Being a first year teacher is hard. Being a first year teacher in a subject you haven’t studied in-depth is hard. Being a first year teacher in a subject you haven’t studied in-depth in a different country and education culture, while sharing a classroom with another teacher…is hard.
Teaching is a vulnerable profession. Although I had never taught before coming to Peace Corps, I had quite intimate knowledge of this from supporting Emily through her first three years of classroom teaching in the United States. For those that care deeply about the learning and well-being of their students, teaching can be quite psychologically demanding.
Our May We Reflect posts have given me a platform in which to think about this first semester of teaching, to the multiple teacher “highs” and ”lows” I have experienced. If a lesson went awesomely, both my counterpart and I tried out new and successful activities, and the students were engaged, I would be on cloud nine! I loved teaching! Other times, though, when I did a poor job controlling or teaching the class, or the lesson was not matching with their skill level, or my counterpart and I weren’t on the same page, I’d go home from the school with my head hung low and find myself questioning what I was doing in Nicaragua.
In the ups and downs of working as a co-teacher trainer in the Nicaraguan public schools I have, at times, found it easy to be stuck in excuse-land, trying to explain away my frustrations. Well, I don’t have a degree in teaching or TEFL, so they’re getting the best they can get. If the school just had money to buy materials for the students in class then things could be better. How can we do any effective teaching with classes this size? If the school wouldn’t keep scheduling these random assemblies maybe we could advance in our topic and get somewhere.
I don’t find that these excuses give me much ground to build from, to pick myself up and keep trying after a difficult day of teaching. Instead, trying to keep perspective and setting the following expectations have been helpful for me:
- This is not supposed to be easy. Our Peace Corps TEFL program is in Nicaragua by the invitation of their Ministry of Education because teaching English in the public high schools has been a challenge for the country for awhile. Also, I didn’t sign up for Peace Corps to be comfortable. If it wasn’t tough, it wouldn’t be “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”
- It’s OK not to feel like an expert, because I’m not. Again, I joined the Peace Corps with the intention to learn just as much (if not more) than I would teach. This is part of the beauty of the program. However that doesn’t mean that I don’t have skills I can offer. As a native English speaker, my native instincts are a huge help in the classroom and with my counterparts.
- Focus on where I have influence. I can’t control the school schedule, or force my counterparts to do something they’re not comfortable with, but I can spend time before our co-planning sessions to scan through all of my materials to come up with an awesome activity that would complement the lesson. Coming prepared to co-planning, ready to explain and offer something new and different is often quite well received. Another place where Emily and I have found we have influence is with the MINED and other English teachers in Estelí. They are quite motivated to improve their English and teaching, so, working with one of my counterparts, we recently started a weekly English conversation group. Coming together for an hour a week to speak English may not be a huge thing, but it fits well within my sphere of influence and abilities.
- Celebrate small victories. Good things are indeed happening. Some days it’s as simple as forcing students to use the English phrase “How do you say…” instead of using the Spanish “Cómo se dice,” a rowdy class responding to a new classroom management technique, students downloading Duolingo on their phones so they can practice English at home, or an activity I suggested going well. These add up, and are small signs of impact.
- In time, and with patience, things will change. I mean this as much internally as I do in the classroom with my counterparts or students. Thinking back on previous jobs, it took me quite awhile to feel like I was in a groove and adding value to the team. In these contexts my job was in English, working on more concrete projects, and I had complete authority and control over how to do the job. While that may not be the case here, I have dedicated, supportive Nicaragua counterparts who are graciously allowing me to share their classrooms with them for these two years.
Setting healthy expectations is a crucial skill for a PCV. In order to stay motivated and resilient we strive to recognize the successes and the differences we are making, even if they are not what we originally envisioned when joining the Peace Corps. Therefore, I am committed to cultivating a reflective teaching practice, to keeping things in perspective, and to continuing to learn and grow for the rest of my service.