At the end of my semester studying abroad in South Africa, I felt like a complete failure. I had been assigned to teach reading and guitar lessons at two primary schools in Cape Town as part of my service learning immersion, and over the course of five months, I managed to fall short of almost every goal I had set for myself.
I never completed a book with my students. The idea of “turning in homework” remained a novel concept. And while I had anticipated the children interrupting me, I wasn’t prepared for the school’s cleaning lady to barge into my classes and ask if I had brought any snacks that day. Such was the respect I commanded.
Unfortunately, my theology professor demanded that my study abroad classmates and I give final presentations about what we had learned through our work sites. Our teacher, Chris Ahrends, had been a chaplain under Desmond Tutu during the darkest days of apartheid, when violence was erupting in the streets, leaders like Nelson Mandela were in prison and a bloody civil war seemed inevitable. Chris had seen South Africa rally through these troubling times to arrive at democratically-held elections and a peaceful, post-apartheid freedom. Given the triumph-over-adversity nature of his history, I figured he wouldn’t appreciate hearing me use words like “This was a lost cause” and “Teaching sucks” in my presentation. I would have to whip up something a little more positive to please the sensei.
Here’s what I came up with: my work site taught me to redefine success. I had arrived in South Africa with a number of pre-determined ambitions that had everything to do with feeding my own ego and sense of what it meant to be a good teacher but little to do with actually accompanying my students and growing with them in the classroom. Had the latter been my measure of success, I would have realized sooner that it didn’t really matter whether or not we finished reading Twilight. Being with the students and seeing their lives, experiences and beautiful country through their eyes was what counted.
As luck would have it, Peru and the Jesuit Volunteer Corps are collaborating to give me a second shot at teaching. I am now two years older, two years wiser and two years closer to being able to legally rent a car in Las Vegas. More to the point, I find that my time in the classroom is a lot easier and more enjoyable this time around. Though I won’t officially begin teaching until this week, I have been able to get some practice by giving English, guitar and theatre lessons through a summer school program in my Peruvian hometown, Andahuaylillas.
Because I also taught guitar in Cape Town, these classes provide the most obvious comparison. In South Africa, I had a bad habit of boring my students with technical instructions on scales and how to tune their guitars. Having realized that students are eager to actually learn to play something, I’ve now skipped the lectures and gotten right to teaching the kids how to play “Every Breath You Take.”
This points to some of the strategic knowledge I’ve gained in teaching. What has been just as crucial, however, is learning to lighten up and take whatever happens in stride. Nowhere is this more evident than in my theatre classes that, due to lack of attendance, I have discontinued. None of the three sessions I taught could be called “successful” in the traditional sense of the word. No one came to the first class. In another, two boys showed up, but after learning how the elements of a play/story applied to The Three Little Pigs, they decided they would rather draw. And in the one that came closest to being a legitimate class, a six year-old boy named Marcelo dressed up as Spiderman and created a confusing theatrical piece that involved my community mate Mateo playing a detective and me playing some combination of Satan and a robot. We’re still waiting for The New York Times’ review.
These issues with attendance and students not fully understanding or appreciating my lessons would have driven me nuts in South Africa. But for some reason, they don’t particularly bother me here. Don’t get me wrong–I hope to have more than one or two children showing up to my classes and genuinely care about my students knowing the difference between a protagonist and antagonist.
But to use these goals as the marker of whether or not my time in Peru is worthwhile totally misses the point of what I’m doing here. One of JVC’s pillars is community, and though the community we often think of is the one I am in with my fellow volunteers, I am in a community of as much importance with Andahuaylillas’ townspeople and the kids I have in the classroom. These children are not only my students; they are also my neighbors. My fellow teachers are not only my colleagues; they are also becoming my friends.
When I think back on my time in high school and college, the teachers I remember most fondly are those who were invested in me in a way that went deeper than what I did in their class. They cared about who I was and where I was going in my life, regardless of whether I could correctly conjugate a Spanish verb or recall how to find the area of a trapezoid. As I look forward to the start of my first school year in Peru, I can only hope my students will see beyond whatever we’re working on in English class and realize that like I did to my teachers, they, too, matter a great deal to me. If I can say that in two years, my time here will have been a success.