Teaching is hard, and the first few weeks I wasn’t sure how I felt about my job. When I entered the elementary school classroom, the teacher handed me the text book and asked me to teach, since she knows basically no English. My first week on the job, this teacher had an appointment and asked me to teach the sixth grade class for an hour. The material was easy so I wasn’t concerned, but boy was I in for a surprise. In class behavior simply just doesn’t exist. The moment the teacher left, the kids went crazy. They started running around the room, pulling out soccer balls, yelling, and even hitting each other. I was completely overwhelmed, and I was angry. I had no control over the kids, and I went home that day thinking I never wanted to work with that class again.
With my high school classes, I had the opposite problem. The man I was supposed to assist barely let me open my mouth. If I managed to quickly say what I wanted to explain, he’d often continue teaching what he taught before, pronouncing incorrectly, and even talking over me. I felt useless. I could see all the ways he and I could work together to improve the quality of education and be more productive, but as friendly as he was outside of the classroom, he was hardly approachable inside.
The worst problem of all, though, was that I was catcalled during school. If teachers left the classroom, or if I was waiting for the bus, or if I was just walking from one class to another, I got whistled by what appeared to be boys of all ages. I couldn’t tell who was doing it, but I was appalled and disgusted. I eventually exploded in one of my classrooms. I told the teacher I had something to say, and I expressed that catcalling me or anyone else was inappropriate at all times and would not be tolerated. When I was finished, the students looked shocked, but a couple of boys nodded their heads as if to say “okay, no big deal, if you don’t want it we’ll stop”. Mafe– the other girl working with me– and I then went to talk to our fellow women English teachers about the situation. To our astonishment, the women didn’t seem to understand our frustrations. “But honey, it’s just part of the culture. Don’t you like it? They don’t mean any harm.” They proceeded to ask how people start dating in the United States, if men don’t use catcalling to catch a girl’s attention. The conversation shocked me, but it was also useful to see the upbringing of both men and women in my town in Ecuador. Afterwards, Mafe and I approached a different school authority figure, who promised to go to every class and demand that the students stop harassing us or there would be consequences. Ever since that day, neither of us have been catcalled on school grounds.
For a long time I returned home exhausted and unsatisfied. I felt the teachers weren’t taking advantage of the fact that I was there to help, and I could see that the students, in all grades, were hardly learning. Older classes have to follow a textbook, and I often find the material to be useless or even incorrect. It’s apparent that by the time students are in high school and still can’t hold a basic conversation in English, they get bored and give up. It was frustrating because while the teacher taught, I saw many students were confused and lost, but didn’t have the confidence to ask questions.
Once mid-October came around, I knew I had to change how I worked within the school. I needed to make more of an impact and create relationship with my students. I approached the middle and high school teachers and suggested working with small groups, so that the teacher and I could split the class and focus more on individual students. I also began to walk around the classrooms and help students one-on-one while the teacher taught at the front of the class. Little by little, instead of being intimidated or embarrassed to ask me questions, they began wave me over and learn my name, even though some of the older kids have decided that my name is “Diosa” meaning “goddess” because they can’t figure out my actual name.
Over time, I completely took over the class with the elementary school classes, and have created a system of teaching the children recognize and enjoy. When they enter the classroom they run to greet me with hugs and fist bumps and exclamations of “Good morning, Profe” and they then know where to find their notebooks to get started. They’re still crazy, often times getting out of their seats and talking over each other, but it is almost always out of their enthusiasm for English and eagerness to learn– many tell me English is their favorite class. Never before have I seen so many students jump up and down begging to be called on to write the word on the board. Never have I heard so many children’s voices shout over one another as they repeat after me, trying out the sounds on their tongues. I have rules in my classroom that they’ve come to understand, though they still struggle with, like raising their hand to be called on, but I explain it’s because I can’t hear when they yell all at once and that it gives kids who are more shy a chance to participate, an explanation they comprehend and respect. To combat them all running up to me when they finish their assignment, shoving their books at me and reaching over each other’s heads, I have told them to simply just raise their arms when they are “finished”. This backfired, though, because now they all raise their hands and yell “FINISHED, FINISHED, FINISHED”. Though it goes against the entire point of raising hands, I find it to be amusing, and I know that if they only remember one word from their entire year of English, it’ll be “finished”.
Not only have I figured out how to teach in a productive manner that keeps the students engaged, but I’ve formed personal relationships with them. I’ve become a role model and a confidant, and I am able to figure out how to individualize classroom assignments so that everyone finishes even though some students are much more advanced or behind than others. My students are very physically emotional, in the sense that if I want to connect with them, I have to crouch next to them and put my hand on their head or arm to get them to focus. Often times, they snuggle their cheek into my hand or play with my hair. I one time had a girl ask me where I bought my curls and how expensive they were, which then led to a conversation that left all the children shocked when I explained my hair is naturally curly.
When I first arrived, the children had the habit of tattling on their peers. Throughout the entire day I heard “profe, me esta molestando. Profe, me quitó el borrado. Profe, él no para de golpear su silla.” It’s frustrating for me, because I can’t understand why the students feel the need to complain and get their classmates in trouble rather than simply communicate with each other and be allies. The other issue they had was copying each other’s work, as many students who felt left behind got stressed and copied their classmates in a rush. On the other hand, the students who are more advanced and get their work done hated to help others, and became selfish in the ways they covered their notebooks and yelled at their classmates to not look at their work.
As the teacher, it is my job to ensure everyone understands the material before leaving the classroom and that they don’t get bored if they’ve already finished or can’t keep up, which is what usually leads to them causing trouble and distracting others. To combat this, I’ve implemented a system of showing thumbs. The students know that I will first give the directions, we will do some examples together, and then they have to try to do the rest on their own. I try to emphasize that no one should feel the need to copy their classmate, because they are all capable of doing the work themselves and there is no shame in not understanding a task, which causes their faces to light up and feel motivated to prove me right. I tell them to work on their own quietly, and that once they are finished, they can raise their hand and say “finished” once, which shows me that I can go check their work. If students are struggling to understand, they show me a sideways thumb, which indicates I need to guide them a bit more, and if they don’t even know where to start, they give me a thumbs down.
This process reduces classroom noise and grants me the ability to see how each student is doing to make sure everyone gets the work done, but beyond academics, it has strengthened the classroom environment. There are certain students who always finish first, and so to make sure they don’t get bored, I have instructed them to find students who would appreciate some assistance and to help them. I no longer hear complaints of students copying off of each other, as the idea is to work together and use one’s knowledge to help others succeed. These ideas are basic and I did not invent them, I know, but every classroom and every culture needs to learn things in their own way. Though these strategies may seem obvious, finding the best ways to implement them into each classroom is an extremely difficult, draining, and incredible task.
My relationship with the high school teacher has completely changed. Compared to the beginning of the year, where he made it clear he preferred that I sit in a chair and stay quiet, he has now changed his system of teaching so that we split into small groups so we can both help the students more closely. He asks me about vocabulary and pronunciation, and encourages me to work with students one-on-one while he teaches. This is productive because I can see what most students are struggling with and find various ways to explain it to them, and can also communicate to the teacher what needs to be re-taught before going any further. On a more personal level, this process has also helped me make friends.
Early in the year, I found a group of boys to walk home with after school. They are quite shy, and so at the beginning I was confused as to why they waited for me to walk with them if they weren’t going to talk. I could tell they were really nice, though, and so even though they didn’t engage in interesting or complex conversations, I took the opportunity to practice my Spanish by telling stories and making jokes and basically saying whatever I wanted even if I made mistakes.
There’s John, who from the beginning has been friendly and social. He is easy to talk to, and loves to play American music to sing to. Most of his music is old One Direction or Maroon 5 songs, but singing together is still fun. There’s Richar, the ladies man– whenever I see him he has his arms around some girl and is flirting it up. Mafe and I joked with him at the beginning about all his girlfriends, and though he got embarrassed and didn’t respond much, we could tell he liked our attention. There’s Andy, the most timid one. He’s a sweetheart, but gets very flustered if Mafe and I try to talk with him one-on-one. At the beginning of the year, he positioned himself between the other boys so that he didn’t have to talk with us directly, but we could tell he was amused by our presence and how social we are. Andy is also by far the best at English. Then there’s another John, with whom I connected with from the beginning. He lives with his grandparents in another town and works on their farm. His parents left to the United States when he was young and had another child together there, so he hardly knows his parents or brother, though they call occasionally. His story is common amongst the Indigenous community. Many, many children are raised solely by their grandparents and are expected to work in the fields once they finish school, without many prospects of continuing their education and without much support from their parents.
The best part about the friendship with these boys has been how much it has developed over time. Now, Richar not only puts his arms around his classmates, he also hugs Mafe and I and jokes around with us. Andy, though still easily flustered, invites me to sit by him as we watch festivals, and engages in conversation. More than just these boys, there are other students who greet me by my name and stop to talk with me, and I seem to be a great source of entertainment and curiosity for everyone.
Living in a Mestizo home and working at an Indigenous school has been very interesting for me. I kind of believe that Quilloac values it’s traditional events more than its academics, but there are a lot of special things that come with that. Many students travel from other towns to attend school because Quilloac is apparently the best bilingual (kichwa and spanish) school around. Students are able to choose between wearing Indigenous clothing as their uniform, or the typical uniform, and it’s interesting to see how some embrace their clothes, while others try to deny being Indigenous completely. Every Monday, the students are required to sing the national anthem in Kichwa, and some teachers teach in Kichwa as well. The purpose of the administration is to cultivate a pride in being Indigenous, and to preserve the language and culture, while combatting the many odds that are against them. Like I said earlier, many of my students have parents who never finished high school, or who don’t live at home with them. Though seniors in high school attend class every Saturday for four hours in order to prepare for the college entrance exam, similar to the ACT, there are many students who don’t see college in their future. Usually, the only way to get scholarships for college in Ecuador is by scoring well on the test, which is a messed up system because it only continues the cycle of poverty– those with money can access a good high school education and probably have parents who studied and support them, so they therefore score well and can go to college on a scholarship, which will lead to them receiving a higher income.
There is a clear separation between the people of Quilloac and the rest of Cañar. The students rarely mix, and it is common for people in Cañar to look down on Indigenous folk, which disgusts me since they still incorporate Kichwa words into their vocabulary and attend Indigenous festivals. The worst part is seeing how these ideas become engrained into the minds of my Indigenous students, who try to hide their identities and seem to carry some shame or denial in being Indigenous.
One experience I had with this was when my 8th graders were learning about body parts and were drawing members of their family. During this, one of my students called me over and asked how to say “el color piel” in English. Not surprisingly, I was confused. “El color piel no es un color” I told her. The girl was also confused, and continued asking as if I didn’t understand her question. Finally, she went to the other teacher and asked her, who told me “color piel” is like a peach color. Appalled, I stopped the class to explain that this doesn’t make sense and the term “color piel” should stop being used altogether, as everyone has a different color skin and we can’t just generalize and assume someone’s skin color is peach, especially when not a single one of my students has the so called “peach” skin color.
The most shocking reality for me, though, has been witnessing the amount of teenage pregnancies. Out of my two senior classes, I think about 6 girls are pregnant. Luckily, most will be able to graduate high school before giving birth, but after that, I have no clue what they will do. They don’t seem to be particularly ashamed of being pregnant, and I’ve heard the fathers are older boys who study or live elsewhere. People know exactly what happens if they have unprotected sex, and there’s a health center right up the road that gives out condoms, but it seems like people don’t care, or believe that the chances of them getting pregnant are low, which is actually the opposite at this age when women are the most fertile. Many girls also seem to be unaware that female birth controls exist and are available. When I asked my seniors about which birth controls they knew about, they said they all relied on the pill, referring to “Plan B”, which is typically used as a last resort. More than anything, though, it seems like many girls originally had the plan to finish high school and have children anyways, so getting pregnant now compared to later doesn’t make much of a difference to them. It’s not just seniors though, as I have a few students as young as 15 who are pregnant as well.
Realities like these shape the way teachers teach. It influences how much effort they put into their students, especially young girls, and also impacts how much effort students put into school. Though many students take the preparation classes on Saturdays and plan to attend college, even if they get accepted somewhere, there’s no guarantee they will be able to pay, and the more common route is that once they graduate school they either start families and work in the fields, or migrate directly to the United States.
Appreciation and Love for my Apprenticeship
All in all, I adore what I do. Some days are more productive than others, but every day I learn. I officially realized how much I loved my job when it was winter break and I was out traveling, having the time of the my life, and another fellow asked me if I missed my students. I hadn’t really thought about it up until that point, but suddenly I had a swelling in my chest and an urge to start school again. I did miss them. I missed them a lot. Every time I see them I become full of delight and excitement. Teaching requires so much patience and passion and insight. There are students I was utterly sick of who I at some point had a connecting moment with, perhaps they told me they were getting bullied, or perhaps they said the material was too easy and that’s why they were disruptive, but those moments are what enhance my love for teaching. My brain is always at work, trying to find the best ways to explain the material to each individual and in front of an entire class, and I have to constantly be creative and spontaneous. Yes, there are times when the students don’t behave and are rude, which is something we consistently have to have conversations about, but each bad day is followed with good ones, where I’m able to reflect on what works well and what doesn’t, and navigate how I react based on that. When I think about my job, I don’t really think about the English. The way I measure our growth and improvement, and what is most rewarding, is how we have learned and adapted to each other to create the best classroom environments possible, where students feel comfortable and safe approaching me, and where they support and are kind to each other. In no way are my classrooms ideal, but I can’t just look at where they’re at now and judge them or myself, I have to look at how far we’ve come, and how far we can still go together.
I started teaching a recovery class for my 9th graders who are struggling with English and who may not pass the year. Students who disrupt during the day, don’t bring their notebooks, and seem to not care about possibly failing the year, find me after school for private help, proving how smart and capable they really are but how much they struggle to learn in a classroom setting. I see parts of myself in them, in the sense that there were certain classes that I simply could not learn just by sitting in class and listening to the teacher, and I had to go home and study for hours to teach myself whatever I didn’t catch in class that day. Unlike me, my students don’t study. The ones who succeed are the ones who remember material from class, and everyone else fails or finds a way to copy on exams. This has astonished me, but it is also something I focus on with the students in my recovery class– how to study.
Like with everything, there are many struggles and complications with teaching at Quilloac and teaching in general, but there are infinite things I appreciate about my experience. My heart breaks at the thought of leaving my students. I cannot express enough how much I love what I do, and how much I absolutely love my students. My love for them is like the love I have for my own siblings, and maybe more because in a way they also feel like my children.
Working in Quilloac, if anything, has made me want to go to college even more than ever. I know how much more of an impact I can make if I educate myself and study. I know that I have to go forward with my life, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a bit of jealousy that comes with the idea of not teaching my kiddos anymore and relying on others to do the job. I know there are incredible teachers and I know there will be future fellows who will do a great job as well, but I still feel so new with my position there and like my job isn’t completely done. I do not know if I will pursue a career in teaching, I never planned on it, but I do know that this apprenticeship was one of the best things to ever happen to me, and I will never be able to forget or replace this experience.