By Conor Sanchez
When I first learned that I would be serving as an English teacher in Nicaragua, I naturally envisioned myself getting up in front of a class alone and teaching. Later I discovered that the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) program is actually set up to have us working in close tandem with another teacher (from Nicaragua) who has requested and applied to work with a TEFL Volunteer. Under this model, we’ll plan each lesson together and, more importantly, we’ll teach every class together.
There are several reasons why this approach is much better than my initial assumption. First, it’s an opportunity for Volunteers to model different teaching techniques, which we are steadfastly working to master right now in Pre-Service Training (PST). Over the course of two years, our Nicaraguan co-teachers will have an opportunity to observe and practice these techniques in action and when we leave, they can adopt the ones they felt were most valuable and effective for their classroom.
Second, it helps schools ensure their lessons follow the curriculum put in place by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education (MOE). Recognizing the enormous potential in preparing a workforce for a future that promises more tourists and foreign direct investment, the MOE has made it a high priority to increase the percentage of bilingual Nicaraguans over the next decade.
Towards this end, they’ve mandated teaching English in schools throughout the country, even in places that have few resources to prepare or develop English teachers. In some instances, teachers who’ve taught gym or science their entire careers walk into work one day and find out they have to teach English next semester. Of the more than 1,500 English teachers in Nicaragua, approximately 40% lack a degree higher than secondary education. Peace Corps’ TEFL program is an attempt to fill the gaps by providing support to the places that need it most.
Third, unless they live in touristy areas like Granada or San Juan Del Sur, teachers in Nicaragua seldom have the opportunity to practice or improve their English. During a school visit the other day, one teacher told me she went three years without speaking to a fluent English speaker. As a result, her language skills suffered and her teaching stagnated. With Peace Corps Volunteers around, however, she gets to maintain her skills, learn more phrases, and practice her pronunciation.
Finally, the model of co-planning and co-teaching with a Nicaraguan education professional is fundamental to the fulfillment of Peace Corps’ approach to development through capacity building. Although Michaela and I have both have experience teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in the United States, we’ve never taught English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Nicaragua (here is an explanation of EFL versus ESL). As great as our ideas may be, there are some things that simply won’t work. That’s why it’s so valuable to be able to work with a teacher who can help implement techniques that are not only effective, but sustainable as well.
In a little less than a month here in Nicaragua, I’ve quickly realized that I shouldn’t be thinking of myself as a teacher so much as a resource for Nicaraguan teachers. For the first time in their careers, these teachers will have a native English speaker by their side pretty much whenever they want. At the same time, I have the benefit of working with someone who knows the ropes already and will be here long after I’ve departed.
During PST, we’re getting a small taste of the co-teaching model with teachers in our training communities. For one hour every week, I meet with a teacher to plan lessons for two classes. Twice a week I go to school to teach side-by-side with my counterpart. Not only have I appreciated working with a professional who can bring me up to speed on teaching styles in Nicaragua, but I’m beginning to understand why this model has so much potential to have a lasting impact on a large scale.
Michaela and I are two of 20 TEFL Volunteers who arrived in August. We’re the third group of Volunteers to join what will end up being a five year effort to improve the ability of Nicaraguan teachers to deliver effective English lessons. By October 2018, hundreds of English teachers will have worked with a Peace Corps Volunteer, helping to improve their teaching techniques, develop new materials, and increase their technical knowledge.
Most development approaches are constructed with the intention of delivering tools and resources to places that need it, but only a few are able to achieve long-lasting results. All I can say is I’m super stoked to be a part of what I consider to be a very smart and promising initiative.