By Conor Sanchez
It was my 6th or 7th time in a Nicaraguan classroom when I realized something important about this whole teaching thing. I’d certainly had my moments. There was the time students all took out their phones to photograph me. There was the time two sides of the classroom almost broke out into a brawl after playing a game of telephone (who knew a whispering activity could ignite such passion?). There were the multiple times when students from other classes walked back and forth by my classroom simply to point and giggle at me.
Nicaraguan classrooms are built with slanted windows that are impossible to close. As a result you’re forced to compete for the students’ attention with whatever is going on outside. Students walking by outside routinely peer inside the classroom to chat up the kid sitting closest to the window. If a torrential downpour starts outside, you have to start shouting if you want to be heard. If it’s a few days before the nation’s independence day, brace yourself for the bandas de guerras (marching bands) that will be practicing right outside your classroom (which will include roughly half of your students). And if you’re from the United States, get ready to become a major celebrity.
These are the challenges that awaited me. It didn’t help that I really wasn’t bringing a ton of experience teaching teenagers. I had taught English as a second language to adults in D.C. so I felt fairly competent in the grammatical aspects of my role. I knew some basic classroom management techniques and had been a camp counselor once. I mean, I was a teenager once. How hard could it be?
Turns out, it’s pretty freakin’ hard. My toughest day came during Practicum Week in Chinandega two weeks ago. I was teaching an English lesson on sports activities to group of 8th graders. Everything started out fine with students brainstorming names of different sports they knew and the words that go along with those sports. I drew webs on the board to map out their ideas and added a few words they hadn’t learned before like kick, catch, swing, and hit.
Then my co-teacher and I distributed a sheet with over thirty new types of sports. The activity wasn’t thought out very well; it was an overwhelming amount of new vocabulary to throw at students at one time. The third and last activity was a dialogue that was way beyond everyone’s reach and lasted for way too long.
The next day, my co-teacher and I debriefed. We went through all of our activities and figured out where things went wrong. We narrowed our vocabulary words to a set of 10 words, planned practice activities that engaged a variety of learning styles, and came up with an application component that kept things interesting but also matched their abilities.
On Thursday, we taught our revamped lesson on sports to a new group of 8th graders. The difference was visibly astounding. Students who were at first reluctant to participate gradually grew more engaged and even competitive during some of the games we organized. By the end of class I couldn’t help but notice one student’s face who seemed genuinely surprised that we had managed to teach him how to say his favorite sport in English without doing some dry copy-from-the-board activity.
Just like that, I went from having one of my toughest days of training to one of my best, which is something we’ve been told to expect throughout our service. Peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys. And so far, it’s pretty accurate. I taught three classes and observed three teachers (including Michaela) during Practicum Week. In that time, I felt my teaching abilities take a giant leap forward, the most progress I’ve felt in this aspect of my service since arriving in Nicaragua. I was reenergized to try more activities, to apply what we’ve learned in training, and to trust that with enough planning and preparation, class pretty much takes care of itself.
The biggest lesson I learned during Practicum Week is that I’ll get better at this. Sure, I’ll have to roll with the punches as they come, but I’ll learn along the way and I’ll eventually start blocking the ones I’ve seen before. This gives me some form of solace, especially when it’s 12:30 pm on Monday, crazy hot outside, and I’m about to start co-teaching my 10th grade class.