Erin Makela back in Minnesota after jobs in Kosovo and Venezuela
by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
After teaching English for two years in Kosovo and one year in Venezuela, Erin Makela is back in Minnesota doing something she loves: teaching English to middle school-age students.
She majored in elementary education and minored in English at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa after graduating from Royalton High School in 2005.
She may have caught the travel bug while participating in a study abroad program in Nottingham, England for nine months. While there, she made many group and solo trips exploring the British Isles.
In February 2009, she went to an international teaching fair in Iowa, interviewing for a position teaching English to fifth through eighth graders in Kosovo. She was accepted and signed a one-year contract to teach at a private international school
She arrived in Kosovo three days before school started and got busy writing up lesson plans.
“There wasn’t much there to go on,” she said. “I formed curriculum as I went along, with lesson plans and goals, so that the person who came after me had a place to start.”
The class size was between 12 and 20, but the kids’ English proficiency varied from knowing about one sentence to students who could make themselves understood pretty well.
“There were five kids who could not speak much English at all,” said Makela. “I had to make adjustments for them.”
The majority of the students were Kosovar, with some diplomats’ and government officials’ children. The majority of teachers were American or Canadian.
One of Makela’s biggest challenges was teaching the students not to copy things off the Internet.
“That’s accepted there,” she said. “There are no copyright and no plagiarism laws. I helped them understand that people’s ideas were their own property.”
What was most gratifying was seeing students get excited when they understood a lesson.
“When that one student who doesn’t care and doesn’t want to be there gets excited — that’s what I get excited about,” she said.
Makela lived in an apartment next to the police station, three blocks from the school. She signed a second one-year contract.
“The kids were great and I didn’t want to job search again,” she said. “It’s my least favorite activity. It looks good on your resume to have more than one year. I considered a third year, but it was stressful working with the organization at the school.”
What was eye-opening for Makela were living conditions. There were many gypsies, called Roma, who were very disliked because they had helped the Serbians (or faced death) during the Kosovo War.
“Unemployment there is one of the highest in Europe. Lots of apartment building in the city have shaky plumbing and really shaky heat,” she said. “Both years, the heat at the school went off in mid-February and stayed off for the winter. Living conditions are not what you think of in Europe.”
Many outlying villages have neither electricity nor indoor plumbing.
Makela was able to travel to neighboring countries, visiting Macedonia, Greece, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, Turkey, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Her favorite country was Slovenia.
“It was small and easy to get around. It was beautiful, with mountains, lakes, coast and an awesome cave system,” she said. “It’s a friendly country, clean with good food.”
She also travelled to Istanbul, a one-hour flight. “It was a lot of fun, very beautiful and friendly,” said Makela.
Having entered a job search toward the end of her two years, she interviewed via Skype with a school in Anaco, Venezuela. The position included teaching 22 students in grades 6 – 11.
“They were the best-behaved children I’ve ever met in my life,” she said. “Most of them were from oil company families from the Middle East, China and other South American countries. I wasn’t expecting that much diversity.”
In fall 2012, Venezuelan president Chavez reappeared weeks later in ill health. There was increased instability and insecurity in the country. Chavez died in May 2013.
“I lived on campus and needed that security, as someone who (being tall and blonde) sticks out,” Makela said. “I had planned to stay at least three to four years, but I felt insecure any time I left campus. Venezuela has the highest homicide rate in the world.”
There was actually a feeling of animosity toward her after Chavez’ death.
“They wouldn’t even bag my groceries at the store,” said Makela.
She was again looking for a job, but was being more selective in where she applied. With three years of experience, she had more choices.
“I only applied for middle school positions. I interviewed with two international schools, but that didn’t work out,” she said.
Makela recently joined a master’s degree program in Worthington, Vt., which requires her to be there for 10 days in July and again in January, something that also influenced her decision.
She interviewed via Skype with the Worthington School District and accepted a position teaching seventh-grade English.
“It’s a large district; they have 250 kindergartners and will soon be outgrowing a 5-year-old middle school building,” she said.
She returned to the U.S. June 15, and is still getting used to being here. With a job lined up and housing the school helped her find, she most looked forward to grocery shopping.
“There is most anything I could want in an almost unlimited supply,” she said. “Being able to read labels on bottles — it’s one of the little things you don’t realize you miss. It’s so easy to take things for granted.”