It was January 2020, and I had just completed my initial training at Oxford Seminars, only to realize very quickly that, due to COVID-19, there would be no travel for the foreseeable future and therefore no opportunity to put my new skills to use in an international setting. Fortunately, through the Oxford Seminars graduate placement service, I was able to make some connections and do some online teaching for schools in Costa Rica and Cambodia as well as continuing my work with newcomers from various countries to my home in New Brunswick, Canada. After two years of waiting for the pandemic to be ‘over’ and the world to open again, I landed my first in-person ESL teaching job this past winter in Tehuacan, Mexico. Here’s the promo picture they took of me for the website at HELP! Heslington Language School to introduce the new teachers.
I was the only Canadian in a group of ten new teachers, including three from the UK, three from the States, one from Trinidad and one from South Africa. As a group we represented quite a wide range of backgrounds and teaching experience (and quite a range of English accents!) and the first few days of training and orientation provided us with an opportunity to get to know each other a bit. That was a lot of fun.
As it turned out, once the class schedule was underway, we actually had very little interaction with each other on a day-to-day basis as we were all busy with our students. However, the school did provide other opportunities for us to mingle, with cultural workshops on topics such as Mexican Independence and the Day of the Dead, field trips to places like an incredible biosphere cactus forest and a local spring water bottling company (complete with underground caves and springs), Spanish classes taught by local staff, and other events. Over time, many friendships were forged, and overall, it was an experience I will definitely never forget.
I was fortunate to be part of a team of four teachers in the Kids area who were able to work together and collaborate on lesson-planning and large group activities. I was also fortunate in that my classes were all scheduled in the afternoon and evening and so although I was the last teacher standing at the end of the day, I had my mornings to myself. My schedule included a Kids class (mostly singing, games and different activities), a Phonics class for older children, a French class for teens and an adult beginner English class. I really appreciated the variety in my teaching schedule; each class was a different experience.
My teaching philosophy begins with the relationship I have with my students, and I believe that the students’ experience was more meaningful and relevant because of the emphasis I placed on getting to know each student individually and sharing my own experiences with them. Who knows, I may end up having many visitors from Mexico over the years to come, as they were all very interested to learn more about my home. They were also very interested to hear what I thought about Mexican culture and life in their city. One of their favourite questions for me was “Do you like Mexican food?”. Oh, the food…!!! One of my favourite dishes is a spicy chocolate-chili sauce called ‘mole’ which is served on shredded chicken or in a tamale or any number of other variations. We actually studied a recipe for mole in my Spanish class and it has about a thousand ingredients. It was an excellent language learning activity, but I don’t think I’ll be reproducing that one at home! Other than that, there were hundreds of kinds of tacos available on every street corner at any time of day or night. My favourite was ‘tacos con pescado estilo Baja’ – fish tacos Baja style – not a local Tehuacan specialty but I found one taco shop that served these. I also had an incredible meal of a whole deep-fried fish that I had to pick right out of a tank at a local tilapia farm. The staff then caught it, clunked it on the head (sorry, fish), weighed it and cleaned it and then into the fryer it went. Served with some cucumber and tomato salsa, avocado and – of course – tortillas. You make a kind of tortilla sandwich by scooping up the fish and adding the salsa. Messy but oh so delicious.
Tehuacan is a small city of about 300,000 in the state of Puebla and is not a particular tourist destination, although it is a great location midway between Mexico City and either the Gulf or the Pacific coast, and a transportation hub for the south. While working at HELP, I took several weekend trips to Mexico City as well as visiting Veracruz, Oaxaca and the Pacific coast – also known as the Oaxaca Riviera
I fell in love with Mexico and will definitely be back to visit more of this beautiful country.
Living there was truly an authentic Mexican experience, for example: I had a fruit and vegetable stand on the corner where I lived and each day when I would go to buy an avocado for my breakfast, the shopkeeper would always ask me “para comer ahorita?” (to eat right now?) and select the perfect avocado for me. I miss those avocadoes! And all the rest of the fresh produce there as well… As I write this, my vegetable garden in New Brunswick is still waiting for the sun to come out.
Speaking of breakfast, I learned an interesting piece of trivia during my stay: apparently Mexicans eat more eggs per capita than anywhere else in the world! I’m an egg girl so that was fine by me. It also explained the number of roosters I heard daily, crowing at any time of day, anywhere in the city
Before arriving in Mexico, I had spent two months traveling in Central America, a trip I had planned before I got the job offer in Mexico. I started in Guatemala and arrived just before the Day of the Dead, which is an important celebration in many parts of Central America, not just in Mexico. I had planned to do a two-week Spanish immersion course in Antigua, Guatemala to give my Spanish a boost before travelling and had a great experience.
The homestay family where I was housed put on an amazing feast for the celebration. Here in Guatemala, as elsewhere where the Day of the Dead is celebrated, it is truly a time of celebration, not mourning. The idea is that the dead come for a visit on this day and the family celebrates with a feast and a party that can go on all night long. Check out the festive dish that the family prepared, and I got to enjoy…
This is a picture of me and my teacher Oscar, on a trip arranged by the Spanish language school to a nearby town with a chocolate factory and a nispiro (loquat) orchard.
There was also a kite festival going on the weekend after I arrived and some of the larger kites were quite spectacular. Community groups come together to build these kites on site, and it was fascinating to watch them being made.
My trek through Central America, by bus, is another story altogether – suffice it to say it was another experience I will never forget but would prefer not to repeat in this lifetime. I somehow had the mistaken notion that crossing borders in Central America would be something like travelling through the EU where the border control is practically non-existent. My fingerprints and photograph are now in a database in Honduras, and I hope not to be reunited with them anytime soon. (Standard procedure, I should add!) I enjoyed seeing the different countries, but the travel between countries not so much.
My final destination in Central America was the Copey Learning Centre in Copey de Dota, San Jose province, Costa Rica.
This was the school I had been teaching for online for the past two years. I planned my trip so that I would arrive in time for the graduation ceremony of the class of adults I had been teaching. I was greeted like a celebrity, and it was very emotional to meet this group of women for the first time, in person, and celebrate their accomplishments as English learners.
Teaching English has proven to be every bit as rewarding as I hoped it would be, and the friendships that I have made through my first experience of teaching abroad have been even more significant and beyond anything I would have expected at this point in my life. I can now count among my new friends a twenty-something woman from the UK who was a co-teacher, travelling companion and fellow film-lover, a thirty-something young man from the Philippines who now makes Mexico his home, a forty-something woman from a tiny village in the mountains in Costa Rica, a fifty-something Guatemalan man who was my Spanish teacher, a sixty-something woman and kindred spirit from Trinidad and an awesome Mexican fifteen-year-old adopted granddaughter who can’t wait to come and visit me! I am blessed.
Katrina Hughes (she/her) has been an educator of learners of all ages, a language nerd, a crossword puzzle solver, a documentary film enthusiast, and an avid traveler for many years. A few years ago, with her three children having flown the coop, she moved from downtown Toronto to an island in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick. Since then she has put her Oxford Seminars teacher training to use as an ESL teacher, both in person in Mexico and for newcomers to New Brunswick, as well as online for a school in Costa Rica. She looks forward to continuing her travels, as there are still many places she would like to explore.