Teaching English in Perú – An Odyssey

When I left the USA nearly ten years ago, I left as I was informed that my work was “unnecessary” and because coworkers felt I was considered “enslaved to [grammar] rules” and, thus, not  team-player (I never went out for “a cold one” [beer] with “the boys,” found no enjoyment in discussing an athletic event completed, nor relished idle gossip [chismes, in Castellaño/Spanish]).  The company I worked for in Iowa had as much knowledge of English as does Hardin Country Legislative Representative Annette Sweeney (R-44th District), which is feigned praise (Spanish speakers have one wonderful word for this: adulador; and a most emphatic phrase: alabanza fingida).  It was my intent to find a nation where what few talents I have, I could use them to benefit others. 

Perú became my unexpected goal, being encouraged to relocate by a friend I had known for some time.  I only had one friend in Iowa the entire time I lived and worked in that state; I knew no one else except to receive an infrequent greeting, so, Perú became an exciting option.

Teaching in Lima was difficult.  At that time, I was 56 years old (as I was reminded constantly, by universities, schools, and the government of Perú, as that age is considered old and old people are expected to retire so that younger people can take their place), and fat (which is obvious to anyone), and unmarried (which to several senior officials in foreign based companies meant that I was, allegedly, homosexual and a threat to all males–I said nothing and ignored their inquiries).  It was impossible to get a teaching job, until I went to work at one language center in Miraflores.  The language center sent me to teach at the Ministerio de Comercio y Turismo, and several international firms.

The textbooks read reasonably well, but students had limited knowledge of the English language, and the two daughters of the owner / academic dean of the language center told my students that grammar “was irrelevant” as language is constantly changing.  Neither daughter was a student at the center; both were going to universities in Massachusetts.  My biggest surprise was to be “requested” by the Academic Dean/Owner to write her daughters’ letters seeking interviews and then follow-up responses. Neither daughter had a concept of what constitutes a sentence.  Both were ignorant of factitive verbs, neither could create a paragraph, and it was common to find sentences beginning with conjunctions.

When I discovered I had not been paid for over one year of classes (at $7 an hour; the full amount owed me was over $3000, and I was never paid in full), I left right before the Christmas holiday.  I admit that I  abandoned my students at Castrol, Banco Continental, and other major firms (this was painful, psychologically, as a few read assigned books, but less than 5% would write required papers.  Getting anyone to converse in class was nearly impossible, with the sole exception being the Treasurer of Banco Continental who relocated to Mexico, and the Chief of Chemical Use for Merck Pharmaceuticals (the chief of Human Resources, when not busy asking for free advice or plagiarizing from articles that I authored). 

Of less importance, initially, was the fact that the modest amount of money that I was earning did not even pay for gasoline: going from Backus in the suburb Rimac to TDM in Chorrillos, Perú to Miraflores, and around the metropolitan area six days a week.  Fortunately I had a small pension from AAFES and could draw on my Fidelity Investment account to sustain life until book royalties trickled in at the end of the year. 

I worked from six in the morning teaching one man in his home in San Isidro until after ten at night, daily.  For economic reasons, most teachers travel by bus (which is dangerous as they do have pickpockets and other unsavory characters that ride them and seek out tourists, of which I definitely could be spotted, having white hair and am of fair complexion); I bought a car (that was regularly vandalized in Miraflores, one of the more prosperous suburbs, and in San Miguel, where I lived). 

I never felt safe, and the only real income I realized was by being a private tutor, but then I had to drive to San Borga, La Molina, and other (wealthier) suburbs–but at least I made sufficient income to pay for the gas and oil. 

I taught two especially gifted children.  One of my students was the son of the owner of a major accounting firm. My second brightest scholar was the son of a German-Peruano couple who were selling solar panels. 

Claudio was my favorite: only five years of age and attending FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) Colegio [school; it is ranked among the top schools in Lima and requires the use of English in its classrooms].  At my request, Claudio was quickly reading books from the New York Museum of Art and various science center and institutes that his father brought back with him after attending to his business in the USA. 

The greatest resource and support in instilling correct English in Claudio’s learning experience was the assistance I was given by Miguel: Claudio’s father.  Miguel was all business but loved his son so much that he wanted the best for the lad.  Landing the job, initially, was difficult as being a male, Claudio’s mother (the parents were never married and Miguel avoided the Claudio’s mother as often as he dared), insisted that all the child’s teachers be female (in keeping with Perú tradition and culture).  Strongly supporting me, Miguel told his son that I was his teacher and to behave appropriately. 

I taught every Wednesday and Saturday for two-hours.  Claudio was taught phonics, initially, and we worked carefully on his enunciation.  I listened as he selected his words cogently, carefully and correctly, and used them skillfully and appropriately in his developing conversations.  Following this series of exercises, we worked on interpret words and photographs in the books his father bought (that I recommended), defining the intent of the artist (photographer, painter, and so forth) as seen in the time it was produced–based on a mastery of what was happening with a reading in the history of the particular epoch.

Claudio and I played games, drew pictures, and used every learning strategy I knew to enable young children to learn not only the language but also the arts and sciences.  Claudio learned grammar, composition, and how to express himself without having to employ street English.  Unfortunately, although Miguel paid me $10 (a princely sum) at first, and raised it to $20 an hour, and I taught for two hours each week, I still could not afford my gasoline much less my basic electric bill (small by USA standards).  This accelerated my frustration.

Running low on cash, I signed up for Social Security at age 62 (taking a significant cut in what I would have received at age 65), but it kept food in the house and brought books into my library.  At the same time crime was increasing, with thieves stealing the headlights of my car while parked in front of the institute in Miraflores, reaching hands inside my vehicle while I was driving to swipe my garage door opener (my strength had decreased dramatically following quadruple by-pass heart surgery), and being chased when I tried to walk my dogs in a park near my home.

With the rise in crime against tourists in Lima, I decided to move to the northern province of Lambayeque.  The first two years that I lived in the ocean side town of Pimentel, no school would even look at my résumé (curriculum vita) nor answer any letter.  It was until the third year that I was invited to teach at a private parochial school. 

To my shame and regret I knew nothing about a new program for teaching English at the school: the IB Programme, which I am against unequivocably.  The books used were marginal in content, and the academic dean and director of the language program (who did not know one word of English, French or German, and held meetings in Spanish to tell jokes) told me that they were using the books since the school received a “kick-back” of 50% on the sale of each book.  I have recorded the horror of the IB Programme in several books I have authored, and on this blog. 

I left the school after being their two and one-half month.  I had no regrets; in fact I was offered a teaching job at one of the private universities by an academic dean whom I saw only for the most cursory interview and for a five-minute sample lecture on the past simple verb to be.  I knew that teaching at this university’s Language Center in the middle of Chiclayo would be a disaster. It was. Not one student could use two English words coherently at the same time. Instead of “Not I”, I would hear “I not”.

Surprised that there was no in-depth questioning to determine my subject matter knowledge, and no request to see my transcript or publications, I still accepted the job offer.  I needed the money, and my love for teaching and lack of foresight to inquire as to the students’ level of knowledge of the idiom was my undoing. 

That position lasted two months.  The class was held only on weekends and then for two hours  (the time the university required their students study the English language in order to earn their degree).  When I walked past other classrooms, I heard the other “Teachers of English” teach in Spanish.  I never once heard a teacher teach in English.

When it came time for the exam, the students were still flipping through popular dictionaries (several had dictionaries of English slang).  None passed.  The assistant to the Directora told me I had to pass at least two students by raising their collective scores of zero to at least 11.  I refused.  I resigned.

Surprisingly, within days I received an invitation to teach at the national university in Lambayeque.  I met with an American with an earned B.A. who had TOEFL certification, and (one time only) a “professor” from a Roman Catholic university.  We were asked to create a Master Program in English.  While the lady spoke well, the gentleman was basically illiterate–his degree (which it turned out to be a BA, and told me he hoped to move to the USA to teach Spanish and make millions of dollars “in the land of opportunity and wealth”) declared he planned on teaching research skills–even though he had never written a thesis or dissertation; his idea was to have a graduate student write a thesis on how to take notes. 

At our first meeting, I was reminded that Perú was poor (poverty increased dramatically under Perú dictator Alberto Fujimori), books were expensive (the Perú-born teacher wanted to require a book that cost over $100, which is more than most workers make in one week), and that education was marginal. All this I knew, but concurred to find cheap books (and requested several of my publishers to send me copies at cost for postage and taxes, which I paid, but asked the students to reimburse me as the director affirmed was appropriate–my biggest mistake, as even though most of the books I used cost S/.5 to S/.10 [about $1.50 to $3], the cost of the materials was one of the complaints the students at the National University filed against me.  That led me to resign, although my students said I had no choice as they were firing me since I did not give them what they want.

In fairness to the students, I must note that the national university charged them S/.40 for “materials” that were never given.  My error was that the cost of the book would come out of that student fee.

I was taught, and always believed, that when you teach a subject the true teacher incorporates all potential fields that the learner might have an opportunity to use.  To this end I cited and explained historical, philosophical, economical, and other disciplines when discussing grammatical rules, presentations on didactics and pedagogy, and learning strategies.

My second mistake was requiring correct grammar use, exact word choice, standard spelling, and a composition that included an introduction, body, conclusion, and sources.

At first I had no problem with this.  I graded every paper word-for-word and every punctuation mark, putting the correct unit (word, punctuation, and so forth) in red, and commenting on all corrections and suggestions in blue.  This was acceptable to most, and startling to some.

Student at UNPRG writing to request help with grammar 2011

When I tried to teach on a class on learning strategies, I recalled George Santayana’s famous statement “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes”.  I began teaching the course with thumbnail sketches of the past and how teachers in antiquity enabled, encouraged, and excited students to learn.  That was my second biggest mistake.  Not only was I accused of selling my own books (which I did not do, but had a store across from USAT vend the books), but that I was teaching philosophy–to which I plead guilty, as the word philosophy (φιλοσοφία) means “love of knowledge” and is the backbone of learning strategies as it is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.  It is that way in all cultures: oriental to occidental. 

Objection to my teaching Learning Strategies by same student

That is not what the students wanted.  Due to peer-pressure they leagued together to discharge me.  I was never given a copy of the charges, nor allowed to see the signatures of all [sic] the student.  I was offered a précis by a student who served as an interpreter as the Dean of School for Languages spoke no English.  I happily accepted my dismissal from UNPRG.  I never regretted leaving; I would never return not even for the money the national university still owed me.

I went on to a far better school: Universidad César Vallejo, where the Academic Dean (Luis Amado Barrera Arréstegui) and Director of the School of Interpretation and Translation (Magdalena Usquiano Piscoya) supported me when I told them I would give and require excellence in the study of the English language both from myself and my students.  I knew that the students skills would be limited, but as one student wrote:

A student e-mail from Universidad César Vallejo, Chiclayo, Perú

Her paper was one of three prepared (with the permission to use the paper by its respective author) to use as a learning tool in class.  As a child I learned more seeing my mistakes graded with commentary–and would feel wronged if I only received letter or numeric grade.

Essay on Dropouts in USA High Schools, p. 1

Essay on Dropouts in USA High Schools, p. 2

Essay on Dropouts in USA High Schools p. 3

Essay on Dropouts in USA High Schools, p. 4

 One student requested a list of slang words with the words that would be representative of correct English.  It was a pleasure to prepare this and further my student’s education.  I have, for a long time, declared strongly that a teacher’s first obligation is to see that the student learns correctly and objectively, that the teacher must not only be a subject-matter expert, but also able relate the subject to all disciplines. I will not waver.

Over the weekend, I received threats (which I thought I had become accustomed to receiving) but the strangest occurring on Monday evening.  The threats were not over only posting low grades students earned, but also because of several blogs that I have authored and that they opposed.  As one student wrote, as long as the student “passed it no important to no [sic]”.   The strain was too much. I resigned by e-mail.

Now I am preparing to move on to another country, where I do not know.  I doubt I will ever teach again, and I will not be silenced by any individual, religion or government.  I learned more than 60 years ago that no subject was sacrosanct, no topic taboo or to be censored as long as the protestations I offer are supported substantially with documentation that is accurate and translated and interpreted correctly.  Life has no value if it has no meaning or purpose.  I shall deeply miss Universidad César Vallejo; not only did I hunger to teach a course in interpretation and required skill, but relished chatting with the sage and neither staid nor ossified Academic Dean and Director of my department, but also I exceptionally enjoyed watching my students knowledge-buds open into fragrant flowers of fresh learning.

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