Everybody Wins Studying Spanish in Cusco, Peru with FairPlay
Innovative Spanish Language School Works to Reduce Poverty, Provide Jobs, Training, and Quality Spanish Lessons
I am sitting with Erika, my practice teacher, in a plaza surrounded by historic buildings in the center of Cusco, Peru. We are talking about high school. She is correcting my verb endings. In the morning I had two hours of grammar lessons with Camucha, my grammar teacher. The strong emphasis on practicing Spanish as well as learning the grammar was what initially attracted me to FairPlay. As a former language teacher, I'm a fussy student, reprimanding teachers who waste my time with drills rather than conversation. Whenever I take a language class I worry about having to train my teachers. With FairPlay, I was pleasantly surprised. The classes were entirely in Spanish, focusing on communication and compelling lots of practice speaking through total language immersion.
I was also attracted to FairPlay since it is a non-profit created to reduce poverty in Cusco. All the teachers are single mothers who have struggled with poverty and raising children on their own while working long hours for low wages. FairPlay has changed this by training the women to teach Spanish to foreigners. The school provides them with students as well as marketing, administrative support, and an excellent specially designed curriculum and text book.
FairPlay is the brain child of John Adriaensens, a Belgian expat who moved to Cusco in 2006 hoping to find a way to reduce poverty in the region, and Peruvian Fanny Huañec Cabana, a Spanish teacher who dreamed of starting a school where the teachers would be treated fairly. After John had 10 hours of Spanish classes with Fanny, the idea for FairPlay—an organization that would train single mothers to teach Spanish and provide them with students—was born. The organization would give the women the tools to succeed but it would be up to them to work hard and create successful careers for themselves.
Since this approach to a language school was different from what I'd encountered in the past, I was interested in learning how John and Fanny made their dream into a reality.
The Project Begins
To find single mothers living in poverty and interested in participating in the project, John and Fanny visited day care centers in Cusco. They interviewed about 200 potential candidates. From these they selected 80 women to take an entrance exam. Competition was fierce and many women were desperate for the chance of a better life offered by the program. One of the teachers told me how difficult it was to get time off from her job to take the exam and receive the results. In July of 2006, FairPlay began training 32 women.
The training consisted of 6 months of classes on teaching Spanish grammar followed by either practice teaching (for grammar teachers) or an English course (for the practice teachers). Fanny taught the women and designed the curriculum. John was in charge of running the organization and making tough decisions. As he put it "we were not only helping people but we had to offer the best service in order to create a secure future for the women."
A Different Kind of School
I noticed that many teachers seem incredibly happy working at FairPlay. My teachers were always on time or early and were ready to alter lessons to fit my requests and needs. John explained some of the reasons for the high degree of job satisfaction, "We are a non-profit organization focused on quality and continuity but not on profits.... Instead of earning 4 to 7 Soles an hour, [our teachers] earn 10 to 13 Soles an hour. Furthermore, FairPlay has created [a sense of camaraderie] instead of competition between the teachers. Since we don't have to worry about our teachers working for students...behind our back, our teachers have lots of freedom and [can develop] friendships with students." This freedom enables practice teachers to take their students to different locations around Cusco, allowing the students to learn more practical vocabulary as well as providing stimuli for conversations.
But I wondered--after receiving training from FairPlay--were the teachers truly allowed to find their own students, use the FairPlay curriculum and, if they chose, to work completely independently of FairPlay? According to John, once the teachers are trained, they are free to work wherever they want. They are also allowed to find their own students and teach using the FairPlay curriculum. They are, however, forbidden to teach without FairPlay knowing. John clarified: "This is not because of the money but because we want to maintain our quality and continuity. That's what makes us such a huge success in such a little time." After training, the quality of the teaching is maintained through weekly meetings to discuss problems, grammar, and teaching concepts. The teachers are also given regular exams to check their knowledge and Fanny sometimes joins classes to monitor quality as well as to offer teachers advice. In exchange for complying with the rules, the teachers "don't have to worry about marketing, planning, or support. [FairPlay]...helps them with their accounting and organizes different events so the women are a group of friends... [and] share their problems.... Because of all this, there is no place where our teachers can earn more or have a more pleasant working environment than with FairPlay." Most of the teachers prefer to stay with FairPlay, however John gave an example of one who chose to work elsewhere: "[Jovita] decided to move to Urubamba because her father is sick and needs help. Thanks to the training she received from FairPlay, she has a job at a Spanish school in Urubamba and is doing very well. Our goal is achieved because we gave someone the tools to create a better future for herself and her child."
The First Year
FairPlay faced many challenges in the first year but also enjoyed much success. The participants had to learn both how to teach Spanish and how to work with foreigners. John gave an example, "Being punctual is one thing, but adapting teaching to someone's pace, [who] thinks very differently, is another thing. Asking a teacher (who is a single mom) if all her children are from the same father would be normal in Holland, but here people would die of shame." Since FairPlay is a non-profit instead of a for-profit language school and provided both training and employment, the Peruvian tax board and ministry of work weren't sure what to make of them. Proving their legitimacy took finding the right lawyer and accountant as well as a lot of research.
John gave a summary of the first year: "It was a very energy consuming and tough year with so many problems on personal and general bases that I feel that we are more of a family than a group of colleagues. We started teaching (for a reduced price) in December 2006. We opened our office in April and employed ..[an administrator] and [accountant]. We solved problems with SUNAT [Peruvian tax board] and the ministry of work in Cusco and added home stays and volunteer work to our programs to offer a complete service to foreigners."
"As of September, we are self-sufficient and no longer depend on money from sponsors. We are teaching over 1,000 hours of classes a month which means that all our teachers earn between 500 and 1,200 soles a month."
FairPlay plans on training another group of single mothers in 2008 so they can add another 15 teachers in February, 2009. They are also working to start their own wawawasi (day care center for children between 8 months and 3 years old). They plan to work with 40 children from mothers who live in extreme poverty.
"Since FairPlay is a non-profit organization, all profits that we might make in the future will be donated to the wawawasi project. For the wawawasi we will need funding continuously. It takes a lot of convincing, organizing and hard work to establish this in countries thousands of kilometers away but that is the part of the challenge that I really love. That is the reason I don't mind working 7 days a week. I have this talent to create things that I really want and things can only go wrong when I stop putting in my energy and talent," John explained.
"The reward: seeing people that were poor, depressed, lonely and isolated, start believing in a future and be proud because even though they've been given the tools, their success comes from working for it themselves."
The teachers seem equally optimistic. Just as FairPlay takes pride in its teachers, the teachers also take pride in the success of the organization. Happy and satisfied teachers, make happy and satisfied students. I know my money has gone toward fighting poverty and improving the lives of women and children. All this and I've learned Spanish, too!