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.
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.
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: