What I Learned While Teaching in the Dominican Republic
An American teacher’s transition to teaching English abroad.
By Anne O’Brien, First-Time ESOL Teacher in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
I thought I had a pretty good idea about what my teaching career in the Dominican Republic would look like. While I have only been in the DR for six months, I think it’s safe to say that this country, my students, my supervisor, and coworkers have exceeded all those expectations and then some. There have been plenty of frustrating circumstances that accompany living and working in a third world country, but the good aspects definitely shine brighter than those that cast darkness.
I went from teaching ESL at the most ethnically diverse public charter school in the state of Ohio to teaching at an ethnically diverse, private, international school that is home to children of the top 10 percent of those living in the Dominican Republic. As you can imagine, there were a lot of adjustments to be made to my perspective in response to cultural differences that come with cooperating with teachers and staff. But in general, the ups and downs that accompany the work of an ESL teacher have been similar to those I faced in the States. So, I invite you to let me reflect a little more on my experiences as a first time international teacher in the Caribbean.
A Different Approach to Language Development
As I mentioned before, my experience thus far as a teacher has been in two very different environments both socially and economically, although both ethnically diverse. The majority of students at my school are native Spanish speakers who were introduced to English at a very young age. The students receive instruction in their four core subjects in English, many from non-Spanish speaking American teachers. They also receive Spanish lessons, and Sociales in Spanish as not to neglect their growth in academic Spanish. Most students spend most of their time outside of instruction speaking in Spanish, because it is how they feel they express themselves best with their peers.
One of the biggest differences I have observed between the two schools is the culture and attitude surrounding language acquisition. Although there is a dominant native language — Spanish — there is no superior language. Even though many students in my school in Ohio were bilingual, they lacked growth and maintenance of their native language due to the absence of any instruction in it. There was more of a focus on speaking English to sound like a native speaker, to achieve perfection rather than to nourish their bilingualism.
But in the DR, very few of my students speak perfect English and there is no stigma around making mistakes because, well, they all make them 100 times a day. They understand it is part of their learning process. As a language educator, this mentality toward language learning is extremely refreshing because my students have much less fear of being wrong.
They take more risks and improve more rapidly. This change of mentality has been quite an adjustment because I am accustomed to students, in the States, who are scared to make mistakes because their education systems have discouraged them and made failure shameful.
A Different Approach to Time
Teaching in the Dominican Republic has, above all else, taught me to slow down and be patient. In other words, you can’t expect the same things from the systematic side of your environment that you might when you’re in your home country. It took me a few weeks before I realized that I needed to leave all of these expectations at the door and remember that I am living and working in their country, not my own.
To have those same sort of expectations will just leave you frustrated and discontent with your new way of life.
A more concrete work example of this is when resources that teachers find extremely necessary, like printers, laminating machines, projectors, break or don’t operate correctly, they likely won’t be fixed immediately. It could be weeks or months before they are repaired. So, as a teacher, you need to get creative and resourceful. I have had to stretch my flexibility with respect to planning further than I thought possible.
With respect to the logistics in my personal life, I have again had to slow it down. Public transportation, maintenance, scheduling doctor’s appointments, and public services in general all run on what we like to call “Dominican time” — or in other words whenever they want to do it, it will get done.
A Different Approach to Diversity and Development
International teachers, especially American, form a large majority of the faculty and staff at the school, alongside their Dominican counterparts. So, as you can imagine, the culture of the school is unique and colorful. There is a lot of diversity in teaching style, approach, personality, beliefs, and experience. This diversity can naturally lead to butting of heads at times, but has been such an amazing learning experience for me. It is professional development in itself getting the opportunity to work with and learn from a range of different teachers. This diversity allows for growth in practice and perspective, for not only the teachers, but for the students as well.
Being an ESL, or support teacher, comes with a wide range of roles and responsibilities. The expectations are different everywhere you go and with every new set of teachers that you support. Just like in the States, maintaining good relationships with cooperating teachers is key to the success of both you and your students. I have found managing these relationships, along with handling a lot of the difficult run-ins that come with the role, to be much more manageable because of the large amount of support I get from my team and my supervisor.
Unlike my experience in the States, here, teachers are regularly observed and evaluated by our supervisors for feedback purposes to allow growth and improvement. I used to see evaluations as either a once-a-year check off the list for the administrator type of thing or you are doing something wrong type of thing. Here, they are more natural and productive and have allowed me to really grow as a young teacher.
I hope in reading this you were able to get an idea of what it’s like to move from a classroom in the U.S. to an international school classroom in the Caribbean. Teaching internationally is an experience that, in my opinion, every teacher should have at some point in their careers. It will open your eyes to different ways of thinking, teaching, and living that, in turn, allow both teachers and their students to flourish.
Anne O’Brien is an English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher at Cap Cana Heritage School in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. A native of Morehead, Kentucky, a small “college-town” located in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, she completed her BA in Spanish Education in 2015 at Morehead University, where she graduated with honors, two study abroad semesters, and two internships under her belt. She went on to receive her M.Ed (TESL) through The College of New Jersey off-site graduate program in Mallorca, Spain in 2018. The TCNJ alumna is currently completing her third year of teaching ESOL, and her first year teaching internationally (she was previously based out of Columbus, Ohio). She is a passionate traveler, family woman, and dog mom.