In September 2015 I flew from the UK to Chile to take part in the English Opens Doors Program/Programa Ingles Abre Puertas. It’s a scheme run by the Chilean education ministry to get English-speaking volunteers into municipal schools to run immersive, 100% English language speaking and listening classes.
I had a vague notion that teaching is incredibly hard, but the faces of satisfied, invigorated children with their futures brightened by a grasp of basic English beamed at me from the program propaganda and I figured it couldn’t be that bad.
After all, I worked in an education service doing curriculum research for almost two years. Teaching would just be putting that research into practice, so theoretically I should make an awesome teacher.
That’s wrong, as it turns out.
Other people on the program had different experiences but the kids at my school had zero discipline and even less English ability. At the beginning of every class they all warbled together:
Teacher: Good morning/afternoon, class.
Class: Good morning/afternoon [teacher’s name].
Teacher: How are you doing?
Class: Fine thanks, and yoooooooouuuuuu?
That was about it as far as immersive interactivity went. The kids didn’t actually know what any of those words meant, or even how those sounds translated into words. A kid came up to me one class and handed me a note that said “Ha waw yu?” It took a while to click that he was asking “How are you?” – the question he’d repeated every class for the three years he’d already been learning English.
Maybe that seems like an awesome challenge and totally worthwhile. I think I started off seeing it that way and quickly changed my mind.
Problem was, I’d get the topic I was meant to teach that week and it would be something like “comparative and superlatives” or “ways of describing food” or “telling the time”. And I was meant to do it in 100% English-immersive classes. 25 kids at a time. 26 times a week.
Teaching kids who don’t know the difference between “he” and “she” to differentiate between countable and non-countable nouns would be hard enough if the kids were thrilled about English. As it turned out the kids were pretty apathetic about countable nouns. Lessons became more about me begging, bribing or threatening them to stop talking than actual teaching.
We’d been taught some classroom management techniques in training, but I developed a couple of my own to deal with the lack of discipline. One was screaming “QUIET” as loud as humanly possible, then in the stunned silence that followed blurting out as many key bits of vocabulary as I could before the chatting started again.
By about a month in I needed a tiny face-bra for the bags under my eyes. I also took up smoking in a pretty serious way, after deciding it wouldn’t be morally OK to take a shot of whiskey after each class to de-stress.
My Chilean Host Mum would routinely greet me when I got home from school with “Corinne! Your face is so tired.” Thanks for that.
Eventually I snapped at her. “I think I might quit.”
I sat at the kitchen table with my Host Mum and Dad, trying to explain the situation while crying snottily. They already understood.
Host Dad explained the school’s discipline problem: “Nobody at home tells these kids tranqui!”. Tranqui: a Chilean word meaning chill the fuck out.
Host Mum boiled it down:
“You can either keep going like this, or you can quit… Or you can stop caring.”
I burst into even snottier, more blubbery tears. Not caring wasn’t an option. Teachers not caring was why these kids had three years of English and couldn’t spell “you”. It was why they thought it was fine to talk the whole lesson through, because teachers wouldn’t even try to make them listen. Better to quit than to not care.
I went up to my room and paid for a WorkAway subscription. I messaged a guy who ran a brewery in Patagonia. I was all set to leave my teaching program two months early and was picturing myself spending Christmas basking in the southern sun with a beer and a mountain view.
The weird thing was, teaching got easier after that. I was only having a stress breakdown once a week instead of once a day. When kids talked over me I stopped fighting it, shut down, and went to a quiet internal place. Funnily enough my zoned-out state normally shut them up after a couple of minutes, and then I’d carry on with the lesson.
I’d stopped caring and, like my Host Mum said, it made it bearable.
I ended up cancelling the WorkAway and sitting out the last two months of teaching. Happy ending!
Not really. I was not the greatest teacher ever. If any of those kids learnt anything beyond what an English person says when they’re about to kill some schoolchildren, I’d be surprised.
Teaching is fucking hard. I think you need a vocation for it. Some of the other guys on my program had it. They swooned over their classes and the whole experience on Facebook and Instagram, and completely threw themselves into it. Were they playing it up for social media? I don’t think so – I think they were just suited to it and I wasn’t.
If I’d thought about the volunteering beforehand and not been so enticed by the tourism side, I might have twigged that doing speaking and listening all week with noisy children doing their best to ignore you would not actually be much fun for a major introvert like myself. Doing a program that’s a bad match for your skills is voluntourism mistake #1.
Have you had an experience, good, bad or shit, with English Opens Doors or another English-teaching program?