By Heather Poole, WorldTeach Ecuador 2015-2016
It has been three weeks since I left Ecuador and I’m still unsure how to summarize my experience. There are just too many memories and adventures to sift through. I have been reflecting a lot about how I’ve changed since beginning this journey a year ago: what I’ve learned, how my perspective has changed, what I’ll remember most about this year. Most of all, I now realize how fortunate I am to have left Ecuador with such meaningful friendships and experiences.
Pre-Ecuador: Before I started teaching in Ecuador, I worked for three years in Washington, D.C. While I enjoyed and learned a lot during this time, I felt confined by the limits of an office job. It wasn’t the type of work I saw myself doing long-term but like many other millennials, I had no idea what career I wanted. As I started to consider next steps, teaching abroad became more and more enticing. I researched programs online and spoke with friends who previously taught abroad. It seemed like the perfect opportunity. Living abroad had always been one of my life goals. Not to mention it would give me a chance to break away from the grind of a 9 to 5 office job.
Riobamba: I arrived to Quito in September 2015. After a month of orientation, I left for Riobamba with four fellow volunteers. It was difficult to leave behind many friends from our 25-person cohort, but I couldn’t have been happier in Riobamba. Given its size, Riobamba felt small enough where it’s easy to settle in but didn’t feel isolating. The fellow WorldTeach volunteers and I taught at Instituto de Lenguas Extranjeras (ILE), a private English language institute. As many teachers told me when I first arrived to Riobamba, ILE is more than a school. It’s a community. Older teachers at ILE warmly welcomed us the second we stepped into the school. Despite the whirlwind of training and planning for the first week of classes, I already felt like I had people to depend on. When I lived in the US, it usually took me more than a year to make close friends. In Riobamba, I quickly bonded with other teachers over Ecuador-isms and classroom stories. We shared memorable and typically hilarious experiences during weekend trips. We vented over frappes at our favorite coffee shop (Café Paris!!). We supported each other during periods of homesickness and self-doubt. With the natural ups and downs of living abroad, it’s hard to imagine surviving my year in Ecuador without this support system.
Teaching: Before I came to Ecuador, I never really considered teaching. I had trouble speaking up in a work meeting let alone being in charge of 15-20 students everyday for two hours. While the WorldTeach orientation prepared me, I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of enforcing rules, keeping students engaged and developing my own lesson plans everyday. When I walked into my first class at ILE, I was terrified of what my students thought of me. Would they like me? Would I be a good teacher? I was flustered by the smallest mistakes. I planned for each class obsessively. But as I grew accustomed to my students and the school, I eventually gained confidence. I became more adaptable. My students and I started to develop inside jokes. Most importantly, I got to know my students on a personal level, not just as students but also as friends.
One of my best experiences as a teacher was having the same group of students during my first and last class cycles of teaching. I first had them as a Level 5 teacher and I taught them again my last cycle in level 8, the final level at ILE. I was amazed to witness the progress they had made as English speakers. Now, they spoke with confidence and ease. They were able to have discussions about complex issues. My bond with this group of students deepened. During this last cycle, I also realized I was no longer the nervous teacher I once was. I didn’t feel anxiety speaking in front of my classes. I was able to easily change lesson plans on the spot if needed. Teaching helped empower me in ways I never would have imagined. At the end of my last cycle, I gave a bilingual speech at the graduation in front of a full theater of my students and their relatives. I had come a long way from the person I was before I started teaching. Up on stage, I conquered much of the anxiety I previously experienced in order to fully express my appreciation and gratitude to my students and the ILE community.
Ama la vida. I didn’t know much about Ecuador before I applied to the WorldTeach program. I wanted to learn Spanish, live in South America and the timing of the Ecuador program worked out perfectly. Despite my initial ignorance, I soon discovered Ecuador was the perfect fit for me. It’s a relatively small country but big enough to explore over the course of a year. On top of that, it’s incredibly diverse. The beach, highlands and Amazon are all within a reasonable distance and it’s easy to travel to all three in one week!
One thing I’ll miss the most about Ecuador is last minute weekend trips. I could go to the bus station, buy a ticket and be on my way to the Oriente, all in 20 minutes. In DC, I felt the need to constantly plan, to always be busy. But in Ecuador, it was impossible to plan too far in advance. During orientation, our field director gave us some advice that I really took to heart: flow like water. And Ecuador taught me how.
My favorite trip was when I went to Cuyabeno Reserve, part of Ecuador’s little slice of the Amazon. I spent 3 nights in a lodge nestled in the jungle with no internet and surrounded by beautifully wild nature. One night, our guide led us on a hike where he introduced us to tarantulas and insects of all kinds that would have terrified me 4 months prior. But in this moment, I was fascinated, creeping up closer to take photos or simply to observe. Toward the end of our night hike, our guide asked us to turn off our flashlights, close our eyes and listen to the nature surrounding us. Soaking up every sound, feeling and sensation, I realized in this moment how truly happy I was living in Ecuador.
I could go on and on about my hilarious mishaps while traveling, struggles learning Spanish or meaningful friendships I developed this past year. But for the sake of brevity, all I will say is that I am incredibly lucky to have had this experience. I’m not sure what is next but all I can hope for is that I continue to practice all I’ve learned during this amazing past year in Ecuador.
For more pictures and stories, you can check out my blog at heatherpoole.exposure.co.