Margie Hord

Expat by Default

Month: February 2018

The Blessings and Woes of Teaching

Woman wearing watch and green dress, holding green apple with sunlight streaming in

I just “retired” after a quarter century of part-time teaching, mostly at the university level. That’s in quotes because it was not an option with any severance pay or benefits, but it’s time to move on.

When I was a student, someone suggested I might become a teacher someday. My answer? “I don’t have the patience!”

It was not my plan to become a teacher, but that’s where a job opened up; then finishing my M.A. in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) opened up other doors. There was more of a demand in that area than in that of descriptive linguistics, where I had taken initial Master’s courses.

My experiences are of course not universal to all teachers because I speak as one who worked part-time, in Mexico, mostly in universities and mainly teaching English as a Foreign Language. Let me begin with some of the woes, getting them out of the way before I speak of a few blessings.


A woman with a cup of tea working on a laptop

  • Homework… for Teachers Too

To make a twist on an old saying: The 9-to-5-ers work sun to sun, but a teacher’s work is never done! Whether part- or full-time, most of us arrive home to plan classes, check homework, design tests, and work on grades. This makes it very tricky to plan family time or leisure time, as the unpredictable often comes up, as well. Without interviewing my husband and kids, I’m sure they were often frustrated by this fact of life.

Resultado de imagen para bored

  • Teaching the Unmotivated

It is a delight to teach those who want to learn, which may happen most with those preschoolers who are like sponges, lapping it up. At times I’ve taught in language institutes where students have specific reasons and motivations for learning English: to pass an exam, to apply for a job, to travel. At colleges, in contrast, most kids are there simply because it’s a required subject. The fact that it’s a requirement for graduation is a type of motivation, but often that goal seems quite far off. Many see little relation of the topic to their majors.

Added to this is the lack of attention that has become rampant with the prevalence of cell phones, much as they are usually “forbidden” except for specific activities. Controlling their use is still a challenge at the college level.

At the same time, the apparent lack of motivation or interest can be seen as a challenge to teachers, to seek out ways to connect with students and what interests them.

Of course, some of my readers may teach courses where the majority of those in their classes are keen on the subject- lucky you! “Hands-on” activities would be an exception too, I’d expect.

  • Limited by the Syllabus

The syllabus for English courses tends to include the four skills of language (Writing, Reading, Speaking and Listening) as well as grammar structures and vocabulary. Exams tend to be based on the topics and structures covered in the textbook, so teachers often don’t dare to stray far from what’s required and what will be tested. I was often afraid to add other activities and get behind on what I “had to” cover. Could I finish the book? Was there anything I dared to skip over?

A smart phone displaying the Facebook page and scrabble tiles forming the words “social media”

  • Grading

Probably both teachers and students would agree that what they least like about school is grades. On the one hand, for teachers, there’s working out the formulas, percentages, spreadsheets, what have you. One decimal point missing and you panic before you figure out what’s wrong!

On the other hand are the results. “Oh dear, Marcela’s got a borderline grade, and her scholarship depends on a good average.” “What do I do? Francisco’s tried so hard, but he’s not going to make it!” Then there’s those who beg for “just another point” (or more), who think I can give them extra work to help their grade, who cry as they tell me their parents will kill them, who follow me around, hoping to wear down my resistance.


  • Loving the Topic

Ideally, we teach what we love, although this isn’t always a given. As I’ve written in another blog post, I love language. Even English, with its spelling quirks and tricky modals, is interesting as well as challenging. Sometimes I’ll find myself telling students why that unpronounced “gh” shows up in words like “light”: it used to be pronounced in Old English! It is even fascinating to me when I learn something about my own language, like a rule I didn’t know existed, much as I have always applied it “by ear” as native speakers do.

Water splashing against a lightbulb

  • Being Creative

Above I mentioned often feeling overwhelmed by covering textbook material and syllabus requirements. However, it’s always fun to think of something new, or find material that will help a topic come alive, and throw in a little creativity. That certainly is an antidote for unmotivated pupils! Creating games and quizzes on apps has been another fun, educational activity.

Once a class included a chapter related to children; I hunted down a few kids’ books that were still around my house and had students reading them and commenting in class. They had a great time! The girl who had The Velveteen Rabbit, the longest book of all, couldn’t put it down till she finished.

  • Working with Youth 

As a rule, my work has been with college students, in the transition between their teens and professional life. Being with them has helped keep me young, as I identify with their frustrations, their victories, and their dreams. They represent a great variety of majors. They are truly developing into unique individuals, and I’ve had rugby players, kids in national chess championships, a girl who does aerial dancing, another who’s spent a semester in Japan… They can be a fascinating bunch.

One “small world” experience occurred once when I was waiting with my son for a bus in the freezing cold outside the Montreal airport. The young man next to us asked where we were from, then after a bit identified me. Hadn’t I been his teacher years ago? At that time, he admitted, learning English wasn’t a priority. Now that he was working on a PhD at McGill, he realized that it had definitely been important!

Once in a while, there are special perks: students bringing cake on Teacher’s Day, a young woman giving me a scarf she’d knitted, encouraging comments on the anonymous evaluations I usually dreaded. Sometimes we sang Christmas carols accompanied by my autoharp at the end of fall semester. A couple of times I wrote a special poem for my class, one being for the group that lived through a scary earthquake with me on the fifth floor.

At the end of many a semester, as I grumbled about grading, my husband would joke, “Maybe you need to find another job!” Yet I hung in there for 25 years and am glad for all that I learned and the many wonderful people I met.

Raising Bilingual Kids as an Expat

Our son was three or so when he entered preschool. After a few days, his “miss”, as they often call female teachers in Mexico, asked, “Do you understand what he says?” Obviously, she didn’t. We had gotten used to his childish language, in which he mixed a bit of English and Spanish. Of course, before long he straightened things out.

When I took a course in bilingualism as part of my M.A. studies, I wondered if it was too late to help my children become as fully bilingual as possible. But looking back, we hadn’t done that badly, even when our actions were not necessarily the result of conscious decisions at all times. Continue reading

It Takes All Kinds: Variety Even in Tiny Honduras

Imagen relacionada

Every community, town, or city is a microcosm. True, some may seem more homogenous on the surface, but undoubtedly once one dives into it more deeply, the world becomes complex. Even a very small country like Honduras, where I spent my childhood, has a surprising variety of people and cultures.

Growing up, I was sheltered from much contact with the “outside world”, always living in neighborhoods inhabited solely by Standard Fruit Company employees, with a high percentage of expats. Some that I remember were of American, Dutch, Indian, British, and Cuban nationality. An occasional visit to the market or to the countryside gave me glimpses of those more representative of Hondurans in general, but I can’t remember visiting many homes or really getting to know how they lived.

Our international school, with mostly American teachers, had only a small percentage of non-Hondurans. I found myself trying to fit in by imitating the Spanish accent of my classmates when I spoke English in the recess yard. Was that the budding linguist in me?

Continue reading

Recordando los aniversarios… en el primer aniversario a solas

Woman wearing flannel stands over wooden post with dark lighting

Esta semana, cuando otros andan cursi-románticos por el día de San Valentín, yo ando nostálgica por una historia de amor que culminó hace 37 años.

Casi nunca soñaba llegar a los cincuenta años de casados, pero pensaba que fácilmente llegaríamos a cuarenta y pico. Es que Refugio ya tenía cuarenta años cuando ese simbólico lazo nos unió.

Unos siete años antes, él se había atrevido a pedir mi mano en matrimonio, y recibió un “no” contundente. A fin de cuentas su perseverancia tuvo fruto, pero ¡esa es otra historia!

Técnicamente no planeábamos una boda para el 14 de febrero, pero las vacaciones de un miembro de la familia así lo dictaron. La principal ventaja: ¡era casi imposible olvidar la fecha! La desventaja: los restaurantes siempre estaban llenos al tope, e idealmente había que hacer reservaciones.

Es difícil recordar cómo pasamos los primeros aniversarios, pero normalmente salíamos a cenar a algún lado. A veces preferíamos ir el día después del 14, para evitar restaurantes llenos.

Después de varios años de matrimonio, nuestra amiga Joy decidió que nos faltaba añadirle un poco de sabor. Aunque las finanzas eran limitadas y yo era ama de casa, iba a recibir un ingreso después de ser suplente para unas clases. Ella sugirió que planeara yo una salida sorpresa para nuestro aniversario. Me dio otras ideas también, como empacar una vela, una foto de bodas, algo romántico. Hasta nos dio un juego de tarjetas con preguntas para ponernos a platicar de cosas románticas, por ejemplo “¿Cuando fue tu ocasión favorita…?”


A bearded man beside a lake holds his hands in a triangle, the sun shining through

En los años siguientes, casi siempre fui la encargada de idear nuestro escape de aniversario, y ya no era sorpresa. Una vez hasta llevamos a los niños, porque ¿cómo podían perderse de esa cabaña en una barranca, con una chimenea incluida? A veces íbamos a pueblos que no conocíamos bien o que queríamos explorar más. Disfrutamos viajes a museos y cascadas, comidas típicas y más. Una vez nos quedamos en una cabaña ecológica muy en el campo; al otro día fuimos a la sierra a comer truchas en un local rústico. Muchas veces solo estábamos fuera de casa por una noche, pero aun esos viajes cortos y económicos eran todo un deleite.

Para el aniversario número 30, eso sí, gastamos más. Se pospuso ¡cuando la aerolínea en que íbamos desapareció! Afortunadamente pudimos transferir las reservaciones y salir en otra fecha, para visitar el Cañón del Cobre en el norte de México, que había sido uno de mis sueños por mucho tiempo, y tomar el famoso tren que va por las montañas hasta la costa.

Hubo un par de veces cuando cumplimos treinta y tantos, que añadí unos detalles cursis como cortar corazones de fresas para adornar los hot cakes, o corazones de betabel para la ensalada. Hasta llené el parabrisas de corazones adheribles, color rosa, con mensajes románticos.

Nuestro último viaje de aniversario fue para los 35 años y otra vez se pospuso, esta vez para el funeral de mi cuñada. Yo había hecho reservaciones en un balneario de Hidalgo, con aguas termales. Me habían informado que no se aceptaban cambios ni había reembolsos, pero a la mera hora pedí que reconsideraran; al fin, ¡la muerte era impredecible! No quisieron, y preferimos ir a otras fuentes termales, más cerca de casa, donde disfrutamos unos buffets excelentes. Aunque mi esposo ya tomaba medicamentos para la presión alta, poco imaginábamos que dentro de un mes estaría hospitalizado por varios días.

Así que la vida trajo sus propias sorpresas, con una condición de salud que a la larga significó cambios considerables. Refugio ya no podía dar un paseo corto en nuestra calle, y mucho menos hacer una de esas caminatas largas en el campo que le encantaban. Durante buena parte del día estaba enchufado al oxígeno, así que sospechábamos que ya se habían acabado nuestros viajes.

El año pasado, para nuestro aniversario 36, ni fue posible salir a comer. Refugio estaba débil y tenía poco apetito. Aparecieron corazones adheribles en el espejo del baño. Nuestros hijos hablaron para felicitarnos.

Ahora, han pasado casi seis meses desde que mi compañero decidió que era hora de descansar, y ya va a ser el 14 de febrero. ¿Qué haré? Tal vez me anime a dar una vuelta a un restaurante que no conozco, para celebrar de todas maneras.

¿Cómo ves, podré derrochar y comprar unas flores también?

'14 feb. 1981, hace 35 años.
Feb. 14, 1981, 35 years ago. (The cut-outs are not really from our wedding pics, as Cuco gave me this gift previously)'

Remembering Anniversaries… on My First Anniversary Alone

This week, when others are getting mushy over Valentine’s Day, I’m waxing nostalgic over a love story that culminated 37 years ago. Wherever you are in your journey, I hope you can relate.

I hardly ever dared dream we’d make the big “five-oh”, but thought we could make it to forty or so. You see, Refugio was forty when we tied the knot. Almost literally, because Mexican weddings involve a big lasso that is placed around the shoulders of bride and groom!

Some seven years previously he had dared to ask for my hand in marriage, to receive a resounding no. His perseverance eventually paid off, but that’s another story for me to tell one day.

Technically it wasn’t our plan to get married on February 14th, but a family member’s spring break made it happen. The main advantage: it was virtually impossible to forget the date! The disadvantage: restaurants were sure to be chock-full, reservations only.

It’s hard to remember how we spent those first anniversaries, but usually we went out for a special meal. Sometimes we would go the day afterwards, to beat the crowds.

After we’d been together for a few years, friend Joy decided we needed to spice things up. Though our finances were limited and I was a stay-at-home Mom, I was about to have a little income after a short-term subbing assignment. She suggested I set things up for a surprise get-away, and gave me other ideas too: pack a candle, a wedding picture, something romantic. She even gave us a set of cards with questions to get us talking with one another about “our favorite time when…” and so on. Continue reading

Jogging: Lessons for the Spirit

Walking alone down a foggy country road

It’s cold out today! Am I getting a sniffle? Do I really need to do this?

I drag myself out of bed, try to overcome the excuses, and pull on my jogging clothes. After a few minutes outside, my attitude has changed. The bracing air wakens my mind. The pink clouds make me wonder at each day’s new artwork. Trees, birds and flowers delight the eye, as well. My heart, lungs, and muscles thank me for the chance to pump and stretch more.

Others have hit the trail as well. Most joggers pass me by; I am tempted to feel that my pace is inadequate. Sometimes I slow to a walk. No one will be impressed, but in the end… I did it! And when I return, reenergized, it’s hard to believe I faced this as a chore. Still, it’s a challenge to do this regularly, as I know I should.

Surely I’m not the only reluctant jogger. Similarly, I doubt I’m alone in struggling at times with my “spiritual disciplines”. Perhaps even the phrase is inadequate, too harsh, or too legalistic.

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Peanut Butter Cookies



Resultado de imagen para peanut butter cookie

I had almost forgotten them.

Cookie-making is once a year now,

At best.

But little ones (now grands) were bored

And I needing to give them time.

Down to the kitchen: What do we have?

Not much, and hardly any butter,

I mutter

To myself.

A light comes on: peanut butter!

We make do, adapt, shape balls,

Then they learn to dip the fork in flour

And press this way, then that,

Leaving the old crisscrossed patterns

I know from childhood.

Then the wait, the excitement

Only the young know well.

The removing (Don’t touch!)

And the other wait they hate so much.

Why? They’ll burn you.

Let’s have milk!

We invent a party with a candle too.

These are the simple rituals

Passed on again,

Those simple gifts.

Respect, beyond Race and Religion

A native of Burkina Faso has said, “As children, we grew up with people with differing religious beliefs—playing together, celebrating each other’s festivals and mourning each other’s death, with humanity as the overriding connector common to all.”  Recently, however, jihadists opened fire in a bustling café filled with foreigners and have targeted Christians on several occasions.

Alarming attacks have occurred more frequently in the United States in recent years, some of them random, but others fueled by religious fanaticism and white supremacism.

This is not new, by any means, but in first world countries, many thought such extremes had been overcome. Just this month I was privileged to hear pastor, author and activist Dr. John M. Perkins, a contemporary of Martin Luther King, in an interview by pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church (as part of the series Loving like Jesus in a Fractured World). Now 87, Perkins witnessed the upheaval of the civil rights movement, where his brother was killed by a racist. He himself was imprisoned and beaten numerous times, and as a result was tempted to seek retaliation. God made him understand, however, that in doing so he would fall into the same error of hatred, and in the end he became “a living legend…the founding father of the reconciliation movement”, in Warren’s words.

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