ESL Teacher Interviews: Luiz Otávio Barros

Kaplan first came into contact with Luiz Otávio Barros when discussing the results of our How to Learn English research. As well as being a current CELTA tutor and author, he is one of Brazil's top ELT bloggers and has been "fighting for higher standards and innovation in ELT since 1990." You can discover more at Luiz's blog.

What made you become an ESL teacher?

I guess initially it was my love of the language, my desire to continue to learn it after I’d “finished” my English studies in 1989 and maybe a natural born gift for listening, making people feel at ease and “explaining” things. So all the ingredients were there.

But after a year or two I realized that teaching wouldn't be just an odd job to help me make ends meet at the end of the month - it would eventually become a lifelong career. A career that, in hindsight, has helped to shape who I am today more than I ever thought possible. A career I have never ever regretted choosing.

How would you describe your teaching style?

I usually try to avoid all the “overs” in my lessons: over explaining, over praising, overusing the textbook, over talking, over performing and over assuming (for example, that students are remotely interested in any of my personal anecdotes). Other than that, I try to experiment with as many teaching techniques as realistically possible, as long as they make sense to me on some level. So “selectively eclectic” is probably the best term.

What cultural insights can you get from teaching ESL?

I’ve never taught English outside Brazil, so I’m not the best person to talk about the ins and outs of a multi-cultural classroom. But I’m co-writing a series of textbooks for the whole of South America, which means that I’m starting to learn how to look beyond my own geographical borders. But one way or another, I don’t think ESL teachers should let cultural differences outweigh basic human universals. Surely there are experiences, concepts and emotions that students of all nationalities, ages and backgrounds can relate to.

Have you experienced cultural difficulties from teaching ESL?

No, but I’ve experienced a slow but noticeable change in students’ profiles. Middle class teens and pre-teens are exposed to so much English outside the classroom (via Internet, music, cable TV) that they’re starting to develop a more organic, less academic relationship with the language.

Most adult beginners, on the other hand, seem to have a far more pragmatic and utilitarian outlook on the learning process and are studying English mostly to keep their jobs. So while in the '90s it was relatively easy to draw a line in the sand between a typically demotivated teen and a keen and hardworking adult student, today the edges are blurrier. “I’m here because my boss wants me to” seems to be the new “I’m here because my mother wants me to.”

Which other ESL teachers do you admire and why?

There’s a thriving ELT community in Brazil and over the past four or five years I've had the privilege of meeting dozens of outstanding professionals. I've also done a lot of lesson observation since the mid 90s and some of the lessons I've assessed were so brilliant and so powerful that I can still recall some of the teacher’s exact words - even now.

So it’s hard to single out any names really. As far as the “big gurus” go, though, there are not enough words in my vocabulary to describe Scott Thornbury’s sheer brilliance.

What would you say to someone who was considering becoming an ESL teacher?

One, speaking English is not enough - you've got to learn how to teach. Two, being a native speaker is not enough - you've got to learn how to teach. Three, once you think you've learned how to teach, you've got to be willing to unlearn it all and start fresh.

Four, most of your students will have a number of language deficiencies, short attention spans, less intrinsic motivation and less commitment than you had as a student. If you’re not ready to accept this reality as part of your job and willing to think of ways to make things better, then maybe teaching is not for you.

What do you think is the future of ESL teaching?

I think the next ten years will witness the mushrooming of local (rather than global) publishing and teacher education programs. Teachers and policy makers worldwide will soon realize that there’s no reason why students in Mexico should use the same textbooks as their Chinese peers.

So while the UK and the US will no doubt continue to be synonymous with academic excellence, I don’t think they will remain the only trend-setters in ELT. Partly because of this decentralization, so to speak, I also expect translation to make a slow but steady comeback into mainstream ELT.

Which superhero would you be and why?

Buzz Lightyear from the Toy Story trilogy.

Credit: EmpireOnline

Thanks to Luiz for taking the time to provide some great answers. Do you have any thoughts on what Luiz had to say? If so, please leave a comment below!

Luiz recently took part in our How to Teach English research. Kaplan surveyed more than 500 ESL teachers from around the world and asked them what tools they use to enhance their lessons. You can find the results in English here and Portuguese here.

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