Setting. Students. Sweat. Shouts. Surprises.
Many things will define your experience teaching abroad. Bryanna, a WorldTeach Colombia volunteer, elucidates that five things that have defined her experience so far.
The 5 S’s of Santa Ana: A Look at Living and Teaching on Isla Barú: Setting. Students. Sweat. Shouts. Surprises.
These five things have not only defined my experience teaching English and living in Colombia but also help explain my experiences here—what I have enjoyed, struggled with, and learned from life here. (Plus, who doesn’t like blog posts defined by alliteration?)
First, let me set the scene. Palm and jacaranda trees blowing in a hot breeze. Green bushes grow densely thanks to the rainy season where months before there was only khaki dirt lay. Honking donkeys and lowing cattle move through the streets, which are simultaneously rutted with mud and covered in dust.
Colombia is divided into fairly distinct regions, geographical features creating the borders, but climate, history, ethnicity, and more have shaped the different personalities of the diverse areas in Colombia.
And the coast of Colombia is no Bogotá (or Medellín or Cali…). Colombia has two distinct coasts, the more rural and remote Pacific Coast and the more developed Caribbean coast.
I teach 6th, 7th, and 8th grade at Institución Educativa de Santa Ana, in the rural community of Santa Ana, Isla Barú.
Located about an hour and half south of Cartagena (by the often exhilarating and energy-draining route of bus, ferry, and motorcycle taxi), on the upside I can boast about living on a Caribbean Island for a year. The downside of our remoteness and natural beauty are the ups and downs for the town on relying on tourism and fishing (as well as a good chunk of cash coming in from the fun/harrowing motorcycle taxis).
Because while the town of 5000 is not much to look at in itself (nice to walk around but is not exactly a tourist attraction), we are located only 20 minutes from Playa Blanca, which is assuredly THE beach for white-hatted retirees with money to burn and dreadlocked backpackers to visit as part of their Cartagena experience.
Without any paved roads (think billowing dust when it is dry and deep ruts of mud and pond-sized puddles after a rain), and streets dominated by small concrete houses, dozens of small shops, the ever-present traffic of donkeys, cows, and pigs, and the pumping sound of African- influenced champeta and vallenato music, Santa Ana is not exactly mentioned in the Lonely Plant guidebook. However, Santa Ana is certainly a community where a basic knowledge of English can help a family earn more money at the beach or get a job in Cartagena or at the mega all-inclusive (read: exclusive) resort on Playa Blanca, the Decameron. This was the first site in Colombia where WorldTeach volunteers taught and I am proud to be a small link in the continuing program.
The reason I am here is for the students. In short, I am a great believe in the power of education in changing communities and countries for the better. So I find my self in a sweltering classroom at the public school in this town of 4,500, asking students not to get frustrated, teaching the grammar structure of the present progressive and house vocabulary.
The school houses around 800 students – grades 6-11 in the morning (6:30-12:30) and 1-5 in the afternoon (12:30-5:30). Because of our proximity to Cartagena, the school is supported by many different foundations and gets money from random corporations. Our shiny new bathrooms (2010) bear a sign thanking Exxon-Mobil. Our army-green backboards on our concrete cancha (for soccer and basketball) are painted with the Jeep logo, thanks to donations of chairs and paint one random afternoon in March. We have a very nice library with air conditioning, a computer lab that got internet for the first time this year (also thanks to Jeep), and two classrooms with TVs.
There are thousands of schools without such resources, yet I still look around and know we could improve. The grounds are almost impassable after a rain, desks are in short supply and those we have are broken, the concrete floors and walls are bare of anything to inspire learning (such as maps, posters or student work), we have no science, art, or vocation labs or resources to think of, and the lights and fans don’t work in many classrooms. This last point means that I have a lot of classes that all congregate claustrophobically up front in order to sit under the working fans and that on dark, rainy morning in one class of 7thgrade only really the front row of students can see what’s written on the board.
Individually, I love my students, who can (when they want to) be sweet, caring, generous, and humble. Unfortunately, they don’t have a lot of great role models demonstrating these characteristics. Domestic violence and abuse are more common than I want to think about and while not bragged about, unfortunately accepted and students live a hard life no matter what.
Teachers here have it rough too and only a few put in all the work they should or come to work every day because they care about students. Almost all the teachers aren’t from Santa Ana (Colombia’s public school system, like many, places teachers nationally) and live in Cartagena. Santa Ana is definitely not a first-choice school for most – because they have to commute from Cartagena every day and its reputation of having lazy and badly-behaved students. So we have cyclical problem of assigning teachers who do poorly in their exams to their last choice of Santa Ana.
Still, that just gives us all an opportunity to be examples perhaps to not just the students (“what, teacher, you are not going to yell in my face?”) but to the teachers as well.
And what I like best about living in Santa Ana is that I can walk through the streets of the town (careful to avoid the piles of cow dung and the rivers of sludgy green water trickling down the middle of the streets) or off in the direction of the beach (and enjoy green hills, fields, and an amazing array of birds – while avoiding both donkeys and large Decameron charter buses racing down the roads) and meet my students.
As the only gringos in town, even kids that aren’t my students shout “Teacher!” “howareyoufinetsankyou!” or “morning!” (no matter the time) at me as I drip with sweat strolling past small shops and concrete houses. Tiny primary school students in their blue tartan Barbacaos pinafores give me shy smiles. My middle schoolers duck away with wide, wry grins and whisper their response to my “how are are?” worried if their peers will think they’re not “vancano” (cool) if they greet their teacher. Sullen high schoolers still in their red pants and worn ivory shirts break into a smile in response to my encouraging grin.
No matter if I am taking the bus to Cartagena, walking to the store, or at Playa Blanca, I am always “Teacher.” A label I am proud to wear and a title I hope I earn in and out of the classroom here.
Of course, while my life revolves around teaching and my students, on the surface, what defines my experience most is the climate.
On the coast, there are two seasons, the hot and humid and wet rainy season, and the even hotter but still humid but dry season. Temperatures thankfully rarely creep over the 100 degree mark, but the humidity gets you every time. Checking weather.com can just be depressing, especially because we know that we’re always a little hotter, a little more humid, and have less breeze than Cartagena. The page loads. “86°, feels like 95.” “88°, feels like 107.” 91°, feels like 112.” 92°, feels like you’ll simultaneously shrivel up in the waves of heat and drown in your own sweat.” You couldn’t pay me to take a hot shower here.
I sweat as I do my breakfast dishes, certainly as I walk to school. I wipe sweat off my face and neck as I teach and rinse it off at my sink after getting back from school or on an evening walk. I also sweat in the figurative sense planning for classes, trying to encourage students to study, to do better, to care. I break a sweat as my motorcycle barely avoids a cow in the road. And then I go back to regular sweat as it soaks through my clothes as I cook dinner and enjoy an evening in front of my fan.
Coastal Colombians shout a lot more than I am used to from U.S. Americans. I have to keep reminding myself that it is not always, strictly speaking, yelling at someone.
I do hear a lot of happy shouts in town. Students squealing for joy as they play soccer or kickball in the street. Babies bumping up and down on their mothers’ laps. Greetings and conversations shouted between friends at 10, 20 or 50 feet apart.
But there are a lot of not-so-happy shouts too. Couples arguing or parents yelling at their kids. Vendors or mototaxi clients arguing a price with enthusiasm. My students yelling across the classroom after someone steals their pencil, or fighting with each other after a disagreement over a soccer call during break.
Still, I think the happy shouts dominate. The loudest and happiest happen after dark. Nights where the electricity had for whatever reason gone out with a clunk, plunging the entire town into a homogenous black blanket. I sit on my bed, sweating with no fan, reading a book with a headlamp or using some of my precious computer battery minutes. Suddenly my fan goes on, the lights of the town appear and a loud jubilant cheer shoots through my window. Electricity back on and the happy shouts reflect the town’s appreciation.
But that brings us to the point that life for volunteer English teachers on the island is pretty good.
The eight of us here all live in the “Villa” on the campus of Barbacoas, the charter school in town, and get to enjoy most all the creature comforts of any U.S. city and wealth. When it works, we have running water in our rooms and kitchen, electricity to power our fans and refrigerator, our computers and lights, and even wireless internet in the teacher’s lounge.
We also have food delivered to our kitchen with stove and oven every week, with a salary (okay, more like a living stipend) that is only a little less than half of what some other teachers at my school make – and I don’t have to pay for accommodations, a lot of my food, or provide for a family. It can be easy to forget when I go back to eat lunch and relax in front of my fan after school that many of my students go home to little food or love, or head to work to help out their families.
I don’t know what I was expecting from life in Colombia. Certainly I knew the stereotypes were not the daily life of the majority (or anyone) in Colombia. But it is the surprises that help me through the hard days, that help me appreciate my amazing life here all the more.
It can be something as little as my favorite juice (passion fruit) at the school cafeteria. The running joke of how many frogs my roommate and I have found in our room since January (upwards of 70). A random hug or note from a student. A cool breeze after a rain. A student who had struggled in class passing a test. A gift of mangos from a man whose students go to my school though I don’t actually have them in class.
It’s a community. And a community that I feel honored has accepted that a group of strange North Americans with strange customs and a strange language will come every year with the best intentions to try to help just a little.
And whether that is encouraging a student to solve their problems in another way other than fighting, whether showing students that they can do the work and be creative, and maybe even also teach a few words and phrases in English, I hope our intentions are becoming something concrete that will change and improve the future of the town, and with it the country, region, and world.
Right now, the combination of setting, students, sweat, shouts, and surprises seems to be helping us all move in the right direction.