El Liceo

September 16th will mark the one year anniversary of an earthquake that struck the Coquimbo region of Chile and registered an 8.3 on the richter scale. From what people have told me it occurred in the evening and lasted for about two minutes. There is a saying here in Chile that anything under a 6.0 on the richter scale is just considered a tremor. That is remarkable considering the damage experienced by Italy from an earthquake of about that magnitude. All of the structures in my region are built to withstand an earthquake of 8.0. Therefore there wasn’t the catastrophic damage that would be seen in most places. There were shattered dishes, broken windows, and cracks in foundations. My host family told me they were all home when it happened, ran outside and upon reentering found that there was little damage. One of the few places that wasn’t as fortunate was the high school in town, known as El Liceo. Being one of the larger buildings in town left its foundation more exposed and weakened, and the large windows in front splintered easily. I was shown footage of the event from the security cameras by a fellow teacher. At the time there was a boarding house on campus and you can see eight terrified students evacuating and huddling together in the center of the courtyard. The boardinghouse is now scheduled for demolition. The main building of the school that housed the majority of the classrooms and featured a stunning panoramic view of the town and reservoir lies in disrepair. When I asked about the reparations the teacher shook his head and said that it is very slow. I often only see one or two workers each day and none of the normal shrieking of saws or pounding of hammers that would accompany such a large job. The best solution, as seen in financial terms by the government, was to order large containers to house classrooms. They look like portables, often used in The States for schools that have grown too large for their space, but are not nearly as well furnished or equipped. The container in which I teach looks, and is about the same size, as a dumpster that is painted white. I’d estimate it to be about 10 feet by 20 feet. There is a small whiteboard, a desk, 16 chairs, a cabinet, and two lights. Hard to believe I can describe my classroom for the next three months in a single sentence with five nouns.


But all is not lost. It is not the space that makes the classroom, but the teacher, students, and learning that takes place within it. I have covered the majority of the walls with homemade posters which painfully exposed my lack of artistic talent. The most used one is the ‘How are you today?’ poster, which features eight emotions to discourage the same ‘fine and you?’ response I encountered in Malaysia. Another frequently used poster is about the weather, although after learning about a variety of climates I open the classroom door to find the same sunny, cloudless, pure blue sky shining down on me. Other items on the wall include a list of useful phrases like ‘May I use the bathroom?’ and ‘How do you say _____ in English?’ The latter comes in very handy. In the back corner of the room is a hand drawn world map with the countries in which I have taught colored red. Next to a whiteboard are my five expectations for the class. They are, in order: speak in English, respect everyone, participate, come to class quietly and on time, and (most importantly) no phones/food/makeup. I find most Chilean classrooms to be awash with those distractions and from the onset I’ve made it clear that my rules are different and will be enforced.The final thing that covers the barren, linoleum walls is a football (soccer) pitch that lists each section that I teach. This is my classroom management system that corresponds with my expectations. At the end of each session I list off each of the rules and the class responds with a yes if they have been followed that particular day, or no if they have not. If there are five answers of yes, the group receives a football (soccer) sticker. As we have more and more classes together and their behavior stays consistently positive, they move farther across the field. I told them that the first group to ‘score a goal’ on the opposite side will have a party with me featuring music and food. I was anxious to see how this method would be received by a group of 14-17 year olds. Surprisingly, they have taken it in stride and they are often reminding me, ‘Mr. Matt, sticker!’ as our time together concludes. This technique also allows for the students to police themselves to some extent, as the behavior of one individual affects an outcome for the entire group. I must say there are other factors that have contributed to their willingness to abide by these different guidelines as well. I’d tell anyone who asked for advice with regards to teaching internationally these same things: one needs to check their pride at the door and be passionate, relatable and flexible.


I first heard the phrase ‘check your pride at the door’ last year in Malaysia. It became my golden rule, and a principal aspect of my success with the students there. It involves being completely whacky as a means of holding attention and attracting curiosity. When the time calls for it I sing in the classroom. When explaining the rule for respecting everyone I showed dramatic examples of punching people in the face. If the kids are hesitant to participate I imitate their lack of enthusiasm by laying on my desk. I exaggerate the -th- sound that many of them struggle with by obnoxiously sticking out my tongue between my teeth. In terms of passion, it comes with truly loving what you do. It’s everything from eye contact, to a confident and consistent speaking voice, to a willingness to break the rule of ‘no spanish’ handed down by the program when a student is bravely trying to speak with you and can’t find the right words. It’s answering the same questions over and over by different people with the same zest. Reliability is one of the biggest difficulties that I see facing teachers in a different country and culture. Already I play basketball on Monday’s after school with a group of students. Occasionally I throw in some Chilean slang when I’m speaking. I pretend to love the pop artists that, while in America, I do everything to avoid on the radio. I bring up Chilean foods that I like, and of course the national team with Chilean icons Vidal and Sanchez. Flexibility entails being ready and prepared to fail. Lessons will bomb. Classes will inexplicably be cancelled. A student may be having a bad day and carry that attitude into your class. Being adaptable can save you a considerable amount of stress, and it also conveys to the students and staff that nothing phases you. My students have been fantastic so far. They are rural, down-to-earth kids that come from a variety of towns in the area. None of them come from money, and the majority show an indifference towards school in general. But once they step in my room, I find the most surprising students speak the loudest. The ones I was warned about. The ones I see sleeping and texting in other classes. Maybe it’s the teacher, maybe it’s the environment.


In addition to a diverse and sociable student body, El Liceo also has a wonderful group of teachers. I work directly with Ethel, a tall, reserved English teacher who constantly asks which students gave me trouble and leaves snacks on my desk. At first I didn’t really make a connection with too many of the other teachers. There were a few that attended my Teacher’s Academy class on Thursdays where I offer English lessons to the faculty and staff. This past weekend I was invited to come along on a hike with a group of about ten teachers and  immediately accepted. It was a chance for me to start forming relationships and for them to see that I am, in fact, a harmless gringo. We trekked through steep, desert-like conditions for a few hours until we reached a stunning viewpoint of the valley below us and mountains behind us. Endless selfies ensued. Along the way I had a chance to learn about some of the other teachers and their hesitancy towards speaking with me. I learned that they thought I didn’t know any Spanish. I tried to prove to them that I do in fact speak their language. I’m thrilled with how far my Spanish has come since I left for Honduras about three months ago. Here in Chile, I struggle with the speed, shortenings of words, and slang of the Spanish. I explained that I know the word ‘broma’ which means joke, but when they say ‘chiste’ which means joke in Chilean slang that I don’t understand. If you say ‘como estas’ (how are you?) I comprehend, but if it’s uttered in a fraction of a second I’m lost. There seemed to be a lightbulb that went off a certain point. Over the course of our trip we talked about a lot of things and definitely made considerable progress. The best moment was when then they pulled out the sheet of paper the school had given them. It featured a list of common words and translations with which they were supposed to use to communicate with the new, foreign teacher. The best medicine will be time. I’ve found that with my host family, spending so much time has allowed for my ear to adjust to their individual speaking voices. I have very few difficulties in understanding them. They know which words I may struggle with and offer alternatives, and adhere to a reasonable pace where I can follow along. I’m hoping that the teachers from the hike will return to our colleagues and spread the word.

The next post will be all about the 18th of September, Chile’s independence day!


2 thoughts on “El Liceo

  1. Thanks for a great insight as to what goes on in your classroom. You are fearless which translates well in keeping your students attention. The adventure continues!


  2. I am amazed at how intuitive you are as a teacher! I will share this with my colleagues at Chaffee … some of them could learn a thing or two from you!! Keep taking baby steps with the other teachers … word will spread and they will begin to open up. Great blog post, sweetie!!! And congrats on the Giants win!! 🏈🏈


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