It’s been a while but I’m back with another TEFL Tip Tuesday. This post was inspired by a recent Q&A we held at the language centre I work in. It was for new teachers arriving in Myanmar and teaching English for the first time, we were asked to give them one piece of advice about the job and well, without even hesitating I said “Your first day will most likely be a complete disaster, but that’s half the fun!” and speaking from personal experience it’s the most honest advice I could give!
Whether you have previous teaching experience or not, chances are your first lesson as a ESL teacher is going to be a complete disaster. Yes, I said disaster and yes you’ll probably agree with me about ten minutes into your first day that absolutely nothing you planned is…well… going to plan!
Let’s rewind a little bit here. Back to before you’ve even walked into that classroom; because I imagine if you are reading this it is because you are looking for advice for your first day on the job and therefore, have not even stepped into a classroom unassisted yet. More likely than not you’ve just completed some kind of course in ESL/TEFL/TESOL (whatever acronym they slapped on your certificate) and although it may feel like a blur of irregular verbs and classroom management techniques, you’d be surprised how much of this TEFL stuff is now second nature to you. This stuff is in your brain now. For better or for worse you are a qualified, certified English teacher. All that’s left to do is get that first, actual, real life lesson out of the way.
Let me be the first to tell you, that though it will probably go down in history as one of the most chaotic and or awkward hours of your life it will also be the first story you tell anyone back home when they ask you about your TEFL experience. It’s one of those funny in hindsight kind of experiences and as with any first, it is completely unavoidable.
So, let’s get it over with!
Your first day; you’re bright eyed and bushy tailed, eager to get into that classroom and show those tiny humans (or possibly fully grown adults depending on how you get placed) your plethora of knowledge of the English language. Only one problem though… this classroom does not have a computer, nor does it have a HDMI cable so that carefully put together introduction slide show you prepared is gone, out the window, useless!! OK, ok just stay calm and ignore the fact they’re all staring at you expecting greatness, like you’re Captain America and the fate of the universe rests solely in your trembling, sweaty hands. Improvise, the limit does not exist when it comes to the possibilities of a board and some chalk. Any lesson can be converted from powerpoint presentation to chalkboard masterpiece with enough energy and imagination.
Before you know it the hour’s up and it’s onto lesson two and then just like that you’ve somehow stumbled your way through an entire day of teaching (your first day of teaching!!!) with only a few sticky fingers and a scattering of biscuit crumbs in your hair. Did 90% of what you had planned end up on the cutting-room floor? Probably. Did you have to use brain muscles you didn’t even know existed when one particularly mischievous teenager pointed to THAT word in the dictionary and asked you to explain it, even though he knows perfectly well what it means!? Well, yes but it’s nothing a trained professional like you can’t handle. And, did any student for one second suspect that you were kind of winging it for half, if not all, of the lesson? Nope! They had no idea. Believe me when I say they are much more interested in having a good time and learning something new than they are in whether or not your lesson plan has been followed to the exact second. As long as you open with something fun, use a bit of magician’s deception (read: big hand movements and distraction tactics) when things go slightly pear shaped, improvise your way around faulty technology or just plain non-existent technology and end your lesson on a memorable note then you did a pretty good job from where I’m standing. It may feel like a disaster in the moment but really the only person thinking that is you and when it’s all over that first lesson will be a cherished memory and one hell of a story.
Your first day of teaching will probably be a disaster, that’s ok! Trust me, if it went 100% perfectly then you’d have a hard time keeping up with yourself for the rest of the semester. Some people will definitely take to the role more naturally than others, it’s just the luck of the draw, but no one in the history of the world has had a perfect first day on the job. I really do believe that the more disasters you encounter early on, the better teacher you become. It’s not just your students that should be learning in the classroom, your teaching technique and style will have to evolve and adapt with each new challenge that is thrown your way. No two days are ever the same and in my opinion it’s the best part of the job! Throw predictability out of the window, you’re a TEFL teacher now!
For more TEFL tips check out on of my previous posts:
A year ago today I landed in China, I had no idea what to expect. My original plan was to spend six months teaching in China and then move onto Vietnam. There I would spend another six months teaching and move onto Australia for a year before finally heading home to the U.K. It’s safe to say that isn’t exactly what happened. I fell in love with teaching English, fell in love with China and fell in love with the school I had been placed at. Now I don’t know when I’ll finally be heading home; I have just finished a year teaching in China and I am at the beginning of a six month contract in Myanmar. Teaching English has surprised me in how much it has taught me about the world we live in, about how language evolves and how to deal with unfamiliar situations and why they are not always a bad thing.
I travelled to China alone, this was not by mistake. I didn’t even try to convince anyone to come with me. When I made the decision to travel the world I did so with the conviction that I would be doing it alone! The reason behind this was not because I had no friends or because I was “travelling to find myself”. No, I chose to travel alone because I wanted to go and I wanted to go as soon as possible. I wasn’t about to wait for anyone to join me, who knew how long it would take to find someone willing to move themselves halfway around the world. I have always travelled alone, it’s the only way I knew and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? This year has taught me that my belief in solo travel runs deep within me and that it gives me the freedom to go and do whatever I want to do while I’m travelling. On the reverse of that it has also taught me that sometimes it is nice to have a travel buddy or a friend to visit in a country. Making friends and travelling with them is part of the appeal of solo travel for many people, and without some of the friendships I have made this year I would not have done or seen some of the incredible things that I have.
When it comes to the teaching side of things I could go on for days about how much it has taught me. If you have ever had the pleasure of being introduced to me in a bar after a drink or two you’ll know just how much I can talk about the advantages of TEFL, to the teacher and student alike! The most surprising thing I have learnt this year, and the thing that really should be the least surprising at all really, is how much I have learnt about the English language. I always enjoyed English at school and, despite my Dyslexia, it was always one of the subjects I performed best in, but since teaching English I have found myself more and more fascinated by how our complicated and at times completely irrational language came to be the way it is. English as a language honestly makes little to no sense unless you have grown up speaking it, this is something I have discovered this year and something I have discussed with my fellow teachers at length. I think to understand this allows you to become a better ESL teacher. It’s not just about having fun games and a lot of energy (although these things definitely help) if you understand how much English really doesn’t make sense sometimes then it will allow you to think about the language from a non-native speaker’s point of view. If you can do that then you are going to be a much better English teacher!
I always say to my eighth grade students “Chinese is so difficult” and they always say to me “No, teacher English is so difficult” it’s become a bit of a pantomime call scenario at this point, we’ve come to the conclusion that both languages are difficult. As much as I teach them English they teach me new things about English daily by questioning the language. This forces me to really think about why we use a word the way we do or why some words are spelled the way they are when really they could be spelled completely differently (even while writing that sentence I had an inner-battle of spelled vs. spelt). Teaching English has made me better at English.
Teaching English as Foreign Language has put me into situations that are completely unfamiliar and unknown to me. I had never stepped into a classroom as anything but a student until I arrived in Sanxiang, China one year ago. I had no experience as a teacher and my experience of working with children amounted to weekend Pizza Parties at my part time job and a short stint as a Young Leader with my local Girl Guides unit. This year has pushed me out of my comfort zone completely and taught me how to handle situations that I would not have come into contact with had I not become an ESL Teacher. It has taught me how to think on the spot when my lesson plan finished ten minutes before the end of class, it has taught me how to be a role model to teenagers who I thought saw me as the very uncool foreign teacher when in fact they saw me as the cool foreign teacher with two cats (having my cats associated with my cool factor is always going to make me happy) and it showed me how taking an interest in the cultures and language of the countries you visit can completely change that experience for the friends you make there as well as yourself. Unfamiliar situations used to fill me with dread, the unknown was worse to me than knowing something bad was about to happen (mainly because if I didn’t know I would think of about twenty bad things that could happen and these would spiral until it was better just to not do anything) but now I find myself excited at the prospect of an unfamiliar situation or an unknown challenge. I have definitely learnt this year to trust myself and my judgement in these situations because more often than not they turn out to be the best kind of adventures.
A year of teaching English has taught me that you can’t run away from problems, you have to face up to them and moving halfway across the world doesn’t make them go away. China has given me the confidence to stand up for myself, it has shown me what I am capable of and it has shown me that people value my time and opinion. Being asked by students and teachers alike if I will be returning to teach in Sanxiang made me happy and sad at the same time, to tell them I was leaving made me sad but to know they wanted me to stay made me happy. I made myself completely at home in China and although I had to leave I know it is not forever. Teaching in China taught me so much and I know it still has much more to teach me. Here’s to another year of TEFL and many more to come, whether that be in China, Myanmar or countries as of yet undecided!
For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?
Pictionary; the Christmas day family games sesh is never complete without it but in the classroom it becomes more than a party game, this is where Pictionary becomes a powerful tool for learning. Pictionary is great for teaching English because it requires the whole class to participate. It is the perfect game to get students thinking and talking in English, especially if they are new to the language.
I tend to use Pictionary as a cooler or filler, but it can work as a warmer just as well. You can use it to recap last week’s lesson and see how much of the language they remember or you can use it to round up your lesson as a fun way to make the new vocabulary stick in their minds. The way I usually play is I split the class into two teams and select a student from each team to come up to the board. I then ask the student to pick one of the new vocabulary words for that day (this usually takes a minute as whatever I suggest they complain it is too difficult to draw, but after a bit of encouragement I usually convince them it’s not so hard). Then the class has to work out what they are drawing and the first team to shout the correct answer gets a point. Using the point system really gets the students engaged in the game. When my students play they play to win and it can get quite competitive! You can make it so that the winning team gets a prize, but I have found that just the thrill of winning is enough to motivate the class to participate.
I have found Pictionary works for all ages; I have played it with kindergarten, I have played it with grade one and I have played it with grade eight. No matter what the age the competitive energy has been present and everyone gets involved. Even the moody teenagers who thought they were too cool in the beginning couldn’t help but shout out the answer when the rest of their teams were struggling to figure it out!
Pictionary has been my secret weapon from day one of my TEFL journey. I think my love for this game a kid really helped me to sell it to my students as a fun game. I was excited about the game and this enthusiasm was infectiously passed on to my students. The power of this activity to engage students in English makes it without a doubt my favourite classroom game. When other games have caused my students to groan in protest Pictionary has never failed to energise them. The best part is that you can play this game with minimal materials; as long as you have a pencil and paper, a blackboard and chalk or a whiteboard and pens then this game is possible.
For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?
Computers are unreliable. Computers in Chinese schools are extra unreliable! There will be times when you arrive in class only to be told by a student that the computer is not working today. What are you going to do?! You spent a whole hour on your lesson plan, you have funny videos to show them and word games that require the code you stored ever so safely on your powerpoint presentation but didn’t think to write down in your notebook!
This all sounds very dramatic and worst-case scenario, but it can happen. Unless you want to sit in silence with your kids for an hour or, even worse, sing that lovely song you had downloaded and planned your lesson around out loud yourself… Having a backup plan for days when technology fails you is vital to your TEFL experience.
The first thing I advise you to do is write your entire lesson plan in a notebook, I have a specific notebook for planning my lessons and while it might seem like a waste of time to write it all down when you have created a perfectly good powerpoint, let me tell you it is an important tool to have. (If you aren’t a fan of handwriting your lesson then you can always use that handy lesson plan template they told you about back when you were learning the ropes. Type it up on your computer, print it out and carry it with you. Personally, I am a fan of the hand-written lesson plan but that is just me!) The reason I encourage you to have your lesson plan to hand at all times is because, when you think about it, your original lesson can most likely be adapted to work without using a computer. Some schools don’t even have computers in the classrooms! So apart from missing out an interesting video or funny gif you can present each class with the same lesson, computer or no computer.
Say for example you are doing a lesson on personality traits, this could rely heavily on a computer for video examples of different personalities. Maybe you have a word game for a warmer, write this word game down in your notebook as well as all the possible answers you can think of (or that the internet told you about, but where’s the fun in that?) It might seem like common sense but honestly sometimes I create the warmer on my laptop and completely forget to write down the actual game in my book, I’ll open my notebook to see that all I have under the warmer heading is “word grid game”. GREAT, AILEEN!! What word did you decide on? What order did you put the letters in so that it isn’t obvious what word you they are trying to find? And what are some answers to the game so that when the students tell you it is too difficult you can rapid fire off some words to show them how easy it actually is?! The game can be easily transcribed from your notebook onto the board and actually I usually write the game on the board anyway to make sure everyone in the class can see it.
Crisis averted, you make it through the warmer and now you move on to presentation, this is where those videos would come in handy. The first thing I recommend is to have flashcards printed out, this was not possible at my school as we did not have access to a printer but if you can print flash cards then do print flash cards!! The second tip I have for this situation is to break out your inner artist and get drawing. Every school will have one of three things; a whiteboard, a blackboard or paper. Write the words alongside little illustrations showing what the word means, you may not be the best at drawing, but this is just an opportunity to have a laugh with your students about your artistic talents or lack thereof…
Then comes the practice section of your lesson. What were those question and answer couplets again? If you power point was working, they would be right at the front of you mind but there is no computer today so what can you do? Have no fear the lesson planning notebook saves the day again! Write down your questions and answers in your lesson plan and not just on your presentation. This actually helps whether you have a working computer or not. Trying to remember the questions and answers with your back to the computer is just asking for a clever student to correct you on your sentence structure. A quick look at your notebook lesson plan and you are sorted. Just make sure that any changes you make to your powerpoint you also make to your notes!
Production is easy, the students do all the hard work there. You can close your book and watch the magic (or chaos depending on the class) happen as your students communicate the new language with each other. No technology needed!
Ok so this is all well and good but what if your lesson can’t be translated from digital to analogue quite so easily? Well I admit that is a bit of a dilemma. The best thing to do in this situation is to have a collection of games that you can fall back on if it is indeed a computer free day. (I will be writing a post soon all about my favourite TEFL games and why they work so keep an eye out for that). There are so many good games out there and the kids will love the fact that they “don’t have to do work” for a whole lesson. Of course, these are educational games so they are still learning… just don’t tell them that.
The last thing I have to say on the theme of having a backup would be to literally have a backup. I have two usb sticks, this might seem like overkill, but my school’s computers tend to occasionally corrupt my usb which is less than ideal. There was even one class that I completely avoided plugging my usb into the computer, for pretty much the whole semester because every time I did it would stop working after that class! So my advice is to save it to your computer, save it to your external hard-drive and then save it on two usb sticks. Take it from someone how has lost a whole semester’s worth of lesson plans… BACK IT UP!
For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?
For the first TEFL Tip Tuesday let’s start at the beginning; confidence! Confidence is key, even if you don’t think you have any. Being outnumbered is never a fun experience, the first time you walk into a classroom it might just feel like that dream you had as a teenager, the one where you realised you forgot to put your trousers on before you went to school! Everyone is looking at you… well get used to it, you’re the teacher now. No hiding behind a text book and dozing off in class, you are the one in charge here. But you are never going to be able to command a classroom if you walk in with you head down and a can’t do attitude.
I’m a believer in the fake it ‘til you make it method, the more you act like a confident person the more confident you will become. I know this works because my go to coping method for a situation where I feel nervous is to be loud and proud. Outwardly I look like I live and breathe self-assurance and eventually I convince myself that the reason I look confident to those around me is because I am!
The classroom might look like a scary place but who is going to know that you are nervous beyond all belief if you walk in there like you’ve been walking into rooms your whole life (which you have by the way, so what’s the big deal?) You’re the “fun English teacher”, the kids are going to love you no matter what, so don’t be afraid of them. Put a smile on your face and just have fun; if you are having fun then they will follow suit and soon you will forget all about the nerves. You won’t need to raise your voice to get them to pay attention to you if you look like someone who should be the focus of their attention.
My first day of teaching I felt so nervous (which was ridiculous because what is the worst that a bunch of six year olds can really do?) But I was prepared, I had lesson that I believed in and that was full of fun activities at the ready. I was confident in my lesson even if I wasn’t so confident in myself. That was all I needed to get me through the lesson, that little bit of confidence.
For more TEFL Tips check out one of my previous posts:
Teaching English: just when you think you’ve got it, you lose it and just when you think you’ve lost it, you crack it again.
My first day of teaching I realized I had lost my USB stick somewhere between getting on the plane in London and arriving at my placement school. As a result I gave my first three lessons by placing my laptop screen under a projector which was set up by a six-year-old! Good start… A quick trip to the computer shop at lunch time for a brand new USB stick and the problem was sorted, until the computer in the next class room didn’t work and this time we had no projector! Time for a bit of blackboard improvisation and a few games (there maybe about forty Chinese children who now think that Scotland’s flag is pink).
The first week I focused on introducing myself, explaining where Scotland is and showing the kids some Scottish wildlife. Being placed in a southern province meant that my pictures of the snow back home left each class gasping in amazement. I also decided to teach them about the Loch Ness Monster which meant I got to enjoy their take on the Scottish myth in the medium of crayon and felt tip pen (I was even lucky enough to have been gifted some to decorate my bedroom wall with). I have to say though some of the kids are extremely talented at drawing, especially considering they are all between the ages of six to eight years old!
In the first week of teaching I was introduced as “The New Beautiful Foreign Teacher” in at least two of my classes, which made me want to turn around and run out of the room. Especially when it is followed by 40 small children giving me a round of applause (if you are anywhere near as socially awkward as I am then you will understand why)!
One of my favourite parts of the job so far is how every day I am greeted with consistently enthusiastic “hello”s, hugs and high-fives. Some of the children have also figured out that my favourite animal is a Panda. This means that “Panda” is shouted almost instantly every time we play Pictionary, every circle is a Panda in their eyes! My name has proved a struggle for some of the kids and so to about half of my 800 students I am known as “LeeLee”, which I have decided is close enough…
We were lucky at our school, we got to pick what grade we wanted to teach. As a result, I am teaching 1st grade, which is nothing but endless fun, games and colouring. The good thing about 1st grade is, because they are so young, as long as you are animated and lively enough they won’t notice it you suddenly have to improvise for the last ten minutes of the class because you got through your lesson plan in record time! So far I have played “Who Stole My Pencil”, “Heads Down, Thumbs Up” and a new version of “I Spy” that I have recently invented; it involves a class room full of small children running at me with various objects of a whatever colour “I Spy” in order to high-five me first and win a point for their team (because you try explaining how to play “I Spy” to 40 children who speak almost no English).
So far, I am absolutely loving teaching English! The kids are incredible, the school is beautiful and I have already been for lunch with my Grade One Contact and Mandarin Teacher at her home here in Sanxiang, cooked by her lovely mother who looks after the children in their dorms at night. I’m not even a month in yet but I know this is going to be a hard place to leave when it comes to July! As they say, find a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.
2016 has been as unpredictable and chaotic as I could ever have imagined. In the same year I thought my entire life was falling apart around me, thinking I had picked the wrong course and altogether wanting to give up and go live in a cave somewhere; I also conquered Africa’s highest mountain, spent a lot of time figuring out what I wanted and put a lot effort into making positive changes to the way I live my life.
At the beginning of 2016 I wrote a list of all the things I wanted to leave behind in 2015 and then burned it. A year on I can barely remember what was on that list but a few things come to mind when I think about it. A lot of what was on there was to do with my attitude towards life; I wanted to stop caring what people thought about me, I wanted to build bridges with people who had fallen out of my life, most of all it was about leaving anything negative behind in 2015 and having a positive year. I can’t say that has been 100% successful, those who know me well enough will know that there have definitely been a few struggles along the way. I can however confidently say that I am ending 2016 on a positive chapter in my life.
When I think about what I have achieved this year it always out weighs the negative experiences I have had. This was the year I got my first A in University, the year I pushed myself and my body further than I ever have before on Mount Kilimanjaro, I visited Germany, took a 12 hour bus journey to London TWICE, (the second time to visit some of the fabulous people that Kilimanjaro introduced me to), with the help of three wonderful ladies organised what I would say was the most successful Gray’s Winter Ball of the past three years and, maybe most importantly, I rediscovered just how much I love photography.
This year I also started at a new job which, so far, is going well and has put me on track to my hopes of visiting China and working with pandas towards the end of 2017. I feel it is important to enjoy even a part time job and as much as I may dread going to work some days I can honestly say I really enjoy waitressing. When I started at Cocoa Ooze in 2013 I knew it was something I was going to be able to do along with my studies with ease. Unfortunately and much to my sadness I had to make the decision to leave Cocoa Ooze when I realised how much money I was going to need not only for my future travel plans but also just to get me through my fourth year of University. The job I have now gives me better hours to work around Uni and also means I can save my tips away for next year.
“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. Hey. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.” – The Doctor “Doctor Who – Vincent and the Doctor”. This quote came up on my Facebook feed on my birthday a few days ago and it reminded me that just because bad things happen all the time that doesn’t have to make your life bad. If you focus on the good things in your life then you have more chance at creating a positive environment around you and I feel that only with that positive environment can you really succeed and achieve your goals.
In short 2016 might have been a mess in some respects but I refuse to let that dampen the love, gratitude and general good feelings I get when I look back at the achievements I have made this year. I wish anyone reading this all the love and happiness they could ask for in 2017. My only goal is to stay positive no matter what life may throw in my direction.
I’m pretty much winging my way through life, but if you make a plan there is no guarantee it will work they way you want it to. To me life’s more fun when you let it play out in front of you, adventure is out there. TTFN.
*I use the word positive way to many times in this post. Drinking game, take a shot overtime you read the word positive!
It’s 12am, it’s pitch black, all you can hear is the sound of your own heart beat and someone being sick a few steps in front of you. It’s cold, it’s windy and all you have is a head torch to guide your way. It’s summit night on Kilimanjaro and it’s about to be the hardest night of your life!
I had such high hopes for this blog post, I was going to write notes from each day, record everything, do a video diary. By the time I got to camp on day one all I wanted to do was eat my popcorn, sip my tea, locate the nearest toilet, curl up in my sleeping bag and pass out! (Which is exactly what I did.)
Don’t get me wrong I didn’t for a second think that climbing the highest free standing mountain in the world was going to be easy, in fact a small part of me was convinced I couldn’t do it but I just told that part to go to hell and kept pushing on. The thing I found both this year and with Toubkal last year was that it didn’t seem to matter how physically fit you were if you weren’t determined to make it to the top. It was mind over matter with me, my body wanted to give up, it was falling asleep as I walked but my head wasn’t going to let that happen.
This is my Kilimanjaro experience (as well as I can remember) it day to day over the six days it took to complete the biggest challenge of my life!
Day one started at the Machame gate 1640m above sea level, it was a bit of a gloomy day so we didn’t get to see the whole mountain before the climb (probably for the best to be honest…) It was like walking right into the Jungle Book, hanging vines and stone steps all the way to camp. I was glad of the cloud cover if the sun had been out in full force the heat and humidity would have been unbearable. It was quite pleasant walk to Machame camp stopping for a lunch of chicken and chips under the trees about half way. A couple of times I felt I was going to tumble back down the path, my awful balance and walking poles being attached to my back pack were not helpful, but there was always someone behind me to give me that slight push I needed to correct myself.
At camp we met our porters who showed us to our tents (I’m just going to say now that my porter was the best human being I have ever met and I owe him so much because he pretty much did everything for me, including putting aftersun on my very burnt hands, and I love him). We were shown the mess tent and given a briefing for the next day and then it was straight to bed for me because it got unbelievably cold as soon as the sun went down!
Day two the sun was out and we raced the clouds up the mountain. I thought they were going to catch up with us but we stayed ahead of them until they couldn’t climb any higher. I found this day one of the hardest because we had to walk all the way to camp before lunch and it felt like a life time! I also dropped half of my NAKED Banana Crunch bar at our second snack stop and it was heart breaking. Staying at the back allowed for a lot more conversation though I felt like I got to know some of my Brunel team mates a lot better on day two.
Everyone told me about how beautiful the stars look from Kilimanjaro before I went but I can’t say I really saw them properly until summit night. They were there, I was just absolutely exhausted every night when we got to camp that I went to bed straight after dinner and looking up while walking in between 20 something tents is not advisable. A few people stayed up to watch the stars and came back to me with tales of shooting stars and the milky way but I just couldn’t keep myself awake to watch with them.
Day Three was acclimatisation day, we climbed high until lunch time and then back down to sleep low giving our bodies a chance to get used to a thinner atmosphere at higher altitudes. The climb to lunch was hard, breaks were very welcome, but I did not feel any symptoms of altitude sickness and made it to the Lava Tower in the first half of the team. After lunch I decided to stay back with the team members who were suffering from altitude sickness to make sure everyone was doing ok and to provide my encouragement. This was going very well until about ten minutes before camp when out of nowhere altitude sickness hit me and the entire contents of my stomach emptied onto the side of the trail. It completely knocked me for six. I felt dizzy, weak and wasn’t entirely convinced I wash finished throwing my guts up. My head guide, James, had to hold me up for the short distance to camp, my vision was blurry and I don’t really remember getting to the check in point. All I remember thinking was how impressed I was with the members of my team who had been dealing with this all day, I felt absolutely horrendous and could only imagine what it must be like to experience altitude sickness from the morning knowing how far away camp was! When I finally got to camp all I wanted to do was go to sleep but I knew that would just make me feel worse so I made myself go to the mess tent for popcorn and a hot cup of tea, followed by a handful of pain killers and a lot of water. Within the hour I felt absolutely fine again.
Day Four we tackled the Barranco wall. This steep ridge was an almost vertical scramble on which I ripped my nana’s walking trousers she had lent me, almost had my hand pulled off by the guides (they did not know about my dodgy wrist) who yanked us up that wall like their lives depended on it and saw the most spectacular view from above the clouds. This was actually the fun part of the day because they then made us walk down a valley, back up a valley, down another valley and finally back up a valley and into camp. What’s wrong with bridges Kilimanjaro?? I have never wanted to pee more in my life than the last twenty minutes of that day and I was so relieved (in more ways than one) to see a toilet block just out side of camp, there was no way I would have made it through check in without an accident occurring!
We had made it to base camp! There wasn’t exactly much time to celebrate though, we were to leave again at midnight for summit so it was dinner, toilet and bed! Having said that dinner was still an emotional meal; a couple of my team were very upset because they did not believe they could make it to the summit! I had full belief in every member of my team and to see them so upset made me completely break down into what was the first of many tears in the 24 hours that followed.
Sometimes in life you believe you have been super sneaky and no one could possibly know what you are up to! I tried to organise a surprise for my team along with the team leader from Brunel by contacting the teams loved ones asking for a letter of encouragement to read before summit night. I would like to think that most of the team were completely clueless but one member of RGU had asked me on several occasions if I was organising said surprise. Getting more and more frustrated at this members willingness to spoil the surprise for himself when he finally called me over after all the letters had been handed out I thought it was to gloat that he knew what was going on the whole time and I hadn’t surprised him one bit only to be handed a letter from my own loved ones and have to return to my seat feeling bad for all the times I told him to let it go! My letter is pictured below and while most of the team were sitting in their seats crying I couldn’t help but laugh at my mum’s favourite story of me and my stubborn ways!
So here we were, summit night, with two to three hours sleep my nervous chatter had already set in, I had one mouthful of “breakfast” and thought I was going to see it again almost immediately, the cold was unbelievable, the sky was glittering with star light and my water bladder had already frozen solid. For most of the climb I focused on Mars, it was usually directly in front of me and distracted me from the tiny head torch lights in the distance that reminded me of just how far we had still to climb. My day bag was taken off me by a guide almost straight way so I could focus solely on where to put my feet. This guide (who fell over once and scared the absolute living hell out of me, if he had fallen over then all I could think was that there was absolutely no hope for me and my clumsy self!) stayed with me the whole way to the summit and for the life of me I couldn’t pin down his name. I know I would never have reached the peak if it wasn’t for him, shear determination and a packet of Haribo Tangfastics that I had saved specifically for that night.
I almost gave up on several occasions, absolute exhaustion and fear threatened to overcome me at any moment. Every time we stopped for a break I thought I was going to fall asleep. When James said it was time to move again tears came from nowhere, but he grabbed one arm and my guide grabbed the other and hoisted me to my feet, up we went higher and higher until we started to see the sunrise over the clouds so far below us. That was the moment I knew I could do it, my phone had died from the cold so I had no idea what time it was but when I saw the sunrise below and Stella point above and beyond that Uhuru Peak I knew I was almost there, to give up now seemed as impossible as the whole climb had felt 6 hours before and I pushed myself that last hour and a half, to the Summit of the worlds highest free standing mountain.
I didn’t summit with anyone but my guide, I was about ten minutes behind the first group from my team to summit. When I got to the rest of the team I was swallowed whole by a group hug and burst into yet more tears at the sight of my team mates tears. Then there was the queueing for photographs (other groups had summited at the same time as us), the realisation that my camera had died from the cold, losing the friendly square that a kind man had given me for good luck on the bus to London, my phone getting a second wind and switching back on for photos at the summit and finally a member of my team collapsing from hypothermia in his legs*. This all happened in about 30 minutes and then it was back down the mountain.
Heading down was arguably harder than the way up. Firstly the ground was no longer frozen so it was like walking down the biggest sand dune you have ever seen in your life, secondly it was about eight in the morning and I had had about two hours sleep and thirdly there was no motivation left in my entire body. I’d made it to the top, I was done, I just wanted to curl up on a rock and go to sleep. This was not helped by the fact that every couple of meters I would fall on my back and lie there like an overturned beetle until the James caught up with me again and put me back on me feet. By about the fifth fall I told him I was staying put and he would have to drag me down because I refused to fall over again. So that is essentially what he did after I had one more cry, this time asking for my mum and pizza. He took my bag on his back, threatened to piggy back me down the mountain, took my hand and led me down the sand dune of death with complete ease despite his allergy to dust (wise career choice there…). When we reached solid ground I got a complete second wind and marched of into the distance only to be met with yet another impossible downward climb and had to sit for about 20 minutes for someone with a bit more technical skill to show me the correct path.
Finally, after what felt like a life time, I made it back to base camp. I was met by my porter who gave me the biggest hug and a cup of pineapple juice which lasted all of five seconds. He led me back to my tent, took my boots off for me, ran to fill my water bottle up, gave me a well deserved fist bump and zipped me into my tent. I should have had a nap here, I was exhausted so it should have been easy but I just couldn’t fall asleep! I spent the rest of the time we had at base camp packing as best I could with my sunburnt hands, eventually admitting defeat I had to get someone to help me stuff my sleeping bag back into it’s compartment.
We had lunch and then set off again down the mountain. I think we had been walking all of two minutes when I had to stop. I couldn’t breath properly, my vision was blurry and I was about 90% sure I was going to be sick. I was right. Up came my lunch, up came my pineapple juice, up came my Tangfastics and, you guessed it, out came the tears. Altitude sickness is not a fun thing, why it only happened to my on the decent I do not know but I am very glad that it didn’t happen before then because I don’t think I would have managed to summit if it had. Instead of the four hours it should have taken me to get down to the last camp of the trek it took more like six and it was pitch black by the time I arrived. My porter, being the absolute amazing human that he is, guided me to my tent, took my boots off for me and even offered to take my dinner to the tent. I refused this last offer as food was about the last thing I wanted. I struggled into my sleeping bag, closed my eyes and passed out till morning.
The last day was definitely the easiest but it also felt like a never ending trail of trees upon trees. I was impatient to get down but also very aware of how slippery the ground was and if I was to go to fast the likely hood of me ending up on my backside was very high. When we finally made it to the bottom there was an enormous sense of relief. I signed out, took of some layers, found my porter and that was it finally over. This is where my porter very kindly put aftersun on my hands for me and took my day pack off my back. He even carried it all the way onto the bus for me. The final day was a good day for chatting and reflecting on the day before. For myself it still sort of feels like a dream, I know it happened but there was such a big build up to that day and then for it all to be over already is just surreal. This was by far the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life, there is no way I would have made it with out the support of my team, my family, my friends and the amazing guides and porters.
I took on this challenge partly to prove to myself that it was possible (partly because a certain RAG chair who shall remain nameless convinced me it was a good idea) and also to raise awareness for an amazing charity who do work all around the world. If you would like to donate to Childreach International you can still do so on my fundraising page linked below.
*this team member is absolutely fine and still has full use of both of his legs. The guides acted amazingly and got him down to base camp quickly and safely and part from feeling a little bit silly for not listening to the head guide about wearing more layers no harm was done.
December has been crazy, I didn’t even notice it pass. I swear to God it was just Halloween like yesterday, and wasn’t I in Morocco the other week? This month I have been crazy focussed…on everything at once!
Firstly of course there is Uni which, being in second year, has upped the pace a wee bit since last year. I feel like I’m drowning in research images, my printer has been restocked with ink more times than my bank balance dares to think about and I have gone through enough sketchbooks to fill a mini rain forrest.
Secondly I am still fundraising for Childreach International. I love this cause and I have now personally seen the good that the charity does (for more on this click on the Travel section in the menu bar) but man is fundraising stressful! You first have to make sure that what you are doing is interesting to other people, no point in standing around trying to sell brown paper bags is there? The second thing is that there is a vast amount of organisational skill that goes into planning an event that everybody is interested in, this is a skill that I am still developing. Then when the event finally happens you have to make sure that everything went the way it should and that you have actually raised some money! The big one this month was organising the 2nd Year Gray’s Winter Ball, I will be writing a separate blog post about this soon because that requires a lot more detail than this update is intended to provide.
Thirdly and obviously most importantly is the Social Life! This is a tricky thing to maintain if you wish to get all uni work and enough sleep to be a functional human being. The social life of which I speak can be down to something as simple as sitting in the living room with my flatmates watching TV, I like to refer to this time as social procrastinating. We all know we should be doing work but at the same time it is much more appealing to sit on a comfy sofa and watch absolute rubbish in the telly!
To put it plainly I am looking forward to the Christmas Holidays, which for me don’t really start until Christmas Eve because of work. 😦 So I thought I would do a wee list of my top ten favourite things about christmas, and here they are:
10. The food, I know this is usually pretty high up on peoples lists but I don’t really like turkey that much. I usually have a nice Gammon steak. Christmas dinner in my house is chaos because we have there coeliacs, a vegetarian and a pescetarian. This means that my parents have to prepare four different meals; Turkey, Salmon, Gammon and the veggie option.
9. Christmas cards, I love receiving christmas cards! I have been so busy this month that I haven’t had a chance to buy christmas cards for most people. I managed to get the people I post to but even then there is no way the are getting there for christmas! FAIL!!
8. Not having to worry about anything stressful for at least three days! Its true, all you have to worry about is eating food and unwrapping presents and being with the ones you love, what can be more relaxing than that? At christmas I just put the sketchbooks down and forget that Uni even exists for a couple of hours and it is great!
7. Giving presents! No this is not the same as wrapping them, giving them is a completely different experience. When you give someone a present there is an anticipation of what will they think about it and what will their reaction be and have you got it so perfectly spot on that it makes them grin from ear to ear!
6. The Tree! Christmas trees must have multicoloured lights and they must be perfectly decorated so that they look sparkly and pretty! I do not like tinsel on trees, I don’t know why I just don’t. I like tinsel on the edges of mirrors and even cabinets but not on trees.
5. Christmas Decorations, I love sparkly things so obviously christmas decorations are right up my street! The tree is of course my favourite part…actually I might just give the tree its own section!
4. Wrapping presents, I just love to make them all pretty and tie them up with a bows and ribbon and ahhh prettiness!!
3. Christmas songs! Especially the cheesey ones, and when I get them stuck in other peoples heads it is even better!
2. Secret Santa! I love the whole not knowing who your present is from until you open it thing it makes me so much more excited about the whole present giving experience and of course it means as a student I don’t have to worry about all the money I would otherwise have to spend buying every one of my friends a christmas present! Because as much as I love them all I can not afford that.
1. Spending time with family and friends obviously but it is also doing all the christmasy things with them, like baking cookies and drinking mulled wine!
To end this post I would like to share my favourite christmas song with you all because why not!
This time last year I was a genuine fresher, I’d hardly drank a drop of alcohol in my life (it was reserved for special occasions *rolls eyes*). I moved into halls and I stocked up on everything I possibly could to prevent myself from catching the dreaded Freshers Flu. I was terrified of being ill for my first proper week of “independent life”. I had been receiving emails daily with valuable tips for surviving in the big bad world of University but nothing scared me more than the one about Freshers Flu.
The only time I had been badly ill away from home, before I moved to Halls, was when I got the flu in South Africa. That wasn’t even that bad because my in country support worker was a saint who force fed me Lemsip and covered me in blankets to sweat it out of me ( I know, disgusting right, apologies if you are eating just now). This was completely different, if I got ill in Halls I was on my own! So i was overly protective of my immune system, I took a vitamin C tablet every morning with a glass of orange juice, I stocked up on carrots and I made sure I drank plenty of water after nights out to try and avoid hangovers. If I am totally honest I don’t think I have ever taken better care of myself as I did in freshers week, and it worked! I successfully avoided Freshers Flu.
So what in the world happened this time around!?
Its not that I thought I was immune, god only knows that I catch every cold that is going around, its more that the thought never even crossed my mind! The one thing I was most worried about last year had completely slipped my mind. I had actually let myself run out of orange juice (I know shocker right), it had been a long time since I even looked at the vitamin section when I went food shopping and I can not remember the last time I bought a carrot… *
I let my guard down, I drank just as much as usual but I forgot that freshers spread germs just by breathing! No offence if you are a fresher…its true though. Next year I vow to be fully stocked up on all cold preventing tools, I will not be ill for my first week back to uni!!
*Don’t worry mum I do eat vegetables, its just I never know what to do with carrots 😛