Teaching during the pandemic? You can make more of a difference than you think.
Three years ago I got the chance to visit Nicaragua in person and teach younger students in elementary school in the city of Jinotega. After taking a three hour bus ride from the capital, Managua, up into the mountains of Jinotega, I quickly knew this was going to be an unforgettable and humbling experience. Following Haiti, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Central America; this country faces great outside judgement because many people around the world only see Nicaragua’s limited resources. But as one of Outreach360’s teachers in Jinotega, we know that our students are some of the most brilliant minds in the world. It is only a matter of providing opportunity.
As a native English speaker, my Spanish is pretty close on the scale to the word “awful.” I soon realized these kids were way ahead of me in terms of speaking multiple languages! If you are not from the United States, you will quickly realize how much we lack being able to fluently speak multiple languages. We might take a Spanish class in high school, but that’s usually it. During my short time in Nicaragua, I felt my Spanish language skills start to increase. For one week we lived in the Outreach360 volunteer center, teaching English every day and lesson planning in our spare time. We visited Peña de La Cruz and climbed close to 1000 steps to reach the top, which was one if not the best view I’ve ever had in my life overlooking an entire city in the clouds. We visited local shops and markets, even getting the chance to visit a famous coffee farm called Selva Negra which supports local workers.
As of now, I am back home in Maine. I’ve finished up my last semester of college online. Even Jetset Times has had to turn their website known for travel into one of travel reflection while we are all in quarantine. I thought, why not use the time I have after graduation to help students, even if I cannot visit Nicaragua in person?
Almost as if by magic, Coco, the Outreach360 program director in Nicaragua, told me that yes, there was going to be an online opportunity to teach students. I was in shock. Nicaragua has been facing political unrest for the past couple years and had to close the learning center in Jinotega due to the pandemic. But could we still Zoom with students and teach them English? Coco said yes! I immediately became overwhelmed with joy that I could possibly see my past students’ faces onscreen in just a matter of weeks. These are the same students that have inspired me to become a future English teacher after graduating.
There are definite challenges to becoming an online teacher. Halfway through one of my lessons about school supply words, my wifi got disconnected from my students. Luckily, they knew exactly what to do and waited for me on the other side of the call. Sometimes I can’t hear their audio and have them type their answer in the “chat” feature or use the thumbs-up emoji to show me they understand. That’s one universal thing = every student loves emojis! One of my youngest students named Kevin will continually find emojis based on whatever English words we’re talking about. For our sea creature vocab day, he found a whale sticker, a dolphin, a starfish, and a shark even before we had “traveled” to the online aquarium and visited shark alley.
Teaching online still offers ways to show students that you care as a teacher. One of my oldest, Daviana, showed up to our slang/idiom class early for the first day and told me she was extremely nervous. I said, “I’m more nervous than you, trust me! It’s going to be okay. Nothing you say in class is ‘wrong.’ It’s just your interpretation.” Each day in the online classroom I have seen Daviana open up bit by bit when she answers new English questions. Even over Zoom she is gaining confidence with each day of learning. We also have 30 second dance breaks to “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire, which is my way of teaching the students that it’s okay to be uncomfortable in the classroom; I get uncomfortable dancing and always feel so awkward. But spinning in my chair in the online Zoom room to “September” always puts a smile on my students’ faces, no matter how goofy the dance party may seem. We have to become uncomfortable before we gain even a small sense of comfort when learning.
Top things online teaching has taught me so far:
1. How to manage time effectively:
One of the hardest things about teaching is to plan a lesson according to how fast students will finish certain activities, as well as how fast you as the teacher talk. For my students learning English, I have to constantly tell myself to talk slower and use many gestures for them to understand. Our second class they quickly finished a vocab review activity, so I had extra time at the end of class. It’s always great to have additional activities in case you finish early!
2. Creativity, creativity, creativity:
Online teaching really pushes you to think outside the box. When I visited Nicaragua, our creative skills took the form of in-person obstacle courses or interactive dice games. Now online, I’ve used Google Earth multiple times to show students where I come from or where their home is. They love “touring” online aquariums and museums because they get to choose which direction we go with the arrow. There are definitely benefits with using the internet in this new way of teaching during the pandemic.
While students may not be able to interact with me or ask questions in person, any student can understand a teacher’s level of excitement for class. I am usually an energetic teacher, but I have to show this to an even greater extent so they can catch my facial expressions and hear me clearly. I try and use lots of praise and feedback during class such as “good job!” or “correct” or “you are very close!” to encourage students expand their thinking. Online fist bumps or high fives—where the teacher slaps her own hand when the student holds out theirs—are becoming common practice with this new online world of teaching.
Something that continues to amaze me about these students is that they are always ready to learn. They come to class prepared with their notebooks out and pencils ready. Even if their house is on the noisier side or they sit in the family room with a baby crying, I can tell they are trying their best to pay attention and learn new words every day. They raise their hands on Zoom and are not afraid to give slang phrases some attitude, such as our favorite: “Are you kidding me?!” Even when the upper level students are studying for their TOEFL exams for college admission, they continually give back to Outreach360. Belen, the first Adelante Plus student to graduate from Outreach360, is teaching all of us English interns on the side. Every other day we have introductory Spanish lessons. She is always patient and repeats phrases when we struggle to understand. Not only are these my students in Nicaragua, but they are my teachers as well.
One of my favorite parts of this summer online internship has been our morning leadership classes with Audrey the Development Director. We watch TedTalks and podcasts by leaders like Dr. Fauci, trying to come to terms with what leadership really means and how our past definition has been skewed. All of our volunteer interns take turns answering questions about past times they’ve witnessed “failed” leadership or times when they were leaders themselves and didn’t even realize their enormous impact. One thing I’ve been working on is NPR’s “I Believe” statement from their This I Believe podcast. Try writing one of your own. You might be surprised at what values are most important to your well-being and life goals. Here’s mine (for now):
“I believe no one is born extraordinary. Ordinary people have just as much chance and choice to change a community or even just one person’s life for the better. I believe we all are responsible for our actions, and placing the blame on others or defending ourselves only undermines self-growth. I believe we should listen more than we speak. I believe in a life of freedom, where every day is new and full of adventure. A life of freedom means not being owned by anything and collaborating with others to enact positive change. I believe words are powerful—they can hurt, heal, and help us in times of struggle.
But, it is the actions I take behind these words that matter more, with the way I treat others. I believe every person has an inner light, and that every person is innately good. I believe that we should not be seeking validation or applause from others, but widening opportunities in places around the world that need it most. Education is the most powerful tool to change the world. Education propels entire communities to join together, lessening prejudice and spreading hope across diverse groups. I believe that if we all ‘do the right thing’ when no one is looking, this world will look much different from where we currently stand, where everyone has the opportunity to develop their full potential.”
Even in the middle of a pandemic, the more online teachers we have (even summer teachers), the more our students around the world will start to find their voice and realize they can do anything. I became a teacher to provide students with as much opportunity as I was given in my own education. Although there are language barriers, we can all understand what love means, whether it’s a high-five, a big smile, or a thumbs-up Zoom emoji.
Amanda spent one week in Nicaragua.
Amanda is an avid traveler who calls Maine her home, but her favorite places include Amsterdam's Christmas markets and Shakespeare's Globe in London. She is passionate about poetry, theatre, and teaching writing to kids and adults with disabilities. She thinks the best part of traveling is hearing strangers' incredible stories. Her ultimate mission? To find the tastiest cappuccino in the world.