exploring, examining, exchanging, expressing
Friday, October 26, 2007
Last night marked the end of my regular teaching gigs. All that's left now is to grade a few quizzes and sub for someone at the end of November. I am free to enjoy my remaining 49 days in Costa Rica in a state of blissful unemployment.

Those days are filling up quickly, too. This weekend I'll be bar-hopping with friends and visiting my Tico family. Next weekend I'm going back to Bocas del Toro for another border run, then I'm taking the long way back so I can check out more of the Carib coast. At some point, I want to go to Monteverde and Arenal Volcano. Then we're hosting a Thanksgiving dinner / party at our place. I'll have one spare week to tie up any loose ends, and then my parents will be here.

And then I'm gone.

It absolutely blows my mind when I think of how quickly this year has passed. But it's too soon to get nostalgic about it. I'm not done yet! These remaining days must be savored.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007
Better'n No Class
Our advanced classes are a bit odd because students come and go all the time. The class lasts two months, but students came be there for any two months. So the class is circular, not linear. And the composition of the class can change from week to week. Some weeks I'll have 6 students. Then others I'll have fewer. Today I had two. Tomorrow, one of them has to work, so I'll have one.

I like small classes because I get to really interact with the students. I get to know them and understand their needs. It gives me an opportunity to tailor the material. But it's really hard to fill 3 hours 5 days a week with only 1 or 2 students. That's a lot of talking time for me and the students. It's good for them to have the practice, but it's also very draining. It's difficult to keep up the energy for that long. And if a student is tired or just doesn't feel like talking... well... then the class is really shot.

It could be worse, though. This is apparently a low time for the school. Other teachers have been without any students. So I'm lucky that I've been able to keep a class going, no matter how small it is.

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Friday, September 07, 2007
Students Say
I was teaching phrasal verbs to my students yesterday. We came to "get by with" and I explained that it means to do the minimum, to manage with very little effort. One student was thinking and thinking, and then said, "I don't know if we have a word for that in Spanish, but that's so Tico!"

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007
I've been teaching here for about 4 and a half months now, and every single day - every single class - is a different challenge. This job is difficult in ways that I never would've imagined. I knew that I'd have to deal with lesson planning and odd shifts. And I even knew I'd have some trouble-making students. But I never expected that it would effect my emotions to the degree that it has.

If I have a great class, then I'm on top of the world. I'm confident, relaxed, and happy. When my students are engaged and enthusiastic, I really feel like I belong here, like I'm doing something positive. The time flies by and I look forward to the next class. I become inspired, filled with ideas for future lessons and activities.

But if a class goes sour, I'm crushed. It only takes one or two students with bad attitudes to ruin the whole classroom. That's the joy and pain of teaching classes that rely heavily on participation and communication. One student, in a small class, can effectively shut down an activity. The class as a whole will then turn negative. Time drags on. The air becomes thick with boredom or frustration. It's a disease that seems only to be cured by the words "class dismissed." And it ruins me. When I have bad chemistry in the classroom, I feel horrible. My mood is dark. I toss and turn all night. If I do manage to sleep, I have awful nightmares. And, of course, I dread going back to the school.

For whatever reason, my mental state is closely tied to the classroom experience. I can't help but take this job personally. Although there are other people and things involved, when it comes time for class, it's just me and my students. Perhaps it would be easier to remain emotionally unaffected if I were lecturing to an auditorium filled with 30-50 students. But when I'm facing 6-10 individuals, there is a very personal connection.

It's rewarding when the connection is positive. I've had students thank me for helping them. Some have really shown appreciation for my work. There's nothing better than hearing that I'm a good teacher.

And there's nothing worse than students who would rather be anywhere but my classroom. It's absolutely soul-crushing. That's the most dangerous part of this job that I've found so far.

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Friday, July 13, 2007
My schedule is changing again. I'm getting used to it, of course. I'll still teach in the mornings, but I'll also have a class in the evening. I'll normally have 5 hours in between, which is enough time to get some things done. But this Monday, I'm also subbing for someone. So I'll teach from 9am till noon. Then I'll catch a cab to an offsite location to teach from 1 till 3. Then I'll get on the bus to be back at the school to teach from 5 till 7. I'm tired just thinking about it.

It sounds like I really work, doesn't it? But to be fair, I need to tell you about last night and this morning.

Yesterday another teacher was having a party for her graduating class and she invited me. So they set up a grill in our outdoor classroom, put on some music, and had me make a beer run. We had hotdogs, sausages, and beef (all served on tortillas instead of buns, of course). We played Jenga. And one student got out a deck of cards and told fortunes.

Today, I had a party for a couple of my students that finished the course. So we watched a movie, had chips and dip, and sat around talking for a couple of hours. Not a bad way to spend a Friday morning, really.

I think the good days, so far, more than make up for the bad.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007
An International Individual
I read an article in AM Costa Rica that I thought would be great material for discussion in class: Modern society is creating an international individual. (Scroll way down towards the bottom - there is no direct link to the article). For those too lazy to click, scroll, and read, I think the article can be sumarized by one line from the author:
I sometimes feel more like a citizen of the world than one particular place.
We talked about this for almost an hour and a half. The students even stayed several minutes after class, they were so involved in the conversation. I loved it. That's what makes teaching here so enriching.

What does it mean to be an "international individual?" Does it mean losing one's cultural identity? Is it possible to have a global mentality while still embracing the uniqueness of each society?

I struggle with these questions often, so I welcomed the opportunity to share them with my students. As a teacher of English in a foreign country, I sometimes feel a bit imperialistic. Am I imposing my language, and consequently my culture, on my students? Sure, they're attending class on their own free will, but is it really a choice? In one sense, they really must learn English to get ahead. It's not like they're learning English for the sheer pleasure of the language. English-speaking countries are the current economic powers, so English is the language of international business now.

The US has an influence on the world, for better or worse. It spreads its language, its media, its companies, and its culture in general. Seeing McDonalds and WalMart here, I know it's true. In return, of course, it also imports many different cultures. But what is the end result? Are we creating a global society that contains the best parts of every country? Or are we creating clones of the US?

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Shaky Ground
There is no stability in teaching ESL. I'm sure I've said it before, in many different ways, but it's worth repeating. It is the polar opposite of a steady, 40 hour per week, corporate job. My schedule changes not only week to week, but sometimes hour to hour. Sometimes I get ambushed in the hallway and am asked to substitute for someone at the last minute. I always know I'm in for a surprise when I hear these words from our academic coordinator: "I'm so glad to see you!"

This month is especially mixed up. Just about every teacher is taking time off. So I'm picking up a few extra hours here and there. Today I realized I should attempt to write down my schedule. That's when I noticed that next Monday I would be teaching three classes at various times and locations from 9am till 9pm. I know I could do it, but I really don't want to. It was my turn to be so glad to see the academic coordinator. I gave up a few hours. And I warned her that since everyone else is taking time off this month, I plan on taking some time off next month.

Then, when I checked my mail after class, I saw the notice that we're having a mandatory meeting on a Saturday morning. Unpaid, of course. And offsite. Harsh. I bet they won't even provide coffee, let alone booze.

But, what the heck? I never expected teaching to be glamorous. And I really can't complain. It still beats corporate life.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007
My Kids
Last night I had my students debate the pros and cons of CAFTA. They groaned at first. Some don't like political topics. Others are sick of talking about CAFTA. But it's one of the hottest issues in Costa Rican at the moment, so I felt it was important to bring it up in class. Plus, I wanted to hear what they had to say about it.

The debate went fine, but the best part was the discussion afterwards. We started talking about the socioeconomic status of Costa Ricans, and how that affects their attitudes. There's a large lower class, especially outside of the central valley, that depends on government assistance. But there's also a growing middle class that could take advantage of the jobs that would come from a free trade agreement.

My students used themselves as examples. Each of them explained how they'd grown up on some level below middle class. They didn't all live in poverty, but they certainly weren't given the advantage of wealth. And now, here they are: well-educated, bilingual, and employed in very good jobs. They see the opportunities that are open to them. They speak of plans to get more education, to climb to higher positions in their companies, and to someday own their own businesses.

By the end of the night, I was so proud of them I could've burst. They have such amazing attitudes. I know they're going to succeed. They're an inspiration to me.

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Monday, June 18, 2007
Change Versus Improvement
I was seriously bummed before the beginning of class tonight. It's my last week with them. Three are graduating and two are moving to another teacher. Next week I'll be teaching from 3-6pm instead. When I told them about this, they got a little sad too. They said they've had fun in class and that they felt they've learned a lot. They like my style of teaching. We're comfortable with each other, which is important for learning to happen. We all decided to go out and do karaoke after Friday's class.

I was also bummed because of the curriculum changes that I know are coming up. My class is a perfect example of the result of our current method: they can hold a natural, fluent conversation in English with minor mistakes. They are proof that "Converse & Correct" is a good way to improve pronunciation skills for advanced language students. They don't need formal grammar training; they just need quick reminders. They don't need to memorize lists of vocabulary; they need practice using the words they already know.

I don't know why I feel so strongly about this. I shouldn't care, but I do. I guess I hate to see an innovative approach get stamped down by the status quo. I've seen this method work. Our students get jobs. And they recommend our school because it's different. And perhaps I have selfish reasons, too. I enjoy teaching this way. It's far more enjoyable than lecturing. It means less time preparing lesson plans, though it does mean I have to stay on my toes during class. But I like that. If I wanted to be a "now-turn-your-books-to-page-blah-blah-blah" teacher, there are plenty of other schools I could work for.

So, I'm going to make one more pitch for focusing on accent reduction for our advanced students. I'm going to do some research and make a proposal in writing to our academic coordinator. It's my last stab. And it's a long-shot. After that, I can at least feel like I made an honest effort.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007
Working for the Weekend
Friday night one of my students invited me and my roommate out to Bar Retro. It's a two level bar where they place American music videos from the 60s-90s. The place was packed. Apparently, classic rock is popular here. Of course, the beer special (2 for 1100 colones) might've helped. Every table was filled with empty bottles. These folks know how to drink! My student and I did our fair share too. In fact, we closed the place down (no biggie - it was only midnight). Then we went to another bar (this one had 3 levels) closer to campus. Very, very nice views. We made friends with a Tico that works at a call center, speaks very good English, and claims to be a poet. Overall, it was an interesting and fun night.

Saturday morning was the Farmer's Market. I stocked up on all kinds of good veggies. I even got a huge mango as a treat. I just love walking up and down the rows of vendors. I could spend hours just browsing, taking it all in. But it was way too hot to linger. I also had my first Pipa Fria while I was there. They take a young green coconut and hack the top off with a machete and stick a straw in. You drink the fresh coconut milk/water. It was soooo good on such a scorching day.

That afternoon, roomie and I hosted a teachers' meeting out our place to discuss changes to our school's curriculum. I made my pitch for a focus on accent reduction and conversation skills. But I was politely overruled by a room full of women who have a more traditional view of language education. So our most advanced students will be getting heavy doses of grammar and vocabulary, at the cost of pronunciation and fluency practice (which was the school's original selling point and what set it apart from the hundreds of other English academies in Costa Rica).

After the meeting, we went downtown for sushi, then the school's owner caught up with us and invited us out for drinks. Couldn't refuse a free round from the head honcho. It was nice to be able to talk to him out of the office. I learned quite a bit about him. I had no idea he was only 25. Naturally, with a table full of educators, the conversation centered on linguistics and education theory. Good stuff for a Saturday night, aye? Honestly, it was a great time, and we all vowed to do it again. There was even talk of house parties and beach trips. I'm starting to feel like I have a social life again!

Today is laundry day. The washer here is tiny, and looks nothing like the washers I'm used to. It took me awhile to figure it out. Naturally, the buttons are all in Spanish. But I got it. Now everything is hanging out to dry. No dryer. Welcome to the simple life.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Student Driven
My school's highest level classes are taught a bit differently from other language classes. They're 2 months, 5 days a week, 3 hours a day. They're highly conversation-oriented. The students talk, and the teacher's job is to make corrections along the way. Sometimes the teacher provides topics or has them do specific activities. There are job-related role-plays. But for the most part, the students generally dictate the content of the class. And, since students enter and leave the course all the time (it's a circular curriculum, not linear), the needs of the class change often.

So my job is to take the basic outline of a curriculum and tailor it for each unique group of students. I like it, because it allows for a bit more creativity than just teaching out of a book. The students tend to like it because they get to talk about things that interest them.

But, just as students come and go, so do teachers and academic coordinators. Currently my school is in a state of flux. There's a trend to move towards a more "traditional" curriculum. Less time spent "just talking" and more structured activities and lessons.

One class rejected this new method so much that their teacher felt the need to leave them. They're now my class. So I'm stuck between giving my students what they want (lots of conversation) and what my administration wants me to teach (structure, grammar, etc). Naturally, if it comes down to it, the school wins. They're the ones that pay me. But I'm going to go to bat for my students as much as I can.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Little Fish, Little Pond
TEFL Logue linked to my post on Costa Rica Classroom about "The Lesson" and called it "a great article." Granted, it's a limited audience (EFL teachers abroad), but I'm glad to get the word out about what a wonderful (and challenging) experience teaching English in Costa Rica can be.

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Monday, June 04, 2007
Night Shift
The perfect schedule I was supposed to begin this week has been changed (naturally). Both classes are apparently caught in limbo. You see, private ESL schools work on the same principle as "just in time" manufacturing. New classes start only when there are enough students to make it profitable. The sales department provides the students, while the academic coordinator provides the teacher. And when it all comes together, there is a happy classroom filled with 6-12 smiling faces, eager to learn English.

In my case, however, the students never materialized. Being a lowly teacher, I am not privvy to details. All I know is that I was about to go from 15 hrs / week to 0 hrs / week. But then I was offered a M-F class that runs from 6pm - 9pm. Same number of hours I'd been promised, and the same type of class (highest level), but a very late schedule. Not that I'm worried about missing my bedtime. I'm more worried about walking through San Jose at around 10pm. But I didn't have much choice. I had to take it. So I start tonight.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Costa Rica Classroom
I've started contributing to Costa Rica Classroom. The site, with its advice and stories from other teachers, put my mind at ease before I came down here. And it continues to be a good source of information on living and teaching in this country. Considering all the help it's given me, I'm glad to give a little back.

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Friday, May 11, 2007
Teachers Meet
My school has instituted monthly teacher's meetings. The nice thing is that pizza was provided (a welcomed change from gallo pinto). The bad thing is that the time, which came to a couple of hours, was unpaid. It also meant I had to go to the academy on my day off. These are minor inconveniences compared to the benefits of getting everyone together for a roundtable discussion, though. We shared ideas and learned from each other.

It's funny. I've only been working there for a couple of months, but I'm already considered a "senior" teacher because we have so many new folks. Only one teacher, at this point, has been there longer than me. Others have moved out of the country or moved up to administrative positions. I think this holds true in many EFL schools. Most teachers only stay for 6 months to, maybe, 2 years. So, despite my relative lack of experience (others have taught more, just not at this academy), and despite having only taught one class through completion, I was one of the most vocal participants.

For instance, management suggested a policy of submitting weekly lesson plans to our academic coordinator by Friday afternoon. I'd been doing them for myself for my class all along. My habit is to review the previous week's plan over the weekend, see what worked and what didn't, and use that knowledge to plan for the upcoming week. (Even then, plans change day by day). So I suggested that we submit plans on Monday morning instead. The other teachers, who had been silent on this issue, suddenly chimed in, agreeing with me. In the end, management agreed as well.

I have other ideas for improving the school, too, based on what I've seen and experienced. Some I'm ready to share, others I'll keep to myself for now. It's in my nature to make a system as efficient as possible. I think that comes from being a tech-head. I'm finding that being a teacher isn't too different from doing technical support. Both involve explaining difficult concepts to people who are unfamiliar with them, and dealing with managers who simply want the business / school to run smoothly.

Who knows? Maybe someday I'll be an academic coordinator myself.

Nah. That'd be too much like real work.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007
The past two days I worked a split shift that kept me in Heredia from 9am til 9pm. I was covering two evening classes for a teacher that's on vacation. Those were long, long days. The classes were difficult. The students were, of course, tired from working all day. I was tired myself. Even coffee didn't help. Plus, it's hard being a substitute teacher. Remember how you treated subs in school? Yah. And with my house being so far from the school, even taking a taxi instead of a bus from San Jose to San Rafael, I didn't get home till around 10 at night.

I'm glad that's over.

Rough days are quickly forgotten, though. Today was good. This is my last real week of teaching my main class. Next week is just review and then testing. I'm going to miss them. Over the past month and a half, I've gotten to know them fairly well; I've learned about their lives, their families, their likes and dislikes. I've grown to appreciate their unique personalities. But another teacher is taking over for the next level. I have to leave them in someone else's hands.

When this class is over, my schedule is going to get... interesting. The owner of my school has decided that the Saturday class just isn't working out as it is. Not enough students are showing up. So he spoke with the HR person at their company and they agreed to move the class. It'll be taught at the company instead of at our academy. And it will meet for two hours in the evening on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. I don't like the idea of teaching offsite, but I like the class, so I agreed to keep teaching it.

I'm also going to start teaching one of our highest level classes, which means even more focus on fluent conversation and less on grammar and vocabulary. This one will meet in the mornings on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. So I'm back to working a split shift, but only three days a week. In those three days, I will work enough hours to cover my living expenses and have some beer money. And I'll have a nice long weekend, perfect for traveling. Despite the inconvenience of having to travel to the company and having to work mornings and evenings, I think I'm coming out ahead in this deal.

By next month, if everything falls in place, I should also have an apartment in Heredia. That'll cut down on my travel time. And that'll mean I'll be in a safer location, so perhaps I can start experiencing some Costa Rican nightlife instead of rushing home to avoid the crackheads that come out after dark. I'll be able to put that beer money to use!

My future's so bright...

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Saturday, May 05, 2007
Typical Day
I never thought I'd say this, but here it is: I like working Saturdays. Granted, I'd rather be chilling at the beach or touring the rainforests, but on weekends when I don't have travel plans, I don't mind teaching. It's nice that my school makes Saturdays optional. Anyway, let me take you through my day to give you an idea of a normal Saturday for me. Then, perhaps, you won't think I'm crazy.

I woke up around 6 AM, before my alarm went off, when the sun began shining through my window. I started making coffee and getting ready for the day. I scarfed down some bread and leftover guacamole (on any other day, there'd be gallo pinto, but my stove's still goofy) while reviewing my lesson plan for class. I took a cold shower. I got dressed, downed the rest of my coffee, packed my stuff, and walked up to the bus stop. I caught the bus (120 colones) around 7:40 and got into San Jose at the Central Park stop a little after 8. I walked across the park and made my way through a few more blocks, choosing streets with little traffic and plenty of banks (there are security guards surrounding all of the banks downtown). I got on the bus to Heredia (220 colones) and it left around 8:15. It dropped me off a block from my school at about 8:50. Some days I get off at an earlier stop to walk around and stroll through the park, but I was feeling lazy today.

Nobody was at the school yet. The admin assistant didn't show up until after 9 to open the doors. I, being a lowly teacher, don't get keys. No students yet. They've been getting later every week. I fired up the computer to print out some material for my students, but the printer wouldn't work because the office was rearranged and everything was disconnected. One student showed up and we chatted for a bit while I tried to get the printer working. At 9:20 another student appeared. We decided to start class (20 minutes late, but not bad for "hora de Tico"). I gave a quick lesson on the conditional sentence structure and we started playing "What would you do if...?" As we're talking, a few more students made their way in, and we finally got a group of 5 total. Good! It's hard to have a conversation class without people to converse with. While I was speaking to one student, the others began using Spanish. I explained that they could talk about anything, but they had to use English. So they did. It turned out they were complaining about a difficult customer. We traded stories about that for awhile; it's at those times that I think it's nice that I have experience in their line of work. Somehow, eventually, we got on the topic of crime and the death penalty (Costa Rica doesn't have it). After a rather morbid, frightful, and gruesome discussion, we took a break.

The admin assistant didn't make coffee (very sad) but she did get my printouts done (very good). So when we started class again, I gave a lesson on stress within words, since one of the students had asked about it last week. Spanish has rules for how to stress syllables within words. English doesn't. We have a few guidelines, but many exceptions. With that out of the way, I handed out more discussion topics. I had been waiting for the one female in the class to show up, and luckily she was there today, so the topic was the differences between men and women. This had gotten my weekday class all riled up. Today's class, however, was civil and level-headed. Not surprising, but a little disappointing. I wanted a Battle of the Sexes. It turned into a discussion on spirituality and love. Deep stuff. Even native English speakers have a hard time articulating their feelings on these topics. My students did a fine job. I was impressed, both by their linguistic abilities and their passionate sentiments.

After class I used the school's computer lab to check my email, read some news, surf a few blogs, and post to my own. It began raining. Hard. So I surfed more.

When the rain calmed down, I walked over to the central market and looked around for awhile. I'm still shy about buying from the vendors. But I sucked it up and asked one of them for a chunk of guanabana. I'd been eyeing this fruit for weeks. I'd had a drink made with artificial guanabana flavor, and it was good. The real thing was sure to be even better. It's huge, green, and covered with spikes. They sell it in pieces. I've only seen a whole one for sale once. I asked for a large chunk, but it was more than I wanted to pay. So I got a smaller (about 3/4 kg) piece for 700 colones.

guanabana chunk

I then walked over to another, smaller mercado just a couple of blocks away. I was getting hungry since it was around 1:30, so I looked for a soda. Some were too crowded and didn't have seats (those are the best, of course, but I didn't feel like waiting). Others looked a little scary. I finally found one that looked acceptable and had "olla de carne" on the menu. It's a massive bowl of beef stew with huge chunks of potato, corn, chayote, and other veggies. When I ordered it, the waitress said they didn't have any, but offered another soup. I hesitated and started to leave, but then she rattled off a few other options. I was wooed by the fact that she was nice and spoke slow enough for me to understand, so I ordered casado con pollo en salsa (blue plate special with chicken in sauce) with a melon fresco. The sides turned out to be beans and rice (naturally), beet salad, fried potatoes with corn, two tortillas, and plantain. It was 1450 colones, incredibly filling, and quite good.

I've noticed the waitresses at the sodas in Heredia (and elsewhere too, I'm sure, though I didn't hear it in San Jose) call the patrons "mi amor." I like that. It reminds me of the waitresses at diners back home. They always call people "honey," "sugar" or "sweetheart." Today it made me a little homesick.

With a full belly, I got back on the bus and made my way home. I will spend the rest of my day drinking coffee, reading, cleaning up around the house, lounging on the porch, and watching TV. I may study a little Spanish. I also might eat some guanabana and whip up a drink later.

Not a bad life, aye?

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Teacher Tricks
A couple of my students were starting to use more and more Spanish in the classroom. That, in turn, was causing the rest of the class to get lazy about it. So I introduced a competition: "A Week Without Spanish." The rules are simple. If a student needs to speak Spanish, he or she must first ask permission. That gives me a chance to push them to try to figure out how to say what they want to say using English. If a student speaks Spanish without authorization, he or she gets a mark next to his or her name. So far, so good. I'm hearing far less Spanish. Half the class has no marks at all. I'm going to reward the winners with candy. Bribery always works.

Today I encountered another problem. Two students decided to doodle in class instead of participate in a discussion. Sometimes it's hard to believe I'm teaching adults. But instead of playing bad cop, I put their artistic urges to better use. I had one of them sit with her back to the board and describe her bedroom. The other had to draw the bedroom on the board. The whole class got a kick out of it. It's nice when you can find a creative solution.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007
My Boys
I'm really starting to enjoy my Saturday class, even though I don't entirely like the idea of splitting my weekend. The students, though not incredibly motivated (they already have jobs, and their company is paying for the course), are well-educated and articulate. My job is simply to help them sounds more like North Americans, so their customers can understand them better. This means we spend almost no time on vocabulary and very little on grammar. We just talk. I correct their word use and give them tips on pronunciation. It's fun to start debates about Costa Rican political issues, such as CAFTA, drugs, and global warming. And because they work in IT, we inevitably veer off into discussions on technology, science fiction, and video games. A couple of them even whipped out Magic: The Gathering cards during our break and played a quick game. These are my people!

I think they're enjoying it too, which is important because they're giving up their Saturday morning for this. I need to make it worth their time. One of them asked me today: "Are you going to be our regular teacher?" And then he realized I might take his question the wrong way: "Not because I want another teacher! I think you're a good teacher." My school doesn't force teachers to work Saturdays; teaching this class is voluntary, so they're used to seeing different faces. I think they're surprised that I've shown up three weeks in a row. But I think I'll consider them "mine," unless I have travel plans some weekend. I think I can relate to this group better than the other teachers can, simply because of my prior work experience. And I get a kick out of hanging out with Tico computer geeks.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007
A Bad Day

It started out fine. I woke up early. I enjoyed my morning pot of coffee, got ready, and headed up the hill. That's when I got the feeling that things were going to take a turn for the worse. A bus was taking off as I got close to my stop. It was mine. I'd missed it. So I waited. A few busses came and went, but none for the route I needed. Then, in the distance, I saw the right bus. I hailed. He was packed, so I just kept on going. So I waited. Soon, instead of being early, I was going to just be on time. A driver finally picked me up.

Once in San Jose, I bolted for the Heredia bus stop. When I got there, the bus was still waiting for passengers. It was about 10 minutes before we had enough people to take off. I tried not to look at my watch. No sense in worrying about it, I told myself. We hit a ton a traffic. Now I was moving from "on time" into "late."

Sure enough, by the time I made it to my school, I was about 2 minutes late for the start of class. That's fine by Tico time, but I had things I needed to prepare. I rushed around, trying to talk to my students while making copies and getting ready. I was frustrated, but couldn't complain to the group. I just apologized and dove into the lesson. As fate would have it, one of my first activities involved a poem entitled, "A Very Bad Day."

As I was covering a grammar point, one of the administrators came into the room and passed out a class (and teacher) evaluation to the students. This further frustrated me for several reasons. First, this evaluation was supposed to be given out after the third week, not at the start of the second week. The students haven't had enough classes to properly evaluate anything at this point! Second, it should've been given out at the end of the class, not the beginning. This was a major disruption. They kept working on it while I was trying to get them to focus on my activities. And finally, it was obviously a bad day for me, personally. I wasn't giving my best performance as a teacher. But of course, since they were filling out the form today, it would be fresh in their minds. Fan-tas-tic. Grrr.

After class, I had to go to the bank to open an account so I could get direct deposit set up. Given my minimal grasp of Spanish, I wasn't looking forward to attempting this. My need to get paid overpowered my fear. I walked to the bank and saw that it didn't open until 1pm, so I had to kill an hour. I decided to go to the park. I figured that'd be a good place to relax, read, and work on my lesson plans. Not today. Today, a beggar decided to screw with me. I ignored him, but then another one came and sat down right next to me. They both spoke English. Why do the bums speak English? I got up to leave since it was time to stand in line at the bank anyways. As I was walking by, the first bum yelled at me, "Whatsa matter, can't give a few coins to help some poor Costa Ricans?!" Ugh. I didn't need that crap. Not today.

At the bank, I walked upstairs as I was instructed to do. Another teacher had given me a couple of names of bank employees I should talk to. But I ended up in the credit card application area. I was led back downstairs where I was told to wait in another line. Aha. There was a sign in this area that I figured out meant "new accounts." My informants at the school were apparently misinformed. When my number came up, I sat down and immediately launched into my gringo introduction: "Buenas tardes. Hablo un poquito espanol. Necesito una nueva cuenta bancaria." Then I handed her the letter of sponsorship from the school. You see, it's not easy for a non-resident to get a bank account. I needed an employer to vouch for me. I think the letter did more to explain my situation than my pathetic attempt at Spanish did. Either way, we started filling out forms. I handed over my passport and a utility bill. You need to show a utility bill for nearly everything. Another teacher said he had to have a copy even to get a membership at a video rental shop. The nice lady asked me a few questions. Each time, I had to lean closer, not because I didn't understand, but because she spoke too softly. But each time, she followed up with English. So it all worked out. Eventually, after signing my name a few dozen times, I was given my account number and told to come back in two days to get my ATM card.

The worst of my day was over. I went home, ready to put it all behind me. And now that I've written about it, I can.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

My Saturday morning class turned out to be six guys that do pretty much what I used to do in the states. They work at a company that represents IBM in Costa Rica. They handle internal customers, helping them get online to the corporate VPN and fixing various problems the employees encounter. They're computer geeks. They're the Tico version of me - 3 months ago.

I was given topics for conversation for them. But of course, since they all work at the same place, they eventually started talking about their jobs. I heard things about VPNs and Cisco and the CCNA and other technical topics that were a part of my former life. They got off on a tangent about LANs and video games. They play a lot of the same games I used to play with my friends back in Ohio, like Age of Mythology, Empires, and Mortal Kombat. I couldn't help but think about my old LAN party buddies. They had the same social habits.

It's funny to think that I've traveled all this way to end up teaching English to guys that are so similar to the guys I was friends with in the US.

It's even more funny to think that these guys that are learning English from me could end up in the US in one of my old jobs.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007
By Any Other Name
They call me "Teacher." The way they say it, I can't help but smile. It warms my heart. It makes me want to live up to the name. I feel I need to earn it.

I've finished the first week of my regular class. It went quickly. The rest of the 5 weeks are sure to fly by, as well. Will my students have made progress by the end? Will I have taught them anything? I hope so. I'm up to six students in this class now (and should stay at that number), which is perfect. Today they were comfortable and animated. We laughed and joked. (When I do something too goofy, though, there are groans: "Ooooh, Teacher!") We had some great discussions. I taught them several new words (ranging from "guard-dog" to "bar-hop" - like I said, good conversations). We fixed some grammar mistakes. In fact, we were on such a roll, I didn't get to cover everything during class. So I got to give homework - whee! I'm hearing less Spanish and more English. I even stayed after class today to help one of them with a pronunciation problem. It felt very "teacherly."

Maybe someday the title will fit properly.

Of course, I learn things from my students, too. That's the bonus of discussion-centered classes. For instance, when we talk about their favorite vacations, I get to hear about the best places to visit in Costa Rica. Or if we talk about food, I learn which restaurants are good and which I should avoid. (Apparently there are some Chinese restaurants that serve "mystery meat"). This is stuff that doesn't make it into the guide books. It's a great opportunity to get insider information.

My freshman English teacher in college said she loved her job because it gave her the chance to have interesting conversations with intelligent people. At the time, I was skeptical. Teaching isn't exactly a high-prestige job. But I now know exactly what she meant.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Adventures in Teaching
I gave my second "business seminar" tonight. Can you guess how it went? If you answered, "Not as planned," then you've been paying attention. Good job. Move to the head of the class.

I was supposed to be driven to the business by someone from the school. As I arrived at the school, however, I saw my ride driving off with the owner. I flagged them down and explained the situation. Apparently they had forgotten the plan. Fair enough. There'd been a week's vacation since we last talked. I'm as guilty as anyone of being forgetful. But did they stop and offer me a ride? Nope. The owner told me to go ahead into the school and she'd have someone give me directions. And they were off. Fan-tas-tic.

I cursed. I considered blowing off the class. It was becoming a hassle, more trouble than it was worth. I would've been on time with a driver. If I had to rely on the bus, I'd be late for sure. I could just go home. That'd be easier. I'd already spent half my day riding busses. There are teachers in Costa Rica that spend all day traveling from business to business. They make good money, but I don't envy them.

My sense of responsibility (and obligation to my students) prevailed. Better not to burn any bridges. So I went into the school where eventually I was told that they would get a taxi to take me. The receptionist handed me the address for the business and enough money to pay the fare. Okay. This might work out.

Time ticked on.

The cab arrived and away we went. Right into a traffic jam. We were getting nowhere. And my driver wasn't particularly aggressive, especially compared to the other Ticos on the road. We were getting passed all over the place. I was surely going to be late. "Oh well," I thought, "it's the school's fault, and it's the school's reputation that will be hurt." I was a little grumpy. As we got closer, it become apparent that my driver wasn't exactly sure of where we were going. We made a few wrong turns. And then he started asking other drivers for directions. Tick tock. Tick tock. And finally, there it was! We made it. Only a few minutes late. Perfectly acceptable by Tico time.

At the front desk (did I mention the business was a hotel?), I explained that I was the teacher and asked where I'd be teaching. They said they'd find a room. I figured they might have a conference room or something we could use. But no, they meant a bedroom! This was a first for me. For better or worse, I only had two students. So we got comfortable and started class.

It went surprisingly well. I was relaxed, not nervous at all. I guess that's an advantage to a small group. And they were, thankfully, talkative. The time went by quickly. We covered everything I wanted to cover. And I think they got some good practice.

Afterwards, I was able to find the right bus and made it home without any problems.

So in the end... "todo bien."

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Monday, April 09, 2007
Second First Class
I taught my first regular class this morning at 9 AM. My stomach was a little upset from all the food over the weekend, plus I was nervous. I gave myself plenty of time to get there. I wanted to be at the school by 8:30 because they hadn't given me any materials yet. They swore the curriculum would be ready in the morning. I left the house at 7:15, unsure of what the morning traffic would be like. I got anxious waiting for my bus to San Jose and got on the wrong one! Luckily, it got me close enough, though I was a little disoriented. There are a few key landmarks in San Jose that I use to find my way around. I didn't recognize anything when I got off the bus. But I got lucky. After walking a couple of blocks, I came across a busstop for Heredia. There are three busses to Heredia. I'd never taken this one, but it got me to the right place at the right time. Whew!

Of course, when I got to the school, they still didn't have the course materials ready. I was given a few printouts, but the students wouldn't have anything. I had to wing it. Teaching involves a lot of improv, I'm finding. So, an activity that was supposed to take one hour - doing introductions, getting to know one another - was drawn out to about an hour and 45 minutes. I think that was pretty good, especially considering that only 4 out of 6 of my students showed up. With 15 minutes left, I grabbed the academic director for help, hoping the books had been printed and we could pass them out. Nope! So we played a game for the last minutes of class and finally it was over.

This class is the lowest level that the academy teaches, but the students still have a pretty good grasp of English. They can carry on a conversation with limited vocabulary, they're just shy, afraid to make mistakes. So a big part of my job is going to be to make them feel comfortable and get them talking. It's kind of like being a talk-show host. It just doesn't pay as well.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007
Working for a Living

I've been offered my first regular teaching job! The school is kind of far away (especially by bus), but they really need teachers. I think I'll take it. It's 8 hours a week, which isn't much for a normal job, but is a good start for a teacher. 20-25 hours a week is considered full time for most teachers. They have more teachers leaving in the next month, so I could probably get more hours soon. They're mostly advanced students. The school specializes in training them for call center and technical support jobs. That's right up my alley, given my past work experience. The classes I've observed so far have been really great. The students are motivated. There's a heavy focus on conversation and pronunciation, which are the fun parts of teaching English (as opposed to vocabulary and grammar).

I go back tomorrow to observe another class and do a little teaching. If all goes well, I'd have my first solo class on Monday morning.

I'm supposed to hear back from another (closer) school by then, too. So I may have a decision to make. It's not a bad situation to be in, though. You might think the answer is simple: work for both schools. But the language schools here require contracts. To work for one, you need to promise a certain amount of availability for 6-12 months. I'd really rather not split my time between two schools that are far apart. If they were closer, it'd be easier. But to minimize travel time, it'd be better (I think) to choose one or another. I could get a "full" schedule right away working for both, but I'd spend a lot of time on the bus. I think it might be worth the gamble to choose one or another and hope for more hours later on.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007
First Class
It's a common theme for my time in Costa Rica: planning is worthwhile, but plans are generally worthless.

I had prepared a fairly comprehensive lesson on job interview skills for an intermediate English class. As I was being driven to the business location, I was informed that I should speak slowly. "Uno momento," I thought to myself. I shouldn't need to really slow down for an intermediate class. This group must be a little lower. The two hours of lively discussion I had envisioned was quickly turning into a bigger challenge.

My fears were confirmed when I launched into the lesson. My warm-up questions were met largely with blank stares. Tough crowd. Time to regroup and plan a new route of attack.

I have them do some reading aloud so that I can better judge their level. See, I'm at a disadvantage here for several reasons. This is my first attempt at solo teaching. I'm nervous myself. I can't let them know that, though. I've been introduced as the "business expert." And I've never worked with these students before. I'm not their normal teacher. I won't likely ever work with them again. I'm basically a glorified subsitute at this point. Remember how you treated subs in school? Yah. So I've got that going for me, too. Plus, they've all just come off a hard day's work. They're fading fast. I'm not going to get too many chances here. But, since I had them read out loud, I have a better idea of who the strong students are. They will help me keep things moving.

The two-team competition I'd planned turned into a flop. One group did great. The other group didn't understand the task. I begin to feel like a failure.

It's time to get to the meat of the lesson. We're going to work on actual interviews. This is make-or-break time. My timing is a little off. I still have too much time to kill. Timing is a skill that comes with experience. I need a lot of work on this. But, given their level, I have a feeling that this task might take a good long time. And it turns out I'm right, for once. We get off to a rough start. I have a hard time explaining the task. But I give them some leeway and let them use a little Spanish and they all get it eventually. We're asking questions! We're interviewing each other!

Time ticks away.

With about 20 minutes left in class, I finally start to feel comfortable. We're laughing and getting into a groove. It took awhile, but we got there. I try to recap a few key points before we finish. I know they're not ready to ace an interview in English yet, but hopefully I've laid a little groundwork. I hope they got something out of it, at least. They thank me, and the men shake my hand as they leave.

I suddenly wish I were a better teacher.

Then I realize I need to find my way home. One of the students offers to drop me off in San Jose, where I can catch my bus. Once again, I am saved by the kindness of strangers.

A few minutes of driving, and I have no idea where we are. I begin to worry that I am too trusting. What if she drops me off at the wrong place? What if I can't find my bus stop? It's very dark and very late and I'm a gringo in a tie - I won't make it too far on my own. Nothing looks familiar and we've been driving for awhile. I venture a question: "Parque Central?" It's just two blocks away. Whew! I'm dropped off and away I go.

And here I am. Safe and sound. Ready to teach another day.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007
Hunting for Schools

I'm discovering that the market for teachers in Costa Rica is something like the market was for tech workers when I first went to Ohio. Teachers are essentially treated like contractors and many of the schools I've visited are essentially temp agencies. There is no promise for steady work. They can only offer what the market demands. As there are more students, then there is a greater demand for teachers. Many teachers work for several different schools/agencies in order to build a livable schedule of 20-25 hours a week. And, since many of these "schools" actually send teachers out to business locations for their classes, this means a lot of traveling. I'm starting to get used to the idea that I won't have a regular job.I'm also getting more comfortable with San Jose. I'm starting to learn my way around, and actually took the bus all by myself finally. The city is growing on me. While it is rather dirty and crowded, it also has an interesting vibe. It's full of life. I think I'll try to find work in the greater San Jose area for now, rather than move out to the suburbs. I feel like I need to experience the capital city for awhile.

I did visit a couple of schools in Heredia, which is a college town northwest of San Jose. It's much cleaner and nicer. The streets are filled with students, and I'm sure it has the active nightlife that goes along with college kids. But it's too far to commute from my current housing. I'd have to find a (cheap) place closer. I'm still considering it as an option. Maybe after 4-6 months, I'll give it a shot.

Unless, of course, I somehow manage to land that elusive dreamjob of teaching at the beach.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006
Let's get the formalities out of the way, shall we?

Hi. I'm Tony.

I was born in 1978 in a small town in upper-east Tennessee. My hometown had more cows than people. And where there weren't farms, there were churches and used car lots and not a whole lot else. But it also had mountains and lakes, friendly faces, and plenty of character. I didn't appreciate it at the time. Growing up, I hated it. I couldn't wait to leave. And so, when I graduated from college in the Summer of 2000 with a BA in English, I moved away.

I followed a girl to Columbus, Ohio. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The relationship didn't last, but I stayed in the area because I found a good-paying job at an Internet company. This was during the days of the tech boom, so life was nice for awhile. We had catered lunches and monthly massages. I was learning about web services, domains, networking, telecommunications, and all sorts of hot stuff. I got to play with servers and routers. It was great experience. But then the bust came and things started to get ugly. No more treats. Not so much as free coffee in the break room. In fact, the money dried up so quickly the company didn't even provide toilet paper in bathrooms after awhile. And then there were several rounds of layoffs. Luckily, I got "downsized" early, when they were still providing good severance packages.

Dismayed and discouraged by my first unemployment experience, I stuck around Columbus and looked for another job. I had been spoiled. The job market was much tougher by this point. So I applied with a consulting firm. This made me a glorified temp. No perks. But it eventually led to another real job with a stable company. It wasn't as exciting, but it was still computer-related work, and the people were fantastic. And that's where I've been for the past five years, gradually making my way up the ranks. There have been some interesting projects, but there have also been plenty of frustrations. I've met some wonderful folks. I've played with some cool technology. I've learned a lot about corporate life and the business world.

In fact, I learned enough to know that I'd like to leave it for awhile.

I'm ready to try something different. I've been volunteering with the Columbus Literacy Council, assisting with a class that teaches English to adult speakers of other languages. It has been incredibly rewarding to help these students achieve their goals. I've loved learning about their dreams, their histories, their struggles, and their successes. It has its own frustrations, of course. The education system is bogged down with beaurocracy. There are never enough resources. And some students are difficult. But I still find myself looking forward to going to class. And I end those nights with a smile on my face and good stories to tell.

When I finished college with a degree in English, everyone always asked me, "So what are you gonna do, teach?" It was the furthest thing from my mind. I wanted a real job, with real prospects. Teachers are poor! They're overworked and underappreciated! Who would choose a career like that?!


For better or worse, I'm going to give it a shot.

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