“So the new teacher has come to this class to help you work on your skills of summarising texts. Over to you, teacher.”
It wasn’t exactly the introduction I had been expecting nor the handover I’d anticipated when I’d agreed to support one of the teachers in her class.
Her year 7 biology class to be more specific. Nor did it help that she was expecting me to lead the class in techniques to summarise a text.
Which I hadn’t read.
And was in Spanish.
One of most important skills I’ve learned while being abroad is how to deal with any situation without panicking.
Often as a foreigner you find that peoples’ expectations of your contributions start pretty low, which generally means that you can only ever exceed them.
I read out the text in what I hoped was my clearest Spanish. I gave instructions (which were marred somewhat by my inability to retain the word for ‘underline’ for longer than five seconds. The teacher helpfully translated). I wandered around the class, prodding the slow movers into action, raising my eyebrows at the gigglers and confiscating the ball which was doing much to divert a group of boys’ attention from the task in hand.
I felt like I was back in the UK, in my classroom and surrounded by my previous students.
It all seemed so strangely familiar, yet utterly different.
But no, I was in Maragua: a tiny village around two and a half hours from Sucre.
It is accessible only via a dusty road which climbs through the mountain and treats the traveller to splendid views across the convergence of sheer-faced mountains and gentle valleys, all from the viewpoint of a narrow dirt road flanked by terrifying vertical drops.
I was there as part of my volunteering with BiblioWorks, an NGO that helps to fund new libraries and support communities in using them effectively.
My purpose was to work with the teachers and students, making BiblioWorks’ school library there a resource used and valued by all. When I arrived, I had also been asked by a number of teachers to support in lessons, either in English teaching or to lead activities to aid reading for meaning.
The school serves both the village of Maragua (or Marawa as it is known in Quechua), as well as families from much further afield. With only around 500 inhabitants across the entirety of the crater, the village is nothing more than a dusty dirt road, finding at one end a small chapel, and at the other the more modern buildings of the ‘internado’ or boarding school.
A far cry from the British concept of boarding schools, the internado houses the children from villages in the local area who live too far away to return home every night, and instead live in the school during the week.
To my surprise, the classrooms themselves are well-constructed when compared with the adobe brick houses of the rest of the tiny village.
Built from locally-sourced stone and brick, they are sturdy and water-tight, if almost entirely bare of any posters or work which might indicate that the rooms spend their waking moments filled with children.
Two enormous whiteboards line one wall in each room, while the numbers of desks vary considerably depending upon the size of the year group: whereas the final years of primary school and secondary school are notable by their number of children (peaking at around 25), those in the early years and those approaching the end of their school career are marked by the opposite.
Evidently some children do not make it to school for the initial few years, whilst others never finish.
Each morning, a bell rung by hand summons the children to the opening of the school day: from my lodging in a rented cabin, I watch them make their way to school.
Many wear ill-fitting clothes – most likely hand-me-downs from siblings – and the traditional Bolivian leather sandal that functions regardless of weather or temperature. Others are clearly draw from wealthier farming families, evidenced by the fact that they are equipped with fake Converse shoes and warmer looking jumpers; better protection from the chill of the altitude which is felt most acutely each morning and evening.
At every available opportunity, I attempt to engage the students in conversation: either a quick “hola” or “¿cómo estás?” or a more detailed question about where they live, or which class they prefer or what they are studying.
The younger ones immediately close in on themselves, shyly smiling into their hands or changing direction away from me so as to avoid my questioning. The older students are politer – they wish me a good morning or answer me, evidently surprised by the fact that I can speak some Castellano. Some plead with me to help out in their English lessons, offering a handful of English words as part of the bargain: hello, how are you? What is your name?
The teachers are similarly reticent to begin with, clearly unsure of my language capabilities, and unaware of the usefulness of the library which has been in place for the past three years.
Over break time, my offers of reading classes, English songs and other activities in the library lead to promises of Quechua lessons and a willingness to open up to me about Maragua and Bolivia.
I spend the week watching, listening and being enthusiastic.
Many of the activities that take place in the classrooms are the stuff of British teachers’ nightmares: copying. In English classes, children show me exercise books full of expressions and sentences which mean as much to them as the words of Quechua that I hear exchanged in the playground. Children work from textbooks, copying diagrams or answering brief comprehension questions to show their learning.
I’m not convinced much learning takes place.
Yet the students are happy and most are motivated, or at least in some subjects. I am clearly a wonderful novelty: they are desperate to prove to me how well they know numbers in English, or show off how they can write increasingly more complicated sentences.
There are a handful who come to the library afterschool each day to read; they finish stories and call me over to tell me about what they have read and how it made them feel. Each evening, we experience at least five power cuts and one boy attempts to continue reading regardless, peering through the blackness at his book.
By the end of the week, I don’t quite feel like the alien entity which I clearly was when I was presented to the school in that first assembly; looked over by a hundred pairs of eyes with a mixture of interest and confusion.
Students now happily greet me, or voluntarily wish me a good morning, whilst the younger children now even stand still long enough to talk. I share a meal of vegetables with year six: grown by their own hands and cooked in a smoky wood fire on the outskirts of the playground.
My initial nerves at teaching in another language have been replaced by excitement and enjoyment: I’ve realised that I’m actually missing teaching a little.
I leave the village on Friday afternoon on the back of a 4×4, viewing the crater disappear as it mixes into the dust that is thrown up from beneath the car’s wheels.
We pass children returning to their families along their weekly one- or two-hour walk, and I wave to them, enjoying the looks of amusement and surprise that passes across their faces as I do so. They disappear behind the clouds of dust as we finally leave the valley and head back to Sucre.