Words by Conor McTernan.
I can’t help but feel jealous when friends of mine not only have clear career plans, but also a strategy in place to achieve them. I am still unsure of what I want to do, and the idea of the big wide world, while exciting, is a little intimidating. For now, I am just happy to be a student. I am getting ready to start my fourth, and final year of a degree in Modern Languages. One of the main reasons I chose to study French and Spanish was the opportunity in third year to go abroad. I thought, if nothing else, the chance to go and live in another country would be a lot of fun.My third year was split into two; half a year in a French speaking country and half a year in a Spanish one. The decision to go to France and study at a university in Bordeaux was an easy one, but when my co-ordinator for Spanish gave me a list of options, included at the bottom was a piece about volunteering as an English teacher with a charity, SKIP, in Peru.
SKIP stands for Supporting Kids in Peru, and is a charity (Non-Governmental Organisation, NGO) working in the north of the country with children and their families on the outskirts of the city of Trujillo, the third biggest city in Peru. I looked them up online and was immediately interested in the idea of being able to spend time in South America, somewhere I had wanted to go for some time. After starting a dialogue with SKIP, I began to think that this had a real chance of being the second half of my year abroad. SKIP, as an NGO, survives and sustains itself through the help and work of its volunteers. So it was perfect. I would work as an English teacher (I have been talking English for years) with children who speak Spanish. They would teach me and I would hopefully teach them. I asked Stella, my coordinator, if this would be a good idea and she said if I could organise it all, then absolutely. I succeeded and at the end of January I went to Peru.Arriving in Peru, having never done any volunteering before – indeed having only ever worked pouring pints – I don’t think I was expecting the work at SKIP to be as intense as it was. Maybe I was expecting a few shifts a week in the sun in Peru playing football with skilful little South American kids. Maybe I should have researched my role more. It didn’t matter though.My teaching partner and I taught five English lessons a day, to kids ranging from 10-12. We had 50 minutes which we had to fill with activities that were engaging, but that also kept to a curriculum designed by the English department coordinator at SKIP. I had never done anything remotely like lesson planning before so naturally I was unsure when I started. The aim was to have a class that moved at a good pace, spending time on vocabulary and pronunciation on a variety of topics. Quickly, as I got to know the groups, it became easier to gauge what the kids would respond to. They liked activities that interacted with us, and with each other, and we had to keep the lessons full of energy to keep everyone engaged. We always tried to end with a game that recapped what we had covered in the lesson. Simon Says and Bingo were both very popular.One thing I had never anticipated was how international an experience I would get from working in Peru. SKIP volunteers came from everywhere around the globe; Australia, Denmark, the USA, and many South American countries. The house we all stayed in was a melting pot. We were in touch with our friends on Skype and on email in our own languages, but as often as not we spoke Spanish in the house, not English.
The idea of teaching as a job, though it had crossed my mind, was not one I had really entertained too seriously. My time in Peru has changed this, I think. I know how it feels to stand in front of a class with kids watching your every move and listening to you. I enjoyed being able to help them tackle the incredibly hard task of learning a new language, especially one as annoying and apparently devoid of logic as English. One story sticks with me in particular. I had a few hours for lunch between shifts and I decided to go for a swim. After my swim I went to a tiny little restaurant around the corner from work to have some lunch. Sitting there by myself eating my soup a woman walked past me and asked me if I spoke English, a funny question, I thought, as I was maybe the whitest and blondest person in Peru at that time. I replied that I did. She ran off and said she would be back in a minute. I returned to my soup. In a heartbeat she was back clutching an English workbook, the kind I remember using to revise for my SATs. Parking herself in the seat next to mine we proceeded to work through some activities she was struggling with. After we finished, she kept thanking me and I came to the realisation that not only was I a teacher, but that I was completely comfortable in Spanish. My main aim in going to Peru was improving my Spanish and I might have ended up finding a career. Or, of course, this piece could have all the broadsheets chasing my signature and I might just end up making a living as a journalist.
Conor McTernan studies French and Spanish at Manchester Metropolitan University, and is from southeast London. You can follow him on Twitter @doof22