Isabela Villas Boas
isabela [dot] villasboas [at] thomas [dot] org [dot] br
Dr. Villas Boas: I’ve always loved English. I learned it when I was eight and moved to the U.S. to spend three years while my Dad got his Ph. D in Architecture from Rice University, in Houston, Texas. When I came back to Brazil, in order to keep up the English I had learned, I was enrolled in an ELT institute called Casa Thomas Jefferson (CTJ), a binational center in Brasília, Brazil, where I am now the General Academic Coordinator. I didn’t intend to be a teacher at first. I majored in Journalism. But while I was still going to university, I also took the Teacher Training Course at CTJ and ended up getting a teaching job here. After I graduated, I worked for six months as a journalist, but it didn’t quite suit me. Then I was invited to become the Intermediate Course Supervisor and was happy to give up my career as a journalist. However, I felt I needed to invest in my professional development, so in 1998, encouraged by my husband, I got into the MATESL Program at Arizona State University (ASU). I already had two children, aged 2 and 6 at that time. My husband had the opportunity to get a six-month paid leave from his position at the Bank of Brazil, and then a one-year unpaid leave. We invested our savings in this unforgettable opportunity to live abroad with our family and we don’t regret it at all. We fell in love with the desert.
I learned a lot during my MATESL program and focused my studies on two areas: testing and the teaching of writing, developing an applied project around the use of writing portfolios. I chose the ASU program because of the flexibility it offered in the choice of electives. Thus, besides the mandatory courses, such as Research Methods, Introduction to Linguistics, Second Language Acquisition and Methodology, I also took classes that contributed to strengthening my knowledge of English and English Linguistics itself –such as Syntax, Phonetics and Phonology, and Pragmatics and Discourse Theory – while also contributing to broadening my knowledge on teaching and learning in general – such as Testing (including Psychometrics) and Educational Psychology.
Back to Brazil, I resumed my job at CTJ, where I was a Pedagogical Consultant before I had left. I made a point of attending and presenting in local, national and international conferences –TESOL being one of them – and decided to pursue a Ph.D in Education in 2005, focusing on Literacy Studies. My doctorate also consisted of interdisciplinary studies, providing me the opportunity to study the History of Education in Brazil more deeply, Interactional Sociolinguistics, Epistemology and Research in the Social Sciences, Institutional Evaluation, and Subjectivity and Education, with a strong focus on Vygotsky, among others.
In 2007, I became the General Academic Coordinator of the institution, and in 2008 I finished my Doctorate. My field of research is the teaching of writing, contrasting the product approach predominant in our regular schools and a process approach to teaching EFL writing. Writing is the thread that has woven my academic background, from learning a lot about writing in my undergraduate studies and researching this topic for my master’s and doctorate studies. Managerially speaking, with a B.A. in Journalism, a MATESL Degree and a Doctorate in Education, I believe I’ve gained the necessary breadth and depth to face the challenges involved in coordinating a large ELT Institute, where I have to use my knowledge about English, English Language Teaching, Education, Philosophy, and Communication on a daily basis.
Ana Wu: You have a master degree in TEFL and a Ph.D in Education. How did you develop your management and leadership skills? What advice would you give to faculty members who are promoted to leadership positions? What inspires you on a difficult day?
Dr. Villas Boas: I would say my leadership and management skills are a work in progress. It is not easy to move from a teaching position to a management position. I was lucky, though, that the institution where I work invested in providing leadership and management training for its academic coordinators through a renowned management school in Brazil which provided the basics of marketing, finances, strategic planning, human resources, managing processes, and other skills. For example, we worked on SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) matrixes and learned about the Balanced Scorecard Methodology. We even developed indicators and designed a system to measure them. An indicator that we identified as important was student satisfaction with our academic services, so we developed a system to measure this by administering a survey, analyzing the results, and acting upon them in order to improve our services. We have been following the same process every semester, always comparing results from previous surveys, identifying tendencies, and addressing specific concerns with teachers, for example. This training has helped me a lot. I also tried to focus my reading on management issues, but that was hard because I was still working on my doctoral thesis! I learned a lot by also observing more experienced peers who were already in management positions. But I never gave up teaching. I insist on teaching at least one group a year, and that’s exactly what inspires me on a difficult day. I love working with students, especially teens. Not long ago a student of mine came to me and said that she was getting better grades on her compositions at school because of what I was teaching her about writing in her English class! There’s no difficult day after this!!!
However, I still have a lot to learn. I think anyone who moves from a teaching to a managerial position should try to learn more about management but making sure they keep a balance between their academic and their managerial facets. I believe academic coordinators or directors are not like company directors. They can never lose sight of their academic background. That’s what makes us so sensitive and versatile, after all!!!
Ana Wu: You are the General Academic Coordinator of a large non-profit binational center in Brasília, Brazil, with over 14,000 students ranging from children to adults, beginners to advanced learners.
a. Could you tell us the percentage of NNES and NES professionals currently working at your institute? Has this ratio changed recently?
Dr. Villas Boas: We have very, very few NES on our staff, currently three out of the almost 200 teachers, supervisors and coordinators. We used to have more, but two instructors moved away and a couple of them had their contracts discontinued because they didn’t adapt to the institution. However, our NNES instructors are highly proficient. Most of our teachers have spent time abroad and are near-native speakers of English.
Besides, our students obtain excellent results at the end of their studies. An example is a fourteen-year-old student who has just finished our Advanced Course, obtained a score of 650 on the paper-based TOEFL and passed the Examination for the Certificate of Proficiency in English, a standardized advanced-level English as a Foreign Language examination, developed by the University of Michigan, with two high passes, one of them being Listening. She has never lived abroad and she never had a single native-speaking teacher during her studies with us. This hasn’t stopped her from developing near-native fluency . Thus, though we have very few NES on our staff, the fact that our NNES instructors are very proficient in the language has led us to achieve excellent results with our students.
b. Over the past years, have you noticed any changes in the profile of the native speaking applicants in terms of teaching experience, educational background, and teaching expectations?
Dr. Villas Boas: With some exceptions, most of our native-speaking applicants have usually been people who married Brazilians and moved to Brazil but didn’t have any formal training in TESOL. Then they took our Teacher Development Course – a 234-hour Certificate Program – and some eventually joined our staff. In other words, they received their training here. The TDC is open to the community and not all graduates from the program are necessarily hired; they have to go through our hiring process and pass all stages. Recently, however, we had a teacher from Australia who was already an ESL teacher when she applied and we actually hired her under a special two-year contract for foreigners. But this is a very bureaucratic process in Brazil and we only managed to obtain this special work permit because her boyfriend was a lawyer and helped out. We also had another very qualified applicant from England, but she ended up not going through the whole hiring process because she didn’t have many available hours to teach. At our institution, we require that our teachers have at least a 20-hour workload per week, so as to guarantee that teaching is really their profession, not just something they’re doing as a hobby or a temporary gig while they don’t get a “better” job.
Though we don’t think that native speakers are necessarily better than non-native speakers as teachers, of course we would like to have more native speakers on our staff, but academically qualified ones, people who chose TEFL as their career. For one thing, the presence of native English speakers forces us to speak English more frequently in the teachers’ room, for example, helping us keep up with the language. They also help us enrich our cultural knowledge and enhance our awareness of intercultural issues. In addition, though students don’t seem to find it essential, they do tend to appreciate having classes with native speakers of the language they are learning, at least from time to time. However, the salaries in Brazil are lower than those in the U.S. in all areas, and teaching is not an exception, so it’s hard to attract this sort of applicant. Besides the lower salary which makes it difficult to attract professionally trained NES, there’s the hiring restriction I mentioned above. Some ELT Institutes, especially smaller ones, don’t necessarily abide by labor laws and hire these teachers informally. We don’t do that. We go by the book.
c. According to BridgeTEFLJobs.com, in Brazil, the largest country in South America, the need for native-speaking English teachers is booming. Do you agree with the statement? Please explain.
Dr. Villas Boas: There’s definitely a shortage of English teachers in Brazil, so I think the need for highly proficient and academically qualified teachers of English is booming, which includes native speakers but doesn’t exclude non-native ones.
d. What advice would you give to NES whose profession is not teaching, but who are considering teaching English in Brazil?
Dr. Villas Boas: I suggest they enroll in a TESOL Certificate program to become professionals in the field. Teaching is not just a job. We have the power to change people’s lives and we have to use it responsibly. To do so, we have to know what we’re doing. Knowledge of Linguistics, Second Language Acquisition, Educational Psychology and ELT methodology are essential, as well as knowledge about educational technology nowadays.
Ana Wu: When discussing the status of NNEST in Intensive English Programs, researchers have pointed out that administrators generally prefer hiring NES to NNEST because they perceive that students do not want NNEST as their teachers (cited in Mahboob, 2004). Mahboob states that administrators’ perceptions have not been systematically studied, and that there are only a few studies of students’ perceptions (page 122).
Based on your experience as coordinator and in-house surveys, could you share some of the students comments (positive or negative) or expectations regarding having NNEST and NEST teachers. Also, how did those comments affect the instructors’ training and your role as administrator?
Dr. Villas Boas: I’ve noticed that this is a big issue in other countries, but I don’t feel it’s a big issue here in Brazil. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever come across students who didn’t enroll in our institute or who cancelled their registration because the teachers were not native. This doesn’t seem to be a big issue here. Today, with multimedia resources at our disposal, including podcasts and Youtube, we can provide authentic input to students all the time and work with it in a pedagogically sound way. What’s the use of a native speaker who provides this input naturally but doesn’t know anything about ELT pedagogy? I have noticed, though, that students who hire private teachers seem to prefer native ones.
Maybe it is a big issue in countries where English is the native language, especially in Intensive English Programs with international students, rather than immigrants, because these students might have chosen to spend time abroad to have a more naturalistic experience with the language, and when they come across a non-native teacher, they might be frustrated. They shouldn’t be, though, if this teacher is proficient in the language and a qualified professional. Besides, they will naturally have the chance to interact with other native speakers. It doesn’t necessarily have to be their ESL teacher!
When I got my Master’s in the U.S., two of my most favorite professors were foreigners. I confess I was surprised at myself at first, for I had looked forward to the opportunity to perfect my English, but then I came to appreciate the varieties of Englishes not only from some of my professors, but also from many of my NNES colleagues who came from different parts of the world. I guess I “perfected” my English in a different way, becoming more aware of the fact that English has truly become a global language.
Ana Wu: Your institute organizes a two-and-a-half-day annual TEFL seminar, with international guests, open to the EFL community in the country. Could you tell us what other professional development opportunities are given to your instructors, novice and seniors? Do you offer different coaching or mentoring to NNES or NES?
Dr. Villas Boas: We provide a series of professional development opportunities. We have our Teacher Development Course, open not only to our teachers but prospective teachers or teachers from the community.
We also offer, though a grant from the State Department, a one-year, 120-hour Public School Teacher Development Program aimed at advancing competence in English and also knowledge of EFL Methodology. We’ve been holding this program since 2002.
Besides our yearly TEFL Seminar, we also have in-service workshops and pedagogical meetings every semester. In addition, we encourage teachers to participate and present in local, national and international conferences. This year, our school sent fifteen teachers and staff members to attend the TESOL annual convention in Boston, ten of which gave presentations. Five of our staff members presented in a conference in Argentina, back in February. We’ve just had our National Braz-TESOL Conference in São Paulo and thirteen teachers and management staff presented in it as well. In these three cases, the presenters received travel grants from the Casa Thomas Jefferson. We feel that when teachers choose a topic, research it, experiment in class and then put together a talk or workshop, they learn immensely and can share this knowledge with others. It also increases their self-worth. I’m truly proud of our staff!
Once or twice a year we also receive ELT specialists from the State Department, who give talks or workshops to a selected group of teachers, according to their field of expertise. These specialists are selected by the Regional English Language Office in Brazil and sent to different parts of the country to give workshops. We also encourage our faculty staff to attend one-day events featuring renowned authors organized by publishers.
In addition, we conduct a yearly Teacher Evaluation, and one of the standards in the evaluation is Investment in Academic Development. It is one of the most valued items in the evaluation system, and teachers’ participation in all the aforementioned programs and opportunities is considered.
For novice teachers at the institution, we provide a pre-service program offering the basic knowledge they need to start teaching in our institution. Then they are coached by a group of three highly experienced professionals, who observe their classes, give feedback, provide academic and emotional support – everything a new teacher in an institution needs in order to adapt and feel comfortable. Then, teachers are observed at least twice a semester, by way of a formative process that includes a pre-observation meeting, the observation itself, a post-observation meeting, and the completion of an observation report.
In sum, there’s always room for improvement, and I believe we nurture lifelong learning in our institution.
Ana Wu: Thank you very much for this informative interview!
Dr. Villas Boas: It’s my pleasure and honor to be able to share my experience with colleagues from around the world!
Mahboob, A. (2004). Native or nonnative: What do students enrolled in an Intensive English program think? In L. Kamhi-Stein (Ed.), Learning and teaching from experience (pp. 121-149). Ann Arbor. MI: University of Michigan Press.
Teaching English in Brazil, http://www.tefljobplacement.com/brazil.php