While I was in my M.A. program in 2017, I volunteered in an intensive field-service course teaching ESL (TEFL) in the Henry David Orphanage in Conocoto, Ecuador, on the outskirts of the capital, Quito.
When I scroll through the pictures today, I still smell the green mountain rain through the cloudy bus window, the summer scents in the little yellow house they rented us, and the warmth from those plastic teacups of the best coffee I have ever had to this day.
When I think of my time in Ecuador, it is so different, so much lighter and freer than any other point in my life, that it almost doesn’t feel real.
About The Project
My class of about a dozen women (and Tom) was there as part of an annual exchange between my college and the orphanage. We were tasked with trying to implement a new hydroponics and composting system to help them become more self-sufficient and save money.
Edit: A few of the women from my fieldwork cohort went back to work on the project in following years and have initiated a start-up building funds to keep the project going.
I highly recommend you check out their site and donate a few dollars to help their amazing mission:
The cohort that had been to the orphanage the year before had managed to plant a garden and clean out a single room that would be used for the hydroponics lab.
However, after they left, a lack of stable interest from the mamitas (the women who take care of the orphans) left the garden dead and the room an empty concrete shell.
About The Class
My class was separated into several groups, each with a different mission.
One group was in charge of incorporating art into the project, another tasked with overhauling the garden, a third making bi-lingual lessons on composting for the mamitas, and a fourth installing a hydroponics “garden” in the abandoned room and then leading a small seminar teaching the mamitas how to use it.
About My Job
I was the only graduate student, and the only one with a major that involved working with children, so instead I worked alone.
From day one, I was working full-time in the orphanage’s school teaching English to grades K-7. What a rush!
On top of that, I was often thrust into mini-leadership positions—advising the other groups on their lesson plans, teaching behavior management techniques to calm their squirrely little audiences, and being in charge of two major classroom projects.
For the first project, my professor had initiated a pen-pal exchange between the orphanage students and a public school in Newport, Rhode Island the previous year. It was now my job to make sure that 4 different grade levels followed through on writing letters back.
Second, I was thinking ahead of a way I could implement my own project that I could put in my teaching portfolio for when I began the dreaded job hunt after graduation. I came up with the idea of students writing their own personal storybooks that they would later convert to English.
My First Non-US Classroom
I worked with a co-teacher, Gladys. She had no prior teaching experience but was what the school had deemed fluent in English.
In communicating with her, it was 50% her trying to speak in rudimentary English and 50% me trying to speak in rudimentary Spanish vaguely remembered from my high school classes. Talk about a challenge!
However, Gladys took me by surprise. She was so eager
to learn US-education techniques from me and, despite not actually going to school for teaching, she was genuinely invested in being a good educator.
The classroom itself was very bare. We had a few student benches with tables, Gladys’ desk, a chalkboard (of course), an empty storage cupboard, and, surprisingly, an ancient, unbranded mini-laptop purchased on a grant to help with “blended learning” (not exactly efficient).
But Gladys was a champ! She showed my spoiled ass that when it came to teaching, you had to weigh your priorities very carefully.
Was it more important to whip the kids into shape with a grid-locked behavior management plan, or to make sure that those children who were suffering long-term effects of trauma and malnutrition, who were orphaned due to gang violence, drug problems, or had both parents in jail, felt cared for and loved for their 40-minute class every day?
Was it more important to get on them and make sure that they each pumped out a completed project in English by the end of my volunteer term, or that they were able to write a personal story and make their memories, concerns, and hopes feel validated in whatever language they pleased?
Gladys showed me how to use a piece of paper as a dustpan, how to hug my worst student (and mean it), and how to look at the ridiculous circumstances we were put in, with the expectations to teach anything at all, and just laugh.
However, it wasn’t all work, not at all.
At the end of our workday, the girls (and Tom) would leave the gated grounds of the orphanage and walk down the street to a local bakery. I ordered the same thing every day which I called pan con chocolate (bread with chocolate).
I’m not sure if that’s the real name, but it got me what I wanted every time—a fat roll of pastry filled with warm chocolate and topped with a thick brush stroke of even more chocolate, for 30 cents!
On the weekends, my professor planned us many exciting excursions.
We went to an indigenous museum in the heart of Quito and then browsed for souvenirs under the shades in the cramped art market—where I was forgotten by our tour bus and had to hang out on a street corner getting some very suggestive faces as I waited for them to return for me… fun times.
We took a day-long zip-lining trip through the Andes mountains.
We hid our food from wild flee-and-mange-infested monkeys when we spent a night at a bungalow in the Amazonian rainforest—and saw a real tarantula… in my roommate’s yoga pants.
(Actually, the tarantula thing wasn’t a good memory. I’ll never go to the rainforest again.)
Honestly though, my favorite memory in Ecuador is just sitting in the back of the minibus with the window cracked open letting the rain hit my face while watching Ecuador go by—
The clouds floating at eye-level as our bus wound up the dirt roads circling the mountains. The depth of the earth and all its pitches and falls laid over with the shining green of the rainforest. The guinea pigs all golden and charred roasting on spinners in cramped shop windows with dirty jagged sidewalks. And the dry, raked landscape of the brick worker sites with pops of bright blue from their shacks’ tarp roofs.
But still, those were just the weekends. The majority of my time in Ecuador was spent working at the school.
I would wake up before everyone else and tiptoe around the house to get ready for school, waving to my students through the window as they walked to class and I brushed my teeth in the kitchen sink.
I would quickly eat Rosa’s hot breakfast in the main house with the rest of my cohort, and then try and rush up the hill to school.
(However, with the high altitude, my asthma, and the fact that Ecuador is basically one giant hill, this was actually a daily struggle…)
Then, I would spend my day teaching five to six 40-minute classes.
The students were rowdy, had no background in English, and apparently no intent on learning it either.
Some days I was so frustrated that I felt like I shouldn’t even bother caring, I was leaving in a few weeks no matter what. But, by the end of the trip, seeing most of their projects (somehow) completed and their pride with the product I had pushed them to create, it still makes me beam.
For Those Curious Types…
If you’re thinking of going aboard to teach, let me tell you something no other blogger will:
YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE GETTING YOURSELF INTO.
Teaching abroad will be one of the most emotional, exciting, and frustrating experiences of your life.
You will love the people who make you feel at home, who cook you food you’ve never heard of, and who teach you new words and then laugh at your accent.
And yet, you will probably cry (at least once) from realizing that you are way in over your head and you have no idea what you’re doing.
After teaching abroad myself, I truly pity those who do the same without any formal education or experience in teaching.
Contrary to the brochures, most kids are not dying to sit in a classroom all day.
You will put yourself out there, feel like an idiot trying work a job you have no training for, in a language you don’t know, and somedays, you will get literally nothing back from your rotating audience of 100 kids per day.
However, I deeply believe that living abroad is something that each person should do at least once in their lives, and, believe it or not, teaching is a great outlet to do just that—you just have to brace yourself first.
If You’re Serious About Doing It Too…
This is why I wrote my own course.
My completely free, 7-day intro course provides the essential information you need to prepare for your first job teaching abroad—from lesson planning to setting up the classroom.
And while most TEFL pitches fill your head with images of going on road trips down the Portuguese coast or shopping in the German Christmas markets, I’m here to remind you that that is what you’re going to be doing on the weekends.
That’s it—2 days out of 7. The rest of your time will be spent in a classroom.
Sign up for my free email course and take your first step on the most exhilarating experience of your life.