On a trip of this scope, a cross-continental undertaking, it is necessary to have some kind of backup plan in terms of money. If worst were to come to worst, to have the means to be able to generate your own income.
With this in mind, before I left Ireland, I enrolled myself in a TEFL course, short for Teaching English as a Foreign Language. The course itself was time-consuming, although not incredibly difficult; due to English already being my first language, I was able to focus more on methods of teaching. I don’t consider myself a particularly good public speaker, though I am confident in my abilities as an English speaker.
On a mountainside in Peru, in a region known as Paltachayoc, there is a small school, with only two full-time teachers and nine students over two classrooms.
This is where I taught my very first English class.
It begins in the small town of Santa Teresa, blistering heat and mosquitos, and a decent omelette too. From here, a taxi farther out into the countryside, to the home of our contact, Senora Perez. It was her daughter in Cusco, Ingrid, who organised this opportunity for us.
After a strong coffee brewed from fresh beans picked just outside the house, we hefted our backpacks once more and began the ascent up the mountainside. Dirt roads made way to forest paths, ducking and weaving through vines and branches, even stopping once to pick a handful of bananas that were hanging nearby.
Two hours later in the light of a setting sun, we came to clearing; we had arrived at the school.
We were greeted by the two resident teachers, a middle aged bald man called Nico, and an elderly lady whom I always called Senora.
The school was two long buildings, one holding two classrooms, and the other holding two sleeping quarters and a small kitchen. A final smaller outhouse and shower lay farther out.
As the sun was setting, after a mattress had been set up in one of the classrooms, I stood for a time, waiting. I was waiting for my mind to suddenly realise what was happening, waiting for a moment of sudden clarity; that not two months before I had been at home surrounded by technology and people, living in the depths of a city. Now I was in a remote mountainside, surrounded on all sides by nothing but countless trees and thick underbrush, and the following day I would begin teaching English.
I was waiting because I was not nervous. As I said, I don’t consider myself a good public speaker, and I fully expected a sudden burst of nervousness. Though, as the sun set and the darkness closed in, I realised that not only was I not nervous, I was excited.
That night, as with every other night, we slept on a mattress in one of the classrooms. The mattress was comfortable, we had no want for food or water, and cold weather was a thing of memory. However, there was one thing which disturbed sleep most nights: the insects. There were so many insects, countless moths and beetles and flies. While the sun set outside, and the light remained on inside, they would flock towards the windows relentlessly thumping against the glass in a futile attempt to get to the light. The largest I saw was a moth with a body the size of a clenched fist banging against the windows. Oddly, this was something that we became accustomed to, it’s not something I particularly miss, but when there’s nothing that can be done, there is a tendency to simply accept the situation.
The day began early, as it would every day, not long after the sun rose; and sometimes just before. The mornings on the mountainside were almost eerie, with thick mist and fog covering the ground and far rolling mountains, though the sun soon cut through the gloom and illuminated a world of lush green trees and flocks of red and green parrots fluttering awake.
We drank coffee and ate tinned sardines with pasta, a common and simple breakfast.
There were two classrooms of students at this school, one of four older students, and one of five younger students. The first class we would teach would be the four older students in the morning. We began with simple introductions; the children were quiet and attentive, though I think this was more to do with the curious nature of a gringo coming to their school to teach them a foreign language.
We soon discovered the children had no English at all, and for a moment I had a sudden inward panic, ‘what do I do now? How do I start?’. So with a mental shrug, we started at the beginning, with the alphabet.
Throughout the class and following classes, the children became more relaxed around us, talking more with us and eventually joking with us, practicing their English with us and with each other. Of course, some seemed to have more drive than others and others sometimes needed a stern word, although I suppose this would be the case with any classroom, particular one where the students are just on the cusp of their teenage years.
Some days, as the classes began, some of the students would bring gifts for us. Fruit, or often avocados, or sometimes my favourite, coffee grinds from freshly picked coffee beans. These made for a delicious coffee, it was brewed slowly in a very small amount, making a thick, almost syrup-like coffee, that was then mixed with hot water.
We would stop for a lunch-hour and have another hearty meal, usually cooked by a mother of one of the students, who would make their way down to the school every day to feed the students and the teachers.
In the afternoons we taught the younger students, these were much more difficult. They were on average around five years old, so it was very difficult to hold their attention.
We came across an elegant solution, I have some minor skill in drawing, so while we attempted to teach them simple phrases and vocabulary, we would accompany these with drawings on the whiteboard. This worked quite well, and it’s a technique that I intend to use again in the future, even with adult students.
This, in essence, is what this whole experience was, not just teaching English, but also learning how to teach English. I have done my studies and earned my TEFL certificate, but I had not had real experience in a classroom, in knowing how to speak to students, when to be stern and when to be gentle, when to laugh and when to scowl.
It was a great thing, though, to see these student’s knowledge of English slowly grow from nothing to something notable, to a basis on which they could continue to build a real understanding and fluency in the language. They had begun with no understanding, and when our time there had come to an end, we were being greeted in English, asked questions in English, and it was a wonderful feeling of accomplishment to know that they had come this far with our guidance. Sometimes I wonder how far we would have gotten had we stayed longer, in honesty, I believe that with enough time we would have been able to guide and teach these students to the point of conversational fluency.
We have had no contact since with them or the residents teachers, as they are so remote, and although I’m certain that not all of them retained their desire to continue learning after we left, I like to think that at least one student did, and that maybe that student is even now still improving and growing.
With this experience, I find my apprehension at teaching a classroom gone, and now I wonder when I will teach next, and I hope it is soon.