Helena Massó is the Bilingual Coordinator in my high school—which basically makes her my boss. She was there on my first day of school, welcoming us into our new workplace, doing her best to make us comfortable, giving us our schedules and explaining how everything worked. She handles every administrative task for us, from renewal to vacation to scheduling, in addition to her many other duties. Not only that, but she is a working teacher. (In Spain administrators commonly double as teachers.)
She took some time from her busy schedule for an interview about her career. Here is the edited transcript.
Roy: Have you ever been interviewed before?
Helena: Yes, a couple times. Once was to become a certified Advanced English teacher . The interview was about why my name starts with an “H.” [In Spanish the “H” is silent; and so the sonically equivalent name is commonly spelled “Elena”.] I was annoyed that this topic was the main criterium to decide whether I was prepared to teach Advanced English, after passing my official tests in English to become a teacher, after getting the Proficiency certificate by Cambridge University, and after getting the Official School of Languages certificate of English. What about my professional development and career?
R: So… why is your name spelled with an “H”?
H: Well, because the Greeks are so weird. Really the explanation is too long. (See below for the story.)
R. How did you learn English so well?
H: I started learning English when I was 8 years old. My school didn’t have English as a foreign language. At the time it was more fashionable to have French. But my school introduced extracurricular English classes. And from the very beginning I became very interested in the language. So I went through my primary school taking English this way, as an extracurricular, and then took regular classes in secondary school. Then, when I had to decide to study something in university, for me it was clear that I wanted to study English. I studied English philology. I really liked the language and the culture. I studied some history, geography and literature of England and the United States. I forgot to mention that music was also a strong reason to enjoy learning English. I love traditional Irish music and rock, so I would enjoy listening to music and translating lyrics.
R: And have you ever lived abroad?
H: No, no I haven’t. Just short stays for courses abroad or holidays, no longer than a month or so. I am a product of public education. My family wasn’t poor but we couldn’t afford any extra resources. So if I hadn’t studied in a public school I couldn’t have become an English teacher.
R: So what brought you to teaching?
H: One thing leads to the other. The career possibilities out of English philology were very restricted. My first thought was that I wasn’t good enough to be a teacher, I didn’t feel prepared for that. Eventually I became a tutor for private lessons. And I liked to see how students improve with your help, and I liked helping them develop their learning skills. So one thing led to another. But my first thought was to become a translator.
R: What are some of the challenges of teaching a second language?
H: Teaching is very challenging in general, and teaching a foreign language… Well, it depends on the context. Before I began teaching in a bilingual program, the challenge was getting the students to express themselves in English. I remember I would start my lessons every year speaking English, and the students’ reactions were, in most cases, “We are in Spain, so you have to speak Spanish.” And my answer was “But we are learning English. We have thirty students, fifty minutes, three times a week.” My students had focused a lot on reading and writing, but not on speaking and listening. So it was a challenge to get them to react in a different way, not being so reluctant to speak.
And this changed totally when we started the bilingual program. Because those students who have studied primary in a bilingual program feel that it’s more natural to have classes in English. So you don’t have to fight against them to speak English in class. This is a very big improvement I’ve noticed.
R: So how do you overcome the challenge of students who are reluctant to speak English?
H: In our school, it’s easier, since it is a bilingual school. When they are being lazy and don’t want to speak English, I pretend that I don’t understand Spanish. So it’s just being consistent, insisting on English every day, so that it’s natural. It doesn’t matter if they make mistakes but they have to keep on trying.
R: Why do you think so many people take a foreign language for years and years, and yet hardly retain anything? I ask this because I’ve met many Spaniards who took English throughout primary and secondary school, and yet their level is absolutely basic. The same thing happens in my country, too.
H: That was one of the reasons for the bilingual program, just to shock the whole situation. And I agree with the initiative. Probably I don’t agree with the way that it was put into practice, the implementation. But why weren’t people learning? In my generation, this happened. The focus was much more on reading and writing a good paragraph, than on keeping the balance between the four skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) and creating someone proficient in English, not perfect in grammar. Nowadays I think it’s different. But I hear a lot of adults complain about how their English courses were boring. Having lots of grammar exercises, focused on accuracy, rather than anything related to their interests.
R: Can you explain some of what you do as the Bilingual coordinator?
H. One of my responsibilities is to try to help teaching assistants feel good and comfortable at school, and empathize with you, because if you are happy working here your impact is huge. And I’m a mediator between teaching assistants and teachers. Another thing I do is keep track of which students might be struggling in the bilingual program, using feedback from teachers and assistants; and if English is their primary difficulty I may formally suggest that a student switches to the non-bilingual track. There are other responsibilities, such as fostering collaboration between CLIL (teachers who teach content in English, but aren’t themselves English teachers, such as Carlos of the history department) and English teachers in the bilingual team; leading the bilingual team; and promoting consistency in approaches and methodologies within the bilingual program, which is quite challenging because this tasks relies on collaboration.
R: Can you explain your approach in the classroom? For example, what sorts of activities and exercises to you find the most helpful?
H: It depends on the level, and it depends on the group. I try to analyze the groups’ needs. Some years ago I had a very good group of year-one students [equivalent to American seventh grade]. (And, by the way, one of those students is the one who won the global classrooms competition.*) I had a great situation and an enthusiastic, creative assistant, and a motivated group of students. That year, I managed to work on To Kill a Mockingbird, which is incredible for that level. This isn’t always the case. This year we need to work on basic stuff, grammar and vocabulary, to get them ready for next year. And my priority is to get them to change their mindset from primary to secondary.
I don’t really like to stick to the books. The books do give the students a sense of order and progress. But I like to do extra things related to the subject. The most challenging issue is to keep the balance between meeting content official content requirements and having enough time to make learning affordable and enjoyable by introducing some creativity in the lessons. Now we’re working on comparatives (better, stronger, faster, etc.), and we are collaborating with visual arts to do comparisons between pictures. So I like to do more creative activities. And I love working on literature. As a whole, I like students to change their mindset from “I can’t do that” to “I can’t do that yet.”
R: Do you think you need natural talent to learn a foreign language?
H: Not really. I think learning a foreign language is a matter of degree. It depends on what your expectations are. If you want to speak a foreign language perfectly of course you need some talent. But there are many ways to be able to express yourself in a foreign language. So I think that’s a mistake in our case in Spain because we want to be perfect, and when we are not perfect we quit. To me learning a language is like doing music or sports: you can enjoy music or sport even if you are the worst singer in the world or if you are not really fit.
R: I ask this because I hear a lot of Americans saying “I don’t have the language gene” or “I just can’t learn a foreign language.” So they don’t try.
H: I think that this is wrong, I think that it is a matter of degree. You need to ask: What do you need the foreign language for? To get access to a new culture? To new ideas? In that case you don’t really need to be perfect. I think it’s much better to think, “Okay, I can get to this level, so now let’s try the next level. If I can, great. If I can’t, no worries.”
R: Do you think that engaging with English media, like TV shows and movies, can make a big different for students?
H: Yeah, for sure. I think so. I’m really surprised when students say “I can’t read this, it’s too hard.” And I say, “Imagine you are working out the instructions for a game console, and they are written in English. You’d probably work it out.” So this is the way. If you are connected with the topic, you will find your way to make sense of that. If you enjoy watching something in a foreign language, one way or another you’ll learn things.
R: I find that my best students are the ones who watch movies and shows in English.
H: I think it’s kind of a loop, a virtuous cycle. The higher your level, the more you can make of what you watch, and so you learn more, and you have more motivation, and so on.
R: What are some of the challenges of a bilingual school, as opposed to a monolingual school?
H: It is difficult to summarize quickly. We could spend our whole lives discussing this. It involves politics, in involves educational views, it involves school and classroom management… And every school is different. So I heard of bilingual schools selecting the students that they want to include in the program. And this is not my view of how bilingual programs should work. The challenge is being fair. A bilingual school should be a social escalator. If we have a bilingual school, we are giving our students, regardless of their background, the opportunity to—who knows?—maybe in the future get a grant, go abroad for studies, and have further opportunities. But I know that in other cases bilingual studies aren’t implemented this way. So the challenge is to be fair, keeping the balance between being a special program and providing equal opportunities to all the students. We are a public school. We have a social role.
Bilingual programs are often criticised when they are implemented in public schools but I’ve neved heard criticism about bilingual programs implemented in private schools. This is looking down on teachers and students of public education. We are giving a particular type of students the option to meet someone like you, someone from a foreign country telling them about their experience with hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, for instance. Widening their horizons.
R: Do you think that learning a foreign language is important for society in general? And I ask this because, in my country, we are very monolingual.
H: I think that we should all get a taste of as many languages as we can. That doesn’t mean we have to be fluent in five languages. It means that we should be exposed to as many languages as we can. In Spain I think that it is a big mistake not to have some exposure for kids to all the languages spoken in Spain.** Some basic knowledge. And hopefully somebody decides that they like the way it sounds and they want to learn more. Because it’s our country, it’s part of our culture, our heritage. This way we wouldn’t have these political problems and controversy we have at the moment.***
The more you know about languages, the wider are your views about how the world works.