Challenges and Rewards of Teaching English in Colombia
I’m not going to lie or sugar coat anything; teaching abroad in Colombia has been tough for me. But, it hasn’t been without its rewards. This is my first time working overseas and I admit that if it wasn’t for Greenheart Travel’s culture shock webinar, I probably would have left the program early. At the same time, had I left, I would have missed out on having some pretty cool experiences and meeting some awesome people.
The first three months were hard. Not only was I trying to adjust to being in a country that is very different from my own, but also to a very different work environment than I was accustomed to. Things are done and organized differently, and not being prepared can make this experience really difficult.
Challenges in Communication and Classrooms
One of the difficulties as a teacher is realizing just how many students are at a very low level of English, and that many of them are not interested in learning English. While it’s a challenge to try and communicate – we’re strongly discouraged from speaking to the students in Spanish – it’s not a huge surprise. Coming from Canada, a bilingual country, I remember many of my classmates not being interested in learning French. So, I understand the lack of motivation. I just didn’t think it would be so widespread.
Another major challenge for me has been how time and communication are not given the same level of priority as they are in Western countries. Schedule changes happen frequently and are often not communicated in a timely manner. It’s not unusual to find out when you get to school that your first class has been cancelled due to a meeting, or that classes have been cancelled altogether that day.
It’s frustrating to adjust to, because I’m used to receiving information in the workplace at least an hour or two ahead of time. However, that doesn’t necessarily happen here and it’s taken (and is still taking) time to get used to that being the way things are done. I’m learning to embrace the mentality that time doesn’t need to be managed the way we typically manage it back home. The rewarding part about embracing this new mentality is that there’s always time for coffee, and when living in a coffee region that’s a very good thing.
The Rewards of Building Relationships
Of course, this was just an adjustment period, and now nearly five months into teaching English in Colombia, I have found a routine that works for me and have started to see a few rewards of teaching. One such reward is observing how some of the students’ English skills have improved. I love it when they tell me about a new word they learned (mind you it’s not always a good word), a new song they heard, or about a TV show they watch. They’re taking an interest in the language which helps to counter the lack of motivation of some of the other students.
Another rewarding thing about teaching in Colombia has been seeing the co-teachers’ level of English improve. There’s a noticeable improvement of English-speaking skills with some of the co-teachers I work with. I see this improvement when a joke or sarcastic remark is made or understood by the teachers. It’s nice to be able to build a good working relationship without having to worry about language barriers as much.
Overall, it’s been an interesting experience so far. There isn’t a typical day as things generally change at a moment’s notice. The only thing that can be done is to have a backup plan (I usually carry a book or notebook with me) and go with the flow. Learning to be super flexible, as painful as it is being a Type-A personality, has become the biggest area of growth for me while being here. It’s been a process and I’m looking forward to what the rest of the year in Colombia has in store for me.