• Lara Flanagan

Being both teacher and student in Costa Rica

Updated: Feb 28, 2020


It has just hit me that our time in Costa Rica is drawing to an end.   We only have two weeks to go and this is our last week of both learning Spanish and teaching (or attempting to teach) English.  That will give us the last week to deal with my Costa Rican bucket list which is still a mile long and filled with things that I would like to do.

Being both teacher and student at the same time has been one of the most difficult, challenging and rewarding things I have done.  It has also been a time when I have been filled with an amazing sense of humility at what other people are able to achieve.  You get the taste that we as Westerners, have incredibly fortunate lives and that others face challenges that we can only imagine.  I don’t know if we have a true appreciation of that fact.  That might just be me, but it has been a regular fleeting thought over the last few months.

I hate teaching.  I could say I loathe it.  I really fucking hate it.

When the kids first got to school I was able to help for a few sessions before work made it too difficult.  I suspect I am still scarred.  I felt like I  walked into a battle ground and emerged from those classrooms of 6 year old students a changed person. I have always respected teachers but since having children myself, and having the opportunity on occasion to see what they actually do, I have a never ending well of respect for teachers.  It is a vocation and only some people I believe are able to teach, and god knows I am not one of them.  20 odd children in a classroom with different personalities, different needs, different temperaments and different bladder control scares the shit out of me.  

I worship the ground that teachers walk on and although I am prone to take the piss out of teaching hours and holidays, as one does when one has a family full of teachers, it is only ever in jest. I take my hat off and bow low to the floor with the greatest respect, admiration and thanks to those who are helping shape the minds, hearts and futures of our children. I literally don’t know how the hell they do it.  I am sure I would be an alcoholic if I had to teach.  Which is why I like to give alcohol at the end of the year.  It is in recognition that I am well aware that the job of teaching is enough to make you want to drink.  Drink one too many every bloody day of the week.

So the fact that I am in a classroom in Costa Rica is just ludicrous.  But it was the only way that the kids and I could contribute that made sense.  As much as it has been a challenge at times, I have enjoyed it. I have a conversation class with an amazing Venezuelan lady who simply wants to practice her conversational English.   She is truly incredible.  Before I started these classes I was not sure if I should make a list of topics, or grammatical points to address and I was actually in a real stew before I went. To be honest, I was not looking forward to it.  How wrong could I be.  My conversation classes with my Venezuelan Senorita are one of the highlights of my week.  When I asked her as to why she was living in Costa Rica and she replied because of the political situation that is also financial I had to stop for a little while.  Her vocabulary is phenomenal, I can barely say bread in Spanish let alone try to describe something like a ‘political situation’ and the fact that she was bringing up an issue that was so bad they had to leave their country for another to pursue a chance of a better life was truly humbling.  I don’t think we have any idea of the sorts of choices some people have to make.

We talk about everything ranging from different countries, to simple things we do around the house, to our kids education and the differences in our countries.  Her son who is 7, speaks Spanish but also goes to school where they have been taught English since they were 5.  Maths and Science are taught only in English by a teacher who speaks only English.  By the time they are 9, they will be bilingual.  I find that sort of information truly amazing.  I can not even count to ten in Spanish, so the thought of trying to learn Maths in Spanish actually makes me want to vomit with anxiety.   My Venezuelan Senorita always finishes the class with the most beautifully conveyed gratitude and thanks.  I somehow think that I am getting just as much, if not more out of our conversation lessons.

Then we have the little kids.  For the first 3 weeks I was on my own, now thankfully their normal teacher is back and I am a mere teacher’s aide.   These kids range from 4 to 9 and once again they astonish me with their ability to learn another language.  In that class I had a little girl, the youngest in the class, who I privately called the little Spanish assassin.  To be honest she was out of control.  She would take the other kids pencils and she would do only what she wanted to do.  She would glare at me and prattle at me in Spanish.  I would reply to her slowly that I don’t speak Spanish and ask her to speak in English.  She would either reply in defiant Spanish or glare back at me and deliberately tell me “No.”   If I held up a pencil and asked her what colour it was she would hold up a pencil and say with full intention, “What colour is this teacher?”  I would hold up a blue pencil and say, “this pencil is blue” and she would hold up a red pencil and say, “this pencil is blue.”  

Then she would grin at me.  She knew what she was doing.  She actually made me sweat.   But gradually the kids and I were getting places, I knew the kids names and I stopped sweating.  Last week, I was standing in a very relieved way as a mere teacher’s aide and my little Spanish assassin came and wrapped herself around me legs and said, “Hello Teacher.”  I could not have been more surprised than if I had laid a bloody egg.    I had felt like I was getting nowhere, but that one little ‘Hello Teacher’ made me want to burst into tears and beam around the room as if I had just taught a classroom full of kids how to recite the history of the world.

Then I have the teenagers.  By god when I first met them I wanted to crawl under the desk and hide from the ambush.  They were loud, energetic, noisy and not interested in being bored.  They start school at 7.30am or something like that and these afternoon lessons I had been told were more about conversation and a bit of fun than anything else.  I attempted to play scrabble with them but they were as interested in that and myself as watching paint dry.  So I got them to teach me a card game and we progressed from there.  Now one of the girls plays with Archie’s hair and another texts a million boyfriends whilst keeping a half-eye on whatever we are doing.  The boys join in happily with whatever game we are playing and the only thing I insist on is that they all speak English.  

I am not sure how successful my classes are but last week I was sitting in the Central Park reading a book and I heard a whole lot of giggling behind me.  Two of the girls were whispering about their ‘teacher’.   I was formally introduced to a couple of their friends as their ‘teacher’.  Once again that small gesture made me feel like they had just completed something monumental.  So as much as teaching scares the hell out of me, I have also ended up learning so much whilst attempting to teach.

Then I look at myself as the student.  All I can say is that I suck.  Spanish is hard.  I have also realised that I am no longer 18 years old and new things are harder to learn.  I am loving the experience but I am appalled at how difficult I also find it.   Our teacher is very patient with us.  There is an early retiree from the States, a young twenty something from Canada and a Texan who works for one week in Texas and lives for three weeks in Costa Rica.  We are a motley crew but we manage.  At the end of the class today my head was swimming and I could not understand the verbs which change depending on masculine, feminine, plural or singular.  It was doing my fucking head in.  Despite the fact that Paula our teacher does not speak English and we have written on the blackboard a reminder in Spanish to ask how to say something in Spanish I still muttered out loud in English that I could not understand it.   The fleeting look that Paula gave me made me realise something.  I am the English equivalent of the little Spanish Assassin in my children’s class.  I apologised to Paula and rephrased my frustration in Spanish.

But I could not get out of my head, the impression that Paula may well be going home and moaning to her family in beautifully phrased Spanish about the little English Assassin in her classroom.  Well maybe not little.  I wonder if I should wrap myself around her legs on Thursday and say, ‘Hola Profesor’, just to make her day.   Somehow I think it would be a bit creepy and she would probably try to shake me off like a mangy dog.

A few more lessons are left this week and then my time as both student and teacher in Costa  Rica will be at an end.   The time has been really challenging but rewarding in so many ways.  A huge reminder too, that until the day I die, I will always have so much to learn.


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