Different Voices From Mexico

Joep van der Werff, Kristan Taylor, Luis Domínguez, Leigh Ann Thelmadatter, and Miguel Cabrera present their various perspectives on working in the field of English language teaching in Mexico. See Connie R. Johnson's Out of the Box article, "EFL and the Deaf: Teachers Making a Difference," Essential Teacher, June 2009.

Joep van der Werff

One of the Compleat Links articles associated with the September 2008 issue of Essential Teacher was Julie Mijangos-Guzzardo's account of her experience as a teacher in Mexico("Teaching English in Mexico: What's Going On?"). Although I am sure that her impressions are valid on a personal level, I was left wondering whether this teacher's opinions reflected the majority of English language teaching (ELT) professionals in Mexico. I decided to ask some colleagues for their opinions and quickly found that there are many long-term teachers in the country with vastly different impressions from those expressed by Mijangos-Guzzardo. In this article, several of us share our various perspectives about teaching English in Mexico.

Kristan Taylor

It would be easy to criticize the state of English education in Mexico. Certainly, horror stories abound. In working with university students studying to be English language teachers, I have noticed that they love to reminisce about the public school teachers they had in the past who expected them to learn the language via osmosis. When such stories come up, the class turns into a temporary group therapy session. The students laugh and marvel at the fact that they managed to learn English, not because of these teachers but in spite of them. Yet these conversations always turn into a comparison of the past and current direction that ELT is taking in Mexico.

An undeniable feather in the cap of Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP), Mexico's education ministry, is that English language courses exist at lower levels in Mexican public schools. I recently visited a rural secondary school with no running water—but it had an English course. Sure, the teacher didn’t really speak the language; she had barely even been out of her village. But the students had English class, and when I visited they were eager to practice. The impressive point here is that Mexico is exposing students to a second language at a young age, even in rural areas.

My personal experience with English language teacher training programs at the university level in Mexico reveals a formidable standard that, whether or not it existed in the past, will most certainly change the face of ELT in the country in the years to come. I am talking about a professional standard and demand for change that is being facilitated by a rigorous undergraduate curriculum for future English teachers. These preservice teachers take classes in areas of linguistic relevance, such as second language acquisition and language teaching pedagogy, which will undoubtedly strengthen the integrity of the field of ELT.

Luis Domínguez

Over the years, I have witnessed the professionalization of ELT in Mexico through the growing number of participants in the myriad specialized conventions offered by institutions and organizations such as MEXTESOL, the National Association of University English Professors, Best of British ELT (organized by the British Council), the National Union of Language Schools, and the Center of Foreign Language Teaching of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Professional development is now a relevant matter for most institutions. And although not all teachers have access to professional development events, most still seek opportunities to improve their teaching practice. As a teacher trainer, one of the most rewarding experiences I have had is working with a team of teachers from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec who commuted from surrounding towns to Lagunas, Oaxaca, to participate in a teacher training course. The majority of these teachers had earned their undergraduate degrees in fields related to ELT. In describing why they sought professional development opportunities, their primary objective was the benefits that these events could provide to their students.

It has been almost 6 years since SEP set the ball rolling for a paradigm shift in education in Mexico. The change was initiated with a 2-year research project involving nationwide preschool programs in hopes of redefining the standards for instruction with a constructivist-oriented curriculum. This project was known as the Programa de Educación Preescolar (SEP, 2004). As a follow-up, the Reforma a la Educación Secundaria and more recent Reforma Integral a la Educación Basica represent a formidable effort to hold language teaching in Mexico to the highest standards.

This model of reform is facilitated by integrating elements drawn from cognitive, constructivist, and humanistic theories into the English language classroom. In addition, levels have been benchmarked to measure teachers as well as learners according to the Common European Framework (SEP, 2006). This effort has been enriched with the incorporation of competencies at all educational levels in order to prepare students not only for academic studies, but for life in general. Because of these and other improvements, I can only foresee development and growth for the ELT profession in Mexico.

Leigh Ann Thelmadatter

I taught at a private school that boasts being one of the best in Mexico. Although it is known nationally as a school for the rich, this was not quite the case here in Toluca. Most of the students came from families that had just reached the socioeconomic level needed to be able to send their children to this school, rather than from families who have had money for generations. In addition, a large percentage of students received scholarships. Because of these two factors, my students did not have a sense of entitlement and many seemed genuinely appreciative of the opportunity to study at an institution with some degree of prestige.

One semester, I experimented with Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org) for a project in my advanced English class. Students had to integrate themselves into the online Wikipedia community in order to learn how to write acceptable contributions to the site. Given the experimental nature of the class, many unanticipated problems cropped up along the way. However, the students took most of them in stride and were even open to negotiating solutions with me and the Wikipedia community. This type of project supports my assumption that young learners in Mexico are much more open to innovative classroom activities than their teachers are, and this bodes well for the future of education in Mexico. It may be easy to criticize the system, but that same system is full of students who really want to learn and to make their lives better.

Joep van der Werff

I have had many gratifying experiences as an ELT professional in Mexico, including teaching English to blind people (van der Werff & Arredondo, 2004). Over the years, I have been involved in teacher training at a rural school in the state of Morelos, which I believe to be a good example of a different approach to rural education. This school, called El Peñón, relies heavily on donations for its survival. It has been recognized at the state and national level, most notably for its telesecundaria, which uses government-issued TV programs to support teaching. Three years ago, we revamped the English curriculum for the high school at El Peñón. In May 2009, our first students will finish the sixth semester of English and we will assess their progress with Test of English for International Communication Bridge exams. Preliminary testing has already shown satisfactory results.

Miguel Cabrera

I have worked in public and private high schools, and unfortunately the issues referred to by Mijangos-Guzzardo are not different from those I have seen myself and heard of from my colleagues. There are exceptions, of course, but in general the assessment of the situation is not particularly comforting.

Public schools usually lack adequate teaching materials, and teachers have to come up with all kinds of creative strategies to overcome this deficiency. Public school teachers also have to deal with union corruption and government authorities, who in many cases push teachers to play the same game that the system establishes. Whereas in private institutions, the critical issue is the lack of support from administrators. In the two private high schools where I have taught, we were instructed to pass students no matter how low their level of proficiency was or how restless and rude they were to teachers or peers.

In Mijangos-Guzzardo's account, the only thing that struck me as out of the ordinary was the seemingly exaggerated statement that an error as grave as "Hello, ice to miet you" appeared on a national exam. It is important to be cautious and to defend ourselves and our programs when someone has a distorted view of us. Unfortunately, aside from the possible issue with that test item, Mijangos-Guzzardo was not misrepresenting the facts.

We don't deny that ELT in Mexico needs to become more effective in government as well as private schools. Yet with the accounts and impressions we have provided in this article, we hope to have shown that teaching in Mexico can be and often is rewarding, inspiring, and valuable.

Several of us are foreigners, and obviously we don't teach abroad to find the mirror image of the educational system in our home countries. Rather, we leave home to broaden our worldview and grow as professional educators. This means accepting the cracks and flaws in whatever system we work in while at the same time taking part in a movement toward positive change for future practitioners and learners.

References

Secretaría de Educación Pública. (2004). Programa de educación preescolar 2004. Mexico City, Mexico: Comisión Nacional de Libros de Texto Gratuitos.

Secretaría de Educación Pública. (2006) Educación básica: Secundaria Inglés, programas de estudio 2006. Mexico City, Mexico: Comisión Nacional de Libros de Texto Gratuitos.

van der Werff, J., & Arredondo, D. R. (2004). Teaching EFL to blind students in Mexico. Essential Teacher, 1(5), 46–48.

Joep van der Werff (joepvdw@yahoo.com) is a materials writer and coordinator at Interlingua, a leading English language institute in Mexico.

Kristan Taylor (kristanitza@yahoo.com) is an instructor and coordinator of English language programs in Mexico for the University of North Texas, in the United States.

Luis Domínguez (ldominguez@grupomacmillan.com) is the editorial development coordinator at Macmillan Publishers and a teacher trainer at Instituto Mexicano, in Mexico City, Mexico.

Leigh Ann Thelmadatter (osamadre@hotmail.com) is the language laboratory coordinator at ITESM-Campus Ciudad de Mexico, in Mexico.

Miguel Cabrera (mickabs@yahoo.com.mx) is the secretary of MexTESOL and a teacher at the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana, in Mexico City, Mexico.