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Cultura e EducaçãoEditorial NR

★ Interview with Elaine Hodgson

JS: Could you please tell us first a little bit about your background and professional experience?

EH: I started teaching when I was 15. I taught a few classes in the evenings and weekends. Nowadays I think it is just unbelievable that someone offered me a job when I was just a teenager, but I was happy to make some money and to learn more as, in order to teach, I had to study things in more detail. However, at the time, I was doing a technical course in chemistry. I had never intended to teach English as a career. My plans were to go to university to study chemistry (which I did) and to find a job in a lab (which I also did – I worked in chemistry labs for just over 3 years, first as a trainee and then as a technician). However, there was a severe crisis and I lost my job at the laboratory. A teacher my mother knew suggested I tried a position at Cultura Inglesa Santo André, where I had studied for 6 years. I had no hope of getting a job there, but I went and talked to the director, Elaine Azevedo, who had been my last teacher. She suggested I studied at the library and did the TTC. I went to the library every single day for about a month, took the TTC but didn’t pass. They advised me to teach at a smaller school to get some experience and do the TTC again the following year. I followed their advice, but kept studying chemistry at university. I was not sure what path I wanted my professional life to take. Well, in 1990 I did the TTC again, passed, and ended up working for the Cultura São Paulo for 9 years, after undertaking a postgraduate teaching qualification at university

JS: Your professional career has been built steadily and successfully through the years. How would you suggest that new professionals organize themselves in order to build professional growth? How important is it to have certificates and do courses? Is it worth doing an MA or PhD, as you did?

EH: I strongly believe studying is key to improving your teaching. A teacher who doesn’t like studying cannot be a good teacher, in my view. Of course, studying and learning do not necessarily have to happen in a school environment, but schools and courses do help you get more organized, you will meet people who know more than you do, who are more experienced than you are and that can only be enriching and add to your career. I know certificates and exam boards are heavily criticised, but I’m “old school” and truly believe formal education plays an important role. At least organizing my career this way was very beneficial. As far as the MA and PhD, when I am asked if it’s worth it, I tend to say that it depends on what ‘worth it’ means to you. To me, it was an opportunity to go beyond ELT and it was worth it. It was hard and there were several occasions I wanted to give up, but I am glad I persevered. It opened doors and, because I worked for a school that took certificates into consideration, it meant I was better paid. As a writer, I think it has some influence, but is not the most important asset.

JS: We know that writers often have to avoid PARSNIPs (Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms and Pork) for market-driven reasons, but what is your view of covering taboo or difficult topics in the classroom, either through books that touch on these issues, or as a teacherled activity?

EH: Taboo is part of life and the fact that the so-called taboo topics are not approached in the classroom is evidence of how poorly prepared we are to discuss ideas and break paradigms. It is depressing to know that we keep repeating that schools do not prepare for real life but when the opportunity for real life arises, we prefer not to do it. The discourse changes and we repeat that some topics should not be discussed at school, that school should teach subjects, content, not values. It is a kind of vicious circle; we do not approach taboo topics, we avoid preparing students for life, students who are not prepared for life are not prepared to deal with taboo topics and the circle begins again. And I am not saying that only students, or parents, are unprepared to deal with hard topics. Many teachers are also unprepared. They might feel insecure, afraid, or might impose their opinions on certain subjects. My fear is that even in difficult times like ours, when there seems to be little tolerance for difference, the list of taboo topics might even increase. As both a writer and a teacher, and also as a parent, I am well aware that there are limitations to what we can do at school. However, this should not be an excuse for not dealing with hard topics. What I believe we have to do is to be tactful and respectful. Unfortunately, at least in Brazil, I fear that instead of moving forward to a more tolerant society, we tend to hide behind the fallacy that schools should not interfere when topics are polemic.

JS: What are your views regarding the topic of feminism and what should be done to foster discussion about gender equality in ELT? How important are groups which support women in ELT, like the recently-launched BRAZTESOL SIG called Voices?

EH: Feminism has become far too relevant to be ignored in the classroom. I believe it is here to stay and its impact can be noticed if you look at coursebooks, for instance. Nowadays, it’s much more common to see women as protagonists and successful professionals and not only as successful mothers and wives as they were depicted in a not very distant past. We know, nevertheless, that there is still a lot to be done. Gender equity may not be a frequent topic in ELT yet and I think that we, as ELT professionals, have to keep insisting on having more women as plenary speakers, authors, editors and in other key roles so as to have a fairer balance. Groups play an important role. Just like any professional group, they gather people with similar interests. These groups also help raise awareness about issues that might be controversial in the classroom, such as domestic violence, beauty standards, prejudice and many others. Prejudice against women, for example, may go unnoticed on several occasions. Why not approach that in the classroom and in our conferences?

JS: You have successfully moved into materials writing while remaining in the classroom as a teacher. How important is it, do you think, for textbook authors to continue to engage with students in the classroom on a daily basis?

EH: It’s definitely important to have solid teaching experience because it will help you understand what really works in the classroom, anticipate difficulties and potential problems. Some activities look brilliant but they do not usually work. For example, if giving instructions for a game will take longer than the game itself, then I believe the game is not worth it. When you don’t have classroom experience you tend to allocate less time than you should doing some tasks. One useful piece of advice a teacher gave me at university was to prepare twice as much as you think you’ll need for a lesson. According to her, when we are inexperienced we tend to rush. As a writer, you have to have a clear idea of how long, on average, activities take. Now as for engaging with students on a daily basis, I don’t see it as a must. The key thing, I’d say, is to keep tuned in, read, study and, most important of all, listen to teachers and students.

JS: If you had to describe your first publication, what would you say? And what would you say about your latest one?

EH: My first publication was an article on teaching and learning pronunciation in the BRAZ-TESOL newsletter. It was a one-page article, but I remember it took me days to do it. Other articles followed, some shorter, some more complex, then I was invited to write theoretical introductions of books, scripts, teacher’s notes, video and writing activities, and so on. My first experience writing students’ books was with a British publisher. Then I was invited to write students’ books for Brazilian publishers. My last publication was a very innovative project aimed at primary students. It was a wonderful experience. All students’ books have been co-written. Now I cannot take days to write a page. It needs to be done much faster. Writing is a unique experience. You need several skills at the same time and you need to be good at teamwork.

JS: How do books for teaching EFL published in Brazil compare with publications from other countries? Looked at from a wider perspective, how effective do you consider the Brazilian approach to be?

EH: I’m not completely familiar with a wide variety of materials from other countries, except for ELT material that is used in Brazil. Brazilian books are as good as imported books we use here with, sometimes, the additional advantage of taking into consideration the context our students are more familiar with and, most of all, difficulties which are common among Brazilian learners. I believe it is important that coursebooks depict different realities, but it is also important that students ‘recognise themselves’ in the books they use.

JS: What would you say has been your most important professional achievement? Why?

EH: Each phase of my professional career presented a particular challenge. Some were of a more practical nature, like teaching very young learners. It takes some time before you develop an extensive repertoire of activities that will make your classes flow and your students learn. Some challenges combine both practical and, let’s say, more philosophical issues. Therefore, I cannot say what my most important professional achievement has been as each has had its own importance, but writing PNLD books, which are the books specifically written for state schools in Brazil, has been the most challenging achievement. First, we have to start writing months before the guidelines are published, which makes the whole process a bit of a guessing game. We base the writing on previous editions and documents, on what is being discussed, but it is always a bet. At least in the past editions of PNLD books we had to tackle issues that are not commonly seen in books for the market, like domestic violence, different kinds of family, diversity in religious beliefs, in ethnic groups, and so on. And it was done carefully and beautifully, considering that schools are indeed a space for life skills, and not only for teaching school subjects, as some radicals insist.

JS: You’re about to move the whole family to England. Your husband Graeme and your daughter Sofia are already there. Your PhD thesis dealt with metaphors. Do you have an appropriate metaphor for the occasion?

EH: The first metaphor that comes to my mind is ‘Life is a journey’. That’s a conceptual metaphor studied by many cognitive linguists and, if I am not mistaken, first approached by Lakkof and Johnson in 1980 in Metaphors we live by (Metáforas do Cotidiano, in Portuguese), a book I strongly recommend.

JS: What unforgettable professional memory will you take from Brazil?

EH: There are so many wonderful professional memories, and I am so grateful for that. One that is particularly memorable is of a students’ end-of-year party just before I moved from Santo André-SP to Fortaleza-CE. At the end of the ceremony the assistant manager asked all those who had been my students to stand up. There were many, many more than I had expected to see. This memory still makes my eyes well up. It is amazing to know we touch so many lives, hopefully positively.

Loop

Curso para o Ensino Fundamental 2. Através de tópicos atrativos e motivadores, as unidades oferecem uma prática balanceada das quatro habilidades que promovem um aprendizado engajado e significativo. As atividades são cuidadosamente estruturadas para permitir ao aluno vivenciar seus próprios resultados, consolidando assim os objetivos de cada unidade.

The interviewee
Elaine Hodgson is a textbook writer, teacher and teacher trainer. She is also a supervisor on the Distance MA in TEFL at Birmingham University(UK). She holds an MA from UECE and a PhD from UFC in Applied Linguistics. She’s written ELT/ESL material for several publishing houses in Brazil, Mexico and the UK including Loop (Macmillan), Orbit (Richmond) and the PNLD approved books Team Up (Macmillan) and Circles (FTD).

http://www.elainehodgsonelt.com
[email protected]
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