Teaching in Chile 101

Some of my 4 Medio students- one of my favorite groups to teach.

I just finished my first week of teaching solo.

I frequently have moments when it hits me all over again that I’m actually teaching abroad. Me and Ellie call them, “OMG I’m in Chile” moments. I have them daily. It usually happens when I’m standing up in front of the class. I’ll turn to write something on the whiteboard, and then I’ll turn back around and see 20 teenage faces staring back. It’s surreal.

I’m at semi-private, Catholic school, with nuns, fresh whiteboards, and a big library. It’s luxurious compared to the country’s public schools. The opportunities and quality between the two kinds of schools runs deep. Children in public schools don’t start learning English until 5th grade, while children in semi-private schools get years of a head start.

I teach 8th graders through seniors in high school. In Chile, elementary and middle school education is called “basico”, so level “8 basico” is like our 8th grade. High school is “medio,” so freshman are 1 medio, sophomores are 2 medio, and so on.

I have 24 different classes, for 25 hours of teaching a week (this doesn’t include lesson planning, or giving workshops to the local English teachers network.) Each class has about 12-25 students, meaning I see over 300 students every week. Memorizing names IS challenging, but I try, one by one.

I work with a local Chilean teacher, taking half of the class to another room for 45-minutes and then we switch. My co-teacher enforces the grammar and writing, and I’m supposed to develop their speaking and listening skills.

It’s only been one week, and I quickly learned that teaching in Chile requires a huge amount of patience, but most of all, an ENORMOUS sense of humor. It’s a bustling beehive of (organized?) chaos, and classroom management is the key. When students can barely understand English, keeping their 15-year-old attention spans makes the job more tricky. But if you stress out, the students will sense this.  All of us teachers  arrive here with ideas of how we want our classroom to run, but once you’re here, you  realize it’s not going to happen exactly as orientation had you expect. Accepting this is not not giving up; it’s just adapting, and the sooner, the better. As our orientation told us in Santiago, “Be like liquid. Take whatever form you need to take in any given situation and just be.” Ok.

So far, I’ve bonded with my 4 medios the most. They can get my sarcasm and comments, and they crack me up with their own. We actually have a lot of fun, sitting in a circle and chatting. Unlike my hyperactive 8th graders or too-cool-for-school sophomores, the seniors’ hormones have  balanced out enough for them to act like humans again.

I start each class teaching the “slang word of the day.” For the debate topic with my 4 medios, we talked about privacy issues and social media. They got really into it.

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A poster for a 2011 education march in Valdivia.

But you can’t teach in Chile without noticing the seething tension within the education world. It’s one of the continent’s wealthiest nations, but all of the wealth is concentrated in very few people. When it comes to income, Chile is one of the most unequal countries in the world.

It wasn’t always like this.

In the early 1970s, socialist president Salvador Allende made education free, but when right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet (with the “help” of the U.S. CIA) overthrew Allende in 1973, he privatized Chile’s school system. After the military dictatorship ended in 1990, the education system remained.  Now, of all the OECD countries, Chile gives the least amount of funding to its public education, and the country’s university fees are some of the highest in the world.

This is the fuel of the student protests. They’re calling for an end to the privatization of schools and a quality education system that is accessible to all social classes.

Before my 8am classes, I sit in the teachers lounge, drinking coffee with the other staff. One of the other English teachers told me her son is enrolled in the local, German language immersion school. She would rather have this than he attend one of Valdivia’s public schools. “It’s so, so bad here,” she told me of the country’s education system.

"Free education!" Valdivia.

“Free education!” Valdivia.

If you’re thinking of teaching here, or just want to know more about the education issues, this is an incredible video from Al Jazeera on the background of Chile’s education system and the widespread protests:


Pucón: las mas grandes aventuras de mi vida

It’s been an intense weekend. On Saturday, we went white water rafting. My raft flipped in the middle of a rapid, which was easily the scariest experience of my life. Luckily, everyone made it out safely. Other than that, the weekend was smooth sailing.

Since it was Semana Santa, or Easter weekend, we all had Friday off, so me and the Los Rios and Araucanía region teachers headed to Chile’s outdoor adventure capital: Pucón. It’s a popular vacation town for Chileans and tourists, right on Lake Villarica, with the smoking Villarica volcano looming in the distance. It reminded me of Lake Tahoe: touristy and rustic. The entire town smelled like fresh air, woodburning stoves, and the mountains. I loved it.

Lake Villarica in Pucón

It was pouring rain when I arrived in Pucón, and I waited for the rest of the team to arrive: Fred, Andrea, Dominique, Ellie, James, Sophie and Gabriel.

The first night in, we headed to the town’s famous hot springs. The Los Rios region is known for them, and Pucón has dozens, heated by the volcano. We went to the Termas Los Pozones, which are open 24 hours, and a 40-minute bus ride from Pucón.

Termas Los Pozones!

They’re in this small canyon in the mountains, hidden away from the world. During the night, it started pouring rain, which was the most awesome feeling. Sitting in hot water and feeling cold rain on your face and shoulders.

Los Pozoles pools.


The team! Before the white water.

We went from one extreme to another. The next day was white water rafting. We had met some Belgians from our hostel who were staying with their Dutch friend, David, who works for one of the town’s white water rafting companies. We decided to give it a shot.

It was pouring rain when we woke up on Saturday, but we decided the show must go on. We piled into the van and drove 45 minutes out to the Trancura River.  Once at the shore, it was time for safety talk. We went over rowing, the different commands, and how to sit in the raft.

“Now, what happens if you fall out?” David asked us.

We all listened closely.

“Rellaaaaaax,” he smiles. “You’re in South America. Just relaaaax, ya know?”

We all just stared at him.

He finally tells us that the most important thing to do is immediately lie on your back, with your toes out of the water. You don’t want your feet to get wedged between rocks, which can be deadly if you end up trapped underwater.

Once out in the river, we practiced the commands. “Jump left/right” is what you do when you need to balance out the raft if one side is starting to tip. “Get down!” is what you do before going over a waterfall, basically kneeling inside the boat. It was finally time to go. We were about to go through class IV rapids. Before we reached the first one, David paddled by in his kayak, splashing us with his oar in order to get us ready for the cold waves ahead.

Our first manuever was a 9-foot waterfall, which was pretty exhilarating! Things were going great until our raft got to the first rapid. “Paddle right!” the guide shouted, and then, “Get down!” as we slammed into the white water. We were tossed around the waves, flying up into the air and slamming back down on the river. I suddenly realized how light our raft was with only four people.

All I remember next was the guide screaming, “Jump left!”, right before our boat flipped. The next thing I know I’m in the river, inhaling water as we were all pulled under. James ended up under the boat for a few seconds, but me and Sam were tossed away from it. My first thought was, “You’re wearing a life jacket, it will be fine.” I managed to get my head above the waves for a second, but the water was everywhere. I just inhaled more and started choking. Sam was suddenly next to me in the water, pulling me up by my life jacket and holding onto our overturned raft. He yelled for me to kick my feet up like you’re supposed to. I’m so glad he was there at that moment, because it snapped me out of the panic.

We rode out the rest of the rapid this way. I finally saw David’s bright yellow kayak next to us in the water, and we grabbed onto the rudder. We made it to calm water!

The other raft pulled up alongside us. We gave them the thumbs up, and I reluctantly got back in the boat.

We went over a few more waterfalls, and I began to feel a bit better when we made it through each time.

We finally pulled our boats over to the banks again. “See that,” David pointed out to a huge drop in the distance. “That’s a class 6 rapid. We’re going to skip this one.”

Class 6 is the highest ranking, basically considered unraftable. The plan now was to climb up the side of the mountain, and start again at the bottom of the river. . (The guides lowered the rafts over the little cliff with their ropes.)

Just when I started thinking the day couldn’t get any more crazy, David runs and jumps off a cliff into the water below.  “Your turn!” he yelled back up to us. This was where I drew the line. I’d already had my experience swimming today, so I took the safe route and climbed down the side of the mountain with Sophie and Gabriel.

Once back on the shore, I switched rafts. I wanted to be in a boat with more weight, and I immediately felt more comfortable. We went through one more massive rapid, and cheered the others on as they made it through.

After an hour of rafting, we made it back to shore. David’s friend was waiting for us with coffee and pisco sours on the banks of the river. Everyone from my capsized raft took a shot of pisco immediately. Much needed.

Ellie, Me, Fred and Sophie.

Team England

Walk to the Pozones hot springs.

Cazuela, a typical Chilean soup with rice, potatos, chicken, and squash.


Sunset outside the hostel.

Lake Villarica

Villarica Volcano. It’s smoking from the top!

During the night, we sang karaoke in every place we could find, and this song was everywhere. It’s the #1 song in Chile right now. The video is ridiculous. (South America’s Justin Beiber?)

Estoy en Valdivia!

I’ve finally arrived! After a goodbye cocktail at the hostel, many of us began shipping out to our regions that very night. One of the EOD staff dropped me and two other volunteers off at the bus station, where we went our separate ways.

I took a 11 hour overnight bus down to Valdivia, while the others went north to the Atacama desert. The buses in Chile are extremely nice…basically tour buses. I was nervous saying goodbye to all that had become familiar in Santiago, especially my English-speaking group. All I knew was that my host family would be waiting for me when I arrived in Valdivia. Into the unknown!

It was a smooth ride, except for the bus breaking down at 7 am. Since I barely speak Spanish, I had no idea what going on as everyone began pulling their luggage off the bus in the middle of this random town. Half asleep, I followed along with the masses. Eventually another bus showed up to take the group to Valdivia.

It was a few hours before arrival when I started to feel nervous because I would be meeting my host family. I didn’t know anything about them except their names. I’m pretty good at adapting, but this suddenly felt very crazy.

Now one week in, I will say, my host family is amazing. Right when I stepped off the bus, I was surrounded by kisses. The mother, Zandra Palma, and her 16-year-old daughter, Karen, were waiting for me. They live about 10 minutes from the center of town.  They also have a 11-year-old, Rudy, who’s a football fanatic. In Chile, you’re either for Universidad de Santiago or Colo Colo, the two national soccer teams. I saw Rudy’s poster on his wall, and asked “Universidad de Santiago?” He nearly died. “Nooooooo! Es eso Colo Colo!” It is official. I’m now for Colo Colo.

Karen’s room is covered with  photos of Luis Fonsi, a Puerto Rican singer. I asked her what other kind of music she likes, and she points to her walls, “The romantic kind!”  Part of my room is covered with these photos as well. I’m surrounded by photos of beautiful Latin men. Gracias, Karen.

On Sunday, the aunt, Tia Amelia, and the grandma Elsa came over for a huge lunch.  Even though my Spanish sounds like I’m 4-years-old, I managed to talk to Elsa for a  while about life and North Americans.  I usually just throw out a verb that I think is right,  and see what reaction I get. That’s how I measure how much they can understand, and if I’m close enough to the right tense. Trial and error. Una y otra vez.

The family doesn’t speak any English, so all communication is in charades and simple Spanish.

No matter what, Chileans are the most warm people I’ve ever met.

In a few hours, I’ll start classes at Instituto Imaculada Concepción, a Catholic school in the middle of town. It’s right next to La Ultima Frontera, one of the town’s most popular bars. Good urban planning.

So much has been happening these past few days. My life is a whirlwind of just going with the flow. As one of the English Opens Doors staff told us, “Be like liquid. Just take the form of whatever you need to…and just be.”

Anyway, time for some photos…

Marshall, me, James, Sarah and Leanne. Last night in Santiago.

The VS3 group! Our Last night in Santiago before shipping out to our regions.

Karen! My host sister in Valdivia.

Luis Fonsi. Karen’s idol.

the house!

Host family!

Me and Rudy, the 11-year-old.

Zandra, my host mom.

Pacific Ocean :)

Valdivia’s bar in the sky. Just sit here with your drink. Apparently 7pm is too early for happy hour here, so Fred, Andrea and I just tried out the couch.

A view of Valdivia while you use the women’s restroom. Yep.

Valdivia is Chile’s beer town. This is some local brew, Kunstmann Bock.