I’ve been living in Mexico for 5 months now (enter obligatory ‘where did the time go?!’), and have 7 months left. On Friday I had my last day of work at a children’s home and school, and tomorrow I begin working with street children in Puebla’s largest open-air market. Of course I was really sad to leave the sproglets I had grown so close to, but changing job half way through is also a great opportunity to reflect on what I have learned so far and what my goals are for the rest of my time here.
After my studies I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the third sector, helping vulnerable people and working with rights and development, but I had no real ‘front line,’ ‘on the ground’ experience before I came to Mexico. As the daughter of two teachers, teaching was always something I was relatively hellbent on avoiding, but I suppose it is also inevitably a fundamental part of my upbringing and approach to things. So as much as I had no intention of teaching during my time volunteering in Mexico, I began my job at the children’s home and it was teaching that I ended up doing there.
I started working in the classroom and I didn’t really like the formal structure of things (even though it’s nowhere near as formal as the British education system) – I never wanted to teach, I thought, I like having fun with the children and playing more of a social role. I like engaging with them and feeding their curiosity, I don’t want to tell them to go away and sit down and listen in a one-way stream of ‘education’. But the longer I spent in the classroom, and the more I understood the needs and characters of the children, the more I came to appreciate what it really is that they learn there, and it’s so much more than Spanish, Maths and Colouring Inside The Lines.
As there isn’t an extensive system of state social care like there is in the UK, the role of the teacher in the Mexican classroom (particularly in schools like the one at the children’s home) is much more closely linked with the personal, psychological and physical wellbeing of the children. As I built a close relationship with the teacher I worked with every day in Primer Grado, she explained to me the problems of the children and how concerned she was for their personal development and educational progress given the difficult circumstances that had led to them living in the home. I realised that even at the age of 6 their education is the single most important factor in their ability to better their future, their economic situation, and their behaviour towards and contribution to their family, community and society. The teacher was not only teaching reading and writing, but also potentially influencing wider social change, especially in teaching against violence, sexism and racism. When they are at school they are in a safe and secure environment, the importance of which cannot be overstated. It dawned on me then: perhaps teaching is the most effective type of social work there is?
If you are a lively, engaging, inspirational teacher, you are offering children a much brighter view of the world than they maybe experience at home, and every child deserves an equal chance to have hopes and dreams, to discover where their talents lie, to participate in social and political life, to be conscientious citizens and create a better world. My mind drifts back to Mr McMillan, my year 5 teacher who had travelled to Mozambique and was probably the first person to teach me about poverty and other cultures and ways of life, and Mr Mallindine, my secondary school geography teacher from years 7 to 11, who taught us not only about maps, rivers and rocks, but also geographical and environmental politics and resource inequality. They inspired me more than I ever could have known at the time. I still don’t know what I want to do, but I know what I want to be and what I want to give.
Teaching has really been experiential learning for me, and reminded me of many things that I largely lost touch with in the nine years since I left compulsory education; adulthood can be so serious. More than anything, I can attest to the power of praise, and that has no age limit. There is absolutely no feeling like helping to achieve a child with something they’ve struggled with – seeing immense pride on their face and feeling a warm nuzzle of gratitude. It also becomes very difficult to separate laughter, confidence, knowledge and happiness. I really feel like patience is the golden thread linking all of these things. Teaching, like life, is a work in progress, and the more you sow, the more you reap.
I may or may not have subconsciously learned something about teaching from my parents, but I definitely inherited the ability to make a complete fool of myself (some times more intentionally than others) with the benefit of making people feel more at ease. I have found this ‘skill’ to be especially valuable in working with vulnerable children. I feel like they were comfortable with me largely because my spanish was (and is) so terrible; there was no shame in attempting something and getting it wrong. We were on mutual ground and shared reciprocal respect: I was learning just like they were, and that undoubtedly helped us to bond. Both inside and outside of the classroom, kindness goes a long way, and it isn’t always as much in the words exchanged as a smile of encouragement, or simply saying or doing something ridiculous.
Of course I was terribly sad to leave my littlies – there wasn’t a post before me and I won’t be replaced – so the children who had one-to-one help from me just won’t get it any more. That makes me feel awful. But I have to be realistic about the impact I can have in my year here, and I hope that my legacy (although that word is far too grand) is one of positivity. The school’s resources are so overstretched, and I gave those children attention and encouragement that they just didn’t get before. They have also had a taste of intercultural difference and now know that England isn’t a state in Mexico, and that yellow isn’t pronounced gel-o.
So tomorrow I embark on a new adventure and a new job, in ‘social care’ as I originally wanted. Honestly, I won’t be at all surprised if I’m desperate to get back to the classroom, but time will tell. Wish me luck!