Learning How to Teach English

If my week observing classes and getting settled in Rancagua wasn’t a hint, the following newspaper coverage confirms that we are indeed going to be teachers for the next six months and everyone in Chile is excited about the English Opens Doors program.

This week, I have been observing the English classrooms of 5-8th grades all week of El Collegio Aurora de Chile. My host teacher is wonderful. Her name is Patricia and she is a great teacher, but the students are so disobedient and they accomplish very little in a given class period. The Chilean school experience as a gringa has been an adventure every day. The first day I came to school, everyone stopped and stared at me, whispering and giggling as I walked by. I felt so self conscious in front of 5th graders! Especially, when I tried to talk to them in Spanish. When I say “Hola” to a group of staring kids, they would just laugh at me and say “Hola” back in a gringo accent. And when I say “Hello” in English, the same reaction transpires. I never imagined I’d be self conscious in front of 5th graders, but I really want the little tykes to like me!

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At first I was alarmed by the lack of order in the classrooms: the girls were pulling each others hair, throwing things at each other, sitting on top of desks facing the back of the room to talk to friends, while the boys got up and walked around, listen to music on mp3 players, and openly had fist fights in different corners of the classroom. Of fifty or so students, only about ten were paying any attention to Miss Patricia.

The only time they were completely silent and attentive was when Miss Pati explained how we would be dividing the class. Only ten kids in each class, those who participate, are behaved, and are genuinely interested in learning English, get to leave Miss Pati’s class and come to mine. When others’ behavior improves, they can come to my class as well, but no more than twenty will be chosen for the semester. If everyone behaves, then we can switch halves in the middle of the session so everyone gets to be in my classroom.

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I could see looks of desperation in the kids’ eyes as Miss Pati explained that so far, their behavior indicated that most of them would be stuck in her class. I noticed the kids staring at me throughout class, making me incredibly self conscious, and every time I made eye contact with one of them, they would break into a huge grin and motion for me to come over to their desk. Throughout classes students would call me over to them, urgently shouting, “Mees Mees!”across the room and when I finally approached they would ask me something simple like, “Cuál es tu color favorito?” They wanted to know my favorite music, movie, TV show, etc. No one knew where Pennsylvania was, so I started saying I lived a couple hours from New York City. They loved that. My other volunteer friends and I are actually having a contest to see who can get away with the most extravagant lie…tomorrow I’m telling the chiquitos that I dated a Jonas Brother.

Other times, they would ask really awkward things like “Do you have a bololo (boyfriend)?” or “Is your hair real?”, and my favorite so far was “Are you a Charlie’s Angel?” Their English ability is very minimal, but there are few kids in the class that either have had more exposure than others or are incredibly intelligent. They have larger vocabularies and understand most of what I say when I speak very slowly. I am not supposed to speak Spanish to them, but with their small vocabularies it is difficult to get an idea across.

After every class and walking through the hallways to the teachers’ lounge, where there are twenty minutes breaks for tea and talk every hour and half, I am be swarmed by kids. the girls want to look at my ojos azules, spray me with perfume, and touch my hair while the boys want to give me hugs and ask me how to say swear words.

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A little girl was wearing a sweatshirt that said “Bitch” today and the kids wanted to know what it meant. In another class, a boy asked me what the F word meant (My grandparents are reading this). I was completely caught off guard and just told both parties that I didn’t know and to use a dictionary. I was afraid if I told them they were bad words that they would use them all the time. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to learn swear words in Spanish. By lunchtime I am exhausted from the kids’ energy, but luckily I never work past lunch time unless I come back to school for extra curricular activities.

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All of the teachers are really young, in their late 20s and early 30s, and this weekend we are going to go to a discotech together after the volunteer reunion asado (barbeque) at our coordinator, Fernando’s, house. Last night I went to an asado at Cami’s house to watch the Chile vs. Bolivia fútbol game. Chile won 4-0 and the family went wild. After the game, around 11:30 pm, we finally started the barbeque. It was so late by the time we were on the second course that I could not stop thinking about waking up in the morning long enough to enjoy all of the wonderful food: Chilean ensalada (tomatoes, onions, lemon juice, vinegar, salt), mariscos, grilled chicken and pork, corn and green beans, and lots of wine. We didn’t end up leaving Cami’s til around 1 and 25 minutes later after getting lost on the way to my house, I got home. I felt so bad, because my mamita was waiting up for me, but I tried to assure her that I would call if I need anything next time.

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While the first few days here I was feeling a little smothered with concern by my host family, I have figured out the collectivo system, am looking for a cheap bike, and am working on the bus system. I figured out that I can walk to el centro from my school in about 15 minutes and there is a gym close to my neighborhood that I can also walk to. I know my host family just wants me to be comfortable and safe, but it was quite a culture shock moving from hostel life back into a home. I absolutely don’t want to be any kind of a stranger to my family, so I am doing everything I can to balance family time with friend time while establishing a routine with work, the gym, and traveling. Tomorrow night, my friends are coming over for “once” which is a lite meal in the late evening, usually consisting of a small sandwich and hot tea or coffee. Since lunches are so large here, breakfast and dinner are relatively smaller and in some cases, nonexistent.

This Sunday, I am going with Cami’s family to a famous beach called Pichilemu that is about an hour away and apparently has 8 meter high waves. Although it’s too cold to thoroughly enjoy the beach, knowing the drive will be useful once the weather starts to change in August. Next week I start teaching alone in my own classroom, so that should yield some hilarious encounters. More next week.

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Published by

Kate Springer

Freelance writer and editor based in Hong Kong. Contributor at CNN, Forbes Travel Guide, BBC Travel, Fodor's Travel Guide, superfuture, Tatler, and more.

One thought on “Learning How to Teach English”

  1. Hi Kate!It's Uncle Joe. I've only read a part of the blog so far (my first blog ever) and it looks like a great adventure! We are proud of you!Love,U.J.

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