Being a teacher — part 2

I wrote about some of my classroom experiences here. But it was my time outside classes that helped me bond with the students a lot. For them, I was unlike the other teachers and despite the significant language barrier, the fact that a person from an unknown country is in their school was enough to keep them interested. Given their low level of spoken English, they would talk to me only in Spanish. In fact, I learnt more Spanish through the students than many other ways I tried (More on my Spanish learning here). A couple of girls from 6th grade took it on them to improve my vocab. Every day, they would teach me new words and they would test me on what I was taught the day before. The students would always be full of questions about my family, why India’s population is so much, why I don’t have kids yet, how can I manage to eat spicy food and so on. It’s very common to hug people here in Chile and I used to receive a dose of regular hugs from some of my students. Of course it’s a cultural thing, but I think it’s very healthy if children have the freedom to naturally express themselves with people around them — family, friends and teachers.

I played all sorts of games with the students — football, hide-and-seek and pretty much everything they played during recreos (recess) and lunchtime. It is just so easy to make them happy! Also, they are genuinely curious about the world around them. That is what the goal of education should really be — understanding the world — but our rigid educational system and curriculum make it easy for most to get disinterested from learning.

Besides playing, I also loved to spend time in the school garden occasionally and help out the students. It’s so cool that a public school has a garden and it’s a subject students spend as much time learning as music and religion. Copiapo is such a small town that I used to frequently see my students outside, especially when I went out running. I remember a student got confused one morning while going to school when he saw me running in the opposite direction and asked me if the school is closed (I just didn’t have early classes that day).

School garden

Almost none of the kids were really interested in learning English and it stopped bothering me after a while. Most of them don’t even know why they are being taught English. We should spend enough time telling students why they are being taught any subject. It is so fundamentally important to have that conversation, over and over. There is a significant cultural influence of US in Chile and a lot of kids want to travel there someday. With a serious face, I used to tell them that they don’t let you in US if you can’t speak good English! :)

The level of mental barrier to converse in a foreign language is always very high. All of us were too young when we were learning our first or second language and with age, we become more self-conscious to not look stupid in front of others. I can’t say that the real impact of my volunteering work is that students speak significantly better English. They don’t. They learnt some more simple vocab and sentence structures because of my teaching but more important is the time they spent with me generally, which increased their curiosity about the world and how much more they can do or achieve if they keep learning English. It’s hard to quantify impact of something like this. It’s a slow process to change the state of English education here and the efforts of all international volunteers are just a small part in that bigger change.

I got a very memorable farewell. All the teachers (and especially the Principal) planned a surprise party for me, with a bunch of regalos (gifts). It was a grand feast with couple of hours of food preparation and a lot of fun. I learnt how to make ceviche (a seafood dish) and mayonnaise that day. I just love the warmth and generosity of Chilenos.

With Carolina (left) and all teachers (right)

But the most sentimental goodbyes were with the students. A few of them cried when they learnt that I am seriously leaving the school. One of my best buddies, Cesar (a 5th grader) exchanged a passport-size photo with me to ensure I don’t forget him. For my last day in school, I wore a Kurta to share some Indian culture and also decided to shave my beard and not the moustache. It’s very uncommon for men in Chile to keep a moustache without beard, so I ended up confusing some of the students who wondered how I managed to grow this thing in 1 day. I remember them saying “Solo una dia. Muy rapido (Only 1 day. Very fast), mister!”, which cracked me up.

Last day goodbyes
With Cesar (my best bud in school)

It’s overwhelming to know so many people in a short time, especially children. On my last day, I distinctly remember thinking about the future of all the kids — how different would everything be if I visit them again in a few years from now and how many developing lives one gets a chance to touch when teaching. I feel really thankful that I got a chance to live with children and become a child for a while.