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!