Teaching ESL in Colombia

TEFL abroad in Colombia

As part of Rhode Tripper’s informational directory for up-coming international ESL teachers, I interviewed fellow instructor Fischer Jackson* from the US about his experience teaching in Colombia. 


Teacher Introduction

I am from the United States. I have a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy and a Juris Doctor (entry-level law degree). I also have a TEFL/TESOL certificate. I had taught in South Korea for six months before coming to Colombia and have since taught in Colombia for over three years now. I’m currently a contracted professor at a university in Colombia teaching English, natural science, and geography.

Getting a Job in Colombia

I found out about my current job in Colombia through the Facebook post of an acquaintance. I had an interview through Skype and a month and a half later they called to offer me the job.

This position requires two years’ experience, a degree, and a certificate. My first job in Colombia, however, did not require any experience, just a degree.

Moving to Colombia

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Our training in this position was just one day at the university. In my prior two jobs in Colombia, it was a much more intense—a two to three week-long process in Bogota (the capital city).

I’m paid very well by Colombian standards and international health care is provided. By Colombian law, a percentage of my salary goes to the national health care program and a pension. It’s very easy to live quite comfortably with my teacher salary here in Colombia, however, when converted to USD it isn’t very much.  

Daily Life in Colombia

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My day usually starts between six and seven in the morning. I have six 1-hour classes at one of several rural high schools in this department as part of a project through the university. The schools are spread out among the country’s “coffee” region so I commute between them every couple of weeks. After classes, I then have either a 3-hour course teaching English to teachers of other subjects or a 3-hour extracurricular activity with the students.

I spoke a fair amount of Spanish before moving here and have gotten much better, although I’m far from fluent. It would be difficult to get by without any Spanish, but not impossible. It would be much easier in the larger cities though.

Since moving to Colombia, I have lived in small cities and towns that don’t have a strong expat presence. In my first job, there were just two other English teachers in my city working for a different government agency, but we never met. In my current job, there are foreigners who are on the same project, but they are in different towns. However, it’s easy to make local friends. People tend to be very friendly and will go out of their way to make sure you are enjoying yourself if they see you alone in a bar or restaurant.

There are many historic and cultural sites to visit, but they can be challenging to get to because of the transportation system. On the other hand, the country is so naturally beautiful that it is very rewarding just to go for a walk in the hills. 

Teaching in Colombia

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At my current job, there is no WiFi, no textbooks, and a very loose curriculum. Part of our project was to create educational guides for the schools to use, but not all teachers use them. As such, teachers have a lot of leeway to create their own curriculum. Even at my prior positions, I had full control over what I taught and I created the curriculum myself. The class sizes are typically around twenty-five to thirty students.

I work forty-plus hours a week and there is a lot of what the administration refers to as “evidence.” They require pictures taken of every class, signed forms, and other repetitive paperwork explaining what was done in each class. Remembering to stop the class to pose for a series of pictures can be a very frustrating.

Parents don’t interfere much with the students here so there is very little, if any, interaction with them.

Students call teachers by their first name and will simply shout out to get a teacher’s attention. For example, when a student is giving a presentation, other students will think nothing of loudly asking you for a word-translation because they haven’t finished their presentation yet. As such, discipline is an issue in almost every class.

The level of English is also very low, even in the highest secondary grades. The students are used to being taught English through written translation, so they take time to adjust to learning orally from an English-speaking teacher, especially if the teacher doesn’t speak Spanish in class.

The attitude of Colombian teachers towards foreign teachers is… complex. Hiring foreign English-speaking teachers is relatively new in many parts of Colombia. There are now several programs that bring in foreigners as paid “volunteers” to teach in high schools and community colleges. However, because the wage is so low compared to ESL jobs in other countries and the fact that many foreigners think Colombia is dangerous, the programs have to take almost any applicant, whether or not they are a good fit. The result is that while some of the volunteer teachers have experience and are serious about teaching and having a positive impact, many simply don’t care and just want to travel around the country while collecting a salary. 

Because of these policies (on top of the language barrier) many of the volunteer teachers do not mesh well with the native teachers. The Colombian teachers and administrators have no real authority over the volunteer teachers so when a volunteer teacher is unprofessional or disruptive (even showing up to class under the influence of alcohol!), there isn’t much they can do except to file a complaint through the program. As a result, there are many Colombian teachers that are now initially mistrustful of foreign teachers. While this can be sometimes confused with jealousy of English-speakers or something like that, it’s often just due to a bad experience with a previous foreigner. Once the native teachers learn that you are serious, reliable, and experienced they will become your friend, adviser, and a powerful ally to have when dealing with issues with a landlord or administration.

Another thing, in smaller cities, the native teachers sometimes have a low level of English (and some might not even speak English at all) yet are forced to teach English classes in addition to math, science, etc. In general, Colombian teachers don’t mind being corrected, and will ask you to correct any mistakes they make, but it is important to do so discreetly and respectfully. When students see a teacher being corrected, many of them will laugh, so avoiding this is key!



Note From Rhode Trippers

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