Letters from the chicos

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FRIENDS of mine drove from Brisbane. They brought up a box of stuff that I left behind before I flew to Peru, or in transit from Peru to my new home. And so what I had were memories from the times before, and exhibits of Peru.

There’s a framed cartoon the colleagues of my last job had made for me, from a cartoonist. It’s among the best work I’d seen him do, and in it I’m riding a llama with a box of beer and a bag of English books. I’ve owned it for almost two years, and for the first time, I get to hang it on my own wall.

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There’s a box of letters from my students. Before I left I asked them to write what they learned from me. And I’m glad I did. And then, I’ve kept some of the drawings they did for projects; such as Tupac Amaru II, the last neo-Inca (not the rapper!), and the comics we did of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Some of the letters I’ve pinned up behind my desk, and I’ve had them there two days. Sometimes I look up and I read them during the day, and they make me smile. I’m in a good mood, and I remember the kids I care about, a world away, and I know I made a difference, in my little ways. It’s great that what I did before has found a small connection in what I’m doing now. There’s balance.

Here are some of the pictures, and letters.

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“Sir, I’m gonna miss you. I think that the majority of the school, because you’re special, your accent is so interesting.  I hope happiness for you and enjoy all your trips and travels…one time in a meeting you told us how was your child life and we appreciate it. Thanks to give us a second chance.”

“Australians are so different from Peruvians. Also I learned that Mr Burns is a good boxer.”

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“For problems you tried a many times to help and appreciate that a lot and well it’s time to say “bye”. I guess well if someday I go to Australia and call you for give me a tour. Well, bye cowpoke.”

“Thanks Mrs for teach us about Peruvian presidents…(and) Wu Wo Tu (World War II). When you say it sounds like that. I really hate the times that you say ‘sit properly or ‘why are you talking’ but despite that you are a really good teacher. Thanks.”

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“We learned so much with you as as teacher, we probably doesn’t learn with other teacher like we learned with you, with your dictation and your funny way of talk, and now we know what is happening in the world.

“You are the best teacher of History, Geography, and Economy in English.”

“I really hope that you will be OK and I liked so much your class, I learned a lot of things about politics and also I practice my English because the first day that I knew you I didn’t understand what you were talking, but then yes, and my English, it’s better thank you.”

“I learned that if you find interesting news you are going to memorise it faster.”

In this year I learn a lot of things, but I think that learn to respect others, was the most important. In my opinion the school is our second home, so I can say that you were a great parent.”

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I’ll miss you too.

A teacher’s day in Peru

7.00am: I spent my first night in my new place in the northern Peruvian city of Trujillo. I do not know where my new place is in the city, so my landlord walks me to my school. It takes only 10 minutes. What complicates matters is I know limited Spanish, while he doesn’t know English.

I arrive at school just in time to hear loud clangs of cowbells. “Happy teacher’s day!” the school’s psychologists shout as I walk through the gates. I really need a coffee.

New Spanish word acquired: Cruzar 

7.30-8am: I have made myself a coffee (with instant which I’ve stashed in my locker for such emergencies. The school has a ‘House’ system named after American presidents. I am in Kennedy House.

Team Kennedy has organised greeting students at the gates with a banner, gifts for our primary school mates, and our mascot ‘Sully’ from Monsters Inc. It takes me ages to realise who is in the mascot suit and I don’t really want to know.

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New Spanish word acquired: Mascota

8am-10.55am: Today is an unusual day, in that it is the first day of exams. This means regular classes are cancelled while the exams are on. Teachers are scheduled to supervise the exams. I do not have to teach or supervise during the math exam. I ensure my paperwork is complete, and I also mark students’ notebooks.

10.55am-12.15pm: The siesta is over. I now have to supervise grade 10 in their business exam. Students either arrive late to class, ignore my instructions to sit down and put their books away, or ask to use the bathroom.

“Why didn’t you do it in the break?” I ask.  I order students to sit before returning to my strike-candy score system. If students have five strikes we practice dictation exercises, and if they have five candy points at the end of class then I give them candy from my candy jar.

Students quickly get to their seats after one girl rolls her eyes and puts a finger to her head. “Bang”, she whispers.

Students finally settle down but they need help from the business teacher, who undoubtedly is working her way through all the classes. Finally she arrives and I bribe her with candy so she can see our class first.

It turns out I am mentioned in the exam. “Mr. Burns wants to stay in Peru forever! But he is a little confused because the banking system is different in Australia. Where should he put his money? A bank or a caja?”

Students find this funny.

When one student hands me her completed exam, I ask, “did you give me good advice?”

“Yes.”

“Am I going to be broke? Or am I going to be rich?”

“Probably broke.”

Another student asks, “are you really going to stay in Peru?”

“…..sure.”

“Will you be teaching here again next year?”

I use the time to receive some important feedback. “That depends,” I say seriously. “Would you like me to return next year.”

“Yes,” she said looking at the candy jar next to me. “If that comes back.”

New Spanish word acquired: Caja

12.15pm-2pm: I have a break for a while because Thursday is normally my quietest days. I use this time to plan what my lessons are going to be like during exam week. Teaching will prove tricky. I won’t teach all classes, and it’s not appropriate to teach heavy or new content between exams. I consider roleplaying exercises for some classes.

It’s teacher’s day the next day but we will have that time off. Instead, we will be celebrating with designated classes from 2pm. One of my students finds me and she gives me a box of chocolates as a gift.

2pm: I arrive to my designated class where cakes and biscuits are being prepared by students and some of their mothers. I take a seat and as food is being passed around, students give us some speeches. Many students that give a speech don’t address me because they prefer to speak in Spanish, but those that I do understand are lovely and encouraging.

“When you first arrived we thought, ‘oh no, another native speaker, we aren’t going to understand a thing’,” one student said. “But instead, we have learned so much, even when you think we are really bored. And you try to make the classes dynamic and interesting.”

Spanish words acquired: The difference between torta and keke

3pm: Teachers gather for their own assembly once the students leave. We collect awards and certificates  and have a glass of wine while we wait. My friends and colleagues stand one at a time to receive their awards.

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5pm: Everyone has left for the day. I mark the notebooks from students and return the books to the classrooms so students can find them first thing on Monday. I am extremely happy with one student’s response to ‘was dropping the atomic bomb on Japan justified? Why or why not?” Most students didn’t bother completing that question for homework. This student receives a gold star from my sticker collection. I rarely give those ones out. I tidy my locker and then I walk home with my laptop and my passport. At some point I am lost but I don’t stop for my phone. I feel rather vulnerable in these new streets during this time of the day. But eventually I find my door. My landlords give me a coffee and some bread and cheese, and we talk in Spanish (as best as I can). I go to my room and fall asleep before 7.30pm.

Spanish word acquired:  Caminar

 

 

The lows and the highs of this life

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The graffiti in Huanchaco at night. 

I remember at a rodeo telling a PR associate that I was going to be moving to Peru to teach. And I remember how he branded it. He described how many women I would likely ‘meet’ (especially if I continued my gym and diet regime). And there was something else he said.

“The best part will be when you wake up in the morning,” he said as he held his bourbon and coke. The noises of the bronco ride, the clangs of bells and exclamations of the MC, echoed behind us down the hill on one side, while on the other the TV glared by the bar. The important Rugby League game with the Cowboys was playing. More people focused their attention on this.

“That will be the best part,” my associate said. “When it all becomes your normal life.”

And lately I wonder at that. Because I have long since been in that stage.

I am in no rush to return to Australia but there’s no denying some sort of magic from the novelty has faded. I wake at 5.30am to prepare for work, and then teach students who are mostly bored of my classes. Between classes I always have to prepare for something (whether it’s exams, or the next bimester’s structure, or some sort of paperwork).

I have fought the flu for a fortnight, my visa runs out this week, and there’s one more thing…I’m broke.

It’s funny the mood you’re in when you count the soles that you have left. The stress builds when you wonder if you have enough money to catch the bus at the end of the week, when you cut short the money you spend on food, when there’s no water in the house because its your turn to pay for it but cannot afford the phone call to ring the water delivery guy.

While I am being negative right now I feel it’s important to share these lows, as much as it is to share the heights. I have done much here that I am glad I experience. I am glad to teach, overall, and I am mostly glad to be living in a house in the one place in Peru. I am learning a lot. There’s just a strain in doing so.

I guess I am living a true life now that the novelty has faded.

My students and some of the teachers refer to me as Shakespeare. On World Literature Day I had to quote Hamlet’s Soliloquy (The ‘To Be or Not To Be’ section). I dressed in black and held a skull. But the more I think about it… the more I think I was given an actual real skull. The teeth were at risk of falling out and they had roots. Everything inside it was rather lifelike.

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My students are bored but many of them do like me…or at the least, can tell that I like them. “Mr Burnzy!” I heard in the basement corridor one morning, and I looked around and saw nothing. I recognised the voice of a young student. I thought he must have walked up one of the two staircases but when I returned to the elevator I heard him call “Mr Burnzy!” again.

I surprised him by jogging around a corner to see where he was hiding. We laughed and went our different ways. But I glowed. We both had a lot of difficulty with each other six weeks before (language barrier).

I looked after a Grade 7 class while they did an exam. The youngest I normally teach is Grade 8 and for a while I have been warned about their behaviour. It took them about 15 minutes to realise I knew no Spanish and that was it, their discipline was gone. I had to write on the board that I did not understand Spanish, and I may have wrote a few things to caution them they could not muck around with me.

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One of the louder boys who would not be quiet gasped. “Mr!” he said, putting up his hand.  And he looked terrified. “In Australia, do they eat MEN?” (He knew little Spanish but enough to think that ‘mean’ was ‘men’ and that I was a cannibal).

“Si,” I replied, licking my lips and looking down at him. “Personas deliciosa.” And he gasped. I quickly said I was joking but he was a model student the rest of the time.

‘Excuse me, Mr. Burnzy!’

 

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Last night I attended a parents’ information session with the other teachers. And I was interested in meeting the parents, I found, as I gazed across each classroom. I was trying to guess which parents belonged to my particular students. I think I wanted to know because any little detail could help me.

There are no bad students. There are only the students that understand me, and those that don’t. I try to assume that’s my fault, although since I only speak English and it is their second language, we could blame the circumstances. I won’t, because I think most of them understand English in some form, whether it be by listening, reading, writing or speaking, and it is my job to figure it out their strength. Some students do not want to learn English, and refuse, but at the same time they want to talk to me.

Other students say they barely speak English, but then they can talk to me about surfing, or videogames, or translate for the rest of the class. There are the students that get distracted, either because of someone else who is distracted. I assume then they are bored, so I challenge them more. It seems to be working.

Of course, if you are a teacher reading this you can dismiss me as naive. This was my first week teaching, after all. I have been stressed and made mistakes mostly because of equipment and planning. I lost my locker key with all my equipment locked up, and had to come up with a plan b lesson with 10 minutes to go. I pulled it off so well I will be keeping that teaching activity! Thank goodness for my experience in newspaper journalism where you have to pull out a plan b or c or even d minutes before the deadline.

Other experiences in life have really helped me out besides the journalism. I entered a modelling competition. I went through a stand-up comedy phase. I loved it even if I wasn’t quite good at it. Sure I made people laugh but there were more misses than hits. But I did learn to perform. It’s all about the performance. I think when I am in class when I am able to read the room that all my skills of the past have been for this moment – for this purpose. But while the other skills focused on me, me, me, this time it cannot be. It is for them. This is all about the students.

One student told me excitedly at the start of the second lesson, “I love history!” And I knew then that I was going to try my best. I cannot let my students down.

…..

I had an Irish bloke called McGuinness as my Year 6 teacher once. He was a bit of a bastard and worked us hard. And he ranted about his opinions on life in general. “This is your last year before high school!” he would shout at least once a week. “The teachers in high school aren’t going to care about you! They will just pass or fail you, so you need to learn as much as you can!” I cried behind a tree at home after my first day with him. He gave us a lot of homework but I learned a lot. My school years were disruptive and my most beneficial years were either Year 6, or the following year in which I benefited from his study habits.

I have mentioned him in other blog sites before. But this week I have had time to think of him in a different way. What I often have forgotten when I think of him was that Mr McGuinness was a substitute teacher. My original teacher was diagnosed with cancer and had the rest of the year off. And so undoubtedly he had to suddenly follow or make up an entire year’s plan for us. And possibly he had little experience at doing so for such a long period of time, nor was familiar with what the typical expectation for Year 6 was. So he did not patronise us. He challenged us instead. And I stepped up to that challenge because I had to.

And it made all the difference to me. At school. And probably for my life.

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Burnzy’s first class

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Right now I am in an odd mood. It’s almost…a flat feeling. Yet I don’t know why. I should be feeling fantastic.

I’m in Peru learning to teach English and tonight was my first class. I taught English to Peruvian teenagers. It started awkwardly.

The classroom had a tin roof, a wall of grills on the side (windows with no glass) and a picture of Mother Mary in pride of place on a shelf at the front of the room.

The first two children arrived to the class 15 minutes late and when I started writing on the board the first time I dropped my pen. I used the bend and snap but at the top of the snap my head hit the shelf where the Mother Mary picture stood. It hurt.

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Meanwhile, my South African mate Adriaan is also about to begin his class. 

I didn’t realise until after the lesson that the force of the blow caused the picture to fall forward.

It got worse when students kept steadily coming in, some 40 minutes later. I thought ‘ stuff it!” with the order of activities I had planned, and kept it to the same active exercise we planned at the start.

I made sure new students entering the classroom during group work were divided among the more experienced students. I get why my teachers were so cranky that I was 5-10 minutes late to class. It really affected my development and what that teacher could do.

But as my students went on and absorbed more I found myself talking less, letting the students take the lead.

At the end when I finished one of the brighter students handed me my pencils I had lent him.

“Thank you,” he said, smiling at me, in perfect English.

I have felt amazing several times. I have walked on a catwalk to applause, and made people laugh at my stand-up comedy. I thought these were great feelings.  But it was not like the glow I had inside me at that moment. It was a burn and this burn was purpose.

Still, purpose or not, I went straight to the bar afterwards with my fellow teachers.