If you’re interested in teaching English in Colombia, you may be wondering: What’s it actually like?
I taught in Colombia through the English Teaching Fellowship Program with Heart for Change, a government supported non-profit with the mission to create a bilingual Colombia.
For the academic year of 2016, I was placed in the San Pablo neighborhood of Medellín, where I quickly learned what it meant to teach in a Colombian high school.
My experience gives you a look at what it’s like inside the classroom and within the cultural context. Contáme el chisme, mija. (read: Tell me the gossip, girl.)
Typical Classroom Behavior
In classes of 35-40 students, you can imagine discipline might be an issue.
Between the nail painting, hair braiding and chatter, it’s difficult to get students to to focus on the lesson. Girls would be making themselves up in compact mirrors, taking selfie after selfie. Yes, mid-class! I thought, Where are they going that they need to look so fancy? Oh, their next class.
The students are so comfortable with each other and me! Very comfortable…too comfortable. The back rubs. The hair stroking. Is he rubbing her ears? The arm stroking. The sleeping in the front of the classroom. Did that student just wink at me? Catcalls. Piropos (read: comments). Ah yes, machismo is alive and well.
I couldn’t help but think, this would never fly in my high school. But that’s where the truth comes in, as my students liked to remind me:´tamos en Colombia Charol (read: We’re in Colombia, Sharon!)
They make a very good point (besides mispronouncing my name) that we are not in my high school, nor my hometown, not even my country. I had to remind myself that I was the outlier, so why should anything be even remotely similar to where I’m from?
Another reminder they liked to tack on was: Espeek Espanish (read: Speak Spanish).
A lot of my students were pretty relaxed when it came to learning English.
Que pereza has got to be one of the most common expressions heard in the classroom. It doesn’t denote laziness, but rather a dislike or disinterest with the material. Oftentimes students will resist participation and complain instead. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t do the work in the end.
Silly me to expect my students to love English and be as excited to learn as I was to teach them! But alas, many of them just wanted to magically speak English without doing any work. To which I had to constantly remind them: Sorry, kiddos, it doesn’t work like that. Sorry to me, also, because that means a whole load of culicagados (read: kids) who weren’t about to put a lick of effort into my class.
I came to recognize, however, that these kids were just being typical high school students–after all, how many times did I roll my eyes at a physics assignment when I was in the 12th grade? Just because I was excited to teach them doesn’t mean they came excited to learn. So, I viewed this as a challenge.
I had my own periods of complaining about students who didn’t want to cooperate or put in effort, but then decided to focus on students that were excited to learn and counted on them to encourage the others.
I had to frequently remind myself that I was teaching in a neighborhood in the lowest stratum of the city. The majority of these kids had some serious real life problems to deal with. I can’t say I’d act any different if my fridge were empty or I faced physical abuse in my home or was exposed to alcoholism and drug abuse in my family or was dealing with the death of my parents. Not surprisingly, nouns, conjugations and vocabulary came as a much lower priority for many of my students.
I slowly got to learn more about my students and their personal lives through our interactions in the classroom. What, at first, seemed like laziness, slowly revealed itself as pena (read: shame). Many of my students turned out to be justifiably withdrawn, nervous or shy. Some of these students had never even seen a gringo before, let alone have to speak English in front of them for a grade.
To my amazement, the majority of them just needed some patient encouragement and positive reinforcement to come out of their shells. Students that avoided standing in front of the class at the beginning of the year, dominated presentations by the end.
What at first seemed like machismo, was in fact machismo, but the amount of disrespect hardly compares with the amount of genuine cariño (read: affection) I experienced from the student body. These students were comfortable showing affection for each other and for me. Being friendly and welcoming to foreigners is a very Paisa (people of Medellín) trait, and one that I experienced most prominently in my school. For the many suggestive looks, whistles or comments I got from impudent students, I received even more hugs, high fives and sincere appreciation from others.
I remind myself that it was a privilege to come here and enter into these communities and the lives of these students, and that it has been an experience with immeasurable value. I never expected to connect with my students as much as I did. Some days left me feeling like a proud mom of hundreds of kids, other days like a role model. Sometimes they taught me so much I felt like the student. In any case, I’ve gained more from this year than I could have imagined, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Sometimes I wonder if they’ll miss me as much as I know I’ll miss them. I’m pretty sure they will…
Read more on Colombia at ATR