Education, English Classes, Volunteering

Giving Back to Oaxaca

By Newell Searle
Retired, lives in Minnetonka, Minnesota, when he is not in Mexico.

Oaxaca offers the traveler a wealth in color, artisan crafts, outstanding food, and courteous hosts. This is a welcoming place for a few days, a few weeks, or a few months. If you plan to stay in Oaxaca a while, consider giving something of yourself back to your Oaxacan hosts.

Give what, you may ask?

Give some of your time and talent to teaching English through the Fundación En Vía.

I just completed my third winter teaching English and look forward to doing so again next year. Through weekly contact with students, I have gained insights into Oaxaca’s diverse foundational cultures, passed through portals to friendships, and improved my understanding of Spanish and of English.

Fundación En Vía is a non-profit Oaxaca organization that makes micro-loans to indigenous women in the outlying pueblos to aid them in starting or expanding business. It offers optional English classes for children and adults. I volunteer with Fundación En Vía because its mission strengthens the lives of its participants and the communities they live in. This is critical in an artisan economy vulnerable to the flux and flow of tourism. Because many tourists speak little or no Spanish, a working knowledge of English provides residents with a significant commercial skill.

For two winters, I taught classes two evenings a week in the agricultural pueblo of Tlacochahuaya. With other teachers, I boarded a bus in Oaxaca for the 30-minute trip to hold evening classes in an improvised ‘classroom’ under the portals of the Tlacochahuaya municipio or town hall. Located on high ground, I could look between the arches, and across the valley to the dark, volcanic hills where the sun set each afternoon as class ended. This year, I taught in the weaving village of Teotitlán, holding classes under a tree in the plaza before the municipio.

The classes are small, and divided into age groups. Last year I taught children; this year I team-taught adults and high school students. Our class included three high school girls, a mother whose young daughter learned in another class, and an older weaver who spoke Zapoteco and Spanish. Each student possessed a rudimentary knowledge of English words and phrases. I understood their challenges because I became bilingual as an adult 10 years ago. My experienced helped me put myself in their place, anticipate the rough places in trying to master sounds, word orders, and spellings at odds with Spanish. You can teach English without any knowledge of Spanish but Spanish helps. My teammate, like many teachers, was taking Spanish lessons also.

The greatest reward in teaching is when the learning take hold. Several weeks ago, I introduced the verb ‘can,’ as in, ‘I can play baseball.’ We practiced lessons with ‘call and response’—question and answer style. We did it rapidly so the students had little time to think but simply respond. I pointed to a student and asked: “Margarita. Can you ride a horse?”

“Yes,” she shot back. “Yes, I can ride a horse!” Vale la pena—worth the effort to see a student learn until the response is automatic, reflexive. Sí, se puede.


My experience bears out an old truth: ‘The best way to learn anything is to teach it to someone else.’ As a native English speaker and author, my English was intuitive and unconscious. However, preparing the lessons sharpened consciousness my native tongue. Every language is more than its words and grammar—it’s a mentality about life, the universe and your place in it. Language is fundamental to our cultural and individual identity. To our soul. Teaching English was a gift of myself that exceeds the time I spent. This was a gift of nurture, sharing a perspective unique to English-speakers while gaining in the process a Spanish-speaker’s perspective. English classes with Fundación En Vía offer opportunities for students and teachers to expand their sense of personal identity in their native culture and the wider world.

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