Teachers needed. Living experience abroad required.

In Brazil the beginning of the year is hiring season for teachers. Unfortunately it’s unusual for ELT job ads in this country to list required and preferred KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities or attitudes). When they do, something that usually shows up is “living experience abroad” (“vivência no exterior”).

To be me, in all honesty, that requirement simply boggles the mind. Here are a few issues I ponder over when I see that:

1. Why LIVING, not WORKING experience?

How can “living” be a job requirement? Hey, I haven’t died, even after an awful 2016. Does that get me brownie points?

2. What does ‘abroad’ mean?

You’d think ‘abroad’ means ‘abroad’, as in anywhere but Brazil. However, more often than not, what those ads mean by ‘abroad’ is an English-speaking country. And by that they actually mean the U.K., the U.S., Canada, Ireland, NZ and Australia: in short, Kachru’s Inner Circle. To be clear, not only are they asking for something when they will only accept a subgroup of it, but they also have a very restricted view of which experiences count. Time in an Outer Circle (e.g. Singapore, Nigeria, India) or an Expanding Circle country (e.g. Argentina, Indonesia, Finland) could actually teach you a lot about other varieties of English and how to communicate in English as a Lingua Franca.

3. Is it “real English” they want?

The hiring coordinators may not admit it, but sometimes that’s precisely what they mean. Perhaps they think a person who has lived in an English-speaking country will be more fluent, be more proficient, or have a more natural rather than bookish English. That could well be the case for many people that have lived abroad, I’m not denying it. However, a person abroad might feel so homesick that he or she only interacts with fellow countrypeople. Meanwhile, a person who has never left his or her own country may seek opportunities to interact with people from all over the world, study more, and engage in much more language practice and intercultural communication. Time abroad does not necessarily correlate with communicative competence.

4. Is it cultural knowledge and teaching of culture they are after?

“Exactly!”, one of the hirers told me. Well, to start with, whether a language teacher will teach culture or not will largely depend on their view of language and language teaching. So the teacher might have spent decades abroad and simply not teach any culture because they think their job is teaching grammar and vocabulary, period.

Conversely, a Brazilian teacher who has never been abroad may think culture plays an important role in language learning and hence generate opportunities for students to engage with cultural aspects. And how will the teacher learn culture? Again, by studying it, by being exposed to cultural products such as radio shows and literature, by interacting with people from many different places, etc.

5. Speaking of which, what culture(s) are we talking about? Where from?

Is it inner circle cultures by any chance? But the U.K. is remarkably different from the U.S., Australia, etc.

There is not a single English-speaking culture. There’s not even a single American culture or a unified British culture. In fact, a New Yorker would have a major cultural shock when moving to countryside Alabama, and London is nothing like the rest of England. Even within London, the upper class and the Cockney are worlds apart. Culture is never a monolith.

Somebody who has lived abroad may understand those differences… or not. They may take the city they have lived in and their limited experiences as the rule for the rest of the English-speaking world. How many Brazilians have you heard talking about “what it’s like in the U.S.” when all they’ve seen is a small touristy part of Florida?

6. Isn’t it a paradox to sell English language courses in Brazil but only consider good enough professionals those who have lived abroad?

“Oh,” I hear, “but the students want native speakers or Brazilians who have lived abroad.” I can believe that. I love my country and my fellow countrypeople, but between you and me, we do tend to overvalue whatever (or whoever) comes from abroad. On the other hand, if you’re selling English language courses in Brazil, do you really want to send your clients the message that one can only really learn the language when living abroad? Because to me that’s precisely what some schools are doing when they make a point of boasting that all their teachers have “living experience abroad” rather than teaching qualifications, teaching experience, or whatnot.

7. Why not simplify it and ask for what you really need?

If you’re hiring teachers and you need professionals who are highly proficient in the language, why not say so? There’s nothing wrong with wanting English language teachers who can speak the language with ease and accuracy, but whether the person acquired that level of proficiency in Brazil or abroad should be beside the point. Ask them to prove their language proficiency, if you must, be it with a public exam such as the Cambridge suite or with your own test. Similarly, if you prefer teachers with a broad cultural knowledge or who will teach intercultural communication, then state it just like that. Ask for what you want and you might just get it.

Notice, however, I’m not saying that living abroad is not worthwhile. It can be a very enriching experience if you will let it, if you come out of the shell and interact with that strange country you find yourself in. Nevertheless, it’s definitely not the only way of acquiring the KSAs a good teacher needs. I don’t think it’s even the most obvious way of substantiating the claim to those KSAs.

You can be a great teacher having spent your whole life in Brazil and you can be not that brilliant having lived abroad… or vice-versa. It’s not that experience that will determine your quality as a professional, I say. And maybe you agree with me. In that case, it’s high time we changed our hiring practices to reflect that and start listing requirements that actually describe a good English language teacher.

Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher since the year 2000 and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Melbourne. She's been elected BRAZ-TESOL's Second Vice President for the 2019-2020 term.

  • Ricardo Barros
    Ricardo Barros
    Posted at 19:25h, 05 janeiro Responder

    You make excellent points, Natália. All I have to say is that I have never lived abroad. 🙂

    • Cristina Serafim
      Posted at 03:37h, 08 janeiro Responder

      I rest my case!!! Hats off, again and again, dear Ricardo! 😀

  • Cristina Serafim
    Posted at 03:34h, 08 janeiro Responder

    Bravo, Natália!!! I second every bit of what you say. After coming back from my living experience abroad (inner circle, of course!) I didn’t know the first thing about teaching and I was scared to death when I taught my first classes. It so happens that back in the 80s, a school would hire a teacher just because they were fresh out of the boat from a country in the inner circle. Unfortunately, it seems this hasn’t changed much.

    • Natalia
      Posted at 23:59h, 09 janeiro Responder

      Thank you for dropping by, Cris. Mmm, like Teresa Carvalho said, maybe in the 80s it made a little sense because there were very few opportunities to engage with English in Brazil. Still, if the person spoke the language, I wouldn’t have cared how they learned it, but I’ll concede that it had some logic to it back then. Nowadays? Pfff!

  • Isabela Villas Boas
    Posted at 18:31h, 22 janeiro Responder

    Great points made, Natalia. I know people who have lived in the USA but chosen to socialize only with Brazilians and, thus, have very little “real” experience with the culture, and others who have never lived abroad but bring wonderful insights to the classroom because of their multi-cultural interests and knowledge. I also like the fact that you touched upon the “whose culture” aspect and that culture is not monolithic.

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