Monday, November 15, 2010

teaching in Chile: an outside perspective

Anna has visited me 3 times here in Chile, and the first two times, in May and August, she got to see my Friday class. (The third time, various classes had barricaded themselves in their classrooms to protest some school decision or other, and the administration sent everyone home so they could deal with it.) I try to describe the teaching environment here, and while I know it's insane, this is also the only place I've ever taught. She has a lot of teaching experience, so I asked her to describe what she sees in a Chilean classroom, and how it differs from, erm, an effective learning environment.

To add some background: my students are high school freshmen, age 14-15, and they have English twice a week, once with me and once with their Chilean teacher. After sophomore year, they only have it once a week. Also, the entire curso of 45 students has every class together: there is no grouping by level, so the few students who actually understand some English are in the same class with kids who understand nothing. None of them, no matter their level of comprehension, can converse.
Chris asked me to write something about the Chilean classroom, as I have observed it on my visits. I am an experienced ESL teacher, and I would be hard-pressed to accomplish anything under the conditions Chris has been teaching in. I'll say more about that, but first a snapshot of the classroom.

The kids come in talking, moving, shoving, yelling at each other and at Chris. The noise level is very high. Six or seven want Chris's individual attention RIGHT NOW, and the other 15 don't allow his presence to disrupt their personal lives at all.

They take their seats in the little chairs with the desks attached, along 3 walls of the room in a big U. They're still talking to each other, texting, eating, writing, and putting on makeup. Did I mention the noise level?

Chris moves in to the center of the room, gets their attention, and the lesson begins.

Doesn't sound too bad, does it? But not that much really changes when the lesson starts.
The kids' conversations with each other are quieter, except when they are shouted across the U, which is not uncommon. They complain intensely if he wants them to get up and do anything, but they leap up on their own to climb on their desks and look out the window, or go to the door or the trash can or anywhere else they feel like going.

Some of them are pretty cooperative, some are totally resistant and sullen. Many of the girls have crushes on Chris and flirt with him, shouting for his attention and wilting if they don't get it. Many of the boys are "too cool" to participate, but Chris manages to make them learn things anyway.

Did I mention the complaining?

Also, they are total drama queens and very competitive. They compete for Chris's attention, for his regard, for his disregard, for each other's attention, and for the prize of being invisible in the room. When they play physical movement games, they bump and kick each other (kind of gently, mostly, except when it's not) and I have seen them body check each other more than once.

For an American teacher, their freedom with movement and noise and interruption is mind-boggling. And I'm a pretty relaxed teacher by U.S. standards. Chilean kids have their own agenda, and they allow the class to disrupt their agenda only marginally, or minimally.

So the room itself is a challenge. But when you plug the classroom into the larger framework, the challenge becomes nearly insurmountable.

Chris sees his kids for 45-60 minutes once a week--at best. Randomly cancelled classes, holidays, and other events mean that it averages out to more like once every other week. _I_ couldn't learn anything as a student with that frequency. Or did I forget to mention that they don't do homework? Teachers often don't even assign it because they just won't do it.

The classes (cursos) are dominant over the teachers. They own the classroom (with the exception of Chris's room), and when teachers come in they are on the kids' territory. Kids have gotten teachers fired this year, and taken over the school to protest something or other.

Chilean pedagogy seems to involve standing in front of the kids and telling them things about the subject, explaining English in Spanish, for example. Only remember that part about the noise level and free movement and whatnot? Guess what--the kids don't listen! Not only don't they listen, but they actually tune out when a teacher starts making mouth noises. Chris is a strange exception to their experience because he asks them to actually do stuff, repeat words, play games, and so on. But they still ignore him; even when they look like they're listening, they're not really taking much in.

To add insult to injury, their curriculum in their regular English class is WAY above their level, and getting further away from them with every lesson.

So, Chris is in a situation where his kids are being demoralized and overwhelmed in their regular English class, what he's teaching doesn't connect to what they're supposedly learning there, they're habituated to ignoring teachers, they don't do homework, he only sees them once a week at most, they resist all new activities (especially anything involving moving around) but they don't learn from him talking, they're used to not learning anything in English class, the kids are constantly talking and yelling and getting up on their own, and they feel they have the power in the relationship. I would find that extremely challenging, and I've had enough time in the classroom to get over all the initial angst and classroom management stuff.
That actually sounds grimmer than the experience usually felt, but I think that (a) I quickly became desensitized as a matter of maintaining my sanity, and (b) the students learned to continue their accustomed behavior only when I wasn't looking, so I only saw one facet of the classroom, which showed me a reasonable fascimile of classroom flow.

The classroom videos Anna took on her second visit, in August, are on YouTube and below.


  1. Hmmm, this might come across a little grim. I left out the part about how the kids are wonderful, sweet, impossible, cute little pains in the neck. They are so charming, and cute, and disingenuous manipulators. I also left out the part about all the lovely, dedicated Chilean teachers who care about their kids and do their best to make a lousy system work. A lot of people are noticing that the system doesn't work well, but as we all know, systemic change is difficult and slow.

  2. I think this blog needs less Chris and more Anna. Although I am with Chris I don't think it feels that bad form the 'inside'. Also I would second Anna's comment.

  3. I think you guys have coped extremely well, and the cuteness compensates for a lot. But I wanted to write this to put Chris's classroom struggles in perspective. Also, awww, thanks--glad you liked it! I'm kinda bummed not to see you again. Dinner was a lot of fun, and I enjoy your perspective on life and people. Besides, at this point you've lived with Chris longer than I have!