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.)

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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!