5/31/12

Teaching Ticos

In this post, Mark Sobel, who has been living and teaching in Costa Rica, discusses the sometimes extreme ups and downs of daily life in the classroom, teaching us that the best way to face it all is with a healthy dose of humor and honesty.


Teaching is sort of like…eating a jawbreaker. 


Wait, wait: hear me out.  You start out full of hope and excitement, looking forward to the long journey ahead, but then after hours and hours of work it seems like you have made zero progress.  It started out so sweet and new and full of color, but now at times it just seems bland and monotonous.  But then, wait!  Could it be that you have finally broken through??? Nope, false alarm. Just another unforeseen layer to work on.  Well, today was one of those days (with my kids not with jawbreakers…I don’t think they sell jawbreakers in Costa Rica unless they are plantain flavored), where my kids had the miraculous ability that only kids seem to have of taking me on an emotional roller-coaster ride from average, down to depressed, and up to euphoric all in about 12 minutes.


Physically, my classroom has a lot of strange juxtapositions.  The school itself is 66 years old and it doesn’t look like the exterior has changed much since it was constructed.  From the outside, my classroom looks like a tiny little green house…possibly even a large playhouse you would expect to find in a backyard.   I think the outside is misleading though, as the inside is really quaint…except for the 17 computers lining the walls.  I don’t have enough desks some days for my students and we are definitely not even close to breaking free from the clutches of the blackboard era and storming into the 21st centuries with whiteboards, but from an incredible donation, we have tons of computers with internet AND built-in English learning programs.  At first I felt almost overwhelmed by the technology and resources available to me to teach.  For a fleeting moment I even felt a little less useful and borderline pointless in the school since they had English learning programs on the computers to use, but I convinced myself that a real person is more useful…gosh I hope its true!  

The deal I set up with the kids is that if they are good during the week, we can use the computers on Friday, which naturally led to the students making the sad but true point that we almost NEVER have school Friday, so I told them whatever day of the week happens to be the last day of the week (which is unfortunately more often than not, Wednesday), we will use the computers.  Now, I thought this was pretty fair!  And the kids seemed to really like it and accept it...for a bit.  After all, if you give a 1st grader a cookie, he’s gonna want a glass of milk.  So today all of my 1st and 2nd graders literally threw a tantrum in the first 5 minutes of class because they wanted to use the computers and I told them that a) it’s only Tuesday and we never use them on Tuesday and b) we need to practice because they know they have a test on Thursday.  Nothing.  They were not having it.  And I was really surprised because I absolutely love these kids and honestly, most of the time they are twice as mature and patient as the 3rd and 4th graders who raise my blood pressure every class.  So after many minutes of trying to explain why we weren’t going to use the comps today and them just not understanding or accepting, I eventually teacher stared all of them and did the whole waiting in silence with a serious “I’m not mad, just disappointed” face until they all stopped talking. 


As a tiny backtrack: I start every class by asking them “how are you” and all of my students were sad because we weren’t using computers.  Okay, and we’re back to me teacher staring and them listening.  So two of my awesome 2nd graders, Brandon and Lauren (such tico names right? Though they are pronounced “Brahn-done” and “Lah-oo-ren”) kept telling me they were happy now, I think because they felt guilty, and I told them all that I was sad because they weren’t listening and because there was no respect in the classroom today.  So Lauren and Brandon starting rallying the other kids by asking them, “How are you?” and everyone would say “I’m happy” and then they all started chanting it.  Lauren then said what I think is the cutest thing I have ever heard:


"Pero teacher, si usted esta feliz, estoy feliz.  Pero, cuando usted esta triste, estoy triste tambien." 

(But teacher, if you are happy, I am happy.  But when you are sad, I am sad too). 


So now I have a classroom of kids looking at me like guilty little puppies and I am thinking to myself “What the hell happened? Are these the same kids that were just yelling and calling me mean 2 minutes before.”  And before I could even go to Lauren and profess my undying admiration for her, ALL of my students jumped out of their chairs and literally tackled me to the ground in a group hug and wouldn’t get off of me until I told them I felt happier.  I quite literally could not stay mad at them.  Maybe the love and respect of a 6 year old is superficial and fickle because all I really need to do is high five them for them to think I’m Jesus, but this was the first time any of my students really showed outward care for me. 


Since I have been here, I have been so busy trying to care for all of my students and even though it has been hard at times, I have perfected over the years  the skill of convincing the outside world I am totally fine when inside I am exploding (a skill I am trying to get rid of because its ultimately dishonest and unhealthy).  There have definitely been times here when I have felt alone and like there is nobody I could really go to who will understand my troubles.  I realized that this time in class was really the first time I had just let down my guard and let myself show my students how I was actually feeling instead of forcing a smile and just continuing with class and it was overwhelming to realize that the care is reciprocal.  

Now, maybe they just felt guilty because they knew my sadness stemmed from being mad at them, but I would like to think they just genuinely wanted to see their teacher happy.  Again, maybe the emotions of kids are too fickle to put a lot of stock in, but it's classes like that that make this job completely worth doing.

Are you interested in having an unforgettable teaching experience like Mark's? Then apply to our Costa Rica program today! The application deadline is October 15th, 2012.

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