This breakdown of the 3 lessons learned from my year of teaching English in Medellín, Colombia strips down the experience to reveal the quintessential traits required for teaching English, anywhere in the world.
If you’re making the decision to teach abroad, or simply toying with the idea, there are a million things to take into consideration before you get on that plane. With everything you’ll need to pack, the number one thing to leave at home is this: your expectations.
1. Patience is a virtue
When I received my school placement I checked the location on Googlemaps, and it seemed a little far, but nothing too extreme.
Reality: Upon visiting school for the first time I realized it was, in fact, all the way up the side of a mountain. I thought my school was in Medellín, I joked.
I had a much longer commute that year than I thought I would, and the 5am wake up came too early every. single. day.
This was just the first of many moments that tested my patience throughout the year. It became crucially important to practice patience every day at my job – whether in trying to understand the workings of the Colombian school system, the cultural differences I encountered or even my own personal frustrations.
2. Flexibility is an asset
As part of the program each new teaching fellow was assigned a mentor who spoke English and was required to support the fellow in their position at the new school.
Reality: My mentor did not speak a word of English and, shortly upon my arrival, quit the position. I was, however, impressed with my co-teachers’ English and our abilities to work out the kinks without a mentor in place.
After sorting out this setback, it became clear that more often than not things wouldn’t go as planned. Class schedules changed, lesson plans were tweaked and classes were cancelled last minute. My co-teacher frequently said, “Anything can happen here at this school,” and that was true.
It always paid off to be flexible rather than resist these last minute changes. After all, you can try and teach an 11th grade lesson to a group of 8th graders, but you’ll quickly notice it’s easier and more productive to scrap the plan and improvise with what’s in front of you.
3. Accept the challenges
Moving forward in the first semester brought on a whole new wave of culture shocks. I thought, of course I can handle anything at this point.
Reality: No matter what level of flexibility and patience you’ve mastered in this job, you will be challenged.
On any given day it could be disciplinary problems, disinterested students, or the structure of co-teaching that most challenged me. Denying or ignoring difficult situations allowed issues to fester and equally stunted personal growth. I found the best and only approach to take was to accept the challenges, as it benefited both me and the students one hundred percent of the time.
The Reality of What to Expect
Looking back on my time teaching English here in Medellín, I kind of wish somebody would’ve warned me of what to expect. But realistically that would’ve looked a lot like this:
Teaching English abroad requires an open mind, free of judgements and expectations. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong choice when it comes to teaching abroad. It’s about what you make of that decision and the perspective you take on it that makes all the difference.
Wherever you find yourself teaching in the world, patience, flexibility and an attitude to embrace challenges are top characteristics of a successful experience, for both you and your students.