This past month marked the beginning of our more focused work in the Peace Corps, the work that aligns with the first goal of providing technical assistance to countries around the world. Andrew and I have been claiming the title of “TEFL Teacher Trainer” for the last 6 months and we’re finally starting to earn it. February began with a bit of an Uncertain Start to the school year. As Andrew explained in his thoughts on this new world of teaching in Nicaragua, we’re here to learn as well as to teach.
In addition to co-planning and co-teaching weekly with each of our three counterparts, we TEFL volunteers in Nicaragua have another project we collectively help run. Se llama STEP, and we think it’s just the coolest program ever.
But first, let me give you some back-story. In Nicaragua, all high school students (7th-11th grade) must take 3 hours a week of lengua extranjera – English. One of the challenges facing a lot of teachers of this class, though, is that they sometimes speak only a little English themselves. Rather like in the states, teachers can get moved around and sometimes find themselves teaching a subject they don’t feel the most confident in. Even for those Nicaraguan English teachers who have a good command of the language, resources are scarce, time is short, and students frequently graduate without mastery of the basics.
That’s where we come in. The Nicaraguan government changed the curriculum to be more student centered and communicative – all good things – but also realized that the teachers needed help to make these changes in teaching happen. It was with this struggle in mind that the TEFL sector of Peace Corps was invited to Nicaragua. For almost 10 years, TEFL volunteers have been working along side Nicaraguan teachers to help their efforts in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Peace Corps developed a TEFL Manual – a collection of lesson plans aligned to the national curriculum, chock full of communicative activities and guides to help chavalos learn some English.
Which brings us back to STEP and its place in the TEFL Nicaragua program.
STEP stands for Striving Towards English Proficiency. It’s a program Peace Corps is collaborating on with another organization, Fundación Uno, who provides the materials, travel costs, and other support. Together we provide free, intensive, weekly English classes for all of the Nicaraguan English teachers in a department (think state). Currently STEP is in three departments – León, Chinandega, and Masaya. There are five different levels that the teachers pass through, and at ~20 weeks per level we offer 2.5 years of classes in each department. Students that successfully graduate from STEP are then given the opportunity to take the internationally recognized TOEFL exam, paid for by Fundación Uno.
Think about it. If you were teaching a foreign language and didn’t know it very well, what would be the easiest way to increase your effectiveness and confidence in the classroom – learning the language. Through incredible teamwork, fabulous coordinators in the cities, and the wonders of Google Drive, TEFL volunteers from all over the country take turns traveling to these three departments to teach classes on the weekends. Fundación Uno provides the financial support, Peace Corps volunteers provide the TEFL expertise, and the Nicaraguan teachers receive free, greatly needed training to help them be more effective in their jobs. Peace Corps Goal 1 – accomplished!
Over Valentine’s Day weekend, Andrew and I traveled to Chinandega to teach our first STEP classes. The English teachers are so motivated to learn, that it was a pleasure to teach. We will teach a minimum of 8 STEP classes over the course of this year as part of our assignment.
Sometimes the impact of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is hard to quantify. We know we’re participating in cultural exchange, but aside from that, volunteers can spend a lot of time wondering if their time in country is actually making a difference. One of the reasons we love STEP is because we can so clearly see that the answer is yes.