Volunteering as an English Teacher in Chile

How much? Fee free! (more below) How long? 4-8 months
Where? Somewhere in Chile Requirements? Bachelors degree, 21-35 years old

Imagine that it’s 8AM and you’re standing in front of a room of 13 energetic middle schoolers yelling “candy, candy!”; the others are spinning spinners like they’re cool and attempting to tactfully sneak a like on Instagram.

This is what the English Opens Doors Program prepares you to gracefully handle while delivering a serious dose of English learning motivation to Chilean students.

Okay, not all of my classes were crazy, but some were!

The English Opens Doors Program is an initiative by the Chilean Government to aid in the English education of Chilean students. They place native or near-native English speakers in public schools to help grow students’ speaking and listening English skills.

Recently I finished a semester long service and I want to share with you exactly how it went!

Orientation

At the start of the program I flew into Santiago and stayed in a hostel with the other international volunteers. I had never taught English before but was reassured that the 1 week long orientation in Santiago would prepare me well. It didn’t disappoint, and that week was packed with useful information and lectures.

The hostel that volunteers stayed at in Santiago

The orientation leaders were staffed by former volunteers that taught us how to teach basic English, how to manage a classroom, lesson plan, and what our new lives in Chile might be like. We even sat in on a class taught in a completely different language—mine was in Indonesian—to help us better understand see the teaching techniques in action and how our students might be feeling in our classrooms.

At the end we gave one small mock lesson, said our goodbyes, and were all dispersed to different regions throughout Chile!

Placement

The city I lived in is one you wont find on the map.

It’s called Punitaqui, a rural and humble town nestled in the hills of the the Coquimbo (IV) region and the “small north” of Chile. The region is under the desert and the climate is similar—days were hot, nights were cold, and things were dry and dusty.

Living in a small, quiet town without WiFi, heating, or anyone to speak English with definitely hurled me out of my comfort bubble. Let me tell you, the WiFi withdrawals were real, and after class I would be on the hunt for some sort of connection. I regularly found myself in a park that had spotty public WiFi where I would talk with friends, laugh at new Trumpisms, listen to Eckhart Tolle, and hang out with my favorite street dogs.

The plaza of Punitaqui; my school is in the background!

Host Family

My host family and the people I met in this little town really defined my experience in Punitaqui.

Through the program you can choose to live by yourself or be placed with a local Chilean family. I chose the latter and was lucky to be placed in an amazing Chilean family!

with host mom and a “completo”

My host mom and abuela, both Lucia, grew up in the region and wholeheartedly welcomed me into their home and hearts. They invited me to join them at get-togethers, gave me clothes, were worried when I didn’t wear a scarf in the cold, and stuffed me full of Chilean food.

Let’s just say that my backpack and body became a little more full during my service.

My first meal with my host family. Poroto (beans) with tomato, onion and juice. Super Chilean!

Mom Lucia is a fantastic cook and made a big lunch every day for everyone that lived in the house and for her friends. We would all stop by during our lunch breaks to enjoy a meal together and also shared Once—bread and tea—at night.

There were other women renting rooms in the house—two Chilean girls who worked in the town, and one girl from Rome. We all got along so well that we went on many Punitaqui adventures together and sometimes we’d go for a run in the evenings.

Host mom, friend Daniela, and host grandmother drinking “mate” during a day trip to La Serena

As for everyone else, the entire town and my host family basically spoke in full-blown Chilean Spanish to me, and although I am slow to learn, I did learn a lot of Spanish! However, my go-to technique was (and still is) to nod my head in blind agreement, smile, and add an occasional, “ahhh siii”. Google Translate for iPhone is also a lifesaver.

Classes

I felt equally welcomed in small my Chilean Middle School—the kids were curious about me and had a ton of questions! What is my favorite Chilean food? Do I know Justin Bieber? Do I have a boyfriend? I would answer in English and they’d try to piece things together.

I worked with the students’ head English teacher and we split the classes into two sections—I taught one half of the class while she’d teach the other, and then we switched groups.

We taught 5th through 8th grade and had over 200 students!

All of my classes were taught in English and the English level was very low; my students were generally shy to speak… at first. I’m proud to say that there was a noticeable improvement in their skills and confidence throughout the months I saw them!

For teaching and classroom content I used the techniques that were drilled during orientation to teach basic conversational English. For example, in a typical class I’d teach vocabulary and simple question and answer sentence structures such as,

“What do you want to eat?”

“I want to eat… salad, popcorn, ice cream etc.” 🍦

I spent several hours a week planning these lessons and drawing vocabulary pictures. Not unlike some other volunteers, I underestimated the amount of work that this job demanded and spent most of my days in school or planning. I rarely traveled.

Though there were many holidays and days off because of the rain!

Yes, the rain.

You see, in the north of Chile it doesn’t rain much, but during my service it absolutely poured for three days and filled the once dry riverbed of Punitaqui. When the rain comes, roads, houses, and schools become flooded and it takes some time to recover.

Rainy days meant buckets, food, and the most dramatic soap operas you’ve ever seen!

When I planned classes at home, I always reminded myself that my purpose in Chile was to motivate students to learn English and readily embraced this role.

I like the idea of teaching slang and playing classroom basketball far better than drilling grammar and giving tests.

I made sure to keep high energy and have a fun and unique English game for the end of each period that the students’ could look forward to. For these games I would often split them into two teams—they loved competing—and had them race to the board, throw balls, unscramble words, and do other fun things for prizes. They were always thrilled to receive stickers and candy, and this totally came in handy for controlling the classroom!

Classes in general were loud and sometimes disrespectful.

I worked to maintain the fine balance between being the cool teacher they can have fun with, yet also demanding respect and attention. Sometimes I got it right, and sometimes I taught through chaos. I do like the idea of positive reinforcement and was glad that the program did as well. They showed us how to develop a classroom management system and to reward for good behavior as a preventative measure.

My classroom management system. Students were excited to compete with other classes and move forward on the map if they had good collective behavior.

Teaching Anxiety

Because of c-PTSD I have a hard time standing in front of people.

Like, a really hard time.

I’ve had moments in the past (even when I was in middle school myself) where I would get up in front of a classroom and have a gnarly freeze response. I’d completely choke up—shaky voice, shallow breathing, heart racing and jumbled thoughts, oh my! Embarrassing!

My militarized subconscious swears it’s keeping me safe, but it’s something that I have vowed to compassionately work with to rewire. And that means more public speaking exposure (ah!), which was one motivation for doing the program.

So, how did it go?

Well! There was a ton of self doubt in the weeks approaching my service. But let’s face it, no matter how strong that doubt is, I think that we all know deep down that we have the potential to do great things; it’s the unknown journey and the likely hurdles that scare us. ✨

During the beginning of this teaching journey I used Propranalol—a beta blocker drug sent straight from the heavens that can be used to help stay calm during public speaking.

After I got used to having expecting eyes staring back at me and became more comfortable with projecting in front of the classroom, I dropped the drug and slowly fell into a comfortable teaching routine.

At the end of my service and literally hundreds of classes, I was confident with my lessons and hardly thought twice about entertaining and teaching for 45 minutes! And after a review of my class, I was even invited to be the chairperson of a regional debate tournament. New situations like that definitely still leave my brain scrambling, but I think there’s been a slow general improvement in my ability to handle the speakers spotlight.

The End

In the days nearing the end of my service I received overwhelming love from my school and students. I got tons of cards, presents, kind words and hugs.

The teachers held a farewell breakfast for me!

All of the kindness and love that poured out from this school and town had me thinking, “Really? All for me?” and wondering if I deserved this and lived up to this image everyone had of me. I tried to clear feelings of “not being good enough” by doing EFT tapping when I had internet.

Needless to say, it was very hard to leave Punitaqui.

There were so many simple, beautiful and healing moments I had in that little uncharted town. The departing bus ride was filled with tears and gratitude for the opportunity to have taken part in this adventure.

Do I feel like I made a difference? I think so.

Did I grow? Yeah, totally.

I’d like to learn Spanish and return so that I can share in on the gossip and catch up on life.

How much did it really cost?

I spent less than $300 USD during my semester-long service which was about 4 months long. I know some volunteers who spent next to nothing, and others who spent a lot more! Room and board was provided through the program and I also received a stipend meant to cover transportation and classroom material costs.

Also, I did have to pay for my flight to Chile. I booked early and was lucky to find a round-trip flight from Miami to Santiago for about $600 USD. But I skipped the return flight and am now writing this on a bus to Pucon! New adventures await.

Above is a video compilation of my experiences during my volunteer service. There you you can see some of my class, host family, town, and more.

And if you’re thinking about teaching English abroad or have any questions, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

2017-08-25T10:52:42+00:00

4 Comments

  1. Eric August 18, 2017 at 6:47 pm - Reply

    II must admit a strong feeling of aprension when my daughter told me she was off to Chile to teach student’s English.
    Tracy you have proven that you can follow your dreams and with your hard work and planning achieve your goals.
    I’am very proud of you and continue to be amazed. Love Dad.

    • Tracy
      Tracy August 25, 2017 at 8:06 pm - Reply

      Thanks! Love you!

  2. Kim Baker August 20, 2017 at 6:05 pm - Reply

    Well done, Tracy! Very proud of you! Kim xoxo

    • Tracy
      Tracy August 25, 2017 at 8:06 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Kim! 🙂

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