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”.

260º West | Teaching English & Getting Educated in Ecuador

A love letter to Guayaquil, Ecuador

I’m counting September 9th as my one-year Guayaquil anniversary, even though I’ve only actually spent six of the last twelve months here. Thing is, I’m already head-over-heels for this city, despite the fact that it has a face only a mother someone clinically insane could love.

But first, a little background.

The school I currently work for has recently undergone a big rebranding and has joined what is probably the most recognisable private ELT chain in the world. Because of this, they’re hiring new teachers like there’s no tomorrow; I’m just one of a whole pack of newbies being brought in to meet the presumably massive increase in demand.

One of those fellow newbie teachers, who I met at 6.30am on Tuesday morning, had unceremoniously informed me by 6.45am that same morning that he wasn’t planning to stick around. He wasn’t just going to leave the school, he was going to leave Guayaquil. And he wasn’t just going to leave Guayaquil, he was going to leave teaching.

This guy had committed years to working in similar environments in other countries, but Guayaquil was the place that ended it for him. It was the straw that finally broke that highly experienced camel’s back; the drop that spilled a cup already overflowing with culture shock; the long, rusty, crooked nail in the coffin of ELT.

You’ll forgive me if I find this absolutely hilarious. The whole thing. I really, truly do. And the reason it’s so funny isn’t that I think he’s crazy for not liking Guayaquil after his first week here; actually, I kind of see where he’s coming from.

You see, after just six months of living here, I’ve heard the complete list of one million and one reasons to hate this town. I’ve listened to people complain about everything from the noise and the traffic and the pollution to the unequal provision of public services to the corruption that may or may not be seeping through all levels of government to the oddly designed state education system.

If I thought about it for long enough, I’d probably agree with at least some of these opinions – but you see, love is blind, and Guayaquil and I are still in the honeymoon phase. And so even the things that I don’t like about this city, I love.

Take yesterday, for example: a frankly exhausting day spent teaching, volunteering, and running all over the city on public buses that – let’s be honest – operate so dangerously they’d be wildly illegal anywhere in the global north. As a treat, I bought myself $3 of roast chicken just before I got on the #114 bus back home.

There was no glass in the windows of the bus, the chicken juice had begun to seep out of the bag I was carrying it in, and the man next to me was balancing a live tortoise in the crook of his arm. Still, none of this mattered because I managed to get a seat during rush hour – and so at least the chicken juice was dripping gently down my thigh instead of swinging against my side and staining my Starfish Foundation t-shirt.

And as the bus driver raced down the motorway with absolutely no regard for the lives of anyone either on or around the vehicle, I thought to myself what a lovely thing it was to be on the road with the wind in your hair and your face and your heart while the sun is setting smoky violet over another beautifully imperfect day in Guayaquil.

(By the way, the chicken was delicious.)

Photo credit: deathtothestockphoto.com

8 hilarious myths about teaching English abroad

During my first year as a qualified English teacher, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of the most intelligent, inspiring and dedicated people I know.

I’ve also met some people who should never, ever have chosen to work in the education sector.

The following quotes are all things that have actually been said to me by would-be education ‘professionals’, and serve as an excellent reminder that teaching isn’t for everyone …

1. “I want to backpack around Asia, so I thought I’d teach English in Bangkok and go from there.”

Maybe you want to travel, maybe you’re running away from something at home, maybe you’re using teaching as a way to fill the gap until you work out what you “really” want to do; whatever it is, if you don’t genuinely want to teach, then your reason isn’t good enough.

Why? Because teaching is not at all about you as a teacher; it is absolutely and totally about the learner. You need to focus on their goals, their learning styles and their backgrounds, and you can’t do that if you don’t actually want to be in the classroom.

It’s not just that you won’t be interested in your job; you’re likely to have a deeply negative effect on your students’ progress, their love of the subject, and even their opinion of the academic system as a whole. Not to mention the fact that you’ll pay for your attitude in bad behaviour – if students sense that their teacher doesn’t care about them, they will respond (in)appropriately.

2. “All the other teachers speak English anyway, so there’s really no reason to learn [insert name of local language here].”

When you emigrate, you become an ambassador for your country whether you like it or not, and English speakers are notorious for being complacently monolingual. When you teach a language, you also become an ambassador of language learning, so now there’s really no excuse.

Be open-minded. You don’t have to come back with an encyclopaedic knowledge of ancient Japanese literature, but if you’ve been there for three years and you still can’t be bothered to learn how to introduce yourself in the local language, you’re doing it wrong.

3. “I’ve got a few months free and I want to give back to the community.”

Work at a charity shop, help out at a soup kitchen, raise money for your favourite wildlife foundation … If you’re really interested in volunteering then the possibilities are endless, and you don’t even have to go abroad or work in education!

Remember that students are committed to the whole school year and you should be too. I didn’t realise the full truth of this for myself until I taught for half a year in Ecuador – and I finally understood that it wasn’t even close to enough. Maybe six months is enough for you to achieve a sense of completion, but your students certainly won’t.

Learning is a long-term process and the TEFL industry already suffers from a revolving door of short-term teachers willing to accept lower pay, rubbish hours and generally worse working conditions. Don’t add to it.

4. “There are so many schools dying to hire native English speakers that you don’t even need to do a TEFL course.”

Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Would you go scuba diving without a PADI certificate? Would you drive a car without a licence? Of course not – so why on earth would you ever consider trying to teach without the bare minimum of training?

You don’t have to have a PGCE or even a CELTA, but please remember that teaching does affect people, and whether that effect is positive or negative is up to you. A good training course will give you the tools you need to plan and deliver great lessons, while being the best version of yourself you can be in the classroom. Give yourself the best chance you can, and get educated!

5. “Teaching must be great – nobody ever criticises you!”

You’ve clearly never met your students’ parents, or yourself.

Parents’ Day is every teacher’s worst nightmare. Why? Because it takes five minutes to explain to the reasonable parents why their kid is or isn’t progressing as well as they should be. Five minutes. And you get to spend the rest of the evening trying to tell the less reasonable ones why their kid might not be the shining example of citizenship they clearly thought he or she was.

And I don’t think I need to explain that when you love your job, and it’s endlessly challenging and yet infinitely rewarding at the same time, all those other comments sound like sycophantic praise compared to the mental dressing-down you give yourself when you mess up.

6. “I’m just looking to make some money.”

HAHAHAHAHA

7. “Teachers get such long summer holidays. What’s not to love?”

Let’s put aside the fact that teaching is one of the most underpaid, underrated and understaffed professions in existence today.

Newsflash: TEFL doesn’t work like primary or secondary teaching. Maybe you applied for a post in Italy and they told you that you get a month of ‘summer holiday’ – sorry, but that’s just the Italian word for ‘unpaid leave’. Everywhere else, it works just like any other job.

8. “It’s not my responsibility to advocate for my students.”

And out of the entire list, this is the one that gets to me the most; I genuinely couldn’t believe it when I heard a colleague say this during a lunchtime debate in the staff room.

Any authority role comes with a certain amount of responsibility, and this is especially true when you’re working with vulnerable members of society such as children. One of those responsibilities is always looking out for the best interests of the learner, however difficult or uncomfortable or time-consuming that may be for you as a teacher.

This is non-negotiable and a vital part of the role. Your students will face all kinds of obstacles thrown at them by virtue of their socioeconomic backgrounds, the pressures of standardised testing, sudden changes in national education policy, their families and friends … and if you, as their educator, are in any position to help them then you have a duty to do exactly that!

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Have you heard any funny assumptions or misguided comments about teaching lately? Share them in the comments below and make us all smile!

Photo credit: deathtothestockphoto.com

How to teach yourself about international development

If you, like me, are planning to break your way into one of the most competitive and oversubscribed industries out there, you’ll need all the help you can get. Here’s the good news: if you have the will to learn all you can, the hardest part is probably over. The bad news? I have about as much idea what I’m doing as you do – but I’m writing this post to outline the strategies I’m going to use to teach myself about international development.

It may seem like an impossible task, but it goes without saying that you should learn what you love. So let your passion for development work drive you to teach yourself as much as you can about the field, and give yourself a fighting chance at the career you’ve always wanted!

1. Explore your options

Start by asking a few vital questions. What are the current priorities in international development? What goals are international organisations trying to achieve? What does the sector need now, and what will it need in the near future?

Use the answers to single out job types, specific roles and responsibilities, and even geographical areas of focus that interest you – then work out what qualifications and experience are needed for each one.

Now decide where you fit in. Do you have the relevant skills and experience to pursue your dream job? If not, how can you get them? Your career isn’t going anywhere unless you know exactly what you want from it, and more importantly, what you don’t want.

How does this work in action?

Here’s an example from my career aims: the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals place a huge emphasis on equal opportunities in education all over the world. NGOs are projected to be some of the biggest facilitators of basic education in the near future, spending huge amounts of time and money on education projects. One day, I want to use my teaching background to design and run one of those projects.

This probably means I need several years of project experience, some knowledge of the current research in education, top-level management skills, a knack for working with people, a Masters degree, and the list goes on … but you get the idea! Now we have something specific to focus on.

2. Get your hands dirty

Accept that you will have to work on a volunteer basis for a while. When it comes to development work, you’ll hear time and again that there is no substitute for good old-fashioned work experience, and there just aren’t enough well-paid entry-level jobs to go around. So learn how to trawl Idealist, sign up for Devex email alerts, and suck it up.

It doesn’t matter how much you’re earning, as long as you’re getting that priceless insight into the day-to-day of development, from the perspective that interests you. Maybe you’ll have to work another part-time (or even full-time) job to make ends meet; do what you have to do.

How does this work in action?

Here’s the issue: I have a full-time job. That’s 40 hours a week, non-negotiable, dedicated to fulfilling my contract of employment. However, the chance to stay involved part-time with a nearby educational outreach programme was too good to pass up. Yes, I do this on a volunteer basis. Yes, this means I’ll end up working a minimum of 50 hours per week. But it’ll be worth it in the long run – and when you’re having this much fun, it barely feels like work anyway!

3. Expand your mind

Read, read, read. Get the daily roundup of news stories delivered to your phone every morning, swipe subject-specific reading lists from related university courses, search the “development” tag in your WordPress Reader, scour the social sciences section of your local library, print out journal articles for bedtime reading. Remember: great minds discuss ideas!

The internet is your best friend. As if there weren’t enough books in the world, you also have YouTube, iTunes podcasts and distance-learning university courses at your disposal. Swap Buzzfeed for something that will measurably improve your career prospects, awareness of current events and pub quiz knowledge all at the same time!

4. Widen your circle

Get some contacts in the industry. I have a confession: I genuinely didn’t know a single person working in international development until I got my first bit of volunteer experience. Once I made my first friend, it was infinitely easer to meet more people who then helped me shape my mental picture of my future career. It never hurts to ask for help from people who know!

Follow people you admire on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Be honest about your intentions and career ambitions. Admit your inexperience and ask for mentorship. Don’t be annoying, but most of all, don’t be scared to ask – all leaders have to start somewhere.

5. Find your voice

Start a club. Know anyone else interested in international issues, development work or your specific area of interest? Get them involved! Whether it’s a casual chat by the water cooler on a Tuesday lunchtime or a scheduled dinner date to discuss the latest news stories in development, make sure all that new knowledge is getting actively used and dissected and applied.

Write a blog. Here’s one I made earlier! Jot down everything you’ve learned this week, give your opinion on current issues, raise awareness about your cause, formulate ideas and solutions, provoke thought and debate.

And last but not least, keep going. The learning cycle never ends!

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Do you have any top tips for young professionals just starting out in international development? Share them in the comments below!

Photo credit: deathtothestockphoto.com

12 goals to make the most of my Ecuadorian experience

In exactly three weeks, you’re moving halfway across the world. You have two years, and no plans. What do you do with all that time?

I’ve always been an overachiever. It’s not that I’m particularly smart or gifted or capable, just that I have a really, really deep-rooted fear of achieving nothing. In my worst nightmares, I look back over my life and realise that I’ve wasted all my time just getting through another day, without having actually made the effort to improve myself or the world in any meaningful way.

Thankfully that’s not the reality yet and I’m pretty determined to keep it that way! With that in mind, here are 12 things I’d love to attempt, if not achieve, during my first 12 months living in Guayaquil.

Language

1. Speak Spanish like a true guayaquileña

After 120 hours of tuition and ninth months in Spanish-speaking South America, I’m capable in Spanish, and was even mistaken for Peruvian once. Once! But being conversationally fluent isn’t enough – I want the same freedom in Spanish as I currently have in English. I want to be able to talk about classical music and modern feminism and why Port Salut is the king of cheeses, without breaking a sweat or having to search for a word. And most of all, I want that sentence to come out of my mouth like I’d spent my whole childhood growing up in Guayaquil. Impossible task? Don’t care, let’s give it a go!

2. Turn “I used to speak French” into “I speak French”

I feel like an idiot for letting it get this far. I used to be pretty damn reasonable in Parisian French and even waitressed in l’Hexagone for a while, but now it takes me hours to string together the simplest of sentences. The most frustrating part is that I can still understand and read French as well as I ever could, which means it’s all still in there somewhere! I just have to get my act together and actually practise. I know this is a weird one, because I’ll be thousands of miles away from native French speakers, but not being in a francophone country is not a good enough excuse anymore. Allons-y!

Travel

3. Spot turtles in the Galápagos

With a smaller paycheque and a longer visa allowance comes … more domestic travel! Ecuador may be small but it has cheap public transport and incredible biodiversity, so I’d be an idiot to miss out on a visit to the world-famous Galápagos Islands. Besides, Charles Darwin is pretty much the only connection between England and Ecuador, so really it would be culturally ignorant of me not to go … right? Right? Sigh. I have no idea how I’m going to afford it, but in my mind’s eye I’ll be turning 24 on white sands and palo santo leaves, watching miniature sea turtles as they hatch from their eggs and scurry towards the sapphire-blue waters.

4. Watch wild condors in the Andes

Don’t mess with these beasts! Condors are regal, graceful, and much, much bigger than you – in fact, they’re the second biggest bird in the world, after the albatross. Native to South America, you can usually find them on the flag, crest or coat of arms of any Andean nation, and with good reason – thanks to their intimidating size, they generally represent health, strength and power. I got the fright of my life when I first strolled into a condor aviary in Quito (should any bird ever be quite that large?) but warmed to these incredible creatures after a visit to an animal sanctuary in Peru’s Sacred Valley. It’s one thing to see birds flying around in enclosures, but it would be an honour and a privilege to see them in their natural habitat, doing their condor thing.

5. Eat encocado in Esmeraldas

… and because I’m incapable of making a list that doesn’t include food, here’s goal number five! Encocado (which literally translates as “coconutted”) is pretty close to my idea of gastronomic perfection – traditionally an incredibly aromatic fish or prawn dish cooked in a flavour-rich base of coconut milk and fresh spices. Please excuse me while I wipe the drool from my keyboard. And where does this heavenly dish come from? Esmeraldas, the Ecuadorian coastal province famous for pristine beaches, laid-back lifestyles and heavy Colombian cultural influences. Eat, sleep, salsa, repeat …

Culture

6. Learn to dance bachata

Okay, maybe my vision of dancing salsa on a beach somewhere in rural northern Ecuador is a little farfetched. But learning bachata isn’t – in fact, pretty much all Ecuadorians seem to be able to dance basic bachata, and if they say they can’t, they’re lying! Or at least, their dance standards are a hell of a lot higher than mine, which is probably the most likely explanation. This style of music and dance took a little getting used to, but after nine months of Romeo Santos songs blaring from car radios I’m officially hooked. It’s romantic, it’s impressive and most of all it’s a unique part of Latin American culture. I’m not scared I’m not scared I’m not scared I can do this.

7. Learn to cook seco de pollo

What’s that I hear you say? Food-related items made it onto my list twice in the space of three items? Hush now, let’s focus on the matter at hand: the traditional coastal dish of seco de pollo. This universal favourite keeps natives and travellers alike coming back for more; I was once asked to describe it to a Guayaquil newbie, and without a second’s hesitation I told her that it tastes like “warmth and love”. And it’s true – if you don’t believe me, try it for yourself!

Study

8. Educate myself about international development

It’s one thing to be interested in a topic, but it’s quite another to dedicate your life to it. While I’m still deciding whether this is the career for me, I’m so grateful to be able to volunteer with The Starfish Foundation and gain a small insight into international development projects in action. However, practical experience is not enough – I’d like to educate myself about the things I’m seeing. Thank goodness for online long-distance study; from October, I’ll be taking a Masters-level module from London’s Institute of Education (now a part of my alma mater, UCL) and getting a brief introduction to the issues surrounding development work from an academic perspective.

9. Apply for my Masters degree

On that topic, I’m thinking of going back to university in a couple of years’ time and getting my Masters degree. I know I want to study education and international development in some form, but at this point the options seem limitless; there are literally hundreds of courses, all of which promise some unique academic insight or exclusive career opportunity or world-class teaching that the other courses lack. While I’m sifting through the possibilities, I’m also debating the idea of studying abroad, that is to say, outside the UK. If anyone has any advice, opinions or suggestions about this, please do get in touch – I need all the help I can get!

Work

10. Expand my experience in development work

Leaving school and working full-time before starting university was the best decision I ever made. It gave me amazing work experience, a solid grounding in the real world, and the wild-eyed determination to exploit my time as a student to the absolute limit – so there was no way I was ever going straight from an undergraduate degree to a Masters degree! The next two years in Ecuador should give me more than enough time to add valuable real-life experience to all that textbook learning, and hopefully make me a better student and citizen when I eventually decide to go back to university. Plus, development work as a career is all about what you’ve done and where you’ve been, not what or where you studied.

11. Teach a new specialty

Teaching English is such a rush, but while I love the variety and depth of General English classes, I’m also dying for a new challenge within English teaching. In January I taught my first ever English for Specific Purposes (ESP) course, a one-week intensive programme of medical English for students from a plastic surgery clinic in southern Spain … and I loved every second of it! I’ve already spoken to my future boss about this, but I really do hope I get the chance to work with some exam preparation or technical English classes during my two years in Guayaquil. Not only is there a strong sense of motivation within the class, but as a teacher I get the chance to really push my knowledge of my own languages – it’s every linguist’s dream job!

Personal

12. Go on a real date

Maybe this one is silly and irrelevant and highly inappropriate given that I just got out of a five-year relationship. But I’m 23, and this is the first time in my adult life that I’ve not been tied to someone else. And because of all that, I’ve actually never been on a real date, and I’m writing it down because I think it’s probably okay to want to have that experience. Is that okay? It’s not that I want to meet someone – heaven knows I’m not looking for any kind of relationship in the foreseeable future – it’s just that I feel like everyone else has gotten to do it, and I haven’t, and it looks fun, and seeing as everything else about my life is totally weird and inappropriate anyway, why not?

Do you have any goals for the rest of the year? How about for 2016? Share them with me in the comments, and maybe we can help each other achieve them!