260º West | Teaching, travelling and volunteering in Ecuador

10 things I miss about England

Before you read this post, why not read 7 things I love about Guayaquil or my love letter to Guayaquil, Ecuador?

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Of course I knew I would miss certain things about the UK when I left. I was totally mentally prepared for eight long months sin steaming cups of Twinings Lady Grey, really good medium-rare melt-in-the-mouth fillet steak, and oversize jars of Skippy’s extra crunchy peanut butter.

But there were so many things I didn’t even realise I was missing until I flew back for a quick visit last week – things that you force yourself to adapt to, without even thinking about it.

So here, in no particular order, are the things that I really, really miss about England’s green and pleasant lands:

10. Real news

… And by this I mean actual factual current events, reported in a way that is calm, unbiased and allows the viewer to make their own judgements. Having grown up in England, this was something I always took totally for granted, and it drives me crazy to have to get my daily news from male presenters screaming hysterically at the television and only reporting half the facts, interspersed with the female presenters dancing salsa in high heels and bodycon dresses. There’s a time and a place for that, and it’s not the 7am news cycle. However, I can’t say Ecuador is the only country guilty of favouring sensationalised stories over the type of reporting we’re used to in the UK – thank goodness for the BBC World service!

9. Personal safety

It has been such a huge relief to be able to use my iPhone here in the UK – whether that’s out in public, at night or in the city centre – without the constant worry of getting mugged. Although it may sound like I’m being overly cautious, I’m still not quite over the memory of a knife against my stomach while being robbed two months ago, and my flatmate has had two high-end phones stolen in Guayaquil in the space of just a few months. Lock your doors and windows, kids!

8. Public transport

I know it’s nothing compared to Switzerland and Japan, but I’d forgotten how reliable, safe and comfortable the London Underground and National Rail trains are here. Let alone that fact that we actually have trains. There’s a schedule, there’s a set route network, and there’s even an app to plan your journey! What more could you ask for? (Well, there is one thing: slightly cheaper fares? But that’s a post for another time.)

7. Shopping

Hole in your sock? You can solve that with £1 and 5 minutes in Primark. Need an external hard drive to back up your laptop? One click on Amazon, delivered to your door tomorrow. Not to mention how good England is at high street clothes! MY BANK ACCOUNT IS SO HEALTHY WITHOUT YOU BUT I LOVE YOU LONGTIME ENGLISH SHOPPING

6. To cook or not to cook

As much as I adore cooking, sometimes there just isn’t time in the day, and I find myself opening the freezer longing for a ready meal, or a jar of curry paste, or a tin of coconut milk and some fresh spices, or even just a bottle of name-brand Malibu to wash the cravings away. I know it’s a lazy habit, but a lifetime of conditioning has made me this way. And to all those single women who cook fresh every day and still find time to work, go out and maintain some semblance of being a fully functioning adult, I salute you! Teach me your ways!

5. Life in plastic

Using contactless cards to pay for things is the future; RIP cash-based societies – but I can put up with this for the time being since I know how differently things work in third-world economies. On a related note, I also really like being able to hand over a twenty-pound note to pay for something and not getting laughed out of the shop. Compare this with the eternal struggle of trying to find change in Ecuador, and the glare you get from the taxi driver when the fare is $2 and you hand over a fiver – now, that’s just crossing a line, clearly!

4. A woman’s worth

In the UK, women are not expected to wear skintight clothing all the literal time, and that is the best. thing. ever. I am sick and tired of people telling me my clothes don’t fit because they include a little breathing room. I’m sorrynotsorry that I don’t live in spray-on shorts and skintight strap tops, but that’s just not my style. Some of my skirts are flared, not pencil-cut. Some of my dresses are like a big tablecloth with a hole cut in for your head to poke through. No, you can’t see the shape of my body, and that doesn’t make me any less of a woman. Okay? Okay.

3. International travel

I know how ironic this is seeing as I’m living abroad, but I really miss travel! Or to put it differently, how easy and cheap it is to go abroad when you live in England. Thanks to Ryanair, £50 and a couple of days off work will get you a balmy weekend in Spain or a sightseeing city break in Italy. You wanna know how much it costs to fly from Guayaquil to Lima, the closest foreign capital? Four hundred dollars (£250). No joke. And that’s not even counting expenses while you’re actually there!

2. Healthcare

The NHS is the pinnacle of British civilisation. I’m serious. We have an incredible healthcare service and I never fully appreciated it until I had to undergo private healthcare in Ecuador. Not only did the doctor ask me all sorts of uncomfortable personal questions and try to sell me a spare room in her house during the appointment, she also recommended that I do a very expensive series of scans which the NHS later advised me were totally irrelevant to my situation. Profits and healthcare shouldn’t mix!

1. Friends and family

Being with people who really knew you when you were younger is such a privilege. Flying back home for a friend’s wedding meant I had a golden opportunity to catch up with all the people that mean the most to me here. It’s been fantastic to see everyone and the goodbyes have been somewhat emotional (there’s never enough time!) but I know we’ll make it through – we always do.

 

So, what do you miss when you go away from home? Do you agree with my list, or have I missed out something vital? Let me know in the comments below!

And in the interests of fair and balanced reporting (see point #1), next week I’ll be publishing a list of all the things I don’t miss about England – stay tuned!

 

260º West | Teaching, travelling and volunteering in Ecuador

Teaching English: Ecuador vs. the UK

After two months of non-stop manual labour under the relentless Ecuadorian sun teaching English as a foreign language in sterilised, air-conditioned classrooms, here are some insights into the effect that moving halfway across the world can have your working conditions as an EFL teacher:

#1. Time is relative

Holy smokes, guys. In London I was in the staffroom by 7.30am, printing and copying done by 8am, classroom perfectly set up by 8.30am, the very last student floating in at 8.55am. My students knew that when the door closed at 9am, they were either in or out. Beware all latecomers who pass here!

In Guayaquil, we wait for the school to be unlocked five minutes before our classes are supposed to start. By the time we’ve made it inside, got our textbooks out of our lockers and prepped the classroom we’re already running ten minutes late. But you see, it doesn’t matter because the students won’t turn up for another ten minutes. And then they’ll breeze in, no apologies, because they’re Ecuador-on-time.

You can imagine what that does to a borderline-obsessive, ridiculously punctual, over-organised perfectionist like me … but that’s just how things are here. My blood pressure is going through the roof, but it’s actually teaching me some valuable lessons. For one thing, it’s forcing me to relax rather than worrying myself to death over things out of my control. It’s also giving me a much better work-life balance!

#2. You can’t sit with us

The one thing I really, truly disliked about working in London was the cliquey-ness amongst the teachers. Obviously when you have that many staff working for one organisation, you’re not going to get to know everyone, but there was some deep-rooted high-school-esque segregation at work in that staffroom. Not so in Guayaquil, where everyone genuinely seems to talk to everyone, and the staff go on big group nights out and weekends away together. So refreshing!

#3. Spanglish

Teaching in London was like taking a round-the-world trip without having to leave the comfort of your hometown. My students came from all four corners of the globe and had the most interesting stories – everything from a Turkish student’s summary of the state of gender equality in Istanbul to one Eritrean boy’s account of his harrowing escape from the unstable political situation in his home country. The fact that every student had a different culture and language to share meant that discussion tasks were effortlessly rich and students never resorted to L1 to communicate.

The thing about teaching in Guayaquil is that classes here are monolingual, and the minor but persistent presence of Spanish in the classroom is a constant reminder that I need to adapt my teaching methods to account for it. Rewards, forfeits, gentle reminders, activities specifically designed with L1 involvement in mind – the textbooks are full of methods for dealing with this stuff. I just need more experience in learning how to work with it, rather than letting it work against me.

#4. Size matters

The school I worked at in London was the monstrous hub of a huge international chain of language schools. The school I currently work at in Guayaquil is a small satellite in that very same chain, but is about a quarter of the size of the London school. A smaller school means the facilities aren’t quite as nice, the resources aren’t quite as new, and admin tasks don’t get done quite as efficiently. However, it also means I actually feel comfortable speaking to the Director of Studies (DoS) when I have a problem, that I know where everything is and how to use it all, and that all the staff are pretty chummy with one another (admin staff included).

If I had to choose, I’d take Guayaquil over London any day in that respect.

#5. It’s all about the money

I know this stuff isn’t supposed to matter, but a girl’s gotta eat, and let me tell you that this girl’s eating a hell of a lot better here in Guayaquil than she ever did back in London. My old £17 per hour wage just about paid the rent on a skanky central London shoebox while leaving me enough money to buy groceries, eat out a couple times a month and maybe go to a couple of restaurants every once in a while. In Guayaquil, $11 an hour buys me a big double room in a lovely furnished flat and enough spare cash to buy perfectly ripe tropical fruit, freshly cooked soups and delicious main meals every single day, as well as going out for drinks once a week and travelling all over the country on long weekends.

As my American colleagues would say, you do the “math”.

Photo credit: pixabay.com

Spotlight on education: are Chinese schools better?

Maybe it’s because I’m a newly qualified teacher, but I’m totally addicted to the emerging genre of school-based reality TV. I’ve just finished watching BBC Two’s ‘Are Our Kids Tough Enough: Chinese School‘, in which the Chinese schooling system lands in a British state school to decide once and for all which one is better. Half the kids get real Chinese teachers running their school lives for a month, and the other half stick with the usual British system.

Obviously, the Chinese teachers are convinced that their 12-hour days of lecturing are better; the British teachers say the same thing about their more progressive, Constructivist method. Intriguingly, after four gruelling weeks and some external testing, the Chinese system emerges on top, much to the chagrin of the school’s British headmaster.

What’s more, this tiny sample also appears to reflect real-life outcomes; both empirically and anecdotally, Chinese teenagers can be shown to be consistently outperforming their British counterparts. But does that necessarily mean they are coming out smarter, more capable or better equipped for their futures? And if so, why?

Breaking it down

There are a million factors that can be (and have been) analysed in order to account for academic attainment, including cultural background, parental income, and IQ, to name but a few. The draw of this particular experiment was that the Chinese learning approach was tested on a group of British school kids, using another students in the same school as a control group. So instantly we’ve removed national, regional and educational cultures from the equation. Add that to the fact that before the experiment began, the Institute of Education (IoE) stated there was no ‘degree of [academic] separation’ between the two groups.

What possible factors remain? Well, three things immediately spring to mind: the sheer motivation of being on telly, differing curriculum design, and assessment bias.

The Hawthorne effect

Looking at the first idea, it’s true that the Chinese group (that is to say, the British sample group receiving Chinese education) had far more screen time than the British (control) group. The Hawthorne effect says that this gives the Chinese group a much stronger motivation to do better, precisely because they know they’re being observed. However, it’s possible that someone on the team had enough science education to foresee this potential problem, and that the camera crew therefore filmed both groups equally and only leant towards showing more of the Chinese schooling once the editing process began. (It’s also possible that this didn’t happen, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for now!)

Long jump, languages and learning

So we can move on to the second idea: differences in the way the British and Chinese curricula are designed. While two of the subjects in the study – maths and science – were familiar parts of a normal British state school curriculum, there were two notable variations.

The first of these saw PE go from a filler subject to a rigorous assessment of a range of physical abilities, ranging from the highly demanding shot-put to the athletic long jump to a delicate, graceful fan-dance. While events like these may sound pretty exotic to someone who received a British state school education, the salient point is that not one of these events is a team game; each emphasises the ability of the individual and comes with a pass or fail grade. Could it be that the all-or-none mindset of individual competitive sport had a significant effect on pupils’ attitude to learning, and actually engendered a drive to achieve that wasn’t there before?

The second adjustment to the curriculum involved language-learning: while the Chinese group were taught Mandarin from scratch, the control group continued with English lessons as normal. The academic benefits of learning languages have been extensively documented, and there is some evidence to suggest that the simple act of being exposed to foreign language teaching can account for improvement in other subjects. Whether or not learning Mandarin could have accounted for the 10% average improvement of the Chinese group compared to the British group is another question entirely.

Examining the difference

Changes to the curriculum aside, we should consider the third possible factor in our list: the test that the two pupil groups sat at the end of the experiment. Presumably the rationale of making the kids sit an external exam set by an independent assessor like the IoE was that the results would be free from bias. Looking at the interests of the IoE – a leading British research institution with fairly progressive views on education – I’d go so far as to say that if any bias existed, it would be in favour of the British group. Add to this the fact that the (British) headmaster of the school obviously and openly favoured the British approach, repeatedly predicting during the experiment that the control group would outperform the test group in the end. Yet despite having all of that motivation going for them, the Brits were simply outclassed in the assessment.

Why is this? It’s possible that any kind of written assessment is always biased towards students who have been coached to swallow and regurgitate vast amounts of specific information. If there is a curriculum containing a fixed amount of facts and even a fixed number of ‘problem-solving methods’ that a student is expected to know, we could argue that any teacher given a 12-hour academic day might have time to actually teach all of those facts and methods – but nothing more. Progressive and Constructivist schools of thought say that these students will come out having learned, but not having learned to learn; that is to say, when presented with a higher-level problem, they will lack the skills needed to effectively tackle it.

Does this theory hold up in practice?

Is it even possible to measure metalearning? Some studies have noted that Chinese students studying at British universities struggle noticeably in their second and third years. This aligns nicely with the theory that they ‘learn’ to an advanced level – covering the material studied in first year – but don’t ‘learn to learn’ and therefore lack the study methods needed to deal with the complex issues presented in later years. However, while studies like the one linked above are consistent with this hypothesis, they don’t actually prove it.

Whether the success of the Chinese schooling system lies in curriculum design, approaches to assessment, a combination of the two or none of the above, it is certainly true that we have a huge amount to learn just by making the comparison. Thought exercises like this one allow us to reflect on our assumptions about what does and doesn’t work in the classroom; surely this can only be beneficial in the long run, particularly when it comes to judging practices that are totally foreign to us (pun very much intended).

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What does teaching look like in the country where you grew up/ currently live? Did the result of the experiment described above surprise you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.