For the past 9+ months, I am sure many of you have asked, “do you actually work?” Well, my friends, with just a few weeks left of this wild adventure of mine (and only a few days of classes left), I am here to tell you that yes, yes I do work. Quite a bit actually.
I spend 20 hours a week teaching. That might seem like just a part-time job until you consider that those are 2-hour class periods that meet between 7 am and 9 pm. And lucky for me, I have at least one of every time slot between that huge window… and it is all crammed into Tuesday- Thursday. That also doesn’t include all the time I spend outside of class lesson planning, grading, meeting with students, meeting with professors, or overall just thinking about my job. Some of my classes have a manageable 16 students, and another class has a sometimes overwhelming 41 students. Between working three days a week here, one day a week in the highlands, and traveling the rest of the time, you can say I am pretty pooped. But I wouldn’t have asked for it any other way.
One of my main reasons for applying for a Fulbright in Ecuador is that it is advertised as working with students who are training to be ESL teachers. In reality, I work with students who are taking English only for suficiencia, or as the foreign language requirement to graduate. Since English is the only language offered here, all students are required to take it for 3 semesters.
Needless to say, it was a struggle at first, as I felt like I was constantly working against the flow of trying to work with students who a) didn’t want to be in my class and b) were terrified of me. Understandable. Around the New Year, though, I saw a noticeable shift in all of my students, as after those first few rocky months we finally all figured it out and English suddenly became a fun and enjoyable challenge. And as for me, it doesn’t bother me one bit anymore that I am not working with the future ESL teachers I thought I would have.
This semester, I have worked mainly with the level 1 (first semester) students as well as with one level 2 course and one 3rd (and final) level class. I have loved being able to start from the beginning with these students and get them excited about learning another language from the start. I am only sad to know that I won’t be able to be with them through the end! Liana and I also host a conversation club two nights a week that is open to anyone in the community (not just the university) and is more of an informal, advanced setting to practice English.
I work at the Universidad Técnica de Cotopaxi, Extensión La Maná. The main campus is in Latacunga, 3 hours away on the other side of the mountains. The main campus, or la matriz, was founded 21 years ago, and the extension here in La Maná followed 12 years ago. There are approximately 1,000 students here at UTC- La Maná, and there are 8 carreras, or degrees, offered. The university is mainly housed in one large, 4-story building, but there is also another building (Block B), a cafeteria, a thatched-roof outdoor sitting area, and a seed freezer. There is also a mysterious Block C a bit of a distance from the campus, but I have never been there.
The university system in Ecuador has recently undergone major changes in the past decade, including a new accreditation system that shut down dozens of universities across the country, requiring all professors and faculty members to obtain a PhD (despite the fact that only one university offers PhDs in the entire country), and implementing a testing system for all students to determine where they will study and what major, or “career”, they will pursue. There are a lot of politics and complicated aspects of these sweeping reforms, but I won’t get into those now.
It is hard not to constantly compare my experience here at UTC with my experience at Bowdoin. At 222 years old, Bowdoin is clearly much older than UTC. There are approximately 1,800 students at Bowdoin, so not too many more than there are here. There are over 40 majors offered there compared to the 8 here. Bowdoin is a liberal arts college whereas UTC is a technical university. Bowdoin is private and UTC is public. 99% of Bowdoin professors have PhDs (and the remaining 1% are in the process of getting theirs) (#tourguidefacts). There are 2 PhDs here, and they are both from Cuba since most Ecuadorian university professors and faculty members are still in the process of getting their PhDs (mostly in other countries). Cheating or plagiarism at Bowdoin is a ticket for [almost] immediate suspension or expulsion from the campus, whereas here it is seen as “collaboration.” Creativity and independent thinking at Bowdoin is encouraged and fostered, whereas here the education system boils down to the teacher standing at the front of the class and the students copying it down.
It’s not to say that one system is better than the first. It is to say, however, that one of my greatest challenges here has been trying to look at things without the obstruction of my own reference point. For example, the reference point of copying others’ work that I have from the United States is that it is bad and should be punished, and independent thinking and personal motivation is celebrated and expected. Here, collaboration and sharing of everything is the culture. Does that mean my way is superior? Not at all. It just means it is different, and much of my time here has been spent trying to understand and respect those differences.
On a professional note, my time here has really been influential in my career as a teacher. I am grateful each and every day for all that I learned as a student at Bowdoin in the Education Department, as it made my ability to transition to this new environment that much easier. Despite the fact that I am in a different country, a different education system, and conducting classes in a language different than my own, I came equipped with the confidence and comfort at being in front of a classroom, and for that I am eternally grateful. (Big shout out and thank you to all at Riley House!) Next January, I will be returning to Maine to complete my Bowdoin Teacher Scholars– my teaching certification– and I know I will return feeling much more confident not only in my Spanish abilities (as I want to be a Spanish teacher), but also in my skills as a teacher.
In summary, my work experience here has been quite a whirlwind. I have an eclectic but great mix of colleagues, I have bad days and I have good day, and I have to work with the ever unpredictable system here (i.e. learning that classes are cancelled one day but only after I am at the university with lesson plans in hand). Somedays there are chickens strolling in the courtyard or cows and a tiny donkey chowing on the lush grass right outside the gate. On top of that, I have to teach in a language that is not my own. Since my students are just learning English, it is impossible to effectively conduct a class entirely in English, so I have to resort to Spanish more often than not. This has actually been a really positive experience, though, as my students and I have been able to learn another language together and share in that challenge.
I am currently in the midst of my final week here at UTC. Despite the fact that these past few weeks have been quite challenging and I am feeling ready to go home, I am also feeling a big pit of sadness at leaving my wonderful students here. Even when I am having my worst of days brought on by the daily struggle of living here, my students’ smiling faces, willingness to learn, and the positive relationships I have forged with all of them makes all that other stuff simply fade away. I have been completely overwhelmed at the love and kindness they have shown me this week with a series of beautiful despedida (goodbye) parties, and I know I will always remember these students and my year here at UTC La Maná. It is hard to believe that in exactly two weeks from today, I will be on a plane headed back to the US for the first time since last October. I will try to squeeze in a few blog posts by then, as I know these next few weeks are sure to be a roller coaster ride!