Monday, June 28, 2010

for a fellow traveler

Katie is coming to Chile with WorldTeach next month, and she said nice things about the blog and asked if I had any advice for coming. I'm sure this blog has dozens, if not hundreds, of readers who will be or are considering teaching English in Chile, and as the saying goes, "Brevity is for other people," so I thought I'd make my response into an entry.

First, for packing, I've found it's nice to have both medium- and heavy-weight long underwear tops and bottoms. My house is up a hill in Valparaiso, and it's usually 10 degrees colder inside than out. Places like Quilpue and (even more) Limache seem to be colder. For teaching, though, since I'm always moving around the room, I've only needed the mid-weight bottoms.

I've also found it useful to have copies of English In Action and Basic English Grammar, as guides for what to do with more advanced groups. The WorldTeach training focuses on the very basic level that's likely to take up most or all of your time. But some of us have gotten advanced groups, or a group that wants to learn more than they can in the regular classes, and since I have no ESL background, the books are great to see what experienced people think is a reasonable curriculum, and to draw on for ideas. You have some ESL experience, so of course if you've already got your groove on, go with it.

As for actually being here...

On the practical side, get a Bip! card for Santiago transit, and explore Santiago a bit. Cerro Santa Lucia and Cerro San Cristobal are both pretty. If you're wondering whether to try any Mexican food in Chile that isn't California Cantina in Santiago, the answer is probably "don't bother" unless someone recommends it who knows what Mexican food should taste like.

Most important is what Allyson phrased as "be liquid". I advocate that for everything, not just being in Chile, but it's apt here. Classes will be canceled, people will fail to tell you things you need to know, you'll have bad teaching days, the kids will have bad learning days. Also, you'll have awesome teaching days, good Spanish days, magical moments of churrasco and beer. Forget about what you think should happen (and those thoughts appear in odd places); approach everything with a listening, open heart and mind, and assume everyone is a good person who's doing the best they can, even if that doesn't seem to be very good.

Beyond that, I'm not sure what to say. Honestly, being here is like being anywhere else: people go to work, spend time with their families, buy groceries. The difference is that the volume of stuff that we don't know when we visit a new city in the U.S.--Where's the best coffee shop? What bus do I take? Where's that corncob palace I've always wanted to visit?--expands in previously unimagined ways, to include things like "Why doesn't this person understand when I say elementary things in Spanish?" and "Where do I buy a shoehorn?". Or, "Why is my host family serving me a full dinner, ten minutes after they watched me eat three choripán?". I often have no idea what's going on. I speak pretty good Spanish, I pay really close attention, and in my current setup, I still have no hope of understanding how decisions get made in my school or my host family, unless someone really explicitly lays it out for me (and what I'm told may or may not be the whole story).

In reality, this is true at home, too: we never know what the story is. If we're have a difficult time with someone, maybe they're having problems at home, maybe they feel threatened, maybe they're anxious. That not-knowing makes us free to drop our assumptions about what's happening--in fact, it makes that the only sane thing to do. Then we can engage with each moment as it happens, so that if we choose, in each unfolding moment we can release ourselves from everything that happened in the past. When I'm dealing with a difficult student, I can leave behind what I felt and did last time, and I can leave behind what they did last time, and for that moment, we can meet each other fresh and new, as if for the first time. Every encounter is a chance for a new beginning.

So we always have not-knowing. It's just that here, the things that we don't know are much more obvious. Take the opportunites to not-know.


  1. Hmm...I think Quilpue is actually warmer than Valpo and Vina because we don't get the cold ocean breeze.

  2. Thanks for the advice, I'll keep these tips in mind as I pack! Have a good winter break!