in Mexico City. Our careers are parallel to each other, just in bordering countries. To add even more to our similarities, we both lived in Tallahassee, Florida for a period of time while simultaneously attending two different universities! Isn’t it a small world after all?
I was curious to hear more about Stephanie and to see if her perspective could answer any of my questions. After all, good teachers are constantly changing their perspectives. Check out our questions and her answers below.
What do you like most about teaching EFL in Mexico City?
“To me, overall, the most rewarding thing is to see my students progress. Without a doubt, I love seeing how they want to use what is taught in their daily lives.”
Who are the students that you teach?
“The students I teach can be divided into two groups.
- Teenagers: their ages range from 12 to 18 and they study either at the secondary or high school.
- The Chinese community: these are teenagers that have lived from three to 10 years in Mexico and have had problems understanding the language, let alone their subjects at school. I teach them because they need to have better communication with their teachers.”
What do you like most about teaching these students (Spanish language vs English language students)?
“What I like the most is the opportunity to share cultures, whether Chinese, American, or Mexican, with others and to find differences and similarities among them. At the end of the day, we all are humans and it is interesting to have different points of view about life.”
What did you find to be the most challenging part of teaching both groups of students?
“While language can be a bridge that connects cultures, it can also be a barrier. Students are used to having explanations in their mother tongue. This can be useful at times and obstacles during others. Because of their ages, it is complicated to show them that there are lots of different ways to perceive life as they know it. Most of them do not have the opportunity to travel abroad – Chinese students usually travel back and forth from China – and they do not have the chance to speak with people from other countries. This means that they will not have a real need to learn the target language.
For the Chinese community, it is sometimes difficult to interact with their Spanish-speaking classmates. This leads them to only interact with their fellow Chinese classmates. Therefore, they have not learned to communicate with others in Spanish. They believe they do not need to learn.”
What do both sets of students have in common? What is the difference?
“They are both groups of teenagers. They like to listen to similar music and play sports and video games. Usually, their only interests are finding a significant other, their personality, and other people that care about the same things. Teenagers have similar interests regardless of where they come from.
One of the most interesting things they have told me that they’ve noticed of each other’s cultures is that Chinese students think Mexican students could be more hardworking. They say that compared to China, school is not as strict.”
Where are you currently working?
“I’m working at Colegio de San Ignacio de Loyola Vizcaínas. Spanish immigrants founded this private school 250 years ago. It is located in downtown Mexico City and the students that go there are usually the children of merchants. I work at a secondary school and high school, but the school provides education from daycare to high school. This means the students’ ages range from two to 18 years old.”
What are the challenges that your students encounter?
“Motivation is a challenge that I, without a doubt, encounter. It is hard to motivate teenage students.”
What advice would you give to someone who works with people from other cultural backgrounds?
“Do some research. Most people like to share their cultures. If they see you try to understand and know something about them, they will complement that some more. Moreover, listening is a great way to show you are interested in what they have to say which will make them find a way to communicate with you.”
What is one example of something you have done differently or some way you have changed as a result of your experiences?
“I used to only teach language: grammar, punctuation, tenses, etc. That has little to no impact on most students. What I have changed with time is the inclusion of cultures. In particular, I try to encourage them to speak to foreign people.”
Explain the motivations of each group of students for learning a second language.
“To me, it is hard to say if all students are motivated the first time they study a foreign language, especially if it’s required. It is because English is just another subject like Math and Geography. There are some students that do not have true motivation other than getting their final grade. However, those who have motivation try to speak English outside the classroom. They mainly speak the language with Americans that play online video games with them.”
What made you want to be a foreign and second language teacher?
“10 years ago, I considered myself to be good at learning English. The school I was attending gives language courses on Saturdays and most of my teachers were young. I thought that I could do that for a living. The real motivation started when I got my first job. There, I could see how I could help people to learn something that would affect their lives positively. In Mexico, speaking English gives you great job opportunities. I believe that I can contribute to my country and my students if they have better opportunities for a good life than previous generations.”
What languages are commonly studied in Mexico City?
“Mostly English in basic education. In some universities, it is mandatory to speak and read English at an intermediate level. Once you prove you are fluent in English, people usually learn French.”
What are your future goals?
“As far as my professional goals go, I want to work where people are intrinsically motivated to learn what I have to teach. Little by little, I’d like to leave behind those students who take English just because they have to. I know there are people who want to learn because it is important for them and teaching motivated students is much more rewarding.
My personal goals are to travel to other countries, and hopefully study abroad for a master’s degree. I would like to develop some material to study Spanish as a second language for kids and teenagers. I have noticed that it is hard to find books to learn Spanish as a kid, especially Latin American Spanish.”
What is professional development like in Mexico for teachers in your field? (How do you grow as a teacher? What resources do you have?)
“If you have a bachelor’s degree, you can work at universities, schools, and pretty much everywhere you want. It is very common to find language teachers that only speak the language. However, it is hard to find jobs that provide you professional growth.
I am part of the first group, and I first started working at a small language school. As I finished my studies and gained more experience, I was fortunately able to work at schools and universities.”
If someone wanted to teach foreign languages in Mexico City, where could they find a job?
“I believe it is easy to get a job teaching languages. If you wanted to try, you could find a job at any language school. Although easy to attain, the jobs do not pay well. Finding a job at a university, a school, or at a language center that belongs to a university will require you to have a bachelor’s degree.”
While I’ve got more to learn about the US versus Central American educational systems, I clearly see the answer to my first question: some challenges I have in the classroom will be common for every language teacher regardless of country or language taught. Clearly, some of these will depend on the situation, but every teacher fights motivation battles with their students. We all desire to make our subject relevant and solve pedagogy issues related to age. I comfort myself on my hard teaching ways with this knowledge in mind.