Practicing What I Teach: Challenges and Rewards in Ecuador

Posted on March 1st, 2019 by Allendale Columbia School

What do a school psychologist from New York, a boy named Ken from the Dominican Republic, a girl named Jazmin, and a boy named Jared all have in common? During the summer of 2018, they all found themselves at Fundación Niños de María in Quito, Ecuador.

Fundación Niños de María is a private Catholic school in Ecuador. Students who attend come from public schools where they used to experience academic failure and where the ratio was often one teacher to 45 students. Niños provided a safe and often year-round educational experience for some of Quito’s most vulnerable students. For a student like Ken, whose family had recently relocated from the Dominican Republic, much about Niños, and Ecuador in general, was new. Jazmin had gone unnoticed at her last school and was quite shy, and Jared’s teacher shared that, while domestic violence was a part of his home life, he was usually upbeat and talkative.

For these students and myself, joy, sadness, fear, and surprise were just a few of the emotions we experienced during our four weeks together. When you are new to a school or class, community or a language, these emotions are expected. While these competing feelings can cause great discomfort, it is often in those moments of discomfort that we learn and grow.

During my time at Niños, I wasn’t a school psychologist in the traditional sense; I was a maestra, a friend, and yes, a student. At least once a week, I confronted the fact that I was nearly 3,000 miles removed from familiarity, in a place where most people spoke a language that I had not fluently conversed in for more than ten years. On more than a few occasions, feelings of inadequacy tested my self-confidence. This was especially evident when I reviewed or taught long division, place value, and sight words, or when I carried on a conversation with my host family after work, all in Spanish.

I often followed the advice I would give to a student experiencing a reasonable amount of stress or anxiety: I found a quiet place that allowed me to ground myself, take deep breaths, and practice much-needed positive self-talk. That place was usually the balcony of my host family’s home. The balcony overlooked a breathtaking valley, and mountains loomed in the distance as far as the eye could see. Homes below and beyond dotted the landscape, providing an indescribable sight, especially at night. That balcony and the tranquility it provided became a regular refuge for me during my culturally immersive stay.

At Niños, I can safely say that Ken and I had our fair share of collective meltdowns. I was often able to keep myself cool and collected enough to redirect him in those moments. Sometimes we’d take a break from work and practice deep breathing. Other times, we would color or draw or play a non-academic game. We also found it helpful to occasionally provide him and a friend of his who was also attending the program with a break at the same time. However, when these approaches were ineffective, it was extremely helpful to have fellow colleagues who could assist or momentarily takeover when needed.

There were many nights when I would crawl into my bed physically exhausted and emotionally drained, yet looking forward to the next day when Jared would tell me a funny story, or Jazmin would show me the neatly completed “homework” I’d given her the day before. Sometimes she would bring her little sister to school, and we would find activities for her to do as well. No one could resist games like “Pato pato ganso” or the myriad activities that Jared, his brother, or Ken would create for everyone to play in the courtyard. Afterwards, I’d travel to my school in the Plaza Foch district where I’d continue to learn and practice conversational Spanish, and acquire words that I could use to better communicate with the students. As I would drift off to sleep, a quote by Cesare Pavese often came to mind:

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky-all things tending toward the eternal or what we imagine of it.”

Ecuador was easily one the most rewarding and difficult journeys that I have experienced so far. It was a unique opportunity for me to practice self-care and mindfulness, to recognize just how resilient I could be, and how important it is, holistically, to stick to a routine. I was often challenged, often uncomfortable, and often lost; however as the saying goes “Not all who wander are lost.”

I like to reflect often on how my travels inform my work as a school psychologist. Traveling is a stress reliever, an immersive act of self-care, a perpetual learning experience, and an opportunity for me to practice cultural humility. It’s a time for me to “practice what I teach” to students that I interact with in terms of being open-minded, kind to oneself and others, and resilient.

 

Starmeshia Jones

Starmeshia Jones

Before joining AC, Starmeshia worked as a School Psychologist in the Indianapolis Public Schools and as a Residential Counselor at DePaul Mental Health Services. She earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in School Psychology as well as a Certificate of Advanced Study from Roberts Wesleyan College, and is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP).
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