A Lesson Learned: Vacaciones Utiles
It was one of the first things we heard as my fellow volunteers and I were battling through PST— “lower your expectations.” This piece of advice was shared to us not in order to demotivate us or kill our positive outlook on our eventual service. But instead, to warn us and give us a legitimate guidance that in the long run, would eventually keep us happier when we got into tough moments in our service. It’s one of those pieces of advice that you take for granted; especially if you are a glass half full type of person like me. You think it would be ridiculous to lower your expectations. You think, “If I hold myself and my work to a certain standard, why settle for less?” Well that’s what I thought. I didn’t really absorb the simple phrase as much as I should have.
Being told to lower your expectations in the context of your Peace Corps service makes perfect sense. If you step away from the Western culture that informs how you think about and react to such a statement– a culture that constantly wants more and never settles for less– the simple phrase begins to show its usefulness. Us being told to lower our expectations was like telling us to adapt. To adapt to the new work culture we were about to enter into. It’s not a stab at the Peruvian experience or work ethic. It’s merely a way of saying that things will operate completely different than what you might be used to. That if we expect to get work done like we are used to and reap the results we want from our efforts, then we will be sorely disappointed. Taking that into consideration, perhaps a more accurate warning would be “To change or reassess your expectations”. I definitely do not consider myself to be a 9am to 5pm workhorse, but I always place a lot of intention and focus in my work. And when I do that, I expect to garner results that please me and work with people who do the same. That part of my work ethic is almost completely useless in the Peruvian context. Not because there aren’t highly focused and hardworking Peruvians, but because they do their work differently– different tempo, process, communication, expectations etc. I am learning this now. After what was my first failure at lowering, changing, or reassessing my expectations.
When the Peruvian school year is over, some of the kids attend vacaciones utiles (VU), which is essentially the Peruvian version of summer school. VU courses get offered by schools, private academic institutions, police stations, universities and local governments. They offer a range of topics—mathematics, physical sciences, computer programming, English, Quechua, music, dance, sports etc. Some VU programs are very well organized and embedded into the community. Their classes are full each year and students continue their education throughout the summer with lots of enthusiasm. My VU experience was almost completely the opposite.
Before the school year was over, I had put together a work proposal to have VU at my school. I wanted to use a manual created by another volunteer that focused on teaching English through the usage of films. I thought for sure that kids would go crazy for watching movies. Along with that, I wanted to coach/teach sports. I reached out to the English teacher and school Psychologist to collaborate with me. Neither were interested because the work would be unpaid. On top of that, they had other plans for their time away from school. It was at this point that I came to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be teaching VU. I rationalized with my self-conscious judgements of unproductivity by telling myself I would focus on my Master’s research instead.
And that’s what I did. I scheduled and completed interviews. I transcribed and coded the important parts. I logged field observations and organized my thought processes. But with about a week left in January, my school Director wanted to know what I was doing for VU. WHAT? Luckily I still had my work plan. I showed him my ideas and within 30 minutes we had the paperwork done and announcements made. I would teach English and sports and he would teach music. Sometimes things develop like that in Peru. Slowly and then all of sudden, they are official.
So from that point, I began preparing my materials. I printed my work sheets, downloaded my movies, bought candy, organized my materials and got excited to finally teach. I put up announcements at the school and health post. And I told as many kids as I could when I saw them out and about. The director and I were projecting to have at least 6 kids. With 6 I could run class and have sufficient numbers to play sports afterwards. But more students was obviously welcome (and better). I heard from multiple kids and families that they were going to come to my classes. It made sense for my expectations to be high.
Well, much to my dismay, I had to cancel the first class because not enough students showed up. I probably could have improvised, but I remember being frustrated and sad. I didn’t want to have class in that moment. The second class was better, but my expectations were still too high. The lesson plan I had was too advanced and honestly didn’t make sense because it built on the class before it. I did some improvisation and we watched the Lion King. I remember feeling good that I got a class done, but was still dissatisfied. For the next two sessions, I was forced to leave behind my materials and leave the class in the hands of my colleagues because I had to go to Lima for the week. I explained everything, left behind the roster to log attendance and printed out the worksheets for them. One day they were going to watch a movie and the other day I planned to have my colleague play games with them.
While I was at training, I received phone calls from my socios that they couldn’t remember, and therefore could not open the movie for the kids. I think eventually they got it open but I was still frustrated. “What was so complicated?”, I remember thinking. When I got home from Lima, I found the worksheets exactly where I left them. They were not given to the students. The roster was also empty so I had no idea if anyone showed up. At the time of writing this blog post, I’m still not sure what happened. It turned out that only one student showed up while I was gone. Maybe the materials weren’t forgotten. Perhaps it just didn’t make sense to hand them out. Me not figuring out what happened, I think, is a product of my disappointment. I got home and just didn’t want to know. I chose to move on and focus on the classes that I still had to teach.
My first class back no one showed up. We were supposed to watch the Pixar movie “Inside Out.” Instead, I used the time to focus on my own work. At this point, I remember not being as surprised. My expectations had definitely been lowered. But part of me was still sad. I came to teach. Why couldn’t I teach? The following week at around 10am I had given up on the class for that day. It was supposed to have started at 9am but there was still no students. I remember being frustrated and angry. Clearly I still expected students. If I hadn’t, and then all of a sudden they showed up, I would have been unprepared. But even that’s not as bad as being disappointed. Much to my surprise however, a little girl named Ana showed up. She had her hair brushed, put on a school uniform (which was not necessary), and came with a notebook and pens. At her arrival I was still frustrated. I expressed to some of my colleagues that I didn’t know what to do. How could I teach with 1 student? I was being inflexible ad my improv skills were not being utilized. On top of that, she was technically ‘too young’, had no English experience and wasn’t even a student of the school. It was not looking good for this little girl. I remember almost cancelling and telling her to go home for the day.
I’m not sure what changed but I didn’t do that. It was probably because my colleagues talked me into doing something simple for at least an hour. I showed her into the classroom space and got started. Turns out little Ana came with brand new pens, pencils and notebook. She borrowed the uniform from a different student because she wanted to fit in better. She walked probably about an hour from her home to get there. She had apparently cried to her mom and wanting to come to VU classes. Knowing all this, I remember shifting my anger and frustration onto myself. “You almost sent this precious little girl home. How could I have done that? Where was your flexibility? Your desire to work and teach? Damn dude, you’re a dick.”
Ana and I worked for almost 2 hours. Turned out that Ana was a native Quechua speaker and not very versed in Spanish. So we did the basics. We worked on some introductions and I taught her how to write her name. We learned colors and numbers in Spanish and English. At the end of the session, we used one of my Lion King coloring sheets. Ana was really focused during that. She left happy and with pockets full of candy. I too left happy. Of course I left happy. I did what I came to do. I had expected not to teach, but Ana surprised me.
Ana showed up the following week also. This time, more comfortably dressed without her school uniform. But still just as cute and interested in learning. That day we reviewed what we practiced from the week before. This time, I also showed her how to write her middle name and last names. We learned basic shapes in Spanish and English and then colored the shapes to practice our colors from the week prior. We also practiced our numbers again. Ana did a good job of remembering and reading in Spanish, but English was still tough. The one thing she did remember was how to say “yellow”. Probably because it sounds a lot like hielo which means “ice”. Nonetheless, she left happy again and with more candy.
Today was supposed to be the last class. We were supposed to watch the movie “Moana” this week, but since Ana was the only one showing up, I improvised with the lesson I just described. I had planned to do the same today. I was expecting Ana but as it would turn out, she didn’t come. I am not sure why but I hope it was for good reason. Life can be complicated in the Peruvian countryside, especially if you’re a little girl who lives far away. Her even showing up in the first place was against her and her parent’s cultural upbringing. I was disappointed because I was enjoying working with Ana, but I wasn’t nearly as angry or frustrated as the weeks prior. Maybe because I had other things to work on and new professors to meet. Or maybe it’s because I had finally reassessed my expectations of my VU classes.
Reflecting back on my experience during Vacaciones Utiles, it is safe to say that it did not reach my expectations. Not even close. Yes, we had some good days, but the amount of work I put into being prepared for the experience was not reciprocated with a fun and educative summer. At least not for my students. I sure learned a few things:
(1) The VU classes should have been planned during the school year. Yes, I tried this, but I should not have settled. Getting the word out about my VU classes during the school year, as opposed to by word of mouth and during vacation, is a much more effective strategy.
(2) I should not assume the abilities of my colleagues or assume that they know something. They simply might not know how to do something and that’s not their fault. I could have been more clear with my directions and what I was holding them accountable for.
(3) New ideas, activities, work plans and projects move very slowly in Peru. But when they get finally get pushed into action, it happens very quickly. Always be prepared.
(4) I need to be better at reassessing my expectations of the children and adults I work with. Reasons for not showing up to class can be more complicated than I think. Casting judgment on someone’s ‘flakiness’ or ‘unproductiveness’ is rude and does nothing to advance what I am trying to do.
(5) I came to teach. Whether it’s a classroom full of excited students or just one shy and tardy student does not matter. Whether its English, leadership skills, goal setting, communication, soccer, rock climbing etc. Teaching is teaching and when I get the opportunity to do it, I need to seize it and not let it be plundered by unrealistic expectations and judgments.