Tech Trip Report.
The observations in the report were made during observation and teaching hours conducted in various schools in the Cotopaxi and Pinchincha regions.
I – Educational system – motivation
I.I. Of the teachers
The new educational law states that a teacher cannot teach in two public schools at the same time, which was common practice in the past (teachers would work in one school in the morning, and another one in the afternoon, adding an extra salary to the household). Consequently, salaries dropped from an average of $1200 to $700, with the teachers having to stay at school from 7am to 3:30pm, with compulsory presence at school in the afternoon to plan their courses (they have to electronically check-in and check-out at the inspector’s office daily). As a result, teachers feel frustrated by this «waste of time». As a matter of fact, they do not generally plan their classes weekly, since they follow the national book. Instead, they submit a general yearly outline of their course (more or less copying/pasting the book outline) that is sent to the ministry of Education. I was very surprised to see that in any class I observed in Pinchincha and Cotopaxi, all the teachers follow the book line by line, not moving an inch away from the tasks assigned in the book. During the tech trip, I also realized that the new law is not applied nor respected everywhere: one teacher I talked to explained that she works in a private school, tutoring in the afternoon after 3pm, because she needs the money. Another one teaches at a university and consequently actually misses many of his classes at the highschool: because he is a respected teacher who sits at various educational boards, he is free to miss class without getting into trouble with the inspector. However, I also talked to an English teacher who said that she would be happy to help facilitate extracurricular activities after class even if she was not paid for that extra time. She explained that her colleagues would do the same, and that the school would actually have money for projects, but that the teachers themselves do not take the initiative to start projects (because of fear of failure? fear of too much involvement?). A volunteer at that site could could easily get human and financial support for great projects. However, being a facilitator and not a leader, as well self-sustainability ,might be challenges.
I.II. Of the students
Most students see the English language as a chore, a machine to get good grades, but not as a communication tool that can gives them opportunities in our increasingly globalized world. This is partly due to the teaching methodology. As stated above, because of the national curriculum, we can see the exact same lessons being given in the exact same way in any school at any time around the country as well as a desperate lack of communicative teaching methods. I also found that the teachers focus their attention on the higher level students, leaving behind the dozens of students who do not have enough previous knowledge to understand the texts or tasks. In most classes I observed, none of the students had to open their mouth once to speak English: they either listened or wrote on the board. As a matter of fact, the multi level issue was the most surprising learning experience of our tech trip for me. Teaching a class I had never observed before turned out to be challenging because of the variation of levels in the tercera de bachillerato class I taught. A handfull of students could have a normal conversation with me in English while 80% could not say « knife» or «spoon» (eventhough the technical major of this very class was cooking). Had I known this I would have brought handouts for the more advanced students who did obviously feel the activities were too easy. However our lower level activities fitted the level of the majority of the class, so this was satisfying.
I feel students are not motivated because they are not told about the opportunities / doors opened with English and a way to sparkle their interest would be to bring activities focusing on the global use of English (for example international cuisine activities for students majoring in cooking, penpals in English from around the world – maybe matching Tourism /English majors from China and Ecuadorian students at an isolated site, to show that English is the most commonly used language in the world and will be helpful to the students professionally).
The visit of the Milenio school in Zumbahua was interesting to me because eventhough the government puts a lot of money in the project (we visited several classrooms for really young pupils with smart boards, were very impressed by the computer labs which had more computers than any school we visited before – or than the public schools I went to in France, for that matter), the English class we observed was exactly the same as any other: the teacher’s level was beginner-high/ intermediate-low and she followed the book’s tasks. I have a -pessimistic- tendency to think that no matter how much technology the school has, if the teachers use the same methodology they have always used, technology will not make a difference in the students’ education or English level. Teaching at a milenio school located in an isolated site would be an interesting challenging experience for any volunteer for that reason.
II – Relationships in the work place (highschools)
The welcome ceremonies prepared for us PCTs were very touching and interesting. They were at times more «personal» (for example the English teachers of the Latacunga school who chipped in to buy a cake and flowers for Valentine’s day, and celebrated with us in the English teachers’ lounge – this was a personal initiative from the teachers, not from the principal of the school) and at other time very official, (for example in Pujili where we were received in the biggest room of the school with speeches by the director, the English teachers, indigeneous dances by the students that had probably been rehearsed for hours, food and drinks and even multiple costly presents.) I felt that these two different welcomes reflected two possible aspects of our service: a very high level of expectation (in a way the welcome we received in Pujili set the bar really high and I definitively thought «if Peace Corps doesn’t send anyone here, it would look very bad.») and the longing for cultural friendship/relationships on a more personal basis (the majority of the English teachers in Latacunga went out of their way to make us feel at home yet it didn’t feel forced or official).
Another observation was that the English teachers seem to have good relationships with the students, being the «friendlier» teachers.
The tech trip was also an eye-opener because eventhough we were told during training that some teachers do not want to work and that as PCVs, we will need to «chase» the teachers, facing that very situation made it finally «real». Assigned to work with one teacher at first, I was quickly told that she had to go to Quito for personal matters and could not co-plan or teach with me. As a result, I had to pair up with a teacher named X who also teaches at a university and is extremely busy, and obviously does not teach all of his classes. The first day at the school, I observed his class for 1h30 and it was then a happy surprise to actually be able to co-plan an entire 40-minute class with him. We confirmed that we would co-teach the three planned activities about table settings two days later, at 9:10am. The expected day, he told me at about 8am that he had a meeting and therefore couldn’t teach the class with me, asking if I could teach alone. I ended up co-teaching the class with another PCT at a different time because this very teacher did not know his own time schedule. As we got out of the classroom after teaching the class, we saw the teacher peacefully grading papers in the empty classroom next door. My conclusion from this experience would be to avoid at all cost working with such a counterpart, tactfully asking getting information from the school secretary or inspector about the various English teachers and their usual behaviors and schedules. This tech trip really made me understand the importance of finding ways to assess a teacher’s real motivation to work with a PCV co-teacher before choosing the four teachers I will work with. I also realized that co-planning will be very frustrating and I will need extreme patience.
III – Class management
In all the classes we observed (which had between 35 and 45 students on average), there were no major discipline issues and there was a very clear respect towards the teacher. However, in each single class that was observed, it was obvious that the students at the back of the class did not do the work assigned, working on other subject tasks, speaking in Spanish to each other, drawing, texting. The various teachers did walk in the classroom but did not manage to get the students engaged with the work at all time. I assume that the lack of real assessment of knowledge, the monotony of the teaching methodology (all straight out of the book) and incredible difficulty of the tasks assigned (for example: a class of students aged 12 reading a text about the environment that included very technical vocabulary terms about air and factory pollution) are reasons for the lack of interest of the students.
IV – Example of class observation: Decimo – 34 students
The teacher I observed went on a Rotary exchange abroad (U.S.) and I believe his teaching methodology was influenced by this experience. Therefore he is probably not the «typical» small school Ecuadorian teacher. For example, eventhough he followed the book tasks, the teacher started by a 10 minute warm up activity that consisted in reading a short love poem in English and Spanish for Valentine’s day (this was not in the book and he had looked for it outside of the official curriculum). He then asked the students to tell him what they had learnt in the previous English class: the students talked about birds, global warming and hunters but did not make full sentences. The teacher proceded by having students read the directions for task one in the book and I was pleasantly surprised to see that he actually had students stand up and work in pairs (catering both interpersonal and kinesthetic intelligences) in a question/answer task about how to protect the environment, using frequency adverbs. He modeled the activity with a higher-level student. His closure activity consisted on asking the students to create (individually) a poster about saving the environment. This activity was too difficult for the students who had not acquired enough background information to work individually on this task.
As far as discipline is concerned, the teacher was very successful in my opinion as long as he was in the room: he never sat down at his desk and kept walking up and down the aisles checking on students’ work, he never spoke Spanish, even answering in English when his students asked questions in Spanish. As a result, the students were well-behaved and did not talk to each other. However, the teacher left the classroom three times (for about 5 to 10 minutes each time) after having assigned a task. As soon as he stepped out, most students started talking, cheating or even throwing papers at each others. Another non-discipline related surprise was to see that he gave homework to his students. It was unexpected because it seems that the norm is not to give homework (since the president explained on the radio that students should not have homework on week-ends because week-ends are for family time.)
All in all, the tech trip really helped me envision what my work will be like for the next two years. It will require a lot of observation, patience and tact to first choose the teachers I will work with and then to help them realize that communicative activities in the classroom are not impossible nor a waste of time, but actually help keeping the students’ interest for English alive, helping them see English as a communication tool and not as a mere «good-grade machine».