Karaoke competitions

Last week, I joined Andrea and Ellie at Fred’s school in Lanco. We were asked to judge their school’s annual karaoke competition. It was a very Katy Perry, David Guetta, and Sum 41-music-filled day. 

The first place winners

With Fred, Ellie, Andrea, a student, and the principal of Liceo Camilo Henríquez.

It was such a warm welcome from the Liceo Camilo Henríquez school. The teachers greeted us and thanked us for making the trip over to Lanco. They expressed such thanks for our work with the English Opens Doors Program.

Beautiful murals line the school’s hallways.

Getting out of Valdivia and seeing a more rural school was a great experience, as they really are two different worlds.

I definitely owe a post about the education world here. I have so many thoughts and observations from these past few months. I’ve been frustrated but also inspired after many conversations and experiences with students and other teachers. It’s helped me see the importance of making education development a priority.

That’s up next.

Chilenismos and Culture Shock

Culture shock.

The name sounds like it happens suddenly, like a strike of lightening. But not here. In Chile, it sneaks up on you. It’s a slow realization, that after many weeks, something feels off.

Sopaipilla stands are everywhere. There’s no spicy food in Chile, so just add a lot of aji sauce to give it some kick.

Living with a host family and working with Chilean colleagues has thrown me head first into total immersion, and it’s been an eye-opening experience.

Chileans are some of the most considerate and warm people I’ve met. I’m constantly amazed by the generosity of strangers and their quiet, reserved nature.

Here are some thoughts and observations from the past several months…

Spicy Food. There isn’t any. (Save for their great aji sauce.) I truly, truly miss this. I’d kill for some Indian or Mexican food right now. The south of Chile loves fish, stews, meats and potatos, thanks to the strong German influence down here. And while we’re on food, never eat with your hands.  Always use utensils. (Even with french fries.)

Making ’empanadas de mariscos’, a typical Chilean dish

“Once”. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day here. If you’re waiting around for another meal after 2pm, you’re  going to have to cross the border to Argentina. Most Chileans don’t eat dinner. Instead, you have “once” around 6-7pm. It’s a snack of bread, palta (avocado), cheese, jam, and coffee or tea.  I’ve been trying to figure out why they call it “once”, the word for “eleven”, but nobody seems to know. Hmmm…

Coffee. Getting your hands on a real cup of joe here is rare.  Instant Nescafe is pretty much the common drink.

Water. I’ve never seen a Chilean drink water. I remember people asking me, “Tienes caña?”, when I was sipping from my water bottle. (“Caña” means hangover.) I told them I was just thirsty, and got puzzled looks. Whenever I see people with water bottles on buses, it’s a dead giveaway that they’re not from this country.

Superstision. If you pass the salt to someone, it means you’ll fight with them. Don’t pass the salt directly to someone, but put it on the table when passing.

Toilet paper. Never flush it down the toilet. The pipes are very narrow, so people always throw it in a wastepaper basket next to the toilet.

Central Heating. Doesn’t exist. If you’re visiting Southern Chile in the winter, get ready for real cold.  I’ve spent a winter in Denmark, and even though Denmark is colder, their houses have insulation. In Southern Chile, it’s harder to get a break from the outside temperatures because buildings and houses aren’t really insulated.  Bring your fleece and under-armor!

Greetings. Chile is a country “de la piel”, or, “of the skin.” They hug, they kiss on the cheek, and they touch arms in conversation. In the US, we merely shake hands when meeting someone, and sometimes hug.

In Chile, you always give one kiss on the right cheek when saying hello and goodbye, or when being introduced to someone (Men always shake hands.) Even in the classroom, many of my students will line up to do this when they’re coming and going.

Family comes first. I’m the first exchange student my family has hosted. It’s been an incredible experience for both of us, because I’m the first North American they’ve experienced. This also means big cultural divides. In Chile, it’s common for guys and girls to live at home long into their late 20s. The family may not be used to your independence. I once told them I was traveling alone on a bus to Argentina and they were shocked. Communicate your plans, tell them when you’re missing lunch, and just be considerate to their way of life.

It’s also rude to close your door to your room. At home in the states, I would debrief in my room with music, but in Chile, I try not to do that as much.  Chileans spend a lot of time together, and it’s not normal to isolate yourself.

Elsa, my awesome host grandmother, and host brother Rudy.

Fernando checks out what the gringos are making for breakfast.

You won’t speak Spanish. You will speak Chilean.

There’s even a book called “How to Survive in the Chilean Jungle.

Chileans speak extremely fast. To make decoding more difficult, they drop the “s” and “d” from their words. So “Mas o menos” sounds like, “Mao Meno”.   “Pescado” (fish) sounds like “Pekao.”

And once you think you’ve mastered the sounds, you’ll then realize there’s a whole new set of vocabulary to learn. They’re called “Chilenismos.” Here are some of the most common…

Cachai? ” You put it at the end of sentences as a way of saying, “Do you get it? You know?” If you spend 10 minutes in Chile, you’re bound to hear this.

• “Po”. This is the quintessential Chilean word. It doesn’t mean anything, but they add it to every sentence. “Si po!”, “no po!”, and “Ya po!” are common. Use it emphasize what you’re saying or to contradict what someone else said. Or just use it whenever you feel like it and you’re instantly Chilean.

Al tiro (Right now/ Right away.)

Pololo/Polola (Boyfriend or girlfriend)

• Never ever say “adios” in Chile. It’s always “ciao” when you say goodbye. When you get out of a taxi or leave a store you’ll hear, “Gracias, chaao, chaaao!”

Weon. It’s an insulting and rude word, except when you use it with friends. “#PreguntasWeonas”was trending on Twitter recently. It means “stupid-ass questions”. It can be a noun or adjective, and it’s uniquely Chilean.

• “Te echo de menos”  I miss you

Cuico. Use it to describe something rich or of the upper social classes. Vina del Mar es muy cuico.

Fome. If something is boring or lame. Eso-es super fome!

Ok, now I’m off to catch a bus to Púcon. Hasta luego!

June Solstice

Today is the winter solstice, the longest night of the year in the southern hemisphere. In few days is also the Mapuche new year.

The Mapuche are the indigenous people of Southern Chile and Argentina, who  fought off the Spanish and Germans for hundreds of years. They keep their traditions and culture alive in modern Chile, and living here in the Los Rios region has brought me closer to their community. The New Year, or We-tripantu, is their biggest celebration. It’s a time of new beginnings. A new season.

Today, my friend Maribel gave me this new year’s gift. A fellow teacher at her school hand-made it from a small orange. It still smells like citrus. Tomorrow I’m traveling with her and some friends to the region above us where most of the country’s Mapuche people live. Until Sunday!

More Reflections on Teaching English Abroad

I can’t believe how fast three months have flown by. I’m just starting to get my feet and feel at home in this new country. Last week, all of the teachers in my region had a meeting with our regional representative here in Valdivia. We talked about our experiences so far, and gave some feedback. I had one “ah ha” moment during this day. As follows…

My seniors

“How is everyone,” the regional rep asked us, looking around the table. “Andrea,” he smiled, “You look so happy. That is good.” I had an ear infection and was drenched from the rainstorm I’d just walked through to get here. But I was smiling, and didn’t even realize it. And then I understood why. I had a cup of warm tea in front of me. I was inside a cozy room. I was surrounded by other familiar faces. Sincere appreciation of these little details is something I’ve noticed myself doing more and more here.

Here are a few of them: Falling asleep to the sound of rain on a tin roof.  Hot wine, or, “Navegado” on a cold night. Warming up next to a wood burning stove. The smell of the mountains. A conversation with someone selling sopaipillas. More simplicity, but also, more chaos. That’s Chile.

This English Opens Doors Program is a lottery, and everyone’s situation is unique. Some people were placed in Santiago, and they’re living it up with other foreigners in an international city. Others are in rural communities with populations barely above 3,000 people. Some of us teach at high-risk public schools, while others teach at semi-private “colegios”, with better resources and quality of education.

I read this quote somewhere yesterday, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” I couldn’t think of a better way to say it. But out of all of the personal transformations these last few months, it’s my student’s who’ve taught me the most. They teach me empathy, humor, and patience. They teach me about people, and how to understand moods and adapt.

One of my favorite groups. IV Medio B

It’s not easy. I have one class of 17-year-old boys who are extremely difficult on purpose. Their attitudes really suck, and teaching them in 45-minute blocks is always grueling. They clearly don’t want to be there, and getting them to do anything is a pain. But I try to act with empathy. Lately I’ve been sitting with them in the desks instead of standing up in front of the room when we start class. I think coming down to their level has caught them off guard, and so far it’s helped change the mood a bit.

III Medio B Class

However, what happened last week redeemed all of the stressful teaching moments. It was Wednesday, and I was having an off-day. I tired, and didn’t feel like leading class at all. It was the toughest day I’ve had at school so far. Even though I was still smiling and trying to get the energy together, one of my senior classes picked up on my mood.  When they left the class, I saw this on the board… It made my week.

English Debates

I’m so proud of my students!!!

Our team just ranked second in the first round of Chile’s high school debate tournament! If they pass the next round, we’ll go to the nationals in Viña del Mar.

One of our duties as teachers in this program is to form and guide a team of 6 students. We helped coach them after class, preparing both sides of the argument, “Organ donation should be compulsory.” All teams had to research both sides, because nobody knew which side they’d be arguing, or what school they’d be going against, until the day of the tournament.

I saw my students’ faces drop this morning when they found out they were debating with last year’s champions: Instituto Salesiano. (It was like we were the Oakland A’s about to go up against the NY Yankees.)  My students were already nervous as it was: the ominous microphone, a debate in their second language, and now this.

Right before they went on, I told them: do not worry about making language mistakes…just speak with passion. And they did it!!!

With their participation certificates before we found out they ranked 2nd. (Matius was so nervous before going on, but he nailed the closing speech!!)

About to go up against last year’s winning school. Our team is on the right.

First speaker…rocked it!

The team

Woot!! Inmaculada Concepción

Arte de la calle

Chile is a land of wilderness. Living here has brought me closer to the elements, the weather, and to the calmness of nature. I’m constantly amazed by the beauty of its quiet cities and mountains, but I also want to turn the spotlight  to its human-made streets. The art in the alleyways. Santiago and Valparaíso are known for their elaborate murals, but I’ve found a lot of beauty in the streets of Southern Chile as well.

Here’s a look at Valdivia and Puerto Varas…


This one was created during last year’s student protests. “The anger of the city”- Valdivia



Puerto Varas

Dali-inspired? Valdivia.



Poster announcing the a student march for May 16. -Valdivia.


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.

art 20

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: