Volunteer Story: Teaching in Bolivia
The following is a guest post from a volunteer named Kayleen, who just spent a year volunteer teaching in Bolivia. Please read on to hear wonderful and poignant reflections about the challenges of volunteering abroad, and how the struggle is worth it in the end.
My sister drove me to school on the first day I taught in Bolivia. On the road ahead of us were mountains, the foothills of the Andes. Peaceful, unchanging for hundreds of years. A place to hide from the rest of life. Here I was, having just volunteered a week ago to teach fifth grade at this international school, and all I wanted was to escape to the mountains.
I stood in front of my classroom, lips trembling, hands clammy, heart pounding as I introduced myself. I have a degree in linguistics, and my experience teaching consisted of throwing Spanish vocabulary cards on the floor and having my students jump on them to learn their words. I felt (and was) clueless as to how to lead twenty students in core curriculum for an entire year.
My first few months I was blissfully ignorant. I had no idea what I was doing and that worked for me. I was young enough and fun enough that my students liked me and were willing to learn unconventionally. Parents were kind when their kids came home telling them that they could chew gum if it helped them concentrate (not worth the help in concentrating, trust me). However, after about two months of teaching it was time to get serious
I was a volunteer who had stepped into a role only because no one else would. I had no experience and few skills. And my class was behind in our curriculum, behavior problems were surfacing, and I was losing my first time’s a charm high. I loved my students, and to do what was best for them, I needed to learn how to be a real teacher.
How did I become a real teacher? I worked harder than I probably ever have in my life. I woke up early, I went to bed late, and I ate, slept, and bled fifth grade. My stipend was enough for me to pay rent and transportation, but I ended up eating a lot of wheat empanadas, a cheap street food there. My social life became asking other teachers how to run lit circles or who was misbehaving during music. I dove into a pool of volunteer teaching, and I wasn’t about come up for air until I was done.
When the year was finally over, I took a deep breath. I felt like I had just finished a marathon sore, tired, thirsty, but mostly numb from over-stimulation of every part of me. I had to ask myself two questions:
- First, did the students even benefit from having me as their teacher?
- Second, was it worth the sacrifice of leaving comfort and making myself exhausted for a year?
These questions were answered in two different ways.
Teaching – Worth It?
A few days into vacation, one of my student’s mothers called and wanted to take me out to lunch with her son. As we sat at one of the nicest restaurants in the city and waiters piled meat onto our plates, she started telling me her life story. Amazing stories of living in three countries, being chased in all three by the common theme of love. Now she lives in Bolivia and devotes her life to loving the underprivileged children there. Before we left the restaurant, she looked me in the eye and thanked me for knowing how to love her son that year. Worth it.
Two months later, before I left Bolivia but after feeling had returned to my body, mind, and heart, I finally got to escape to the Andes. My friends and I climbed a huge hill that looked over Lake Titicaca snow-capped mountains in the distance and a beautiful harbor below. As I stood there taking in the view, I realized how far I had come in one year. I grew in understanding not just the cultures I was surrounded by, but also how cultures work. I learned how be be an adult. I learned how to get hurt and keep going. I learned how to keep going when there seems to be no one to move forward for.