Teaching in Peru by Leigh Douglas
I knew almost from the moment I arrived at University that I had chosen the wrong place and the wrong subject to study. After many an agonised Skype conversation with my parents I decided to withdraw at Christmas in order to pursue my real passion, theatre. Suddenly I was left with a six month space to fill before I could possibly start on a new course of study. What to do? In a moment of wildly reckless self-assurance I decided I would go and teach English in Peru with Projects Abroad.
Arriving in Peru
Three months later I was faced with the reality of actually going and the decision which had felt uncharacteristically brave began to feel more like utter lunacy. But I got on the plane anyway, and I’m so glad I did. The three months I spent in Peru have been the most worthwhile in my life thus far.
After a long, tiring journey and the shock of employing my broken Spanish for the first time since school I was greeted by my first sight of the Andes.
I arrived in Peru during la semana santa, a week of Easter celebrations during which schools are closed. It was not until the following week that I began my placement. My anxiousness was heightened when I informed my sixteen year old host sister which school I would be teaching at. She wrinkled her nose and told me “That’s an ugly school.” I asked her what she meant. “It’s for kids whose parents don’t have any money.” She replied.
My Teaching Project
As Jorge, the project supervisor, led me in to my first lesson I performed the best imitation of self-confidence I could. Elizabeth, the Peruvian teacher I was to work with was mid-lesson. The class was quinto grado “A”. Fifth grade is the highest year in the Peruvian secondary school system. Each year is streamlined into three classes, “A”, “B” and “C” from the strongest to the weakest students.
The school had never had a volunteer before and Jorge warned as he introduced me that there wouldn’t be another if they didn’t behave well. He told them that I was from Ireland, that I was an only child and eighteen - all of which astounded them. He then encouraged them to frame what questions they could to me in English. Several of the male students gathered around a piece of paper conspiratorially. A moment later their ring leader raised his hand and smirked as he asked “You have boyfriend?”
I discovered over the next several weeks of teaching how big a feat forming that question really was. Despite the fact that the eighteen year olds had been in English lessons since age eleven they knew little beyond how to conjugate the verb “to be” in present simple and seemed to have spent much of their time memorising lists of vocabulary words without any grammatical or thematic context. They would promptly forget those words when presented with the next list.
Elizabeth’s lessons typically consisted of writing words on the board for students to copy with their Spanish translation and then drilling pronunciation for the length of an hour and a half long class. The students found this very boring, and as they only had English classes once a week, they didn’t consider it an important class.
Working with the Peruvian teacher
I was lucky in that Elizabeth and I formed a close friendship while we taught together. I discovered we had a shared love of music and that she was actually a music teacher but hadn’t been able to find work in that department so she had fallen back on the English she had learned in college. She knew little more English than the students so we conversed in Spanish. As we planned lessons together I was able to suggest introducing games, practice exercises, and songs into lessons to better engage the students. She was very interested in enhancing her teaching technique and I was able to share with her how I had been taught foreign language in school. Meanwhile she educated me on Peruvian culture, gave me background on issues in the education system, helped me with my Spanish and the occasional bout of student discipline.
My plans to reinvigorate the students’ enthusiasm backfired somewhat when I asked them what song they would like to learn in English. All the girls in every class, from the eleven year olds all the way up responded “!El canción de Titanic Profe!” - they wanted to learn “My Heart Will Go On”. My situation worsened when Elizabeth arrived that Monday to school without the speakers she had said she would bring to play the track. “I thought you could just sing it for them.” she explained smiling mischievously. And so I did, in every lesson, every day for the rest of my time in Peru, though eventually the students’ voices began to join mine in a valiant effort at replicating Celine Dion’s dulcet tones!
I couldn’t have disagreed with my host sister more. I couldn’t see the school as ugly at all. It is true there were aspects of how the school was run which were frustrating. Faculty meetings were held during the school day while students were left idle in classrooms for above an hour at a time. School was cancelled altogether for two weeks during my time in Peru due to teachers’ strikes. But the students made up for all of this.
I was deeply touched when the girls in the third grade “A” class brought me flowers one day and asked me to be their madrina, their godmother. An honour bestowed on favourite teachers by their pupils, la madrina is responsible for providing students with pastoral guidance. On my last day the girls threw me a surprise goodbye party during lunch and made me a thank you speech which nearly brought me to tears.
I had a lot of time to think on the long journey home the next day. I thought about all the things I had gained through my experience with Projects Abroad. I began my ten weeks in Peru as an alien, a poorly spoken stranger. By the end of the ten weeks I had become a friend and confidant to the students I worked with. I will always be proud of the bond we formed with each other. Hopefully, they’ll remember a little bit of the English I taught them too.