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I Did It My Way

This is a guest post written by Ellen Shubich.

Ellen Shubich

As the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE),a Mexican teachers’ union, prepares another mega march down one of Mexico City’s main avenues, I realize I am definitely not a maven on what is going on in education in this country. The situation is too complicated, too political, too scary. And it seems like it’s getting out of hand.

So, instead, I will tell you about my personal history as an English teacher in Mexico.

The following was my basic introduction to Mexican requirements for teaching English 48 years ago. They boil down to You speak it? You can teach it!

My first “teaching experience” was giving corporate English classes to staff at SKF Business Consulting downtown Mexico City. I was very pregnant at the time, and the most difficult part of the whole experience was pushing my way out of a packed subway car stomach first. I don’t remember what I taught them. My students probably don’t remember either.

That was followed by private English classes for a friend’s mother who felt sorry for me because we didn’t have any money and then a quickie induction course (I don’t like that word, it sounds like there’s no way out) at a language institute (I don’t like that word either, it makes me feel like I’m being committed to some crazy linguistic cult). That course was to have been on choral repetition, but I copped out before the course even began.

Fortunately for my potential students, I was taken out of the linguistic market while living in Cuernavaca for the next few years, and I dedicated my teaching efforts to giving conferences and workshops on how wonderful it is to be old. At the time I was a 35-year-old who thought her nursing degree and self-taught gerontology career qualified her as an expert in the field.  Obviously, in those days, Mexico was not very demanding about degrees.

When we got back to Mexico City, I accidentally reentered the English teaching profession. Too chicken to start my own gerontological business, I found myself once again qualified to teach English based on the “you speak it, you teach it criterion. Since I had no idea how to teach it, I gifted my lucky high school students with a gerontology course in English. Definitely a logical decision—they knew even less than I did about what it was like to be old!

In a desperate attempt to reorganize my life path and return to the field of nursing, I answered an ad for a school nurse. When I got there, the job was taken but, of course,  an English teacher had just quit, and since I spoke English and now had “experience” teaching it, wasn’t this just fate stepping in? I was awarded an armful of literature texts and told to come back the next day.

Now I had never studied world lit or British lit, nor did I know how to teach English. But yes, luckily, I knew how to read. So the next months were a self-help marathon as I tried to keep one step ahead of the students. I became an expert at quick retorts when asked for anecdotal literary tidbits. I came up with a lot of ingenious information, most of it not true. The Internet had not been invented, and CNN wasn’t doing fact checks yet.

As for class management: there wasn’t much. I took so many hits that one day that I asked the school nurse, an ally, to bandage me, lend me crutches, and make me a human billboard that said “battered teacher syndrome.” My students were shocked into submission for about 5 minutes when I reentered the classroom, but they got over the shock quickly and were back at “teacher management”  with a renewed vengeance.

Somehow I did survive. And I learned that if you do, that is the first step toward becoming an English teacher.

(to be continued)

Ellen Shubich was born and raised in the Bronx and moved to Mexico 48 years ago when she married. She has a B.S.N. degree from Cornell University-New York Hospital and a Masters Degree in Educational Administration from the Universidad La Salle. Ellen has held many different positions: nurse, gerontologist, teacher of nursing, English teacher, coordinator, principal (Elementary and Middle School), and English principal. She is married, has a son and daughter and three grandchildren.