Why I almost quit teaching English in Chile

Chilean classroom

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.

EODP promo material
Look how happy they are!

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?

Cute, right?

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.

School children yelling in a classroom
Please just sit down, guys.

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.

Boy slumped on school desk
Me too, kid

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.

Small children are awful people who don't deserve my help
I’m trying to teach you out of the goodness of my own heart, so shut up and pay attention!

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?

Whiteboard drawing of a teacher smoking weed.
Me, apparently.

8 Comment

  1. Mariel says:

    I love this! It’s so funny and honest. I like your point that doing a program that doesn’t fit your skills is mistake #1 – but maybe it’s also about doing a program that is *wanted/needed* in the location you’re going to? How much did the local kids in your school actually want/need immersive English classes vs. how much the organisation has decided yes-this-is-a-good-thing-that-chile-kids-need-and-will-be-grateful-for?
    I guess with children, there’s a degree of expected paternalism in any decision making, but what I’ve taken from your piece is that it’s as much about matching your own personal skills to a project as it is making sure that what a community genuinely and actively needs/seeks is being provided.

    1. Corinne says:

      Yeah absolutely! That’s a great point. Ten years ago the Chilean government for some reason decided it wanted everyone to be bilingual and speak English. I can’t say how helpful that is across Chile but I taught in a port town and the major industry was salmon, particularly trading to Japan. The salmon farming guys I met all spoke intermediate-good English in order to do business with Japanese companies. So potentially English was a major advantage… but do any 10-year-old kids see themselves working in salmon?

      English is so freeing for people who do want to work/travel/take in other cultures, but realistically most of my students will never do that. It’s probably bit of my own paternalism, wanting those kids to go beyond their own community and broaden their horizons. Maybe I should have targeted their real need: more salmon-centric vocabulary.

  2. Sorrel says:

    Corinne this had me howling! I was imagining you reading it and lost it at tiny face-bra. I hope you have more plans for terrible volunteering soon so that you can write about it.

    1. Corinne says:

      Thanks Sorrel! Ideally it’ll be less terrible next time, I’d have to be a real masochist to plan another trip like that.

  3. […] After I finished my studies, I set out on a round-the-world trip for 18 months, and decided to film short-term, unskilled volunteers in different countries and question local organisations about their need for this type of volunteering. Voluntourism concerns & a film about helping. Why I almost quit teaching English in Chile – The Sceptical Voluntourist. […]

  4. I think prior teaching experience would have been helpful. Also I think “total immersion” is difficult. Some people can learn a language that way, but I’m a visual learner, so I need to see the word in print, I need to understand the structure of the language,n the parts of speech, how to form tenses, etc. I could be surrounded by people speaking a language for years and still not be able to understand more than an occasional word. You didn’t indicate whether you spoke Spanish – if you could have used pictures and Spanish to give the English equivalent (e.g. show picture of a girl “nina = girl” ) so they actually had some sense of what the words meant it might have been helpful. I volunteer at a nursery school in Mali when I’m there, but teaching materials are non-existent, so much of it is drill and kill – kids parroting what the teacher says in French (local languages are Bambara or Senufo) but they really don’t see the connection between the French word and the same thing/object in Bambara. I don’t know what you had available for teaching materials, but good materials really can make a difference.

    1. Corinne says:

      I had a projector at the start of term which made things a lot easier, I made Powerpoints with pictures of what we were talking about to clarify the lesson. Unfortunately the projector broke after a month and there was no money for a new one!

      At the start I spoke basic Spanish, towards the end I was better and could explain concepts when the immersion wasn’t working. I think immersion could work in smaller/more focussed groups of children.

      It’s frustrating when you can see that kids are parroting without it meaning anything to them – and must be frustrating for them as well. Thanks for the comment Judy, good food for thought.

  5. […] will impose their idea of what a community needs, rather than asking what they actually want. Mariel pointed this out in a comment on my blog about teaching English in Chile – how many Chileans […]

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