As some of you know, last winter I moved to Chile and taught English in a Chilean middle school. This was my second time in middle school (I also attended one between the ages of 11 and 13) and I noticed some things this time around that I failed to pick up on the first time. Middle school is a lot like a fight club: Everybody’s always sweaty, equipped with questionable morals and reckless attitudes, and every five minutes, someone loses a tooth.
I didn’t love teaching in Chile. I experienced a sort of colegio culture shock. (Colegio is the Spanish word for school). Class sizes in Chile are somewhere around 45 students and as a co-teacher, I’d have to deal with upwards of 20 of those students at a time, on my own, in my own classroom. For each hour and a half period, I would take half of the class for the first 45 minutes and the other half for the last 45 minutes. The students were prohibited from having books or writing utensils in my classroom as I was to use my time to improve their speaking and listening skills. I had to engage them solely through activities and games. Sometimes this worked like a charm. Usually, it did not.
I pride myself on my ability to command a room (if that room is the kitchen and the thing I’m commanding is a sandwich, not people’s attention). My classes in Chile were nothing like my kitchen. The students were about as interested in learning English as I am in listening to someone explain how to play Settlers of Catan. I did not see the fruit of my labors during my time in Chile and I’d like to think it wasn’t all due to the fact that I was a first-time English teacher with no experience and no training. It had to have been something else!
The toughest part of the job was that in order to foster an environment in which the students would only speak English, my students were not allowed to know that I speak Spanish. The only thing less effective than yelling at a group of 11 years olds in their native language is yelling at them in a foreign language. Remember how worried Lucy would look when Ricky began yelling at her in fast Spanish? That is fiction. In real life, being oblivious to the content of an aggressively loud message softens the blow quite a deal. So my students were impervious to my English reprimands and remained rowdy and uncontrollable until I would finally kick someone out of class. Then they would shape up for around five minutes.
On days when I would stay with my co-teacher in the main classroom, I noticed some things about Chilean classroom culture that I couldn’t help but find extremely strange. Here are some things I could not have predicted about Chilean middle schools:
- Every single student in Chilean schools–be it public, private, or semi-private– is required to wear a uniform. Usually, these uniforms look exactly as you would imagine a semi-inappropriate more-for-Halloween-or-a-Britney-Spears-video-than-for-school uniform to look. I too had to wear uniforms from pre-school through high school and, unlike my Chilean counterparts, I looked like Gumby swimming in Paul Bunyan’s business casual clothes. Not cute.
- The kids were completely OCD about the order of their notebooks. It is truly astounding how much more time and effort they put into having perfectly organized notebooks than actually focusing on the content. Facts by Elyssa: Chile is the #1 market for White Out. At any given moment there would be a cartoonish cloud of school supplies flying through the air as students hurried to cover up their mistakes, draw perfectly straight lines to partition their notes, or color their capital letters red (I never really got a good explanation about this one).
- The students were once required to make pamphlets about a famous poet in preparation for an upcoming event at the school to celebrate his work. In these pamphlets, students would write the poet’s name, copy a poem of his, and then make a collage of pictures cut out from catalogues, newspapers and magazines. Juxtaposed with words about love and nature were pictures of blenders, dogs in bathtubs, pictures of carpet samples, smartphones, cupcakes, and sports cars. I spent all week walking up and down aisles of desks being baffled by the students’ picture choices, hoping they were as ironic or poetic as the poems themselves. This absurdness is probably more of a universal middle school phenomenon than one specific to Chile.
- The school implemented monetary penalties for rule breaking. On most classroom walls was a poster board outlining various standard classroom rules i.e. raise your hand before talking, complete work in a timely manner, respect your classmates, and of course the first and most important rule of middle school: don’t talk about middle school. On a smaller construction paper next to that was a list of penalties and monetary amounts for breaking said rules. 40 pesos for speaking over someone else, 60 pesos for a late homework assignment. I had no idea how this was allowed or what the money went toward, but I hoped it sponsored school supplies, which brings me to my next item:
- Toilet paper and hand soap were brought in by the students and left in the classroom, not the bathroom. Anytime someone went to the bathroom they’d have to unravel some toilet paper from the class roll to bring with them. (And we all know what more than four squares means…). I don’t understand how the hand soap thing worked. I never saw anyone take the bottle with them and it wouldn’t really have made sense to squirt some soap into your hand before using the toilet so I’m pretty sure hand washing was not a standard part of their bathroom routine.
Sidenote: This is important to me. If I ever have enough money, I’d like to sponsor a scholarship that gives free hand soap to people who are ill inclined to wash their hands, on the condition that they actually wash them. EVERYBODY should wash their hands after going to the bathroom. It’s just plain gross not to. Your nether regions are not germ-free. As Outkast would say, “I know you like to think your shit don’t stank, but lean a little bit closer. See, roses really smell like poo poo-oo.” Wash your hands.
- As I am a gringa from the United States with pale skin and fair hair, my young students– who weren’t used to meeting gringas and believed we were all related—would constantly ask me if I was personally acquainted with Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber (incidentally, who are Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber?).
- I often get mistaken as German, Polish, Czech, Swiss, British and even somehow Spanish, but for the very first time in my life (and probably the last), one second grader asked me, “Are you from Japan?” I will forever cherish that moment.