Here in Perú almost all of my students call me “Teacher” instead of Keith, even my adult students.  I can only assume that in this culture the students call you “Teacher” as a sign of respect, however I´m not sure that I was feeling much respect from the teenage boys I taught on Saturday morning last month.  One of those boys gave me the middle finger about 40 minutes into his first class after I had told him for the 4th time to put away his cell phone.  When talking about those boys I had to force myself to refer to them as my “angels” instead of as my “devils” … and I did that only because I was afraid of the consequences of calling them devils, fearing that they would fully become what I labeled them and what I perceived them to be.  Granted, there are the “name it, claim it” charlatans that are out there just trying to make a buck off naive followers, but I do believe that there is enormous power in words … for with a single word you can tear down or build up.  In any case, my teenage angels and I made it through the month relatively unscathed.

I´ve worn many hats in my life, and teacher is just one of them.  For these two months in Perú I am working in the official capacity as teacher, however the reality is that our teachers are everywhere, and everyone of us is a teacher.

I have come to believe that every single person that we cross paths with in life can be our teacher … from the child gleefully kicking a plastic bottle down the street and who teaches us how to find joy in the simple things of everyday life, to the elderly blue-haired lady who is in front us driving 20 MPH in a 45 MPH zone while teaching us to slow the hell down, and I could go on and on.  We can view everyone as our teacher.

On the other side of the coin, in everyday life I tend to be a little hesitant about making myself out to be anyone´s teacher.  Is there anyone who actually enjoys being around someone who acts like they know the answers to all of life´s questions?  When I am around people like that I generally disregard most (if not all) of what they say, and then I try to get as far away from them as possible just as soon as I possibly can.  An over-inflated ego is moving away from wisdom and not toward it.  So, I try to remember that the best time to offer advice is when someone asks for it, and if I do offer unsolicited advice, I try to do it with a genuine attitude of service.  They say that all the answers are within us, so perhaps real teaching is about helping people discover the wisdom that is within.

The business of teaching English as a second language has been a very eye-opening experience for me.  First of all, it is a business, and there is a fair amount of money to be made in this business … that is, if you are a school owner or in administration.  Generally speaking, English teachers are not raking in the big bucks.  I´ve heard that the best places to make money teaching English are in South Korea and in the oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and others.  One really good thing about this business is that if you are willing to travel and adapt to different cultures, you will have no trouble finding work.  All the world is learning English.

One other aspect of this business that I´ve discovered is that in many places (especially in Spanish America) it is only the upper class rich people who can afford to pay for English classes in a private school like the one where I am teaching right now.  What that means is that you have to be prepared to deal with a fair amount of snobby, spoiled, generally unmotivated students.  In fact, during teacher orientation here I was told NOT to give any of my students homework, that homework is not something they want or will do.  But as for me, in every place I have taken Spanish classes I have insisted on receiving homework virtually every day because I am very motivated to improve my Spanish.

To this day, the best experience I have ever had teaching English was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, through a program that was known at the time as “Children of the Dump.”  A large evangelical local church was operating an after-school program at a facility that was located a few blocks from the city landfill, and the kids that lived in that poor neighborhood were provided English language lessons for free since all of us teachers were volunteers.  The classes were held at night after the regular school day, and guess what?  Those kids were the most motivated, well-behaved, students that I have ever had.  They were truly angels in contrast to the rich and snotty so-called angels that I have taught in private English language schools.

Well, I suppose that I will continue to teach English for pay for the foreseeable future, but I look forward to the next time I can teach English to an entire class that really wants to learn, to teach people who can use English to escape poverty and improve their standard of living.  And I expect that those people will be my greatest teachers.