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October 31, 2011

The Bahia del Sol Resort Hotel plays host to a major billfish tournament this week that brings serious big-game fishermen from all over.  Agostin, the manager, explains that all the staff will be very busy with preparations for the event and there won’t be time to spare for classes.  It seems a shame, as we just got started, but it does give me more time to go into the local school and see if I can contribute.  Most of my friends will be aware that teaching children is something I have assiduously avoided for the better part of this life, but my experience with Misael’s family last year opened my eyes to the possibilities.  At any rate, I suspect there is little I can do to harm the current state of English language education in the local public school system.

WHOOOHOOO, do I ever have fun!

Bright and early Monday morning, I make my way through the front gate of Complejo Educativo Prof. Reynaldo Padilla, along with 350 bright-eyed children.  The boys wear black dress shoes, navy blue slacks and white shirts.  The boys’ shoes all look like they have played a lot of soccer.  The girls wear black mary-janes with white socks, navy-blue skirts and white blouses.  They look very smart and somehow they all manage to keep their clothes spotlessly clean.  The school consists of a dozen or so small concrete block buildings, each containing one or two classrooms, some very primitive toilets and a lean-to where a few ladies prepare surprisingly tasty snacks and small meals over wood fires.  The sandy yard between the buildings is the phys-ed facility.  The Director welcomes me to the school and takes me off in search of the English teacher and an unsuspecting grade eight class.

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Entrance to school yard

Waiting for class

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School cafeteria

Cafeteria kitchen – note refrigeration at lower right

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Athletic facilities

Some of my new friends

 

Sr. P. is a well-meaning, local fellow, who studied English as part of his degree at the University of El Salvador.  None of his teachers were native-speakers and he rarely meets anyone with whom to practice and improve.  I struggle to understand his English -- his students don’t have a hope.  While he is teaching, the students pay him no attention whatsoever and the noise in the room is deafening.  They talk to each other in loud voices, get up and walk around the room and even come and go through the door, while what passes for a lesson is in progress.  I find the noise and chaos very distracting.

At first, I am concerned that he might resent me coming into his classroom (teachers tend to be like that) and I’m unsure how I should offer to contribute.  I needn't worry.  Sr. P. is delighted that I am there, gives me an unintelligible and mostly inaudible introduction to the students and basically turns me loose.  I launch into my:   "Hello!  My name is Bob.  What's your name?  Nice to meet you!" routine; going around the class, shaking students’ hands and getting them to tell me their names.  They are stunned!   I'm pretty sure they have never seen a teacher act like this.  Some are too shy to respond at all and some of the older boys are already way too smart to learn anything in school and decline to participate.  Once over their initial astonishment, a few begin to respond – shyly -- but with big smiles.

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Sr. P. at work

Sr. P. – following my example?

 

Apart from the constant noise in the classroom, I am uncomfortable with the way the students all have their desks pushed as far to the back of the room as they possibly can, leaving a big empty space between them and the teacher.  Talk about obvious avoidance behaviour.  During the break, I try to convince Sr. P. to let me rearrange all the desks.  It takes some convincing because he is pretty dubious, but eventually he lets me pull all the desks to the front of the room and place them in circles around the board.   It is hilarious to watch the students’ reactions as they come back in after the break.  One young lad stops dead in the doorway when he sees the desks, turns around and goes right back out again.  Apart from having them all closer and easier to talk to, I can now walk around behind them and help the ones in the back rows.  Of course, the students in the back rows choose to sit there precisely so the teacher can't come around and pester them to participate in the lesson.  Especially, a teacher who actually looks at what each one has written, suggests corrections and (gasp!) tries to help them do it properly!  In a surprisingly short time, students are waving their notebooks, wanting me to show me their work.  Isn't it remarkable how quickly one gets hooked on a little praise and encouragement?  

At the very instant the class is over, the students all pick up their desks and march them to the very back of the room again!

When I first meet Sr. P. this morning, he is sitting with a grade seven class and I think we are going to teach them.  He introduces me and I get a few minutes into my opening introduction routine before he can get me stopped long enough to explain that we are actually going to a different classroom.  In that short time, I must make an impression, because a group of girls from that first class is waiting outside our grade eight classroom.  “Am I coming to their class tomorrow morning?” I explain that I teach Misael's family from 6:30 to 7:30, so I can't make it.  They look so crestfallen (and I never have been able to resist little girls anyway), that I say:  "OK, OK, I'll come!"  Now I just have to break the news to Misael and Francisco that they are being stood up for a roomful of 11 and 12-year-olds.

Next day, I arrive at school at quarter to seven to make sure I am in lots of time.  The classes are scheduled to start at 7:15, giving me time to have a breakfast made by the “cafeteria” ladies over their wood fires.  Sr.P. finally wanders in about 7:35 and we head off to class.  This is a good one!  There is still an unbelievable amount of noise, students talking and walking around, but in their own way, these kids are polite and attentive.  The teacher asks me to talk to them about Canada and invites them to ask questions.  Several of the less timid kids ask good questions and they seem interested in my attempts to describe Canadian weather in terms and vocabulary they can understand.

Next, he takes me to another grade seven class, but this time I get a rude awakening.  This is the worst group I have encountered so far.  They seem older than grade seven and they are loud, aggressive, disruptive and completely disinclined to listen to anything either of us might have to say.   Sr. P. can see that I am getting frustrated and starting to lose my patience.  During the break, he explains that this is essentially a special-needs class, many of whom probably suffer from learning disabilities, ADHD, fetal alcohol syndrome and who knows what else.  He supposes that, in my country, there would be psychologists and other support people to help these children but, here there is nothing of the sort. He just tries to be patient, encourage them as best he can and most of all, try to keep them coming to school.  He suggests they ask me questions about Canada.  Of course, they are not the least bit inclined to do anything of the sort; but after the break, six or seven of them pull their chairs up so close our knees are touching and barrage me with questions … and they keep on non-stop until the class is over.  By then, I have a very different concept of what I first took to be juvenile delinquents and gang-bangers.

 

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Typical classroom

My “gang-bangers” once we get to know each other

 

By the end of five hours of this, I am a dishrag!  I am also totally exhilarated!  Maybe I could learn to teach children!  I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that I am revolutionizing the educational system of El Salvador in a few short hours, but it might be possible that I bring a breath of fresh air and some energy into those classrooms. Maybe a handful of the kids will start to think that they actually could learn to speak English, given a little help and encouragement.

I arrive at school this morning about 8:15, just in time for Sr. P. to tell me we have a two-hour break before our first class.  We repair to the “cafeteria” and the nice ladies serve us coffee.  I expect the time to drag, but we are immediately mobbed by students.  The “gang-bangers” make a bee-line for me and crowd around shouting questions, joking and laughing.  A gaggle of grade six girls walks by, timidly peering sideways at me, looking like they might like to come over, but their courage fails them.  Instead, they scurry into their classroom and then they peer out at me through the windows.  Finally, led by a bolder ringleader, they rush bravely across the yard, cluster around and start peppering me with questions.  Before I know it, the two hours are up and we are off to our next class – I think grade seven.  When we arrive, Sr. P. gives me the news that he actually has pressing business elsewhere -- perhaps I might begin by teaching the numbers in English -- and vanishes out the door!  By now, I am such a veteran I don’t even bat an eye.  The class flies by; most of us enjoy it.

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The Ringleader

Some of the gaggle

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Sr. P. at coffee break

All students take turns sweeping classrooms and walkways

 

A teacher called Freddy joins me for lunch.  He would like to teach English, but knows his language isn’t strong enough.  Freddy questions me about grammar and sentence structure while we eat.  He is a pleasant fellow and we make plans to get together for dinner one evening. 

I think I am done for the day at this point, but an imposing lady teacher at the lunch table insists that I am coming with her.  Señora Estaraba speaks not one word of English and teaches social sciences to a grade four class.  The only clue as to why I am even going to this class is her remark that it couldn’t do her students any harm to learn a few English words.  In fact, I soon realize that Sra. Estaraba just wants me to look after her class while she sits at her desk outside the door and does paperwork.  Several times, I suggest that she might want to take a turn as I am running out of things to say and I really am out of my depth with this age group.  Each time, she shoos me back in with a suggestion of something else to try.  Finally, half way through the two hour class, I say:  “That’s it I’m going home.”  I started this morning at 6:30 am and have been teaching non-stop, inside and outside of classrooms, ever since.  In fact, this grade four class was one of the nicest I have been in yet.  The kids were more or less quiet and well-behaved, more or less interested in what I was doing and I quite enjoyed it.  With a little help and guidance from Sra. Estaraba, it would have been even better.  I don’t know what she taught for the rest of the period, but I went home for a nap.

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Señora Estaraba’s grade four class

Grade eleven students at work

 

The week was wonderful, but the employees at the resort are looking forward to getting their classes underway again on Monday.  I will miss the kids a lot; it was really fun working with them.  One grade eleven fellow is anxious enough to improve his English that he asks if he can come to my classes at Francisco’s house.  He promises that he will be there at 6:30 in the morning.  I won’t be surprised if he does.

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