On the Benefit of Deadlines – and Refocusing Myself on My Goals

I’ve kind of decided that I’m not going to stay in Colombia after this year finishes. I mean, everything is open to change, as always, but I just realized (while traveling in Puerto Inirida) that I feel that I’m not progressing very much. I’m not wasting time, as I feel like this year of teaching Business English to adults is very helpful for my future career possibilities (for instance, if I want to go to Japan to teach English), but I feel like any more time spent here in Bogota would just not be the most effective use of my time.

Now, once I had this realization, it inspired me to reflect on what my goals were for my South America travels.  How else would I measure success or effectiveness?  LOL.

First, I had my 4 main places to visit – these were the main measures of success for my trip. I’ve done two of them.

  1. Galapagos Islands (October 2016) – 16 days, including an 8-day cruise, 2 days of diving, 2 days on the main island, 2 days on Isabella Island
  2. Patagonia (Jan 2017-June 2017) – 6 mos hiking, camping, and hitchhiking, and volunteering at random places including a brewery and a ranch!
  3. The Amazon
  4. The Inca Trail

I also had some skills or experiences that I especially wanted to learn:

  1. Spanish – basically yeah! I made it!
  2. Coffee farm – 2 weeks
  3. Construction work, at least a little – I’ve done some work with bamboo and concrete
  4. Regular farm – 4 weeks
  5. Teaching English – I will have 1.5 years
  6. Teaching in a public high school – did it for 5 mos in Manizales, Colombia
  7. Write a research paper over the Apostle Paul and Subjectivity – finished, 31 pages single-spaced
  8. 100 push ups – I’m up to 60 without stopping, 80 without resting more than 5 secs
  9. Touch my toes
  10. Salsa Dance classes
  11. Chocolate farm
  12. Winery

So, that’s not bad so far! But I also don’t want to finish my trip until I’ve finished a few more things, and I’m feeling ready and motivated to get them done. This has made me refocus myself on my own experiences and goals, and I’ve been feeling much more determined, focused, and self-determining. After all, no one gave me these goals to do – I picked them myself. Also, I’m feeling more constrained about the deadline. I only have 6 mos left here in Bogota, and then … I don’t know how long I’ll take to explore Peru and Chile and Argentina and Uruguay to finish out my trip, but it won’t take too long and I feel the end in sight. I don’t have a fixed date because it’s still open and flexible, but I know it’s there, and that inspires me to keep going, to finish what I set out to do, to not settle for less.

There are a few things that I’m doing with my time here (I have a good amount of free time), besides my teaching online, my teaching in-person, and my gym attendance.

One is learning to use a Pressure Cooker (and learning how to do soups), learning how to cook Indian food and Thai food, learning Salsa Dancing (with a professional teacher), and learning Mandarin Chinese (again). I’m doing the Mandarin online which is awesome! My teacher is really good, and the grammar is so different! As for cooking, I have always enjoyed cooking.  Also, I usually watch the Late Show with Stephen Colbert (it’s important to laugh in these troubling times) and so I can both relax and feel that I’m constantly improving in the skill of cooking.

Anyway, that’s all for my thoughts so far.  🙂

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Puerto Inirida

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This past weekend, on the recommendation of my friend Eric Tabone, I went to the tiny town of Puerto Inirida, which is, ironically, a capital of one of Colombia’s departments (their version of US states). I say ironic only because it’s a capital city, and yet it’s so small that there’s only two parks… and no movie theater. There are two flights a day max (Bogota and Villavicencio) and sometimes only one (Bogota). It’s pretty far out for Colombia, on the far Eastern edge of Colombia, right on the border with Venezuela, and there are no highways to that connect it to other major cities like, for example, from Bogota. Your only option is to fly there or fly to another (remote) city and then take a river cruise down. I don’t know current numbers but in 2011, the population was 15.7k (2/3 in the city, 1/3 in the rural surrounding areas) and 47%/53% indigenous/non-indigenous. So about half indigenous communities! 🙂

 

The area is a famous for its flower, La Flor de Inirida, which changes colors, and alternates in blooming seasons, without any care or protection by humans.  It’s also called the Eternal Flower because it never wilts or falls apart (like regular flowers do).  It just loses color over time.

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There are two types: winter (only 1 flower per plant, smaller, less bright colors) and sumer (I think 3 flowers per plant, larger, more bright in color).

I left at 1:30 from Bogota, landed around 2:45pm, and then got into the main city and had a huge fish platter at a restaurant recommended to me by a lady at the airport. Because the sun sets so early, I decided that I would just walk around the city until it gets dark and get a feel for it. The meal was 22k, and cheap hamburgers were about 11k so I figured that it was about 150-200% of the Bogota food prices. The park looked nice, the people are very low-key and friendly.

 

We started off a 2.5-day tour the next day, in canoe to from Cano Ramon to the Laguna de las Brujas. In the rainy season (April – October?), the rivers swell and so the trails are all covered, by about 3-4m of water! It’s a lot! It was a lot of fun, we saw pink dolphins all around us checking us out, and then we came back to have breakfast.

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Then, we got into the Jeep to go to Cerro Vitina where there’s a small outcrop of rocks which you can hike and have a beautiful, expansive panoramic view with an indigenous guide. We also saw the two types of Flor Inirida (the winter flower and the summer flower). This was, for me, one of the most beautiful parts of the trip.

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We came back and had a very expansive lunch. In the afternoon, we took a boat about 1.5 hours away to see La Estrella Fluvial de Inirida, and we hung out in an area callled Rupestre Amarru.

 

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They call it La Estrella Fluvial because it’s an area where rivers increasingly mix. At first, it’s the Rio Inirida and Rio Guaviare that come together. They then meet up with another river, Rio Guainia, and then they meet up with another large river, Rio Orinoco. That area where Guaviare/Inirida, Guainia, and Orinoco happen pretty quickly and so it’s a big mix of colors that, in the summer season (with less water) is more distinct and colored. In the winter when it’s raining so much, the colors are diluted much more and it’s hard to see the pretty colors mixing. So while I don’t have any cool colors, it was at least a very enjoyable boat ride AND we talked about how the water is yellow-colored from Inirida/Guaviare (and less acidic, with more nutrients, etc.) and red-colored from Orinoco/Guainia (more acidic, with a reddish-tint from the rapidly-decomposing branches/leaves due to the high acidity).

Rio Guaviare is more clean, potable, rich in fish, and nutritious for the soil. The indigenous people on this side of the river can cultivate yuca, potato, onion, platano, and bananas. On the other side, Rio Guainia, they don’t clear out the land because the soil is so negatively-affected by the acidity of this “half-river” and they can’t cultivate any crops here. So actually, it is more full of trees and looks more lush. It’s so funny – the “healthy” soil area has so much grassland (for cattle) and small cultivated plants/crops that the other side seems so much more lush and just full of plants.

This is basically in Venezuelan territory, so I can now say that I’ve been to Venezuela, even though nobody stamped my passport and it’s all closed indigenous communities who don’t care at all about tourists along the border. 🙂 We came back and passed through Sabanitas, a nice little artesanal-selling community with a few trails nearby that I would later return to.

That’s a lot for one day!!

Anyway, the next day we woke up very early again to take a motor boat even farther than before, about 2.5 hours each way to the Mavacure Hills. These are the “famous mountains” (they’re not mountains) in the area, and the highlight of any trip this far out. It’s a pretty long ride, so we were all very ready to get out of the boat when we finally arrived! The mountains are beautiful, and very steep with striaces in the rock from the winds and rain. When you arrive by boat, they stretch to the sky because everything is so flat all around. They are three hills that form part of the Guainia Shield, and they are collectively called “Pajarito/Mono/Mavicure, 712m, 480m, and 170m respectively. They can only be accessed by river (duh) and are sacred according to the local indigenous populations. They are three granite monoliths, but while they don’t appear so, they are actually one giant rock that’s been carved, hewn, and eroded over time to give the impression of three giant hills bisected by a river. We can only climb up the small Mavicure Hill, which we did, and we have a nice view of the largest hill (called “Pajarito” or little bird) because there’s a window-looking area in the rock that, according to legend, is where the sacred Princess would stay and a bird would fly to her window. 🙂

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We hiked up the small mountain (which is still a fairly strenuous hike) and then back down the slippery granite face to spend the night with the indigenous community. Our lunch/dinner was delicious fish, and then I had a really nice sleep in a hammock (with a mosquito net!). There’s no electricity past 8pm, and they had no showers either. People just bathe in the river when they need to.

After this, we came back to Puerto Inirida the next day (Sunday) and arrived around noon. Our tour was finished! After a nice lunch, I traveled to Coco Viejo, a small indigenous community located about 15 mins away, and just hung out with the locals for a few hours. I also hung out near the river for a bit. The next morning, I got up at 5am to go do a hike in Sabanitas (which has like 5 hikes all around them!) but I only had time to do one. With all the rain, it was slow-going and a very long trail, so I came back to the hotel, took a 45 min nap and packed up, and then I left the hotel to go to the airport.

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It was a great trip overall because it’s such an isolated and remote area. It’s full of small indigenous communities that sometimes even have another matching community on the Venezuelan side. For them, country borders mean nothing. Based on what the few people I talked to told me, it seems like you’re either a part of their local community (on either border), or you’re not. It’s very interesting to entertain this provincial mindset, of a very strong “in/out” identity. I tend to have more of a layers of identity mindset, like “Dallas/Fort Worth” then “Texas” then “southern” then “American” – although while traveling, I tend to associate more with the American identity than any other identity. For them, it’s very stark.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any interesting conversations about the after-life or their religious practices, but I did hear that the communities near the Mavacure Hills don’t do any dancing or drinking alcohol because of the Baptist missionaries that converted them. I thought this was tragic, and our guide did too. He said that they had lost so much of their knowledge of local plants, (including hallucinogenic plants), rituals and dances associated with these plants and a tight attachment to the land, etc. that others, the very very few who were hostile to the Baptist missionaries, have maintained over time. For our tour guide, the (majority) communities who were converted to Protestant Christianity had lost tremendous amounts of their history and culture that they are now largely undifferentiated from the Colombians that have moved to the area (except that they still live in huts, with limited access to running water or electricity).

My new life in Bogota!

I’ve been in Bogota for a little over two weeks now, and since so much has happened in my life, I figured that now is a good time for a blog post!

Life in Dallas

First, my time in Dallas, TX was great. I had a really wonderful time with my Granny (Dad’s Mom) and Nai Nai (Mom’s mom). I stayed with each of them for 4 days which made sense logistically (since I didn’t have a car) and because I wanted to get a LOT of time with them! We mostly just spent time talking about my travels, about their own travels, or just hanging out.

 

Now that my life is much busier, I find myself fondly reminiscing of my time with them because it was so calm and tranquil. I didn’t have anything to do for pretty much any day, and it’s nice to live like that! If I was retired, I think I would want that. I might have to have a rule like only 2 things max per day to do!

The other thing I’ll mention is that they both (and my parents too) showed me so much hospitality. What I mean by hospitality is that they went out of their way to specifically bless me when I came to visit their “place”. They got me my favorite fruit, cooked me my favorite meals, got me my favorite chips (chex mix, goldfish, and bbq chips), bought little coffee keurigs even though they don’t use them, had super nice bathroom supplies for me (that I would never buy for myself), and, to a large extent, adapted their time schedules to mine and what I wanted to do (like teach English!). It was incredible and humbling and something that “hit me” for some reason. It made me want to do my own hospitality practice here in Bogota for Couchsurfers, for those of you familiar with the website. (Update: already done it!!)

Life in Bogota

I really like the city of Bogota. It is full of people and with a population of 8 million, it’s their version of New York – except with less-good public transportation. The TransMilenio (kind of their version of express bus, because they have their own lanes) is not bad, and it’s affordable. I mean, my bike is free, but sometimes I have to travel like 45 minutes to the person’s house and instead, I just take the bus.

They also have regular buses, but those kind of suck because they compete with cars in those lanes and are always stopping to pick people up, etc. So what do you get when you have a city with a huge population? Trash. People who mind their own business. People who want to connect but are hesitant to rush into that because they don’t trust you. Congestion. People who are living their day-to-day! You get different neighborhoods all over the place! Side note: I’m in a good area but 1 block away from a “not great” area lol.

I love it!

I don’t think I realized how much I love big cities until I lived away from them for a long time and yeah, they’re quite different. I just love the realness of them, with the trash and mess and people in a hurry and people too busy to spy on you and don’t give a crap about your personal life. Also, if you need something, they are there for you. I haven’t had really chemistry with fellow foreigners, but I have felt connections with Colombians!

As you may know from facebook, my studio apartment is superrrrrr nice. I did have to put quite a few expenses up front like my visa or stuff to live in my apartment (my studio had literally nothing in it except a half bar of soap and a broom).

I’ve felt a little stressed about money because of that. I’ve been feeling all the feelings when you drop a lot of money – not buyer’s remorse, but like a feeling that I’m living too extravagantly, that I overextended myself with this lifestyle that I’m now stuck with until December, that I’ve trapped myself into a very costly way of life, that I’m now dependent on my (two) jobs and that’s irresponsible.

I’ve only gotten 11 hours of teaching so far, and I’m supposed to have 22 hours/week. I understand that in the beginning, they’re still trying to confirm with people about scheduling classes and such, so I expect to be getting my “full schedule” of about 22 teaching hours a week, but even then, people cancel and it’s not a big deal – for them. It’s kind of a big deal for me since I don’t get paid if I don’t teach, and I need that money! LOL.

Luckily for me, I am able to teach English online which pays pretty well. Without it, I would be sooooo screwed monetarily! I am very grateful for this opportunity to teach online and I think I do a good job. My feelings regarding my teaching English jobs go in waves, as probably all of my feelings do, but one thing that’s consistent is my gratitude.

My life has been good here. I have a bike, which I love. I’m all settled into the apartment. I have a nice hot-water shower and a super nice gym membership! All my clothes are put away, and I clean the apartment every day. I’ve enjoyed my few classes teaching with Bogota Business English and am making enough money to survive thanks to my online English classes. (Still not saving though, sad face.) I am taking 3 hours a week of individual Spanish classes and am about to move that up to 6 hours a week. I’m still doing linear algebra, but that may change soon. I even work out at the gym 5 days a week, and I’m that guy who records everything in my handy-dandy gym notebook! 🙂

I’m still learning things, and I’m not only talking about Spanish or linear algebra or how to teach English better. I’ve recently branched out in my cooking by doing Indian food for the first time (the spices were ridiculously expensive, but it’s been on my mind for a few years). I’ve also been utilizing my blender by making my own sauces. I made a mango salad dressing (never done salad dressings before and didn’t have a vinaigarette dressing lol) and my own margarita mixes (a strawberry mix and a classic lime mix, both of which were fantastic). I continue to make my own fresh fruit juice. I’ve perfected my guacamole and expressed my delight for it by spending an obscene amount of money (comparatively) on avocadoes. More than I spend on any other food item!! I’ve even given up on coffee in the mornings and chosen instead to do tea. (I sometimes do a 4 oz tiny coffee cup in the afternoons lol.)

I recently had the pleasure to host 2 couchsurfers and to practice hospitality! They are lovely people from Germany and Argentina, and we have enjoyed just hanging out in the evenings. I really like having couchsurfers, at least polite ones. 🙂 And as they’re my first ones, they have set a very positive tone for me for CS!

My main focus/intention this year is still developing my Spanish and everything else kind of falls into place around that. I have my commitments, which are teaching English; I have my discipline routines (Spanish and gym); and I think I’m doing good on taking care of myself regarding naps, errands, and healthy eating. For instance, I haven’t gone to a restaurant in over two weeks! 🙂

That’s basically my life in a nutshell, at least for how I feel right now. I am doing really well and hope you are too!! 🙂

Exploring south of Colombia, thinking ahead to 2018, and reflecting on hospitality

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all of you!

I hope this Advent season finds you and yours well. I know that for me, I’m feeling very “advent-y” because I’m also in a period of waiting. Like Mary, I have an idea of what’s coming next (for her, having a baby, for me, living in Bogota), and even though I’m pretty sure my near future is more nailed down than hers (I highly doubt I’ll have to flee to a neighboring country because of state violence), the future always has an element of indeterminacy, doesn’t it? You can plan and plan and plan, but if you don’t give allowances for the unknown-unknowns… well, they’ll still happen! As they say in the military, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

So what’s been going on in my life so far? Well, as you may know, I finished out my contract to teach English in a public high school (in Manizales) – success! – and so I flew back to Bogota (thanks, government of Colombia!) and then traveled around the south of Colombia near the Ecuadorian border.  I am not going to renew my contract as I have already accepted a contract for 2018 teaching business English through Bogota Business English, but I was able to take some photos of my classes and say goodbye in a nice and fun manner.

Because I had a free flight to Bogota, I said hello to some friends there for a couple days and then traveled in the south toward the border of Ecuador.  Though I had been in this area to San Augustin and El Desierto de Tatacoa (the Tatacoa desert), those were the only places in the south I had done, and I decided to spend about 2 weeks exploring other places in the area that I had missed.

I was in Pasto 3 days, Mocoa 3 days (including doing ayahuasca, the indigenous hallucinogenic drug), Popayan 2 days, Cali 2 days, and Ipiales 1 day. These places were gorgeous, lush, and full of hikes!

I got to take a selfie with a cardboard cut-out of Pope Francis by one of the prettiest churches I’ve seen in Colombia in Ipiales.

I spent one day exploring the city and two days doing hiking trails around Pasto with a cool guy named Ethan (we almost saw lakes those days but never quite made it lol).

 

Later, Ethan and I explored lots of waterfalls and hikes in Mocoa with its jungle and waterfalls!

 

Then we split off while he went to the Desert (which I’d already done and I explored the colonial and beautiful Popayan downtown by myself (including some great Mexican food)!

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My last few days, I explored Cali two days with a cool American guy named Rhyne, and even made it back in time to Bogota to say hello to my new company and coworkers before I flew back!

I’m feeling more and more ready to go back to Bogota for my job. Now that I’m older, almost 30!, I’ve found myself focusing on fewer things and trying to develop mastery over them. For instance, this past year in Manizales, I was trying to get really good at Spanish, learn Muay Thai, learn linear algebra, and learn salsa. I wanted to have people over for dinners and go on dates with Colombians and travel.

Unfortunately, it turns out that one cannot do all of those things and maintain 24 teaching hours a week! In the beginning, I just wore myself down because I woke up at 4:30am and didn’t take naps. After about a month, I realized I was too busy and tired and stressed and decided to drop something – in my case, I dropped salsa dance lessons (3x/week and staying out too late). I started doing way more Spanish and even bumped up naps to every day lol!

We all go through problems in life and the goal, at least to me, is to learn from them quickly so you don’t have to keep repeating the “lesson” over and over again!

For 2018, in Bogota, I’m excited to stay somewhere a whole year and develop some roots! I know a year isn’t super long, but it’s way long in comparison to my life since August of 2016 when I first started traveling! I’m excited to focus on getting really good at Spanish, salsa dancing (yes, that means private lessons), and, dare I say, more math! (we’re moving on to Calculus 3 this next semester).

That’s it. Just 3 additional hobbies. Totally doable!  🙂  I expect to be doing about 20 teaching hours a week with Bogota Business English, my company, and I naturally will want to save some time for social gatherings and naps and even maybe my additional job teaching English on the side through VIPkid (which teaches kids in China). It pays well and I hope to get just a few hours a week doing that so I can save again!

It’s exciting to have a vision for a new life ahead of me – one where I feel that I’m working on mastery (of a few things, self-chosen by me), and even make some money to start saving. To me, that’s what defines a mature young adult: developing yourself and preparing for your next future(s). For example, I’m preparing myself for traveling more of South America (getting really good at Spanish!) and teaching English in Japan (getting more teaching experience)! It’s perfect!

Now that I’m back in the states, I feel pretty good. I don’t feel reverse culture shock yet, though I do miss the comfort of my own kitchen. It’s nice to have frozen pizzas when I’m rushed for time since I was without an oven for a year and a half (and a clothes dryer, and a dishwasher, and mostly without a microwave), and yeah, life is different. Still, so far, I don’t feel uncomfortable or weirded out by life in America. I’ve also spent most of my time back here with my grandmas! It’s been wonderful!

I’m enjoying doing some work on the side with VIPkid teaching English, though I recently had 5 out of 6 no-shows so I’m really being paid half-wage for “being available” as compared to teaching…I’d prefer to teach! Still, it’s nice to earn some money so I can feel more free to spend money on eating out, movies, or Uber rides hahaha.

I’ve also decided to write a book with a friend of mine on some of our “interesting topics” since we both have weird thoughts and are both open-minded philosophy majors. I’m sure we’ll publish it, just to say that we are published authors, even if it’s only good enough for the claim “self-published”. 🙂 So that’s another fun thing to fill my time.

The last thing I’ll mention is that recently I’ve really enjoyed experiencing hospitality. When I stayed with my Grandmas (and aunts/uncles), they all went out of their way to ensure I was comfortable, warm at night, had all my bathroom toiletries, enjoyed the food, and especially that I had a good time. I was treated more than just “make yourself at home”, because I was an honored guest. They went out of their way to prepare for me with my favorite berries, my favorite salty snack, red wine, and ribs! I am sure that I’ve experienced this kind of hospitality before, and my parents have also done this for me, but I think it finally hit me this time. Hospitality is about going out of your way to welcome someone into your home and bless them while they are with you. It’s applying the virtues of generosity and kindness in a focused and extravagant way specifically toward people who enter your “space”. It’s easy to be nice and kind, but to anticipate people’s desires ahead of time, and to reflect on how to bring joy and happiness to your guests… what a treat it is to experience this! What a blessing!

I was reflecting on this for my life in Bogota. If I were to have an apartestudio (a bit more expensive, but it would be nice to have my own place), I would want to be able to have guests over, like cool homeless people I meet who may just want to take a shower – or have guests over through offering a free place through Couchsurfing. I love having people over and showing hospitality because it’s fun to just bless people, but also because hospitality is one of the oldest virtues. In every ancient culture, it seems to me, hospitality seems prized over any general “kindness” creed and, honestly, over perhaps any other virtue. One might even argue that hospitality was the premier virtue, the ideal embodiment of other virtues (kindness, generosity, patience, respect). I would not be averse to such a claim. And seeing it through my grandmas and aunts and uncles has only impressed upon me the beauty and importance of it.

Photos of English Day and Culture Week

Hey let’s talk about our big event that we held at San Pio X: English Day! It was the first time that the school has had an English Day, a big event for the entire school that takes place during the entire school day (well, 8-1230) instead of like an hour or two (or less).

Our English Day was during our Culture Week, and our first day (Tuesday), we had a parade where each class dressed up as a theme (Corpse Bride, Vampires, Disney, etc.) – this was a lot of fun! I have attached some photos for you to see, and for me to see and remember too, of course!

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On Wednesday, it was English Day! My co-partner and I organized this mostly between us with some help from the teachers (thankfully!) and it was a bit more chaotic than was necessary, but it was still fun. We had two parts, a time where the students would perform in front of the big group of the entire student body (how scary!) and then a time in separate classrooms where the students would be free to mingle as they wanted and just see what’s going on. Unfortunately, we only had 4 classrooms instead of the planned 12, but hey, things change and you have to go with the flow. Things certainly seem to change more often than is necessary here in Colombia haha, but that’s part of the day-to-day life.

Here are some photos of the Wednesday English Day!

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I’m still in the deciding stages of what to do for next year, and it’s nice to have options. Here is essentially how I’m thinking:

  1. One of my (near) future goals is to teach English in Japan. I want to earn a higher salary, high enough to save money for my retirement, for instance. I also want to learn the Japanese language and experience the Japanese culture in a significant way.
  2. Teaching English in Japan is very competitive. Thus, I want to stay here in Colombia teaching English because I want to have more experience teaching, at least more than 5 months! Gotta be competitive! Also, I want to get experience teaching solo instead of just continuing with a co-teacher.
  3. I do want to stay here in South America because I still haven’t done Peru or Chile or Argentina! I don’t want to leave until I’ve done some more of these countries, maybe even working on a winery and a chocolate farm! How fun would that be??? And of course seeing the Amazon and doing the Inca Trail!

Teaching with my whole self

(I also sent this blog post to the Heart For Change program, so if you find this post somewhere else, they have my approval to share it lol!!)

We all bring different things to the table for our students, not just our fluency in English. For me, I take great pride and joy in bringing my own experiences, desires, ways of thinking, concerns (essentially, my culture) to this new scene. While it’s a delicate balance between imposing your culture and sharing your culture, and I’m sure I don’t do it perfectly, I liked how they phrased it during our training: it is important and desired to bring your whole self, including your culture, to the schools where you are. One way I’ve done this is by singling out specific kids that I believe have untapped potential and letting them know that I notice it, and that I hope they develop it.

Not that any teacher wants to show favoritism, but one aspect of me being honest and being my true self with my kids is by remarking on potential when I see it. When I was in high school, for instance, I felt very stifled, and so I have a special concern in my heart towards actualizing potential, and especially for young people. Here are two stories about kids in my classes that I’ve singled out for an extra conversation.

There’s a kid in my 10th grade class who performs about in the middle of the class, with moderate effort and, in my opinion, moderate intelligence. One day he was giving a presentation with a group over the budget of Colombia, and when he took that moment to gather himself before speaking, the entire class got silent. Complete silence, at least in my classes, is not common, and especially not for student presentations. Honestly, I find it hard to get the kids to be quiet when I’m teaching, and I’m liked by the students and I’m in the role of teacher. My co-teacher probably commands more respect than I do, but even she has a tough time getting all of the students to be quiet (never?). This kid, without asking them to be quiet, got them to be quiet by sheer presence and intent to speak. I was amazed, and I noticed this.

I thought about speaking to him about this event, and so a couple days ago, I approached him sitting down on the bleachers during their break, and I sat down next to him. I described this scene in the classroom. I tell him that it’s amazing he has that level of respect among the classmates, and that respect like that is something that can only be earned. I told him that I don’t know much about him, but that he has a lot of potential because of his ability to garner respect like that, and I closed by saying I hope that he has spent some time thinking about what he wants to accomplish in his life – because he can do it. Isn’t it tremendously easy to just follow the flow instead of being self-determined?

There’s another kid who’s recognized as an athlete in the school, and he barely tries in my English class (I’ve heard he doesn’t try much in his other classes either). But this young man is really, really smart. For not trying, he recognizes grammar patterns remarkably well, and his vocab ability is far beyond what one would expect because of his lack of effort. I always make an effort to encourage my kids honestly whenever possible, and so I remarked on his ability to learn difficult concepts extremely quickly.

Moreover, a couple weeks ago, I wanted to change up the class organization for small groups and pick the groups for them, instead of our normal policy of “let them pick their own groups”. Change is good sometimes! I also wanted to organize the groups based on my co-teacher and I’s perception of their intelligence level, which my co-teacher hadn’t done before. We picked the groups together and I told her I wanted this kid in the “smart” group. She agreed to it, but because this kid hadn’t been doing his homework essay in the class (I noticed), I went to him privately after the class and told him that I was putting him in the group with other smart kids for our next class, and that to stay in this group, he had to finish the homework assignment. Everyone else in his group had finished, and they were going to use the homework assignment as a group next class. After that class was finished, he said he liked the group and would enjoy being in the same group again.

Unfortunately for this same student, he has expressed to me his desire to be a professional soccer player, and though we haven’t talked about this, I’m worried that he is letting his academic performance slip because he is wanting to focus all of his energy on soccer. I think there can be a time and place for narrowing your options down to 1 to incentivize yourself to succeed, but when you’re 17 years old, I think that’s a bad idea – at that age, it’s the time to be developing yourself in a whole bunch of areas to find what areas you like, you can succeed in, how to improve yourself in a wide variety of things. Not to limit yourself down to be a professional soccer player! And how much more does this matter when you have a lot of potential in a lot of areas! He can do anything that he wants to if he applies himself!

Anyway, I just share these two stories to say that part of what bringing my true and honest self means is encouraging some of my kids with (perceived) great potential, especially potential that may not be recognized by their other teachers at the school.

Sometimes it’s easy for us to have blind spots when, as teachers, we look for kids to do well in our classes or to do well academically. I know I have mine. However, I also have some advantages! I’ve been away from school for a while and value things other than academic achievement. I’ve also not spent years and years with these kids, so my impression of them is completely untainted by their past history. Lastly, it’s hard for me to remember anything about their academic achievement, let alone their names. So it’s like getting a clean slate for me every time! Hahaha.

Thus, while I have some blind spots like everyone else, I also can recognize things that maybe my co-teachers don’t. And honestly, based on conversations with other fellows, I think many of us fellows have soft spots for those with unrecognized potential, and especially for the “bad kids” of the school that we feel are written off too quickly.

As an English teacher, I want my kids to have every possible opportunity to master my subject, and experience the joy and self-confidence and critical-thinking that accompanies mastery of any topic. But as a human being who’s more than just an English teacher, I also want them to be self-determined and to actualize their wide variety of potential and to be different and unique and self-determined toward whatever they want to accomplish without just going with the flow or (self-)limiting themselves. I bring this to my school for certain people that stick out to me, and I’ve derived a lot of value from doing this – I’m sure other teachers have too!

Good is the enemy of great – and encouragement.

This blog post will mention two important things to me: how I spend my time (which recently changed) and my experience teaching, now that I have 2 months under my belt. Let’s start with a general overview of my life and the way I spend my time.

(Quickly: above, there are some of my students and my co-teacher Luz Elena on the far right in the black jacket.)

As you may recall, I teach 24 hours of classes a week, with 2 different teachers (well, 20 hours with Luz-Elena so she’s my primary coteacher and 4 with Sandra, so most of the time with Luz-Elena) and 3 grades (9th, 10th, 11th). This is my official job, and that requires me to have co-planning, homework grading, fill-in-the-blank exercises, songs, and trying to come up with games for the kids. Everything, basically.  Also, because I teach from 6am to 12:30 basically every day, I wake up at 4:30 to have time to postpone my alarm (20-30 mins), to eat breakfast, clean up and organize myself, and get out the door to be at school on time. And it’s not easy to get up at 4:30am every day – I need naps!

My four extracurricular activities were, as you also probably remember, salsa lessons, Spanish (including lessons), Muay Thai gym, and Linear Algebra. These are all very meaningful and important activities to me, but I was not getting enough time to do them all well, and certainly not to do them and also take care of myself mentally and physically and enjoy my life. Needless to say, Spanish, naps, and gym time took hits. Ideally I would nap for 1-2 hours a day, but that never happened because I was too busy – and I found that I went weeks with studying Spanish about 3 hours a week. Unacceptable! Because my sleep suffered, my quality of life suffered, and I couldn’t hang out with friends! In fact, went 2 weeks without seeing any friends during the week.

I treasure realizations, and I had one a week ago. I was watching some old guys having tintos (Colombian little coffees), and I thought “Man, I wish I could just people-watch and drink a tinto like these guys”. Unfortunately, I’m always on the go and can’t enjoy nature or my city or just hang out with friends!

Well, I cut an activity today: salsa lessons.

Yay I’m already feeling better! LOL maybe I’ll even get back to meditating and stretching!

 

 

We also had a parade to celebrate our “neighborhood” so here are some photos of the kids.  Each “class” had a theme, like 50s, 80s, Punks, Mafia, Indians, and I forget the others. They’re so cute.

 

 

 

Alrighty, now moving on to teaching.

I love teaching. I love my kids. My co-teacher, Luz-Elena, is very supportive of me and cares about improving her English and is open to my ideas. She’s fantastic and I’m lucky to work with her, though because we are so similar in personality and type, we also have the same strengths and weaknesses (class discipline being one weakness). We found out, unofficially as of now, that the Ministry of Education will continue the program next year and she blurted out in front of the other English teachers, “Yay Joshua can stay!!” LOL.

My other co-teacher is fine. She doesn’t seem to care about teaching, certainly not about improving her teaching, and just generally seems to view it as a job that is “good enough”. Thankfully, we get along well enough, and that’s about as good as I expect it can be, given how different we are. At least she lets me do what I want within her general constraints, and that’s great.   She also contributes to my ideas/plans, and her ideas are good!  I’m happy to incorporate her feedback into my plans lol.

So here are a few things I’ve noticed about myself qua teacher.

  1. I consider myself terrible at negative extrinsic motivation (punishment, for instance), and great at fostering intrinsic motivation (like using encouragement, charisma, positive reinforcement, stickers, etc.) My charisma and sense of disappointment/happiness seems to work for most students, and I do feel that one of my strengths is getting people to like me based on my charisma and then maximizing the effectiveness of my charisma. However, when that doesn’t work, and let’s be honest, sometimes it just doesn’t work… it’s a bit tougher! I’m still trying to figure this out…
  2. I treat my kids like they’re adults. I don’t mind if I have students that don’t want to learn English – maybe it won’t be useful to them, or maybe they have things that are more important to do during my class. I don’t feel the need to impose my values, or my agenda, on you. Maybe English won’t help you in life – I don’t know. Occasionally, I’ll have kids doing like math homework in my classes, or have kids in the back just not paying attention or napping, and I don’t bother them, though I consider it important to know what’s going on (e.g. what they’re doing) in my classes. In the end, I act as if it’s their time, and ultimately their life, to decide as they see fit. For me, as long as they don’t bother other students, then it’s fine. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet figured out how to either get the “bad” students to stop distracting other students, or how to integrate/motivate them in the class – at least not for “enough” of the time. Besides the whole “have respect for your classmates (be quiet)” or “shhhhh” which is, at best, a temporary solution to a long-term problem, I’m not really sure what to do.
  3. We recently had an observation in our class with a person from the pedagogy oversight “board” of the Ministry of Education. I got a lot of great ideas from him, so I’m very excited to integrate these into the class.
  4. However, he also got feedback from the kids, and here was my students’ feedback:

    a. Joshua is really good at one-on-one teaching. Why did they say this?  Well, when we give the students work to do in pairs or small groups, I will wander the room to answer questions, define vocab, explain missed grammar points, etc. The Colombian teachers stay up at the front the whole time. 

    b. Joshua encourages us a lot. In fact, the students now encourage each other, or make fun of each other (both, honestly) by repeating words in my tone that they hear me use all the time: “Awesome, wow, fantastic, amazing, very good”. It’s kind of hilarious, but it’s special too. I’m happy that those are the words they’ve learned from me!!

    c. We have more fun with Joshua than Luz-Elena. Hahahaha. Of course they do!! I’m the best!!

    d. Luz-Elena focuses more on grammar and Joshua focuses more on pronunciation. Hmm not sure if that’s true or not, because I also love grammar, but I think that’s a positive in their mind. They’re not wild on grammar lol. Certainly not like me!! I love grammar!!

    e. We want more visuals. Hmm not sure how to accomplish this without the use of technology, but I’m thinking about it.

  5. Here’s what I hope to integrate into the classes, after hearing about his input.  First, I want to have a unifying “narrative” of the class explicitly listed on the board and organize the class and class activities around this unifying narrative (like “today, we’re learning about what you have to have to travel to the USA”) instead of just a list of activities.  Also, more visuals! Hahahaha. We’re gonna see how this goes…sans technology.   I’m going to have a part of the board be with students’ names and their complex words or phrases or grammar points, as a way of encouraging them to challenge themselves and be an inspiration to the rest of the class.
  6. I would like to share with you a positive story!I have a student named Bryan who is a pretty independently-minded kid. He sits in the back along the wall, keeps to himself, and normally just listens to music and tunes us out. No problem. He’s funny though, and he would usually enter the room, take one of my markers, and write “don’t fuck” on the board lol. I would laugh, acknowledge it, and then erase the whole thing. Well one day, my co-teacher saw him throw a paper ball back at someone, and also saw the “don’t fuck” on the board, and decided that was a very serious incident. She had him write in the discipline book, which requires the parent to come talk to the teacher about it, and this was unfortunately not his first trouble with teachers. His mom spoke with 4 teachers, as a matter of fact, and when she came to talk to us, she was already crying. Her son was threatened with repeating the grade, and it was hard for her to get ragged on by teachers regarding her son.  Understandably so.

    Well, I really like her son. He’s really cool and funny, and I have no need to force my values, nor English, on him. I leave him alone mostly, though I enjoy seeing what he draws in class, and I’m even happy to see him using English cuss words in the correct way.

    When I am introduced to the mother, who’s crying, I start out by saying what a pleasure it is to meet her, that I like her son a lot, and that I’m so glad he’s in my class. I tell her how I especially like his confidence in himself, his independence, and how I was NOT like that when I was his age. She started smiling, and then we parted ways.  (I try always to encourage when possible, but I only speak truth for encouraging words.)

    Later, Bryan came by to talk to us separately and to try to figure out a way to improve his grade. He got some extra homework as extra credit, but then the co-teacher talked about how he has so many problems with his behavior.  (I thought “What??? He’s fine! He doesn’t bother anyone!) and one of these problems, get ready, was his atheism.

    At this point, I intervened and said “No, that’s not a problem.” They both turned to look at me, and I repeated myself. “Not believing in God is not a problem,” I said, and the teacher repeated herself, saying yes it is.

    “Nope, it’s not, and I don’t agree with you,” I responded. We agreed to disagree, which is great that she and I can be honest with each other, but later I went to Bryan and I said privately, “hey, don’t worry about what she said, you’re fine, and I’m an atheist too!” I think that improved our relationship and, in fact, I can tell that he’s trying more in our class.  It doesn’t actually matter how well he does in English to me (nor does it matter for getting into university which, oddly enough, only looks at test scores), but it IS important for me to have good relationships with my students, and I think I’ve succeeded with him specifically and with mostly all my students generally. 🙂

  7. Teaching is really rewarding for me. Yes, there are good days and bad days, though for me it’s mostly good days (thank goodness I’m with a Spanish-speaking Colombian teacher and not by myself in the classes).

    I really love it when students “get it.”

    I love it when I tell kids that they’re smart (I never lie, so I don’t tell everyone they’re smart lol, but if I have something nice to say, I make a note to try to say it).

    I think it’s so important to encourage others, both as a way of motivating them to be better in my class, but also because encouragement, and especially at a young age, is so important for their future! By encouraging my kids, I feel encouraged.