In 1996, Catherine Gray went to Carrillo in Mexico to volunteer with a local environmental organization. And then she fell in love with a local who was also a high school history teach. Having got married n 2001, she and her husband started Na’atik in 2010 as a social enterprise language school that teaches English to locals and Spanish or Maya to foreigners, and also runs homestays in the community. She spoke to Jeremy Smith about her inspiring journey.
JEREMY: What inspired you to create Naatik?
CATHERINE: I had been teaching English and was an academic and retention advisor at the local university in Carrillo Puerto for 10 years. Most of my students were from Maya communities and were the first generation getting higher education. Many were the first to go beyond primary school. I loved teaching them but the school was becoming more political, the teachers and administration were fighting, and I realized I was ready for a change.
One night, I was visiting a friend in a neighboring city and she and I discussed how amazing it would be to start an intercultural language school. I already had locals knocking on my door day and night asking me to teach their children, so I knew there was a need. Carrillo was still very isolated from foreigners but those who came through were always fascinating people. My kids were getting exposure to folks from around the world and these ‘outsiders’ were a boost to the community even if they’d only come for studies or short-term work. I was excited by the thought that hosting interesting people from abroad, willing to step off the usual tourist path, could help me continue to working in education with the people of Carrillo in bigger and better ways.
My friend realized she wasn’t ready to start a business, so this left me to decide if I could start a business on my own. I’m a teacher at heart. Being a boss and a business owner was never on my radar. My husband was supportive, but he is a teacher through and through, so I had to decide if I had it in me to take the business start-up plunge. And I did. I saw the possibility of creating a real and meaningful exchange of culture and language which would bring so much to the local community, foreigners as well as to me and my family.
JEREMY: Can you tell me more about what you mean by an intercultural language school? How does that differ from a typical language school?
CATHERINE: We call ourselves an intercultural language school for several reasons. The first and most obvious is because we have English being taught to the local Maya/Mexican students by native English speakers from around the world and have Spanish and Maya be
ing taught to people around the world by local, native speakers. And, the teachers teach each other their native languages. To us, however, the idea of an intercultural language school is more complex than simply language classes.
We believe cultural exchange is an integral part of language learning although at times it’s the hardest element to create. We know that the languages we speak aren’t just formulas of grammar and spelling but representations of the lives of people that speak it, and of those who spoke it before them. We also agree with philosophers and linguists who believe language is a tool to shape those lives. When you’re taking a class in your home country or online you can learn a bit about that culture from the texts you read. You might even be lucky enough to have a native speaking teacher who can tell you about their life and community. But you’re not likely to have the culture surround you. Outside of whatever you’re doing to learn you won’t be confronted by differing cultural histories and expectations – different ways of thinking about time, color, geography, everything.
Sometimes the most important thing a student learns on a given day doesn’t come from class but from navigating a cultural misunderstanding at their homestay – about food, sleep, privacy, etc. That’s something that sticks more than a conjugation table.
Na’atik’s study abroad is different from other language schools because while other schools will surround you with the language you’re trying to learn, many will also give you westernized accommodations. This can be hugely helpful for comfort and culture shock but in the process it can create a bubble. You aren’t truly absorbed into the culture. Perhaps your comfortable, familiar accommodations have you speaking and learning more quickly because you aren’t distracted with too many cultural differences but you have less to talk about with the locals and aren’t learning true daily life of those around you.
Our town, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, isn’t ready to accommodate travelers in a lot of ways. With only a few study abroad students here at a time it wouldn’t make sense for local businesses to cater to them. We work with our homestays to make sure study abroad students have a good experience but we don’t want them to change how they live. Sometimes the most important thing a student learns on a given day doesn’t come from class but from navigating a cultural misunderstanding at their homestay – about food, sleep, privacy, etc. That’s something that sticks more than a conjugation table.
We encourage our homestay families to send their children to study English with us and we offer discounted and free tuition to our long-term families. Their children practice their English with our Spanish or Maya language students and the intercultural exchanges take place unplanned and naturally as both sides make an effort to communicate and understand each other.
The intercultural exchange continues with our English students. Unfortunately we can’t offer them the same level of cultural immersion while they’re here in Carrillo but we work hard to create as ‘real’ an environment as possible. We recruit native speaking teachers from the US, UK, Australia, and Canada and our local students learn different accents, traditions, classroom organization and procedures. We encourage study abroad students to participate in our English classes. We host events and movie nights that show off English-speaking cultures. To top it off, we help our local students find opportunities locally and abroad to take their learning further.
JEREMY: Did you create the homestay network or was it already up and running? How does your relationship with the homestay providers work?
CATHERINE: I had to create our homestay network from scratch. The good part is that I’d been living and working in Carrillo for over 10 years and had created many personal and professional relationships. My husband is from here and being a small town everyone knows everyone on a certain level. So, I went to work thinking of families I knew who would have time to cook for and take care of students in their homes. This ended up being quite the task. Almost all of my friends are professionals and work too many hours and didn’t even have time to cook for their own families. The other hurdle was finding families who had an extra bedroom. There are numerous amazing families who would’ve been perfect but they live in small houses with already shared bedrooms. So, I then started thinking of families I knew whose children were grown up and had moved out freeing up rooms. This proved to be the best option especially because the moms were amazing cooks. They were also excited to have the experience of having foreigners in their homes for their children and grandchildren, who still come by to eat or just hang out.
Our direct relationship was not just a bonus but a necessity to keep our strong, kind homestay families with us
From there, news spread that I was looking for homestay families and people started approaching me. If I didn’t already know them, I would visit their home, get ‘informal’ references (talk with people I knew who knew them) and have a conversation with everyone who lived at home to make sure they would be suitable. We now have a fantastic, dedicated group of homestay families with young or older children in homes ranging from very rustic to modern with private baths and AC.
The relationships we have with our homestay families are a huge part of our Study Abroad Yucatán (SAY) program. When we were starting out, much of my time would be at their homes catching up with how their students were doing, if any issues had come up and just getting to know them. I noticed that if I didn’t go to their homes in-person – just sent phone messages or called – sometimes the families would start turning down students. I would then go over in-person to ask again, and every time, I’d leave with a “yes”. From that, I learned that our direct relationship was not just a bonus but a necessity to keep our strong, kind homestay families with us. Now, I have a staff member, from Carrillo, who is in charge of going to their homes and personally checking in and paying them. If there is any sort of misunderstanding either he or I go to speak with the family. After 4 years, we’ve only had one student move homestays during their stay (and much of this was because the student decided he needed air-conditioning). We also encourage our homestays to send their children to Na’atik to study English and after time as a homestay, their children can come for free.
Last July we had a potluck dinner with all our families and their students hosted at one of our homestay family’s homes. It was an amazing show of how they feel a part of the school. They are proud to share what they cook, ‘brag’ about their past students, and share what they’ve learned.
JEREMY: You say that local children’s tuition is either reduced or free, due to being in essence subsidised by the tourists fees. Can you give me more info on how this works in practice?
CATHERINE: The price of our SAY program includes ten percent that goes directly towards the nonprofit side for our English teaching. This means that our 200+ ‘regular’ (non-scholarship) students receive a 20 percent discount on their textbooks, their uniforms at cost, a reduced cost of activities and field trips (this is supplemented by donations so varies year to year), and most importantly receive a reduction to their monthly class fees by 30 percent. In total, our students end up paying about $315 US a year (for tuition, uniform, texts, trips, extra activities) as compared to over $400 that they would pay without the support from our SAY program (and additional donations). We hope to be able to continue to lower the English class cost as the SAY program expands.
As far as our Maya Youth (MY) Project Scholarship fund goes, these scholarships are covered by individual donations – many of which come from students from our SAY program. Currently 16 of our MY Project donors were SAY students. We do an annual fundraiser to assure that all of our MY Project students are covered for the whole school year. We currently offer 26 needs-based scholarships for students from the local community (a number that has increased five-fold over the past five years!). The scholarship covers their tuition, uniform, book, field trips and activities, and personalized attention and support. Upon the advice of many of our donors, the students’ families do pay $5 US a month so that there is a sense of commitment on both sides. Our MY Project students have a 90 percent retention rate, excellent academic and emotional growth, a fantastic attendance rate, and their parents are active in their children’s participation. We encourage the parents to be active in their child’s attendance, we require their participation in meetings and school activities, and this has proven to be a wonderful way for them to feel a part of the school community. As long as the MY Project family needs the assistance and their child shows commitment to their classes, the scholarship is available to them year after year until they leave town or are no longer interested in continuing in our program.
Just this year, we’ve started an ‘emergency’ three or six-month scholarship from extra funds raised from SAY students last year. This is for families who might have fallen on a temporary economic hardship and would otherwise need to pull their child out of classes. To date, we’ve offered this scholarship to a couple of families but they didn’t accept it.
JEREMY: And what are you plans? Any developments for the coming year, or ideas you are burning to get off the ground if only you had the time / partners / support?
CATHERINE: The big plan for 2018 is to get the whole school on solar. We have selected our supplier and are in the process of raising funds. We are also starting to focus on forming relationships with middle schools, high schools and universities to bring groups of students down for one to three week study abroad trips. We’ve had a group from John Jay College visit us annually as well as select other school groups, and we’d like to grow on that success.
We’d also like to grow on the success of our MY Project scholarship and increase the number of student recipients from 26 to 30 for the 2018-19 school year.
If I had the time / partners / support? So many things! I’ll just make a list here:
- To have the funding to invite local students to join study abroad groups on trips around the area for intercultural exchange with students of the same age.
- To offer the foreign staff who come to teach English more benefits. E.g. assistance on flights, higher pay, provide bikes for them to use.
- To hire a head teacher
- To hire a full-time librarian
- To have the capacity to be able to cultivate relationships in the internationally in-person for more groups and/or individuals
- To create a water-collection system for the school. This is a big project as it would need to be underground and this means breaking out bedrock on the school’s land.
- To own a van for field trips
JEREMY: From what you have learned so far, what advice would you give to people setting up language schools, running homestays or any other tips you might have that you are willing to share?
CATHERINE: First off, never had I imagined I’d be giving business advice to anyone and here I am. I’m a teacher at heart and starting and running a business, managing staff, finding a work/life balance has been the biggest challenge of my life. Doing this work in a different country with a different culture and language where foreigners – even Mexicans from other parts of Mexico – have never been welcomed with open arms, has been extremely challenging and rewarding. I’ve seen barriers come down and don’t have a single day where I don’t learn something new.
Advice for someone opening a language school and running homestays: Nothing happens quickly or easily. Give things time. In Latin America, the more you push, the longer you will wait.
Work in the community first. Join community activities, let others know who you are and that you’re there to work with them, not just to show up to make money off of them.
Get to know your community and let them get to know you. If not, you’ll spin your wheels and have more than the necessary frustrations and disappointments. Getting things done such as fixing a broken sink or installing internet becomes smooth only after the town feels they can trust you. Work in the community first. Join community activities, let others know who you are and that you’re there to work with them, not just to show up to make money off of them.
Learn the language. This is necessary because it will be very difficult to find strong teachers or homestays if you yourself don’t know the language or understand where they are coming from. If you only have highly affluent families who speak English and have ‘first world’ homes, the students don’t receive the same experience.
Once you’ve found homestay families, spend time with them, in their homes, to get to know them well, too. In Latin America, the face-to- face interactions move mountains. In order to have strong staff and homestay families, they need to know and trust you and that doesn’t happen overnight.
Find an accountant and notary you trust. They can get you out of many sticky and confusing tax and business situations on the local, state and federal level. Paperwork is overwhelming and some things are best to be passed off. But, that said, it’s possible to save an incredible amount of money doing things on your own. You need to take the time to make contacts and meet people who can lend you a hand to explain the thousands of intricacies of starting a business in another country – not just those wanting to charge you to do it.
Be willing to let yourself feel like you’re on a different planet. There are bumps every day and riding them through is always a learning experience. Having locals on your side to help explain these bumps is also life-saving.
Find your niche and have strong social media. Being off the beaten path, this has been one of my biggest challenges. It took three years, two websites and a rebrand until I felt we finally were able to share our mission in a clear and attractive way.
If I were to give just one piece of advice, it’s ‘Develop your personal relationships with the locals’. I love knowing I’m a part of the community. My kids say ‘Ma, you’re famous!’ because every fall and winter we go to all the local schools and speak with the students about our English classes. Being known in town is strange to me, but I realize that it’s allowed the school to have a warm, open feel with amazing, dedicated staff who genuinely love their jobs.