Today's Featured Contributor is Jennifer McCartney, a recent graduate who is currently teaching abroad in Chile. In her post, Jennifer talks about the challenges that come with teaching English in a different country.
“In English please,” is my new favorite phrase.
Well, maybe not favorite, but it is definitely the phrase I use most often these days.
Teaching English is incredibly difficult. Not only are you dealing with teaching children, which in itself is a mighty task, but you’re teaching children who are used to a different school system, style of class and teaching etiquette. Plus, they likely will not understand anything you say no matter how many times you say it or how many ridiculous gestures you use.
Before I came to Chile, I wasn’t sure what to expect about my teaching experience. I had worked with kids before, and I knew that here I would only be a teaching assistant, so I thought the transition would be smooth and easy. Wrong.
The transition to teaching English in Chilean schools has been one of the most difficult challenges I have ever encountered. During each class, I take half of the students for half of the time period to my special classroom where we practice speaking and listening. While I have by no means mastered this whole teaching in Chilean schools thing, I have already learned some valuable things about teaching abroad.
A Whole New Classroom
When you grow up in one education system, it’s hard to imagine schools in a different way. But when you arrive in a new country, you’ll soon find that there are different norms.
I like to think of my school as a lesson in controlled chaos. In the United States, we like silence. We like stillness. And we like order. Chilean schools are by no means a mad house, but the students frequently talk to each other during class, move around, throw things across the room and play on their cell phones.
It has been difficult for me to adjust to this new school atmosphere. In my class, I find myself frequently snapping at the kids to be quiet, completely forgetting that they haven't been trained that way. One of the most difficult aspects of teaching abroad is adapting to this new educational style while still feeling in control and capable in the classroom.
Immersion: What’s the Point?
The first rule in my classroom is that we always speak in English. My program’s mission and my own personal beliefs are that you can only learn a language when you’re immersed in it and when you have to speak it. Even if it’s only twice a week, I wanted to create an environment in which my students were forced to speak and listen to English.
Easier said than done. Some stellar students will always be willing to stretch themselves and understand you. But most of the students will likely get frustrated and tune you out if you don’t keep them engaged. And then, if they realize you speak the native language, they may use that as a crutch to communicate with you.
To be honest, most days I’m not sure if immersion is worth it. But during my time here, I am slowly seeing my students start to learn and speak more English. They may moan and sigh, but they may also have moments when they realize they can understand you. And their excitement at that achievement makes it worth all of the trouble.
My Teaching Costume
When I got here, in order to fight the cold, I bought several zip-up sweaters that look like teacher sweaters to me. I explained this to my host family and they understood. That’s my teaching costume, they said. When I put them on, I know that I have to be a different person.
Being a teacher is a new mentality that has given me so much personal growth and development. Not only are you responsible for students, but they look to you as an adult and role model. Just by being at the front of the classroom, they have a certain level of respect for you. You have to have patience and self-control such that they cannot tell when you are having a bad day or when you are dead tired.
This responsibility has made me a more centered person. No matter how frustrated I am with my students or how much I would rather be somewhere else, I have to be present and enthusiastic in the classroom. And then, once class starts, I realize just how fun and engaging my students can be. And I normally forget all my troubles.
Teaching English is incredibly challenging but equally rewarding. While every day might not be like a heartwarming high school drama where the kids learn and you feel personal growth, it’s still an incredibly valuable experience.
And who knows, maybe one day my students will listen to me when I say, “In English please.”
Jennifer McCartney is currently working in La Serena, Chile at a semi-public school. She teaches 5th through 10th grade classes, coaches public speaking and spelling bee teams, and holds an English drama club twice a week. She also lives with a family, explores the local area, eats many empanadas, and awkwardly tries to make Chilean friends.
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