Having been teaching since October, it dawned on me yesterday that somehow, I still haven’t written about what it’s like to be an ESL teacher here. For a blog about my experiences living and teaching abroad, this seems like quite the oversight. I suppose I’ve been focusing a lot more on my personal experiences and emotions in my posts than about the work that I do. This post is meant to remedy the hole in my blog regarding my job.**
For many recent college graduates (and many other folks), teaching English abroad is seen as a magic ticket to go live abroad have all the experiences assumed to be included: learning a new langauge, taking weekend trips to beautiful places you’d never heard of, partying and clubbing in a new city, all while making money to support yourself. And you generally need minimal qualifications. Pretty sweet deal, right? Well, most people forget about the fact that you actually DO have to work while living abroad. That’s why you came…remember? For those who discover they don’t actually like teaching, the experience can be pretty shitty. Luckily, I am not one of those people.
So for starters, a little about the structure of my job. ESL jobs vary country to country and even within the same city. Personally, I work 20 hours per week in eight-week cycles at a public university in Quito. You might think that means that my students are university students, but I only had students from the university during my first cycle. The reason for this is that the classes are open to the public, and because I teach from 4-8 pm, the majority of my students fall into one of two categories: 1.) high school students, or 2.) working professional adults. Why do these Ecuadorians seek English classes? The high schoolers generally want to get ahead, as English is required in many high schools and in universities. If they take supplemental English courses during high school, they have the chance to get ahead and maybe test out of English at university. The adults are generally between 24-60, and usually are taking English because their job requires them to or because they are working towards getting a Master’s degree, where a specific level of English is a prerequisite of admission. Many have to take a sufficiency or proficiency test before they can accomplish their goals. Thus, my students are generally taking English not because they merely enjoy the language learning process (as I myself did in college), but rather because quite simply, it is or will be required of them in some capacity. This means that the dynamic of the classroom is definitely a bit more serious than my own language classes.
My teaching experiences here are unlike many ESL positions around the world. Though I have my own classes and teach them independently, certain aspects of my workplace are, from what I can tell, unique. For starters, we are given textbooks at the beginning of the cycle that contain exactly what we are expected to cover. The tests are already written for our classes (standardized across multiple sections of the same level), and we have precise exam dates every two weeks. The grading structure for our classes is in place for us: each of the four exams and the final oral exam compose specific percentages of the course, totalling 90% of the student’s grade.
This structure has both benefits and disadvantages, as is true for any job. For one, it takes a lot of the work off the teacher’s back, because we don’t have to spend a ton of time lesson planning or creating exams or grading homework, since we can only decide how 10% of the student’s grade will be evaluated. However, the downside of this is that we are limited in the freedom that we have in our classrooms. I am teaching an academic level of English (think: very specific, high-level grammar points. For example, teaching relative pronouns and how to reduce relative clauses. I didn’t even know what a relative clause was until I started teaching…) and our textbooks include so much information that I don’t feel that I have time to cover the topics in enough detail to adequately prepare students for their exams. Nor do I have control over how they are tested, as the exams are written by administration. The strict grading structure also has its advantages and problems. Because 90% of the grade of the student is exam-based, there is a lot less room for subjectivity on the part of the teacher. However, only having 10% of the grade to work with and incentivize students with is not very much. How can I motivate my students to do homework well when I can maybe allocate 2% of their grade to homework completion, especially when most of these students are working adults or busy high schoolers? This is a challenge that, several cycles into teaching, I still struggle with.
Other challenges have less to do with the specific university structure and more with teaching in a deveoping country. Oftentimes I forget that Ecuador is not the United States, because in many regards, Quito is actually quite modern. But in others, it is a bit behind the times. As I am at a public university, resources are limited. The building that I teach in presents some challenges for teachers accustomed to powerpoints and music videos included in class lectures. Though our university does have some access to technology, and it continues to work to improve technological access for its students, the entire building where I work has sparse technological resources. My classroom is equipped with 18 desks and chairs and a whiteboard. That’s it. They give us some markers too, but the markers are poor quality. We can also check out CD players, which I’m very grateful for. However, any talk of power points or videos or anything accessible from a computer/projector are unavailable to me. This limits the ways in which I can transmit information to my students, and in an age where everyone has internet and a smartphone (most of my students have them), it can be difficult to keep students engaged during a two-hour class period. Additionally, as enrollment in our classes is growing every cycle, classroom space is often an issue. My last class evaluations included 7 complaints from students about the size of the classroom. For reference, there was only enough room for one aisle down the middle and all the other desks were sandwiched tightly up against the wall or another desk. This makes any type of movement in the classroom, even students getting up to write at the board, a difficult task.
Finally, cultural differences and expectations can pose a challenge in the classroom. For a foreign teacher who never experienced schoool life in Ecuador, it has been an interesting and trying process learning about Ecuadorian students. One issue that teachers constantly face is tardiness. Punctuality, you will discover upon moving to Latin America, is definitely more of an important value to US citizens than other people (overall. This is a generalization, of course). The policy of our university is that 10 minutes after the hour=late to class and 20 minutes after the hour=absent. Nonetheless, having students come in consistenly late undoutedly alters the way in which teachers use classtime. You can’t exactly start teaching grammar right away, because the late students will miss key information. But you also don’t want to just waste the first fifteen minutes of class, especially because there is so much information to cover. This leads to different solutions by different teachers. I personally have journal entries, reading assignments, or conversation questions up on the board for when students enter that they must begin upon arrival. Another cultural difference relates to homework. I already mentioned that this is something I struggle with, but students in my English classes often refuse to or forget to do homework, even when I tell them it will cost them participation points. I generally need to assign homework once or twice per week, because students need additional practice on certain topics, and though it’s only usually one or two 10-question grammar activities, they just won’t do it. Or they copy each other’s at the beginning of class or do it at the start of class when I’ve given them another task (I’ve seen this happen several times). I don’t know what homework culture is like in Ecuador, but it must be different than in the States. Or maybe it’s just because these students are taking English outside of their high school or university so it doesn’t matter as much to them. Regardless, it is a frustrating experience trying to motivate students to do homework that is good for them.
Alas, despite the challenges that teaching here poses, there are many rewards as well. I’ve been permitted to teach the same level for four cycles, so I feel much more confident and capable as a teacher of the content I’m responsible for. I also don’t have to spend hours and hours planning every day, because I’ve worked and tweaked my lessons a bit every cycle since starting, which means that my life is pretty easy. I work at a respected institution, and I feel that teachers are treated with respect by the administration and students. I generally enjoy my students immensely–I love the age range (even the high schoolers, which many teachers at my university prefer to avoid) and the fact that we can have real, interesting conversations in class. I enjoy learning about their values and experiences that are different from my own, and the cross-cultural sharing that occurs between a foreign teacher and local students. I enjoy the relative freedom that the administration gives its teachers–even though we have books and tests given to us, no one is checking in on us constantly or asking for our lesson plans. They trust us to do well, and only step in when complaints happen, which is incredibly nice for teachers. Helping students learn and seeing their progress is rewarding for both the student and the teacher. Students here participate–they might not raise their hands as much as students in my university classes did, but they always are willing to do so when encouraged. They come to class because they realize that English is essential to their futures, so it matters to most of them. Most of the time, I really enjoy my job. Even when I don’t want to go to work initially, classtime and my students almost always bring up my mood. I am so grateful for the opportunities for growth, learning, and joy that this job has brought me.
**The views and opinions expressed in this post, as with my entire blog, represent neither the views of WorldTeach nor of the university that I work at. Let it be known that I enjoy and appreciate my job despite the challenges.