Paul Merchant - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Peru
It didn’t begin well. As my airplane sat on the tarmac at Heathrow, I was thinking, “What on earth are you doing this for? Three months on your own in Peru? Teaching English?” By the time I arrived in Cusco, the plane sweeping down between the mountains, I was too tired to be worrying about anything, and filled with the uncomplicated joy of being in a new place. Then I was being taxied through a city filled with color, dirt and noise, and away to the Incas’ “Sacred Valley”, where I would spend the next three months.
A combination of altitude and interesting driving left me feeling sick on the way. The scenery was nonetheless astonishing: steep slopes of deep green capped with glaciers. This was a rural area in the sense that a British person can barely imagine. It was really a different world, though I supposed I was still on the same planet. Farm animals roamed the only main road at their leisure, and children walked miles home from school. The old women really did wear the traditional Andean dress - colorful striped shawl with bowler hat. The mud brick buildings seemed at once romantic and tragic.
Although I soon got over the initial wobbles, there is much that is daunting about a Peruvian teaching project. It is, after all, a developing country where few people enjoy the comforts we Europeans consider natural. On top of that, the school system is not fantastic to say the least, and the level of English very low. Still, I was to find that after a couple of weeks, the most daunting thing left was the size of the mountains I saw from my bedroom each morning.
I was staying in the town of Pisac, an hour from Cusco, and teaching in Coya, a village which was a ten minute bus ride further along the road. As I speak pretty good Spanish, getting to know my host family wasn’t too much of a problem. Nilo and Dina (and their sons Nilo and Yamir) were very welcoming and eager to make me feel at home. Their house joined onto the bar that they ran, meaning that there was a great sense of community and much noise and laughter, often late into the night! Dina cooked great, filling Peruvian meals, while always being careful as she knew volunteers often got stomach problems – I had a lucky escape in this regard!
My school , “San Juan Bautista”, was small, with just 300 pupils. The curriculum provides for only 1 hour’s English a week for each class, with the result that I taught for only 3 days each week. However, that still felt tiring enough – class sizes were anything between 25 and almost 50, so maintaining a semblance of calm in the classroom is an exciting challenge. I probably had an image in my mind of Peruvian school life being totally different from what I had experienced, so it was in a way reassuring to find that it was pretty similar – each class had its cool kids at the back, the class clown, and the really bright one or two who wanted to answer all of the questions. There were, of course, some more specific challenges, like the fact that the English teacher in the school barely spoke any English, and that the only sort of learning the students were used to was copying mindlessly from the board.
Still, many of the kids were very keen to learn English (after all, in this touristy region of Peru, it can make a life-changing difference to their future). Once I had a game or activity going, the classroom often became uncontrollable again, but this time for quite pleasing reasons! This was the biggest teaching lesson I took home from Peru – introduce an element of competition, and you can get kids interested in everything.
Of course, the great thing about this sort of project is that is about much more than just teaching in schools. For a start, Peru has so many public vacations and festivals that often the schools were closed, and the group of volunteers was sent to do some other community work. In my first week, we taught English phrases to the artisans of Chinchero, and just before I left, we helped clear out a school in the tiny village of Piscacucho. This last one sticks in my mind particularly. This little hamlet lies on the route to Machu Picchu, but is entirely neglected, the tourist buses just whizzing past on the road. The school, which consisted of two run-down single storey buildings, was in a terrible state. We cleared one classroom of a real mountain of junk – everything from broken tiles to beehives! I remember seeing all of the rubbish laid out on the lawn and wondering how on earth it all fitted in there in the first place. The day was an example of how something really simple can make an enormous difference – the people of Piscacucho were on the way to having a usable school again.
When I did leave the project at the end of three months (and I did so on the verge of tears), I had a chance to look back on what I had done with that time. All of the above and so much more – a week in the jungle, endless fiestas (including the incredible Inti Raymi), Saturday nights out in Cusco with the volunteers, and countless cramped and at times scary bus journeys. Most of all, though, I was able to improve (even if it was only a bit) the education of a few hundred people. It might not have begun well, but it ended with me almost too happy to leave.