What teaching in Ecuador taught me

When summer camp began, I was really focused on what I would be able to teach my students in the short amount of time that I had with them. This is not a bad goals to have, but I was definitely too caught up in how I was going to achieve this instead of thinking about the students. As one of my professors, Dr. Carpenter always tells us, when you begin teaching you are too focused on yourself and not focused enough on the students and their experience in your classroom.

As the weeks and classes passed by, I found myself being able to forget myself more and more as I was teaching and instead, focus on the students to make sure that their needs were being met. I realized that I had to really listen to them and get them invested in the lessons so that they would care. This realization was a result of many lessons I received inside and outside of my classroom here in Ecuador. Camp is now sadly over and I know that while I did teach my students, they also taught me. The lessons I’ve learned here in Ecuador have already impacted me as an educator and as a person and I’m so excited to begin my student teaching this fall.

Lesson #1: Going with the flow

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love having a plan. I look forward to the start of each new semester when I can color code my Google calendar and perfectly plan each day so that I can maximize my productivity. Here in Ecuador, things definitely did not abide to my color-coded calendar. If you arrive early here you’re early and if you arrive on time you’re still early. While camp was supposed to start at 8:40 each morning, we never started until between 9 and 9:15, majorly cutting into my first lesson plan every day. At first, I was frustrated by my plans getting messed up and I started to put in a little bit less effort knowing that I would not be able to perfectly execute what I had in mind.

However, I soon realized that this cultural difference shouldn’t affect the effort I give to my students or the effort I give for myself. In many ways, “going with the flow” and throwing the plan out the window can turn out better. This way of living forced me to forget myself and my perfect plans and focus on what was best for the students. When we were asked to come up with a final presentation for the parents in just a few days, I realized that I was now more confident and capable because I had been asked to think on my feet the entire summer. I also realize that being flexible and having back-up plans is important in any school anywhere in the world. Sometimes, the people higher-up than myself will have requests of me that seem last minute or challenging and I know that I am now more equipped to deal with those requests in stride.

Lesson #2: Overcoming communication barriers

Throughout my time in Ecuador, I was challenged by the language barrier. When I first arrived, I could barely order food and make basic conversation. In Riobamba, I had to communicate with Ecuadorian volunteers, have school meetings in Spanish, and eat all meals with the priests while only speaking Spanish. I learned to communicate my needs, be a better listener, and be very patient. I now am at a very functional level! I definitely have not completely overcome this challenge by any stretch of the imagination, but I make small gains every day by committing to daily study, being patient with myself, and celebrating all progress.

Lesson #3: Achieving a balance between caring and in control

This lesson really all boils down to my confidence in the classroom and as a person. Before any new classroom placement or teaching task, I am always the most nervous about classroom management. I want the students to be able to see how much I care about their learning and about them as people, but I also know that I need to be in charge of the classroom in order to facilitate and maximize learning.

The first few days of teaching, I was extremely nervous and I was in my own head a lot. After a few crazy events – a fight in my classroom, students showing up late, and some chaotic moments, I realized that I was handling the situations without even thinking about them because my instincts and the things I’ve learned at Elon were kicking in. My students knew that I cared about them partially because of my classroom management and because of my high expectations of them. I once heard a student grumbling as they walked in that my class was her hardest and I silently cheered inside my head.

My most fulfilling teacher experience was seeing the transformation in my students from passive to active learners. With my older groups of students (11-15), I saw the most change. At the beginning of my time, they were quiet and just expected to listen and give one “correct” answer and then be done. Each day, I pushed them to have more conversation and to discuss the “why” of their answer. On one of the last days of classes, I asked them how they would like to run their final presentation and present to their parents. I was shocked when nearly all of the students raised their hands and began to offer opinions on how to get their parents talking. The ideas that they suggested were activities that we had been working on the entire course of the summer. It was amazing to see my students take charge in the classroom and see the value in the young leaders that they are becoming! The more of an active role I asked my students to take, the less talking and side conversations I had in the classroom.

Lesson #4: People matter the most

Lastly, the most important lesson I’ve been reminded of this summer is that it’s the people, not the places, that matter the most. This is my first time ever coming to South America and I had no idea what to expect. Would the people be different?! Would I be able to communicate?! Would I make friends?!

Now, as I sit here with my 7 year old host-sister who somehow understands that I can only understand if she speaks slowly and manages to communicate with me perfectly, I can tell you that these fears were completely erased as soon as I arrived. Even without perfect Spanish, it is possible to communicate with smiles, with the attempt to speak in a new language, and with putting in effort to make friends and learn each day. My absolute favorite days here in Ecuador have not been big trips, but instead days spent with new Ecuadorian friends that I made at camp or with my director and host siblings eating long lunches or meeting more of their family members.

I would like to thank my host family, the priests at UESTAR, for being so patient with our Spanish level and for opening the community center to us and always making us laugh. I would also like to thank my site director and her kids (my host-siblings), for treating me like family and for always believing in me and giving me the support and encouragement I needed. A special  Additionally, I would like to thank all of my fellow WorldTeach volunteers and the WorldTeach office staff for providing me with friendship and with advice no matter the time of day. I hope that our paths will cross again!

Ecuador Reflections Trips

Rafting in the remote Amazon rainforest

Go ahead and get out your bucket list because this trip needs to be added immediately!

At the beginning of the summer when I learned that some of the other WorldTeach volunteers were going to be placed in a small jungle town in the Amazon rain forest, i knew that I wanted to plan a visit.

Now that my service has ended in Riobamba (another post to come soon!) the time to visit Tena was finally upon me. Another Riobamba volunteer named Jenny and I made the 5 hour bus trip on Tuesday morning to visit our good friends.

Over the past 3 days, I’ve gotten to explore their town of Tena alongside them and my plans became reality. Since they’re basically locals at this point, they were awesome guides and showed us all of the great restaurants and some really cool swimming spots.

Some highlights and absolute must-do’s include:

Visiting a restaurant that doubles as a home to sloths called the Marquies:

Finding a great swimming spots around the city:

Taking a bus to go visit a little town that is home to monkeys!

However, the absolute highlight of the trip for me was a 1-day rafting trip that Jenny and I signed up for on Wednesday. I promise you that if you haven’t considered a trip to Ecuador in the past, you’re going to want to now!

A quick trip backstory:

On Monday evening Jenny and I signed up for a tour through a company called River People, and chose Wednesday knowing that if not enough people signed up for our trip we may get bumped to a later day. Sure enough, on Tuesday I got an email that our trip had been canceled. However, the company sent another email shortly after with the exciting news that a couple had signed up and our trip was back on. Great news!

At 8:30 the next morning, a man in the company van picked us up and asked if we had heard that we were actually going on a DIFFERENT trip than we signed up for.

In Ecuador, you never quite know the way things will unfold and things never seem to go as planned so we nodded that we were game for whatever the day had to offer and we headed off to meet the other couple and our guides at the company’s office.

At the office, we learned that we would have a hike with gear to get to the river where we’d be rafting, that we would have 2 guides (one on the raft and one scout in a kayak), and that this trip was an upgrade from the one I had originally signed us up for. It was then that I realized we were in for a treat.

A 45 minute drive from the office brought us into the middle of nowhere. It’s important to note that Tena is a small town of 30,000 people that really became a city simply because it’s the biggest collection of neighborhoods in the area. Once you’re outside of Tena, the jungle really begins. Aside from small communities and groups of indigenous peoples, it’s really just jungle as far as the eye can see.

The hike

Upon arrival at our hiking spot, a group from the indigenous community rushed over to begin hiking with the gear (including the raft and kayak). The guides explained to us that there are several groups of locals are all in competition for the job of helpng with our gear so the guides created a rotating schedule for helpers.

I barely made it down this hike with just myself so I have no clue how these people managed to carry our huge gear down the steep muddy path to the river. A “30 minute hike” was really more like an hour and since it rains at least twice a day in the Amazon, the paths were pure mud and rocks. I fell twice and the hike was so precarious that we were asked to wear our rafting helmets as we went. What trip had they signed me up for?!?

Finally, after an hour of slipping and sliding, I thought we were ready to raft and get in the water. But in fact, I was told that we were first going to hike to a canyon to see a pretty area and clean off. I was convinced that no site could be worth hiking in this mud but I figured I had come all of this way so I kept my mouth shut and kept moving.

Another 20 minutes later and we were rewarded beyond belief. The little jungle path opened up to a small circular clearing in the canyon with a pure blue pool of water being filled by a beautiful waterfall. Looking upwards revealed only a small circular opening in the tree canopy which allowed soft light and small sprinkles of rain to float into the space. Our small group of 5 was the only one there in this non-commercialized part of the jungle and we all quickly stripped off our outer clothes and dove into the pure crisp water.

We spent about 30 minutes swimming, crawling behind the waterfall, and exploring a little cave that you could climb into – guess what – a cave with ANOTHER waterfall. We all agreed that already, the trip was worth it.

This place might just have been the most beautiful place I’ve ever laid eyes on. I was absolutely blown away by the natural beauty – nature at its absolute finest. I feel so incredibly lucky to have visited such a place.

*unfortunately we did not have our phones but photos will be added as soon as the company sends them to me*

Rafting the Jondachi and Hollin rivers

The adventure continued as we had our safety briefing and began our 4 hour trip down the Jondachi and Hollín rivers. Our guide explained that he was the first person to ever lead a commercial group down the Jondachi. This portion of the Amazon is one of the most remote places to go rafting in the world and therefore, we had to take extra safety precautions.

Throughout the whole 4 hour trip, the only people that we saw were a group of indigenous people fishing and their village was a 3 hour walk away! Everywhere we turned, we were surrounded by the grand Amazon rainforest. Birds and butterflies that I’ve never seen before flew around us above and even the occasional sprinkling rain just made the place seem more beautiful.

Of course as we journeyed down, we also experienced the excitement (and one ejection!) from the raft. I felt like a little kid giggling as we flew down rapids and splashing the others in my raft as we got to know each other better.

Flips & flops

Even our flip on the “waffle maker” rapid was fun instead of scary thanks to our awesome guides who ensured we knew exactly what to do if we were in the water and quickly got us all back into the raft.

I am so glad that Jenny and I went with the flow (literally!!!) and ended up on the class 3 & 4 rafting trip instead of the more commercialized class 3 trip we originally signed up for. Living in Ecuador this summer, “going with the flow” has definitely had to be my motto, and I’ve found that I’m learning to deal better with stressful situations than I did previously.

Huge thank you to River People for the incredible trip, glory to God and Mother Nature for creating places more beautiful than I’ve ever imagined, and thank you to my amazon Tena friends for being our guides and showing us around!

What are you waiting for?! Head to the jungle, pronto!

Con amor,

Courtney

Ecuador Uncategorized