On Humility: Wondering If I Actually Do Speak English


On the first day of my new apprenticeship, I walked into the classroom with high expectations. I’ve been placed in a co-teaching apprenticeship in the Unidad Educativa San Bartolome, (the town’s high school) which means that I work with one of the English teachers in all of his classes. I am the only native speaker in this town, and while the professors at the high school do speak English well, they still consider me a valuable resource simply for my pronunciation and understanding of the language.

My expectations included the assumption that I would be prepared with some sort of material to teach with, that I wouldn’t be left to teach classes alone on my first day, and that my students (at least those in their second year and beyond) might already know some of the basics of English. None of this happened completely. I was surprised to find that, even though school was almost a month into session already, the school still hadn’t received their English textbooks from the government. Some students struggled even to respond to “good morning.” And during the very first period of my first day, I was left alone in a classroom of freshman with no instructions other than to “do some activity with them”. Unsurprisingly, teaching is very hard work.  

But I had already known that teaching high school would be hard. I’m barely older than these students myself, and have no experience managing groups of teenagers. Running a classroom was something I expected to be challenging, but what came as a surprise to me was the experience of struggling with my own native language. I had never before doubted my ability to understand English, but over these past several weeks, I’ve come to appreciate how difficult this language actually is to explain. Often, a student will approach me with a question that I’m not able to fully answer, and I can tell that some of the students wonder if I’m really qualified to be teaching on this subject.

Realizing that I don’t know my own language as well as I had thought (or maybe that, as a native speaker, I just know it a bit differently than people who learned it later in life) has been a strange experience. I came into my teaching position feeling confident in my ability to improve the quality of the English that’s being taught at this school. And while I still feel that I am providing something useful for the students, it’s both humbling and inspiring to know that there’s a lot for me to learn from the teachers who work here.

Humility is something that I knew I would learn a lot about before I even came to Ecuador. Having never been to South America before, I knew that I would be learning an entirely new language, culture, and way of life simply through trial and error. But the experience of seeing my own language in this light has given me a new appreciation for people who learn English as their second language, and shown me that, even in an area where I am an “expert”, it’s always possible to learn more.