The difference between a teacher and a great teacher

Posted in 1 on July 31, 2009 by Amber Wantman

This post is in no way intended to toot my own horn, that is, boast about what an awesome teacher I am (we’ll save that for later). But seriously, I know how it might come off: kind of like when I called my smartest kid a “genio” (genius) today, and he shook his head unconvincingly and said, “nah… nahhh.” He is also the same kid who shouts out his test grades for everyone to hear, and slams his pencil down when he completes his assignments ten minutes before everyone else.

In any case, I have been in my fair share of classroom settings, and one point I want to make about the difference between a teacher and a great teacher is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm could also be called “interest.” When a teacher takes a vested interest in her students, she is telling the kids that they matter. Earlier in the week I taught with one girl who did everything she was supposed to do. She wrote the lesson on the board, asked for participation from most people, but something was clearly lacking. Her intonation stayed constant the entire class. She didn’t stop to make sure that anyone actually understood what she was imparting. She had a casual attitude that could almost be interpreted as sloppy. This is all fine and from what I would imagine, common in everyone at times. But when I think about the way I feel about teaching–that is, when I step in front of a group of kids endowed with the responsibility to OBLIGATE them to understand–I realize that I will never be that type of teacher. Maybe it is at my own expense. Maybe I’m being stupid and unrealistic to make myself feel responsible for the grades that each one of my students gets. But even so, the high that comes with each sign of understanding, of growth in any one of my students is a direct result of my attitude as a teacher. The lows that ensue after a difficult day or after an astonishing number of kids fail my test are real and they are buzz-kills. But I think I would rather live my life replete with spikes and valleys than without a care at all.



Posted in 1 on July 31, 2009 by Amber Wantman

I started out this week teaching at a new school. But after the unexpected flight of a fellow volunteer, I was moved back to Mojanda, the school where I sprouted my roots. This time, however, I would be teaching a new subject: math.

Now some of my closest followers may be doubtful of my mathematical abilities, but the last two days have been smooth and pleasant. Not that teaching is ever a piece of cake, but it’s really nice to discover that you might have an ability that actually translates into a marketable skill. As much as I hate to toot my own horn, I think teaching comes naturally to me. Though I generally leave every class more or less exhausted, I also leave feeling like I”ve done something good.

Yesterday right before we left Mojanda, something happened that made my day. While I’m used to kids soliciting hand shakes in the respectful and adorable way that they do, I got an extra surprise yesterday. One of my students came up to me in the usual fashion after class ended, and extended her hand for the custom shakeroo. But instead of stopping there, when we let go of each other’s hands, without warning this girl wrapped her arms around my hips (she wasn’t tall enough to reach my back or stomach) and gave me a big, warm squeeze. The unexpected sign of affection was almost enough to make me forget that none of my students jumped out of their seats when I walked into the classroom and said, “I’m baaaaack!”

Though I did get a chuckle or two when I wrote on the board, “Teacher Amber has returned,” the general non-challance over my homecoming was a bit disconcerting. But after a hard day’s work and a generous hug to top it off, I said to myself, “This is why I come to school.”

Spiritual Moment

Posted in 1 on July 31, 2009 by Amber Wantman

The worst thing about the track in Otavalo is the breath-taking altitude (literally). But the best thing about it is the 360 degree mountain landscape . Looking out from any point on this track, you feel like you’re in an impressionist painting. Some of the mountains in the distance are dusted with snow, others (the volcanic ones) have clouds of smoke hovering around their peaks.

After running, I sometimes like to lay down on the grass, my chest facing the sky, and just stare at the moving clouds. Otavalo has nearly zero humidity, and an average day is about 70 degrees, where the sun just peaks through the white puffs scattered throughout the blue. Soaking in the feeling of dry grass pricking the back of my neck and my forearms, palms up and open, I am reminded for one fleeting instant that sometimes the world makes sense.

A New Friend

Posted in 1 on July 30, 2009 by Amber Wantman

This past weekend, the entire group of volunteers–except for me–traveled to Ecuador’s coast. Seeing that I don’t like staying at the beach for more than an hour (much less three days), and that I was in serious need of some unscheduled, non-regimented Me Time, I elected to stay behind. My time alone was just that: a lot of time…alone. But as tragic as that may sound, I had a very relaxing, very restorative three days to myself.

Amidst the DVDs and abundant sleep, however, I did manage to have one adventure. Day 2 of alone-time was a Sunday, and when the stadium was closed, I decided to supplement my non-run with a long walk around Otavalo. In the middle of the walk, I happened upon a lovely park. But what made it a bit less lovely were the men whistling at me from a distance. Choosing to at first ignore these bold thirsting men, I sat down alone on a park bench a few dozen meters away. I would have gone farther if it were not for the uncomfortable lump in my chest that appears every time I get cat-called.

And so I sat for a mere 20 seconds, soaking up some air and trying in vain to look invisible (white skin glows even in the daylight in Otavalo). And before i knew it, I had a stranger sitting next to me on the park bench, telling me his name was Diego. After a bit of small talk, Diego cut to the chase and asked me if I had ever seen the waterfall before. “What waterfall I asked, naively?” “This waterfall,” he said, pointing at 10 o’clock. “It’s quite close.” After revealing to me that this waterfall was in actuality about half an hour’s walk from our current resting place, I calculated that there was no reason not to go, I had no itinerary for the afternoon, and certainly had nothing better planned, so why the hell shouldn’t I go see a waterfall with my new friend Diego?

I can sense that my cautious readers are counting the reasons on their fingers why I should not accompany a perfect stranger to Otavalo’s most romantic make-out spot, but I thought better of course.

Diego and I sauntered along a dusty path for noticeably longer than 30 minutes until we got to the waterfall. Granted, the detour to the gigantic white erect cross may have been to blame for the delay. But crosses and detours aside, Diego and I chatted it up like school chums, and before i new it, I was in waterfall vicinity. After walking along the skinniest concrete bridge I’ve ever dared to cross (does the width of my foot sound skinny enough?), we made it to the bottom of the waterfall. A few uphill turns and steps later, we were at the waterfall.

“Beautiful” cannot begin to describe any cascading body of crystal-clear liquid (don’t let your mind stray). I am really not sure how to describe this waterfall, but being so close to it actually reminded me of a Discovery Channel special that I watched in sophomore year’s biology class, where the camera slowed down the picture drastically enough to capture water at a near-molecular level. One part of the film showed water spilling out of a faucet so that the trajectory of each individual bead was noticeable. The dancing beads of water reminded me a lot of what I saw at the very top of the splattering waterfall

Diego and i made our way back by sunset. Overall it was a great experience, and in hindsight I’m glad that I allowed myself to trust a perfect stranger. I know that to some people that sounds naive or even ignorant, but I like to take each life situation as it comes to me, and judge it individually for what it is. Diego turned out to be a nice guy, and fortunately, my judgment has not failed me thus far.

Week 3: “Mixto”

Posted in 1, The Village Education Project/ Educa Niños on July 23, 2009 by Amber Wantman

In my third week in Ecuador, I am doing a mix of things. Monday of course was a day of mourning (which reminds me of my favorite Sunday River ski trail, “Monday Mourning.”) Unfortunately, however, the world did not stop when our friends were missing. VEP had a new volunteer arriving, and our director Juan was busy looking for our old ones.

So, to relieve Juan of the classic dilemma (you can’t be two places at once), Joe and I traveled to the airport in Quito in order to pick up Christine. Getting out of the hostel proved to be good for the both of us. The somber air was enough to suffocate a woolly mammoth. So when we heard at 5pm that night (shortly after arriving in Quito) that our friends were found safe, we had no choice but to celebrate our asses off.

Hopping from bar to restaurant, from restaurant to bar, Joe and I ran into friends, made new ones, and then ran into our new friends again later. Christine turned out to be a cool girl. And so, Quito was definitely a good medicine for the Lost Friend Blues. (Also finding said lost friends was curative).


Wednesday, Gilberto and I decided to continue with our research, and go on with the next steps for building our school. We traveled to Ibarra, wherein lies the Ministry of Education, and spoke with the Director of Education there. The conversation was heartening, as we found out that all we needed to do was submit a proposal, and the ministry could provide us with up to 5 state-paid teachers, and possibly other resources. We collected some documents detailing the requirements that need to be met, and Gilberto and I discussed our budget on the busride back.

All in all, things are rolling along this week, despite the epic mishap that cast a shadow over our weekend.

l o s t

Posted in The Village Education Project/ Educa Niños on July 23, 2009 by Amber Wantman

Last weekend will go down in Village Education Project history. On Saturday morning at 4am, the volunteers rubbed the sand out of their eyes and set off for an epic hike. They were accompanied by Christian Cifuentes (Gilberto’s son), and 4 other family friends with significant hiking experience. In all truth, however, the poor saps could not imagine what was lying ahead of them.

I awoke that morning feeling not quite recovered from the saga of vomiting and defecating that had haunted night two days prior. Despite my groggy nausea, I knew that I would kick myself later if I allowed myself to go back to bed. And so, I sat on the bus to Imbabura (monster of a mountain) with the window open at my neighbor’s expense. I’m pretty sure everybody hated me by the end of that ride, seeing that I was sweltering in my tee-shirt while my bundled up companeros muttered under their breath about the frigid breeze.

I did not make it all the way Mount Imbabura. I’d like to take this opportunity to blame my fragil and debilitated state for this unforgivable embarassment. I’d also like to point out that Imbabura boasts a 4,600 meter peak, which at that altitude can literally take your breath away. The first hour and a half or so was painful, but not excruciating. However, once you pass the midpoint (which we did after about 2 hours), things become a lot less pleasant.

The altitude is enough to make you gasp for breath after a minute’s worth of climbing. What’s more, it get’s frigid and windy enough to chap your cheeks scarlet. This day was particularly unpleasant because it was drizzling the whole way up. Once we got 3/4 of the way there, though, the drizzle became a shower. Fog hovered over us like a fat, school bully laughing at our misery. Though we were over 4,000 meters above sea level, the thick mist prevented us from seeing anything 10 feet beyond the last cliff.

It was at about 4,400 meters (just 200m shy of the final summit) when I called it quits. I was having no fun at all, and I was pretty sure that my face was frost bitten. And so, the very nice and very lovely Max (Gilberto’s daughter’s husband) led me down the mountian. We made it in record time, probably because I was so elated not to be ascending any higher.

Down at the bottom of the mountain, I considered for a minute regretting my decision. But when three of our friends didn’t show up hours later, I reconsidered. It turned out that three volunteers had made a wrong turn on the way down the mountain. While the rest of us watied in confusion, Juan and Christian circled the roads surrounding the mountain in a desparate attempt to find them. When they still hadn’t appeared by nearly 3 in the afternoon, part of the group decided to go home, while the experienced hikers remained in order to start a search party.

The volunteers ended up missing for over 24 hours. I later found out that they went down the wrong side of the mountain, and ended up in the forest. Sleeping under the shelter of a few large rocks, Gage, Jocelyn and Angela remained calm. They were found around 1pm the next afternoon, but by that time panic had already proliferated through the hostel.

For the fact that Gage, Angela and Jocelyn are alive and well, safe and sound, we are all incredibly grateful. Grateful as well we are for the people who spent the entire night searching tirelessly, without food or rest, so that they could bring our friends home safe. Juan, Christian, Pablo, The Red Cross, and the National Police of Ecuador spent countless hours without sleep for our friends. And now the only thing left to do is cherish their safety and remember our own.


Posted in 1, The Village Education Project/ Educa Niños on July 18, 2009 by Amber Wantman

Lying in my bed with eyes half open (so please excuse any spelling mistakes that I don’t catch). Last night was the most physically painful night of my life (that I can vividly remember. I suppose, however, that physical pain is no match for emotional pain, and so I could have bigger problems.

It all started at about 8pm last night. I had a big dinner and was starting to feel nauseous. Things quickly took a turn for the worse as I grew weaker and queezier, barely able to propel myself up the stairs. So when I got to my room, I immediately went to the bathroom and there I threw up little by little about eight times. When I thought I was all through, I went to bed, still wreathing in pain, and cold as ice. The three or four layers of blankets on my bed were not doing their job because I had chills like I’ve never had before. Without warning, I felt something shooting up my esophagus. I darted to the bathroom and barely made it in time. The second wave of vomit was so large and unexpected that I couldn’t manage to keep it all in the toilet. I slinked back to my bed feeling freezing, dehydrated, and throbbing all over.

It’s nearly 7pm now, and this is the first time I have the strength to sit up and use the internet. Since I barely slept a wink last night, I have been lying down in bed all day, fading in and out. It’s about dinner time now. I am planning on having some soup, since food hasn’t appealed to me enough to eat anything yet.