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Teaching and Tortoises: Three Months as a Volunteer in the Galapagos

Guest posts, Ecuador

'What the hell have I done?' I thought looking round the room. The noise was deafening with multiple shouts, shrieks and the sounds of toys echoing across the classroom. At this point most of the children had noticed I was there and had either decided to venture over to investigate and subsequently got bored when they realised I spoke zero Spanish or looked at me from afar with questioning eyes. All of a sudden I felt completely out of my depth, how was I going to not only survive the next three months but also teach something meaningful to the fourteen two to five year olds that were in the room with me? I soon found out that the school was divided into two classes, nine two and three year olds and five four to five year olds and I was to work with the latter as an assistant teacher. Monday to Thursday were teaching days and Friday was a field trip day where we went to various sites on the island like the tortoise breeding centre, one of the many beautiful beaches or the research sites in the island's highlands.

My role was to teach part of the hour long lesson in English to the older children and then spend the rest of the morning playing with the younger children and talk to them in English. The first two to three weeks were an immense learning curve as the children and I got to know each other and I desperately tried to plan fun games that were not only easy to understand but taught my class the English language. At more than one point in those first couple of weeks I felt like a failure as the children looked at me blankly and getting them to count to ten seemed akin to scaling Everest. But that all changed and I can honestly say that this is one of the best experiences of my life. I'll never forget that morning when one of the mums came rushing into school telling me how she had heard her daughter counting to ten to herself in English, or the time one of the boys came up to me with a stuffed turtle saying 'look a tortoise', especially as this kid had refused to utter a single word in anything other than Spanish to anyone.

Now I actually feel like a teacher, I love Monday mornings when the kids run into school and come and throw their arms around my waist because they haven't seen me for two days and I have seen every child I teach make improvements in their English in the time I have been here. I love being at school and seeing them all grow, not only in terms of their language skills but also as little people. My time as a volunteer here has been about much more than teaching a language, it has also been about helping the children develop skills such as patience and persistence. One of my favourite memories is of Oli the little girl who refused to stand on her stool for fear of falling, yet on a field trip one Friday after much persuasion and coaxing climbed a tree with me then trusted me enough to jump down into my arms. It's moments like that I never figured would feature in teaching but have been some of the most rewarding times I have had here. Especially when that jump was accompanied by her shrieking 'yes jump'.

Aside from the satisfaction I have gained from teaching I have also had the opportunity to spend three months living in paradise. The Galapagos is everything you see in a David Attenborough documentary and more. Marine iguanas, pelicans and sea lions lie on the pavements of Puerto Ayora where I have been based, waiting for the fishermen to come back with the catch and are completely unbothered by your presence. Frigate birds soar in the sky all day and blue footed boobies hang around the dock looking for their next catch. I have been lucky enough to see giant tortoises in their natural habitat, snorkel with sharks and penguins and climb an active volcano to name but a few of the experiences I have had here. In addition the support that I have received from my school during my time here and Esl Starter during the application process has been beyond anything I could have hoped for. Andrea, my boss in the Galapagos is always on hand to provide constructive feedback, help with lesson plans or give advice on how to handle the children. She has introduced me to the local community and I'm pleased to say I can also call her a friend, nothing is ever too much trouble for her.

And as for Phil at ESLstarter I haven't got enough superlatives to describe him! Right from the moment I applied until the day I left the UK he has been on hand to answer all my questions, no matter how trivial they were and has always got back to me within twenty four hours, even if it was only to say he was still waiting on information for me. Phil also made it clear that he was available to help me with any problems I encountered in Ecuador and the support didn't end the moment I stepped foot on the plane. Having met numerous other volunteers during my time here I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have found ESLstarter. I have heard stories of people paying for programmes that didn't exist or being asked to pay money above and beyond the programme fees on arrival. Phil was always clear on what my programme would entail and the associated costs and I have never had anything but clear and accurate information from him.

To anyone thinking about volunteering in the Galapagos, do it and don't look back!

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