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Volunteering in a Costa Rican Classroom

Become an Effective Teacher by Understanding Your Students' Culture

Teaching as a Volunteer in Costa Rica
The author giving an English grammar and vocabulary lesson to one of his seventh grade classes in Costa Rica.

I can’t say my first experience teaching English and volunteering abroad has been altogether stress free, but despite some minor bureaucratic miscommunications and afternoon rainstorms, my days usually flow smoothly and casually. Alliance Abroad Group, a Texas-based organization that coordinates volunteer work, travel, study, and employment with other institutions around the globe, set me up with the high school in Santa Anta, Costa Rica and arranged for my homestay with a nearby family. Costa Rican volunteering options through Alliance Abroad range from teaching English and working in nursing homes in the cities to helping with ecotourism projects in the rainforests.

Every morning, after a light breakfast of fresh mangoes, pineapples, gallo pinto, and local jungle-grown coffee, I take a short bus ride to the school. I teach six classes of about 30 students each at the Colegio de Santa Ana, about a half-hour drive from the capital city of San José. We study everything from the basic names of foods to more challenging grammar rules (I tell them that if they learn the difference between “who” and “whom” they’ll be ahead of most Americans.).

My major challenge is apathy. Trying to get teenagers to participate at an age when they’re just starting to worry about looking cool (and hence aloof in the classroom) isn’t easy in any culture. Granted, to keep their attention I can exploit, to some extent, my appeal as the exotic, foreign teacher. For the first two weeks, at least, I managed to captivate them more than their regular instructor, a woman of Jamaican descent with adequate English skills who observes while I conduct the lessons.

While I have to work within the framework of the designated curriculum the kids learn faster and participate more with games than they do by simply copying and reciting words on the board. But, the district can’t even spare markers or extra paper, let alone something like a computer lab. Some students come to class unprepared because they don’t have the money to buy textbooks. I brought in several American magazines that they pour over greedily every day during breaks.

Getting to know my students dramatically increased the extent to which they allowed me to teach them. First impressions were vital: I had to prove to them that I wasn’t some stuck-up, ignorant sightseer with whom they could not identify nor freely communicate. I broke the ice by talking about life in the States or initiating debates about which rival Costa Rican club soccer team, Saprissa or La Liga, deserved my allegiance. For lunch I always join some of my more outgoing pupils for traditional Costa Rican fare in the cafeteria, where they ask me about my life here and my life back inthe States. After eating I make an effort to join the many others who hang out alongside the soccer field during lunch. Occasionally I’ll get to play some fútbol with the boys, most of whom beat me easily despite their age and size handicaps.

Day by day and joke by joke, the kids have warmed up to me as both their academic authority and their friend. They approach me not only with questions about grammar but also about English curse words, American sports and celebrities, and what my girlfriend is like. The more they get to know me, the more comfortable they feel participating in class; likewise, the more they see their peers making an effort in class, the more enthusiastic and confident they become about their competency in English. The faculty and administrators have observed this, and they appreciate it. I’ve received nothing but thoughtful assistance and jolly tidings of “pura vida,” the national slogan of Costa Rica, from all the adults here.

While I was discussing the day’s work over a filling heap of arroz con frijoles with the six other volunteers at the dinner table one night it occurred to me how much this teaching experience is impacting my plans for the future. It’s such a gratifying, refreshing sensation to see the timid kids of my classes—kids who used to never speak unless called upon—truly begin to realize that they have potential, that they can develop new talents and dreams they never knew they had.

Other volunteers talk about their days at nursing homes and daycares with satisfaction, yet with an unexcited air; their days are rewarding but unsurprising. My days at the school, however, are anything but predictable. The kids have given me a gift I never expected: they’ve taught their teacher how meaningful the craft of teaching can be. Working with young costarricences has impelled me to add education to my other career pursuits of journalism and anthropology. I’m really beginning to comprehend the truth behind the notion that touching kids’ minds—even through grammar lessons—does indeed spark transformations in their lives.

Check our section on volunteering in Costa Rica for many programs and resources.

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