This post was originally published to the IH London blog.
“¿Has ido a Ecuador antes?“ “Have you been to Ecuador before?”
“No, es la primera vez que viajo a America Latina.” “No, this is my first time travelling to Latin America.”
Hearing those words come out of my mouth as I chatted to another passenger on the 14-hour journey to Ecuador, I started to question the wisdom of my decision to travel 6,000 miles for my first teaching post outside the UK. Those fears disappeared the second the plane soared over the impossibly lush Amazon rainforest, past the rolling Ecuadorean Andes, bound for the coastal city of Guayaquil. Having fallen in love with the Spanish language at university and completed my CELTA qualification in August, I knew I didn’t want to jump into a permanent contract in the UK without first volunteering my new skills and experiencing a little more of the world. So when I read about the Starfish Foundation, a grassroots educational outreach programme based along Ecuador’s Pacific coast, I knew it was the opportunity I’d been looking for.
Community support and education
The Foundation offers daily before-and-after-school extracurricular activities, community service programmes and academic help for at-risk Ecuadorian youth, additionally providing financial scholarships to a select group of high achievers among the student body. Regular school visits, monthly meetings with parents and highly motivated local employees mean that Starfish scholars are far more likely to finish secondary school and continue into higher education than their non-Starfish counterparts – a huge achievement in a country where only 60% of teenagers are actually enrolled at a secondary school. I joined the Foundation as one of three foreign volunteers, with a variety of duties including teaching English classes, introducing debating activities to the extracurricular roster, and helping the students with their homework.
Creating basic ESOL materials
The contrasts between my previous job at IH London and the Foundation’s Guayaquil classrooms could not have been more obvious. My teaching was challenged in every way: I no longer have a full-sized whiteboard, let alone an IWB; the prohibitive cost of coursebooks means that I have to find or design all of my own materials; my lesson planning is done a week in advance so I can make the hour-long trip to the photocopier on weekends; my instructions have to be carefully graduated from L1 (Spanish) at the start of each lesson to L2 (English) by the end in order to compensate for the students’ lack of experience in speaking and listening to English. But despite each little setback, the Starfish cohort makes it all worthwhile. Although the group is a mix of age, gender and ability, the students share a common perspective on diligence, motivation and achievement that could inspire even the most jaded soul.
The joys – and the challenges – of teaching
Their infectious enthusiasm and vibrant youth make it easy to forget the difficulties that they and their families may face on a regular basis, such as choosing between buying food for dinner or spending the money on materials needed to complete a school project. There are undoubtedly myriad challenges lying in wait between now and Christmas – upgrading the students’ listening skills, exploring methodologies that use little or no physical materials, adjusting to teaching American English spellings – but having the opportunity to be a part of the Starfish success story can only be called a privilege.