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Sarah Mcilwaine - General Teaching Projects in Costa Rica

Children at their desks

Arriving in Costa Rica

I was met at the airport, on time, by the super-friendly Projects Abroad staff member, Gunar. He had a big smile on his face and nothing seemed too much trouble. On our way to my host family, I was slightly baffled watching Gunar try to locate an address without a street name or house number. I soon learnt that 50 metres northwest from the train line was my new home and that in this country this is the way to navigate. I would not have wanted to be working as a postal volunteer in Costa Rica!

My first evening was spent being welcomed into one of the neighbour’s homes for food and drink, giving my feeble Spanish a test run. Happily my host ‘mother’ (although it is bizarre to call her that as she was younger than me) spoke excellent English and I felt right at home straight away.

The Teaching project in Costa Rica

During the day of induction, I knew I had made a great decision joining Projects Abroad. I met new volunteers who became my weekend travel buddies, and we were given a thorough tour of Heredia town and all the facilities we may need, and was treated to a traditional Costa Rican lunch. This feeling of being fully supported by the Projects Abroad staff was consistent throughout my whole volunteer experience.

Arriving at the school I was to be teaching in - Escuela Espana - I was welcomed by wide, warm smiles from the staff and pupils. I soon realised that Costa Rican people were very gentle, kind and had the loveliest smiles I have seen. The fact that my Spanish was so minimal did not matter. Staff would patiently help me find the right word - even down to us both illustrating what I was trying to communicate on the whiteboard! Or others would try to speak any English they had to put me at ease.

My class in Costa Rica

My teaching supervisor, Alfredo, was happy to learn that I was a qualified teacher. In turn I was happy to learn that the pupils all followed activities in text books and that they had an “English Lab” with a projector connected to the internet. This opened up so many opportunities for teaching English that I hadn’t factored in. It was slightly mystifying in this English Lab as there were 30 or so computers all covered up. It turned out they had been donated by Intel but they were not connected to the school network.

Challenges in the classroom

The pupils liked to come over for a chat as I waited for class to start, and often they would give me bemused looks as I incorrectly pronounced Spanish words. It wasn’t just the pupils I taught; often older pupils would come up to me and ask where I was from and if I was a teacher. During class I was surprised how restless some of the pupils were and their concentration span was shorter than I had anticipated. However; the smiles were never-failing and this new behaviour wasn’t a problem, as they only needed a gentle reminder to stop. Alternatively, I just had to go over and praise what they had done to see them visibly glow with pride and behave well from thereon in.

Alfredo genuinely cared for his pupils and the progress they made. There was one Grade 4 class on our timetable- notorious for being challenging, as they were well below where they needed to be in all subjects and full of ‘characters’. This was proven by one boy who wrote his name in squeeze glue on the desk. However; it turned out that this boy was amazingly gifted at art. I was lucky enough to see his portfolio, with no input from any adult. It turned out he had serious family problems and was using art as a vent for his emotions. His work was incredibly moving. I was, in fact, moved to tears and Alfredo vowed to sign him up for art classes after school, which I believe has indeed materialised.

Smiling children in Heredia

Teaching abroad reminded me what the essence of teaching is about. I had had 3 years out of the classroom and needed a very good reason to head back in. The pupils of Escuela Espana succeeded in showing me that teaching isn’t about paperwork and monitoring, but it is about connecting with young people - first and foremost inspiring them to enjoy and engage in learning; also to build their skills, knowledge and understanding of the world alongside their self-esteem and confidence.

Beautiful Costa Rica

Aside from this rich teaching experience, I had an incredible time exploring Costa Rica. Once I had got my head around the complicated bus stations in San Jose I spent each weekend wondering at the beauty and diversity of such a small country. I saw colourful animals from bright blue butterflies to ant-eaters.

I saw an active volcano and sat in a hot stream under the stars bathed in candle-light. I walked through rainforest, jungle and along the most breath-taking beaches; spotting all manner of stunning, if secretive, fauna and flora. I zip-wired and horse-trekked over and through cloud-forest and sunbathed whilst it was raining, with no sign of a cloud or rainbow. I drank a cocktail in a converted bar that used to be a servicing airplane in World War 2. Costa Rica is indeed full of wonder and magic.

Sarah Mcilwaine

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