‘So what’s the plan for today then?’ my fellow volunteer asks me. We’ve just arrived at an impressive lodge on top of the hill after a strong 10-minute hike from camp and with the beach view, complimentary coffee and the first internet connection for 3 days. I think we could all easily relax here for a few hours.
This question has broken any chance of that though; we’re here to teach English to the staff of the lodge and I’m starting to get the impression the 3 Geordie girls think I know what I’m doing. It’s true, I signed up to 2 weeks of the Costa Rica Big Cats Conservation and Teaching English course, but I haven’t taught English before and I definitely didn’t expect to be leading the very first lesson I’ve been involved in! No time like the present, I guess…
I broke the news to the girls and told them I’d give it a go but was slightly relieved when they said they already had a plan from last time. They’d even written a few words out on the whiteboard with the help of our resident Spanish translator back at camp, so really all we needed to do was decide who would take each section and come up with a game or two to keep it interesting. I’ve since found that’s pretty much all the ingredients you need for a good lesson and then allow conversation to pick up anything you’ve missed, but as ever it always helps to have at least a rough plan beforehand.
Final decisions made, we go to sit across the long table from our waiting students and awkwardly maneuver the whiteboard between us. We’re all making those little nods and half smiles you do with people you don’t know very well until eventually everyone looks at me in the middle, the newbie, and I realise I probably ought to say something. ‘Hello everyone, how are you?’ feels right for some reason, so I say that as positively and evenly as I can. It seems to go down well and they all reply ‘good thank you’ in random order but with characteristic Costa Rican smiles and politeness. Maybe this won’t be so hard after all.
Introductions came after that and I explained how long I’d be around for, all useful English vocabulary for hotel staff. We recapped the key verbs and nouns from last time and then set about the new topics of tabletop objects in the restaurant and animals the guests they speak to might be interested in. It became obvious that our students had been to a few of these sessions before so we easily fell into the pattern of speaking the Spanish word and them replying with their best effort the English translation, followed by repeating the word 2 or 3 times to correct pronunciation. That’s easier said than done with the variety of accents among the teachers though, so I wish the best of luck to all the future American guests trying to decide if a ‘coop ov coffay’ is something they want with their breakfast or not.
Until then I hadn’t considered how a teacher’s accent might affect the way a student speaks the language or how unclear and inconsistent my accent can be at times, but it’s now something I think about in almost every lesson. I’d suggest that it was even positive that the issue arose when it did, as it helped everyone relax with a chat and a little chuckle about it. Being open about mistakes and checking Spanish translations with our students has been valuable in creating conversation and a friendly feel to the lessons, rather those authoritative ‘reading off the board’ lessons no one enjoyed back in school.
After a few misunderstandings and small conversations, we eventually got through all the planned vocabulary and the lesson was over before I knew it. Everyone was smiling as we packed up and thought of some topics for next time. The smiles only grew wider when a sponge cake drizzled in sweetened custard arrived as a ‘thank you’ from our students. Maybe it was the sugar rush, caffeine kicking in or the feeling of doing something valuable for a deserving community, but I had a bit of a buzz on as we wandered back down the hill to camp. (Or maybe it was the WiFi; having WiFi again was pretty great.)
We reviewed the session a little as we walked, another tip I’ve found useful for the lessons since. We concluded that there was a bit too much content in the plan which didn’t leave enough time for recapping or games to help the new words sink in. I remember the uncertainty when we were making that plan and the pinch of fear when we started the lesson and tried to entertain a group of grown adults solely with English words for 45 minutes. That seemed a long way back by the time we got back to camp though, so when Matt, the camp organiser, asked ‘how was your first lesson, professor?’ as I walked through the door, I replied with, ‘It went well I think, it’s not that hard really.