A Volunteer Who Happens to Work as a Teacher? A Teacher Who’s Just a Volunteer?

“Like teachers from the beginning of time, I got more out of these classes than my students.”

Twyla Tharp

I have always been fascinated by dreams. 

How is it that our brain can invent stories, people, places that we never seemed to encounter in our waking life? How is it that I can close my eyes and find myself in a world defying gravity, filled with things my rather mundane and ordinary imagination could never conceive of?

My dreams usually lean towards the fantastic: there’s magic; I’m invincible; I’m fighting to save the world. My nightmares are pretty darn terrifying. 

But lately, in the past few months, I’ve begun to experience the most terrifying of nightmares, one that plagues me in my day to day life. In this nightmare I’m teaching a regular bunch of my students at Colegio Miguel Pro and I happen to teach SUPERLATIVES AND COMPARATIVES INCORRECTLY. My students confuse the two and can’t compare the heights of their favorite soccer players. 

I swear to you, I never have “normal” dreams or nightmares, ones that are based on everyday life. But there’s something about being a teacher that is so much more intimidating and terrifying than any world-shaking apocalypse. 

Sometimes I take a step back and think: “How on earth did anyone decide it was a good idea to put a twenty-something in charge of these students?” I have questioned week by week and month by month whether JVC made some terrible mistake sending me to volunteer here in Tacna, Peru. I arrived an untrained and untried teacher. I had never planned a year-long curriculum or lectured for over an hour to students before. Sure, I’d led some activities and classes for theatre but all in a relaxed setting and all in my strongest language.

Now you can find me on any given weekday standing in front of fifteen to thirty students, teaching rules and norms in English that I wasn’t even conscious of in the first place. We go from textbook to slang and back (because that’s really the way to hook your pupils). I laugh and joke and try to remain stoically above it all, the schoolmaster who is patient but unbending (hah!). Behind the curtains you can find me at home looking up some obscure grammar rule and hoping I explained it correctly or frantically searching for new worksheets and videos to help engage the kids in learning this crazy, unique language. 

Beyond the class prep and fear of incompetency, I deeply enjoy what I do. I find great pleasure and energy in engaging with these bright eyes and young minds each and every day.

So why am I having nightmares about it?

These years of schooling are pivotal years for these students. What teachers say, kids absorb. You may not remember your trig equations or the diagram of a nucleus ten years down the road, but you will remember those professors that you admired (or loathed) and that random nugget of wisdom they gave one rainy afternoon in history. Even if it’s grumpily or with an eye-roll, kids listen to the words that come out of their teachers mouths.

So what are my kids absorbing from a young blonde with frizzy hair who is learning everything on the fly? That’s my question. 

I know this volunteer work is bigger than just my experience. Why else would they keep asking volunteers back year after year for almost 25 years at my specific site? I know we help in some way. But up close, during days that my thirty-one students are all speaking over each other, the lesson planned for the day, and the teacher trying to impart her “wisdom,” I wonder if there’s any use having me teach at all. 

Then some days the class is so focused, so intent on the material that a discussion about food in English leads to a discussion on cost of living and how that stacks up compared to minimum wage. You do the math in English and the kids are struck by the fact that minimum wage is so often inadequate for daily expenses. Great conversation, and we even practiced a little English in there somewhere!

As I stumble along in this experience, each day stamps a lesson deeper and deeper into my heart: I’m a volunteer. I’m not your regular teacher. Fully-trained teachers have a boatload of tools under their belt. They’ve chosen this as their given career and put their full energy into it each and every day. They are trained for this. They breathe this.

As a volunteer, I’m here to fill in the gaps, to take up the slack wherever it is needed. I teach classes but I also plan masses and take on side projects that have no owners. I make copies and create worksheets. I play bingo and teach “head, shoulders, knees and toes”. I have the freedom to say “I’ve never been trained!” when I do something out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, my full-time, professional teacher friends are bound by the epic responsibility of forming and shaping adolescents full-time. That’s a tough assignment. 

My respect for “real” teachers is profound. Teachers are raising our kids. They take our children in eight hours a day and give all they’ve got to not just to one person’s snotty-nosed brat but thirty others, eighty others, three hundred others as well. You need to have a deep love for teaching to encourage growth in your pupils. 

Only time will tell what my students are learning from me: whether they’ll remember the present continuous in a few years or feel inspired by my passion for languages to guide them on their way (or forget about me completely, which is also a realistic possibility). I can only hope what I give in these years nourishes them and supports them. 

Originally published at www.jvcwithcamila.blogspot.com

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