The first two weeks of teaching in Santa Cruz, Bolivia
In mid-July of 1980, Dennis and I arrived in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. We had accepted a two-year teaching contract at the Santa Cruz Cooperative School (SCCS).
Just a couple of days after we arrived, Bolivia had a military coup. We sat it out at the school director's house, with several other newly-arrived teachers who didn't have apartments yet.
In a couple more days, the markets and shops reopened, and everyone came out of their houses and went back to work. The new government established checkpoints on the main roads, military patrols of the streets, new papers for foreigners to carry, and a midnight curfew for one and all.
For us newcomers to the country, these restrictions were just part of the overall strangeness. We settled into our little apartment and got ready to teach school.
The seasons are reversed south of the equator, so it was winter when we arrived in July. The school year at SCCS ran from August through May. This put the seniors on the right schedule to go to college in the U.S., and also worked well for hiring teachers from the U.S. It also put us in school through the hottest months of tropical summer!
Instruction at SCCS was in English, but its students came from everywhere. Some were the children of rich Bolivians. Others were the children of foreigners working in Santa Cruz -- Americans, British, French, Israelis, Taiwanese, Koreans, Germans, Swedes, etc.
Many of the foreign families in SCCS were connected with sugar plantations and refineries or gas drilling and pipelines. Some families were in Santa Cruz with U.N. programs, as representatives of their home countries, missionaries, entrepreneurs, or expert advisors in some field.
When I look at the SCCS website, I am astonished at the growth and apparent prosperity of the school. When we taught there, the school didn't have as many buildings as it does today.
Here's an excerpt from a letter I wrote to my family on September 1, 1980:
School has started and it has kept us busy and mentally, if not physically, exhausted. We have two weeks under our belts now. We had a week of orientation and then students on Monday the 18th.
I think this has been the most difficult two weeks of school teaching I have ever done. The kids came in absolutely wild, and it has taken stern measures to keep them quiet and in their desks long enough to attempt to teach anything. Also, of my 18 kids, only one speaks English at home, so I explain and show, and re-explain and show again, endlessly. In Reading class, I teach not just the recognition of the word, but also the meaning. The language barrier makes everything about twice as hard as it would ordinarily be.
They are starting to shape up a bit as far as keeping quiet. We have very high ceilings and a brick tile floor, so any chair scraping or whispering echoes badly! If one other person is making noise, it is hard to hear whoever should be talking. So I'm sure my second graders think Mrs. Netz is really a grouch about being quiet.
However, I am learning the vocabulary that they can understand and adjusting to them somewhat--as they are to me. It is frustrating much of the time, but still it's rewarding when someone does understand.
I have 7 girls and 11 boys in my room. Dennis has 22 in his room. He has been having the same language problems as me, though to a lesser degree because his are 4th graders and have had more years of speaking English. With all this and the stress of being a first-year teacher, I'm sure he will always vividly remember these next months.
Welcome to Santa Cruz
Free Wisdom about Santa Cruz, Bolivia
Michael Simon's photo blog about travel in South America