Location Peru

Trying out different teaching techniques

By Posted on Location: , 4min read

This post has been hiding in my drafts. I wrote it just before the social unrest flourished into mayhem in October. It was written back when we taught students in real, chair and desk classrooms.


Unearthing a traditional Pachamanca cooked dinner
The connection is that I mention cooking somewhere in the text below…
Ollantaytambo, Peru
January 2020

“Ask her some questions.”

New class, new teacher, the same routine. Silence but for the rustling of backpacks and papers. Two minutes ago they were all looking at me, now the students stare at anything but me.

Then some timid voice dares sound. What sports do I do?

I beam an encouraging smile

It never changes. Every time we do this it’s just another awkward interview.

I gesture at the floor, “Now,” I say, “ I do yoga. I do yoga twice a week.” I gesture behind my shoulder. “When I was a child, I went ice-skating.”

A few more students ask questions, and then one young man asks, “What is ice-skating.”

I write the word on the board and draw an ice skating boot, all laced up. The students find my drawing amusing. I could have just given them a translation, but it wouldn’t have the same effect.

I’m on a mission to learn how to teach well

Teaching, after all, is very different from learning, and although I know something about how I personally learn a language. Teaching one is a constant challenge.

The sad reality is that many of my students won’t ever reach a conversational level of English. Before they get to me, many have spent ten years learning and forgetting the same things over and over again. When I ask them how their weekend was, they still draw a blank.

Although I have limited formal teaching education (for now), I do have a bunch of teachers who keep educating me on teaching theory.

One idea which has invaded my mind is the idea of scaffolding

I hadn’t heard such a word in the language teaching context until a couple of weeks ago when I was reviewing some text for a fellow teacher. He’s all very serious studying for a masters in this stuff.

Scaffolding is giving the student a helping hand that gets them further than where they could get on their own. It’s practical support. It’s what an active teacher is likely to do, frequently on a one-to-one basis, although the rest of the class may well be listening.

To think about what it means to me though, I have decided to take my imagination out of the classroom and into the kitchen.

This weekend, at the English Club where I help out, we’re doing baking with the children

They range from four to eight years old, so have different levels of skill – both in terms of egg-breaking and English speaking

As a tiny child, I used to cook with the Mother or with the Grandmother

There are pictures of me happily baking, stood on a chair in my Grandparents kitchen, and pictures of me sitting on the kitchen floor with the cake bowl on my head as I try to lick out the last of the mixture.

Send a small child into the kitchen with the instruction to bake some buns and leave them to it, and you won’t come back an hour later to the sweet smell of fresh-out-of-the-oven baking.

And yet, with some assistance, a small child can do most of the work

They can measure out the ingredients and mix them together. You might not want them to operate the oven quite yet, but they can load the bun cases with gooey-mixture.

As the adult, your job is to provide a safe environment and guidance so the children can do almost the whole thing by themselves.

The same goes for the classroom

The space we want to be teaching in is just beyond where the student can function by themselves. It has to feel safe. Sometimes we need to just give an occasional prompt, other times we need to say more, like holding the wooden spoon with them to give them enough power to blend the mix. Sometimes the support is visual, as in a drawing of an ice-skating boot, or takes on a physical gesture, such as indicating that there is a change of tense that they should be aware of.

Once the student can do something by themselves, the teacher should stop prompting. You don’t want the students to rely on prompts, you want them to practice creating their own phrases by themselves. When the child can bake for themselves, you can leave the kitchen and just enjoy the cakes once they’re done. No need for fuss.

For me, this is tricky

There is a point where I have to keep my hands still, my mouth shut, or speak lazily, with my accent, at my natural speed and with the vocabulary that I would normally use.

For teachers in general, doing this work is exhausting. It’s active and intense

No wonder many teachers set an exercise and then withdraw. I guess this is where having a language assistant helps. I can go through the class, often pair by pair, listening and correcting and encouraging the students to extend their conversation a little further.

And yet, it’s not enough. Despite my drawings and my enthusiastic pretending to skate across the classroom, the same student may well have forgotten what ice-skating is by next week. If he remembers, it was his question, his curiosity, so there’s hope, the other students in the class are still unlikely to. Ten years of English lessons and they’re still on the basic building blocks of the language.

It continues to bewilder me how some students speak and others don’t. It’s still a mystery.

“Catherine, your life is chaos” – The Grump

A local woman weaving in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Peru, January 2020.
[Written at the beginning of February.]

On the aeroplane between Lima and Cusco I tell my parents that I’m staying in Chile. I’ve asked my boss and he’s written the most wonderful recommendation letter and it’s confirmed, all I need to do is renew my documents and I’m sorted. I feel pretty chuffed with myself. As a dear South-African friend would say, I’ve got my ducks in a row.

It doesn’t last

A few days later whilst I’m on the plane from Lima to Santiago my boss sends me a message. Something in the bureaucracy has gone amiss. Perhaps funding’s been cut, perhaps there’s been some disagreement somewhere up the line, it’s not clear but either way, it’s nothing personal, but I don’t have a job.

This upsets me.

In the current jumble that is my life, the idea of some stability was soothing

I had a plan. I knew where I was going to live. Then reality struck.

Although I try to maintain a routine, reality doesn’t work that way. Ever since I arrived in Chile I’ve been battling to create a routine. I arrived in August. When we had a week of holiday in September, everyone else was overjoyed, I was frustrated and wanted to go to work because I’d finally begun to settle into a rhythm. A month later, when protestors took to the streets and the military curfew was placed upon us, I was the one who kept hoping that we’d soon get back to normal and I’d be able to go back to class.

It never happened.

Nope. We’ve gone from protests to online examinations to summer holidays

And I’ve felt like I’m spinning from one thing to another. Last week I was on holiday with my parents, then I was back in La Serena for the weekend and now I’m miles and miles and miles further south, wearing the most ridiculous pink woolly hat about to go hiking in the mountains.

It’s all proving quite a challenge.

This morning I was shaken awake by a bus conductor

In a friendly kind of fashion of course. I’d woken up in the bus station in Santiago which was where I was supposed to be, but disorientating all the same. Tonight, I’m in a hostel. Already this year I have slept in 12 different beds and home has not yet been one of them. By the time February ends it’s going to be twenty-something different places.

My poor body has no idea where it is or what it’s supposed to be doing next.

Despite all this, I am, more or less, managing it all

Me. The same woman who was only a few years ago struggling to manage simple tasks like cleaning one’s teeth is now juggling all this uncertainty. Tonight I am tired, but when I woke up this morning on the bus I knew what I needed to do. I knew how to look after myself.

I stepped off the bus and ate my banana and a cereal bar. I cannot make decisions on an empty stomach so don’t try to. It’s helpful to know one’s limits. Once I was thinking better I headed to the bathrooms to clean my teeth and get changed. I put on my make-up. It’s not that I wear make-up every day, but sometimes doing so makes me look more alive and therefore feel more alive.

There’s nothing elegant about doing your morning routine in the bus station’s toilets, but elegance is a luxury.

Then came the next bus, this one to the airport where I found myself squeezed into one of the few remaining seats. I didn’t head straight to check-in but stopped off first for coffee and a media-luna (croissant to you and me). Now I was feeling human.

Then came the first attempt at check-in where I found that I wasn’t on the passenger list

This led to a short debate with a woman at the (“this is not a”) help-desk to be reinserted on the passenger list, and a second more successful attempt at check-in. No surprise, I slept most of the flight down to Puerto Natales.

Nobody would have guessed that I nearly screwed up the whole thing by imagining that my flight was the day after it actually was. However, at the bus station back home in La Serena, the helpful man at a (“how can I help you”) help-desk came to my rescue and sorted out my wrong bus tickets without a fuss. So, in the end, there was no grand disaster.

What’s noteworthy here is that having made a mistake, I could have chastised myself. I could have played at criticism, but instead, I got myself a cup of tea and sorted out the problem. I dealt with what I could deal with and I did it whilst remaining calm.

For me, managing chaos comes down to not expending energy on the useless

Always, it’s a lack of energy that’s going to trip me up. Without energy my willpower is diminished and my decision making becomes disastrous. Amid chaos, there are so many decisions to be made. You need willpower to choose the helpful route rather than the easiest. This is why, in my experience, you should take a banana to your therapy session and eat it immediately afterwards, or consume a tower of marmalade sandwiches, just when your energy levels are crashing and you’re feeling rather raw.

Or before you head to the supermarket so that you have the willpower to choose the food you need over the food you want. Or when you wake up in a bus station and need to keep yourself from freaking out.

In fact, thinking about it, my management technique for chaos might come down to three ideas:

  1. When you’re tired prioritise sleep. If you can’t sleep, eat a banana. If you have to do something taxing, eat a banana. Don’t make decisions on an empty stomach. Bananas are great.
  2. If you have no idea what you’re doing or how you’re going to solve a problem, sit down and have a cup of tea. Don’t multitask here, simply have a cup of tea. If you’re so overwhelmed you can’t think straight to make a cup of tea – and it happens – simply sit down on the floor. If you have to sit down on the floor of the bus station, that’s okay too.
  3. This one is based on Rapunzel’s guide for intercontinental flights. Whenever you have a connection (maybe a metaphorical one rather than an airport style one), change your socks and knickers and don’t forget to brush your teeth. The father would add, wash and comb your hair. Clean hair helps a lot.

And it seems I have to throw the dice up in the air again, but the intention is still to stay in Chile a while longer…

Alpaca and guinea pig are both on the menu

The altitude is making my body feel all a tad disorientated. I’ve got my birthday cards laid out on the desk beside a cactus and a sign which says that should I want any more pillows to call reception. I have four pillows already, all for myself, so I should think that’s going to be unnecessary. I can also request a hot water bottle should I require one, or maybe I could request the filling of my mini-hot-water bottle which remain in the depths of suitcase number two. These days I am a two-suitcase woman. Suitcase number one awaits my return to Chile.

I am very pleased to be able to write that I now have a functioning computer and can write at a sensible pace. I have never been a swift typist on a telephone, I’ve always been a bit awkward with the touch keyboards. On the computer, I’m not fast, but I am significantly faster and what matters more, I feel at ease writing this way.

Through the balcony windows and out across the private garden I can see a fountain, water pouring through clusters of cheerful pink flowers. This is living in luxury and is, I admit, a bit of a contrast to my everyday life where I live on a not a whole lot. In the last twenty-four hours, I have eaten more meat than I would normally consume within a week. Peruvian food is good. It’s full of strong flavours and has a heat to it that Chilean food lacks. At lunchtime, I bit into a sweet potato and my mouth was filled with such sensations that I sat in my seat and stared for a while at what remained on my fork. So much flavour from a potato. And yesterday’s ceviche came with enough chilli that my eyes actually began to water, something which hasn’t occurred since I was in an Indian restaurant near the train station in Leeds.

Alpaca and guinea pig are both on the menu and the Father responds to this with his dead guinea pig impersonation which I used to think of as excessive silliness, but which I realise probably looks tame compared to some of my theatrical (histrionic) behaviour when I’m teaching.

Living with such a marvellous range of experiences, I’m pretty sure that I’m the luckiest person in the world. I get these moments of sweet wonder – I write from a fancy hotel in Cusco – but without living entirely in a money-padded bubble. I could not afford such a hotel, to eat such a volume of food or to be escorted around by a friendly chap called Julio Cesar or the nifty Lima traffic trained private drivers. Normally, I drag my suitcase along using my fierce muscles and get the bus.

And oddly I’m glad that at least at this point in my life I don’t have much money. I love my parents’ world, but I can’t help but feel that having substantial funds would give me a very different experience of Chile right now. In England, I am of course middle-class, even when I’m unemployed, but I’m told that no such thing exists in Chile. In a temporary exhibition on immigration in the human rights and memory museum in Santiago I saw a film depicting the views of Palestinians living in Chile, and one woman stated how in Palestine they have apartheid (based on religion and race) but in Chile, there is also apartheid, economic apartheid.

The teachers with whom I work fiercely declare themselves to be working class.

Because I don’t have much, I find myself overwhelmed by intense gratitude as I accept a refugee paying for my coffee. I bake English cakes in return and introduce my friends to that very British dish coronation chicken. One of my birthday presents is polka-dot bun cases, these are going to get used in my baking for the people for whom I feel affection. My money gets absorbed into airfares so I carry a flask with my tea in my bag and go for picnics on the beach rather than the fancy restaurants that my family can afford.

Right now, I, therefore, feel like I’m living in a fantasy. A cushy hotel in Cusco, a private guided tour of Machu-Pichu, birthday presents of expensive notebooks and quality shoes; it really is dream-like.