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Editorial NRInglês

★ Interview with Luciana de Oliveira

Interview

JS: Could you please tell us first a little bit about your background and why and when you went to live in the United States?

LO: I’m currently Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami in Florida. In 2006, I received my Ph.D. in Education with a dual focus on Language, Literacy and Culture and Second Language Acquisition at the University of California, Davis. I have a Master’s in English (TESOL Option) from California State University, East Bay (CSUEB, 1999). I came to the United States – to California, specifically – in 1997 after completing my Bachelor’s and teaching credential at UNESP in Araraquara, my hometown. My goal was to just improve my English skills through advanced studies, but I ended up taking some regular courses in the English Department at CSUEB and met the coordinator of the MATESOL program who encouraged me to apply for the Master’s program and once I was admitted, then I started to teach at the university and also in a K-12 program and just found my place!

JS: You have recently been named President-Elect of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) International Association, with your three-year leadership term beginning in March 2017. You will be the first South American to serve as president of the 51-year-old association, and also the youngest woman. Congratulations! This is truly an amazing achievement. Why did you decide to be a candidate and how do you feel about receiving this recognition for your outstanding work?

LO: After serving on the TESOL Board of Directors (BOD) for three years (2013-2016), I knew that I wanted to continue to serve TESOL in its highest leadership position. One can only become President after serving on the BOD. In addition, I was encouraged by TESOL Past Presidents and other members and leaders to put in an Expression of Interest (EOI) for President, but I never imagined that I would be selected to be on the ballot the first time I put in an EOI and also win the first time I was on the ballot. That was truly incredible and unexpected and shows that TESOL members believe in my leadership capacity and promise and for that I am very thankful. I have held leadership positions at all levels of the association (from Interest Sections to Standing Committees as well as in Affiliates), so my experiences have been broad and give me excellent perspectives across various constituent groups.

JS: What do you believe are some of the key issues and major challenges facing TESOL and how do you intend to respond to them? What is your leadership style?

LO: TESOL has made great strides in making our vision — “To become the trusted global authority for knowledge and expertise in English language teaching” — a reality, but we must continue to pursue ways to make our services and programs affordable and varied to our membership. To address this challenge, we need to build on our mission as “an international association of professionals advancing the quality of English language teaching through professional development, research, standards, and advocacy”. Expanding the kinds of services and programs that we offer by making them cost-effective and having some free events can attract a great number of members and possibly help recruit new ones. About 75% of TESOL members are U.S.-based, so we need to continue to serve them while also addressing the needs of our members worldwide. I see TESOL looking towards more strategic partnerships with Asia, the Middle East, and Central and South America, for example, as possible ways to address the needs of our international members.

In terms of my leadership style, I would say that my leadership experiences and background have developed my leadership style as participative, collaborative, and strategic. Being a leader for me means building relationships with people, encouraging participation, and reaching common solutions. Forging consensus through participation, for example with the TESOL Board of Directors, creates a sense of distributed responsibility which is a key aspect of leadership in a professional association. I attend to long-term goals and initiatives, keep the “big picture” in mind, and build on ongoing efforts and initiatives.

JS: How do you plan to address the needs of members worldwide and specifically those of the Brazilian affiliate BRAZ-TESOL?

LO: My goal is to serve TESOL in this more direct capacity by staying focused on the association’s mission, values, and vision and continuing its governance restructuring efforts. My priorities are to work with Board colleagues to increase engagement and membership internationally, further develop current partnership initiatives, and build bridges to reach out to other TESOLers who will foster diversity, inclusion, multiculturalism, and positive growth. I hope to be able to attend at least one BRAZTESOL conference in my three-year on the Presidential line to share some of our work within TESOL International Association. I trust the leaders of affiliates who have the best ways to serve their members as they have knowledge of their own teaching and learning contexts. As an international association, TESOL needs to serve all affiliates, not just a few, as an issue of equity. Therefore, I will try to work with all affiliates to address the needs of their members worldwide.

JS: Given your commendable commitment to social justice advocacy, will that dimension of civil peace be given more prominence in your TESOL Presidency? If so, how?

LO: At this time more than ever before, I believe, we are faced with many problems related to social justice. In my work, I address social justice and advocacy on a daily basis, preparing future and current teachers to work with immigrants in the U.S. This goes beyond the notion of “tolerance” and addresses the meaning of advocacy as we have in Portuguese – of advogado – or a representative of others who cannot represent themselves, which involves taking actions on their behalf. I also address how students can advocate for themselves, as part of social justice in their daily lives in schools and beyond. In our various roles as teachers, we can do so much for our students and I know I’ll bring my advocacy with me in my TESOL leadership.

JS: There can be no doubt that the world is undergoing a pendulum swing to the political right and towards intolerance and xenophobia. How can linguists and language teachers around the world contribute to combating such negative trends, if at all?

LO: It’s very important for linguistics and language teachers to understand where others are coming from, the historical and contextual reasons for why some people believe what they do, and work towards helping them understand the myths and misconceptions as well as historical perspectives in which their beliefs are based. This is a tall order and we will not be able to achieve understanding in a short period of time, but we must continue to do everything and anything we can to build bridges, to respect different viewpoints, and to foster diversity and inclusion. What is happening now should just fuel our goals to go beyond these negative trends.

JS: The EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) attempts to rank countries by the average level of English language skills amongst adults. In the most recent report of November 2016, Brazil was ranked 40th out of 72 countries, with very low proficiency. What do you think could be done to improve this?

LO: That’s a very difficult and complex question! There are so many challenges to address and I have written about many of them in my work on teacher education in Brazil. I have worked very closely with teacher educators in Brazil who prepare English language teachers, so I’m speaking from experience and not as an “outsider”. One of the biggest challenges is within teacher education for English as a foreign language teachers. Teacher education programs (Teaching English as a Foreign Language – TEFL) still do not prepare teachers from the get-go (as I have described in my work). We have seen the drawbacks of a system that has long been teaching English in TEFL undergraduate programs the same way one would teach students who want to learn the language for any other purpose, such as Tourism or Business, or for general communication purposes. The fact that these programs are teaching the language for preservice teachers of this language has been neglected. There is also now – and this has been happening for a while – the problem of schools of English hiring “native” English speakers as they are the solution to all of these problems! Many times, these so-called “native” English speakers are just speakers of English with no preparation to be teachers of the language. A short-term course in language schools is very different from a full undergraduate teacher education program or a Master’s level program that prepares teachers. I mention all of these issues to present a very complex picture in order to partially address the question. I think we need to have teacher education programs that not only prepare future teachers in terms of their language proficiency but also prepare them to be teachers of that language. Discussing future professional practice with undergraduate students in EFL programs since the very beginning of their studies is vital to educate preservice teachers; otherwise anyone proficient in English would qualify as an EFL teacher. In addition, in schools across the country, English is still not seen as a major content area and one that is just as important as Portuguese or mathematics and teachers need to have the salaries that they deserve! This exacerbates the situation – making it even harder for students to develop English language proficiency in ways that will really lead to relevant English language skills. To improve this situation, we need to have teachers who are not only proficient in the language they are teaching but also who know about ELT methods and strategies and English needs to have a higher status as a content area in schools. Improving teachers’ salaries and providing the professional learning they need to continue to advance in their careers is paramount, but unfortunately the picture is not great at this time with the political context of Brazil… Mas a esperança é a última que morre, não? So, let’s keep advocating for the rights of teachers and learners of English in Brazil.

JS: Do you agree that there is an intrinsically “Latin American” way of communicating, which pervades English-language interactions between Brazilians and other English-speakers around the world? Is this something to be celebrated and maintained, or should Brazilians and other Latinos be more aware of the potentially negative impact of some of these characteristics on their interactions with others?

LO: Yes, there absolutely is a “Latin-American” way of communicating. I think we (Brazilians) can often be perceived as interrupting conversations because we are using turn-taking patterns that are typical of Brazilian Portuguese when we interact in English. I have often found that to be an issue for me, especially when I first moved to the U.S. from Brazil. I think this relates to the next question about identity. I don’t think it should be a question of whether this is “something to be celebrated and maintained” or we should “be aware of the potentially negative impact some of these characteristics” have. We can celebrate and maintain our interactive style but also be aware of how we may be perceived by others and be aware of turn-taking patterns by speakers of other languages and adapt as necessary when we interact with others in English. There are many varieties of English which fulfill different purposes, so we need to understand what these are as they also relate to our identities.

JS: What, in your view, is the relationship between language and identity?

LO: Language and identity are inextricably connected. One’s identities – I prefer to use plural form here because we have multiple changing identities, not just one – are expressed through language and language expresses our various identities. Identities also change over time and are not something fixed. Identities can also be expressed through what we wear, how we use our multiple languages – how we translanguage – and what we do.

JS: In light of the need for more EFL and ELL teachers in general, how can we encourage new teachers to begin their careers and plan their developmental growth as they get started? What do you suggest new teachers do immediately to plot this development? Where can new teachers find resources to develop independently?

LO: EFL teachers should start by understanding their needs and challenges, sort of doing their own needs analysis in some ways. What is it that they find difficult? What do they need to improve? What are their strengths that they can draw from and use in their professional growth? This needs analysis is a very important first step. Though completing our undergraduate degrees is a key event in the life of an ELT professional, we are really just starting our professional lives at that point, so having some long-term goals is key. Teachers can find many online resources to develop independently and there are also free events that TESOL International Association offers. I know it can be very expensive to attend international conventions, but that should be a really important part of one’s professional growth. EFL teachers can also find local events to go to, as part of BRAZ-TESOL and regional ELT organizations across the country.

JS: What advice would you give Brazilian linguists and educators who seek to expand their horizons and work/ study overseas in an ELT or university context?

LO: Finding the “right” place to go is very important. I use quotations with the word right because what would be right for one person may not be right for another. I would start by understanding the context of the school or university, the city (is it a big or small city? What is the population there – is it more diverse or more homogeneous? Etc.), and the goals of the program. I would also consult with other ELT professionals who have been through that experience so they can provide their own perspectives.

JS: Finally, could you please give a special message to readers of New Routes and all English language teachers in Brazil?

LO: When I was a child, I had a dream of coming to the U.S. I would never have imagined that my dream would become a reality, and with the support of my family members, I was able to realize that dream. At age 7, I knew I wanted to be an English teacher! I had teachermentors in Brazil who encouraged and supported me early on and that was so incredible. We all have teachers whom we remember for having been great influences in our lives. Be that teacher. If you’re unhappy with your situation, change it. Go beyond just doing what you need to survive, do more. I think if we have large goals, we can realize them. I have worked so hard and made many sacrifices (such as being away from my family) which make me very thankful for all of the opportunities I have had in my personal and professional life. I hope that my work in the Presidential line (as President-Elect, President, and Past President) at TESOL International Association will continue to contribute to ELT worldwide. We all have the potential to do more for this world, little by little, in our everyday lives.

The interviewee
Luciana C. de Oliveira, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami, Florida. Her research focuses on issues related to teaching English language learners (ELLs) at the K-12 level, including the role of language in learning the content areas and teacher education, advocacy and social justice. She is the author or editor of 18 books and over 200 publications. Her new co-edited book English Language Teaching in South America: Policy, Preparation and Practices is currently in press with Multilingual Matters.

For more information, please visit her university page at https://sites.education.miami.edu/faculty/luciana-deoliveira/

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