10 Lessons You’ll Learn Teaching English in Colombia

It’s now been over two months since I arrived in Manizales and started teaching English. Incidentally it’s also been over a month since I’ve written a post – oops! The life of an ESL teacher is apparently a busy one. 🙂

These past months have been and continue to be a huge learning experience – I am not professionally trained as a teacher nor have I taught in a classroom before. But, using what I learned as a swimming and aquatic leadership teacher back home, I’ve (thankfully) managed to get into the swing of things pretty quickly.

Of course there are tough days when students don’t listen or when I feel exhausted after so many early wake-ups, but my overall impression has been incredibly positive and I find the work really rewarding.

Maybe you are thinking about teaching English abroad as well, or perhaps you’re just curious as to what it’s like? Well, you’re in luck! Reflecting on my time here so far, I’ve compiled a list of what you can expect and learn as an English teacher in Colombia. 

1. Class sizes are LARGE.

My smallest class has 32 students and my biggest has 43. At times this can lead to a bit of chaos in the classroom, so you need to establish a routine early-on to have the students behaving well and not disrupting the class. My co-teacher is quite strict with the students (in a good way), so that luckily makes my job easier. When I’m teaching and all 40 students start talking at once, I normally can just stare at them with an unamused look until they’re quiet. It’s worked pretty well so far!

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Lots of students in one class!

2. Students’ English levels can be very varied.

I have a few students with whom I can have a full, fluid conversation about nearly anything, while there are others that stare at me wide-eyed when I ask them “How are you?” The majority, though, are in between the two extremes. It’s important to take into account the wide variations while thinking up lessons – ensuring it’s interesting enough content to keep the strong students interested, but explained in a way that is easy enough for the weaker students to understand.

3. You will learn to become a master charader. 

When students don’t understand something and I don’t know how to explain it to them in English nor Spanish, I resort to exaggerated hand gestures and acting that often end up being pretty entertaining. Leaping across the classroom in heels to demonstrate what “long jump” is was just one example. I’m definitely at the top of my game for charades now!

4. B.Y.O.M. – Bring Your Own Materials 

This makes sense to some extent, but was also a surprise for me. Most schools back home have a supply of markers, pens, papers, etc. that teachers can use. Here, you should buy and bring anything you need for the classroom yourself, as they are not provided. This includes whiteboard markers – one day I forgot my entire pencil case at home so I had to borrow markers from students during my English Club. Not the ideal situation!

5. Also, B.Y.O.T.P. 

Bring your own toilet paper! My first few days at school, I didn’t know this was a rule and thought the toilet paper had just run out in the bathroom. After a few times too many doing the “shaky shaky shaky” I finally learned that you had to come with your own…. don’t be like me, be prepared from day one!

6. Get Used to Paper-Free Lessons

In high school, I remember getting countless hand-outs in nearly every class. This is not the case here – each handout either comes out of your pocket or out of the pockets of students. There is no photocopier at the school so all photocopies need to be taken outside class. My co-teacher then normally asks the students to pay for the cost of their individual photocopy of a worksheet or quiz. Of course it’s not very expensive, only 50 pesos (<2 cents USD) per page, but it can add up after a while! I’ve therefore learned more environmentally friendly ways (yay!) to have lessons in class such as writing out things on the board or using powerpoint slides or pictures, that the students can then copy into their notebooks.

7. Being Adaptable is Key

You may have an amazing activity planned for, let’s say, Tuesday afternoon. You stayed up late preparing it, only to find out that that class has been cancelled due to an important national soccer match. Classes cancelled for soccer? Yeah, it happens in Colombia.

It’s easy to feel annoyed but hey – you get time off too! So being adaptable to changes is very, very important. Just today at my school, we were supposed to have class only from 7am – 10am (instead of 4), due to a strike that had been planned because the teachers hadn’t received their pay. They finally did receive their pay after planning the strike, and so it ended up being a normal schedule in the end. It resulted in a bit of chaos – many students had arranged transport for 10am so they had to try to call and change it back to normal. Some just had to go home early anyways because it couldn’t be changed.

Many classes have also been cancelled or disrupted for other things like school-wide events, strikes, professional development days, mass, or presentations by other students or teachers. But hey, it happens, just enjoy! Here’s a photo of a bunch of students dancing salsa during a fun school-wide concert:
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8. Get ready for all of the affection 

Students and other teachers hugging and kissing you on the cheek is totally normal. To say hi or to say bye, it’s very common in Colombia to give a kiss on the cheek with a quick hug. It’s a bit strange at first in a professional setting, but you get used to it and it becomes endearing. 🙂

9. You learn how to wake up really f***ing early 

I’ve never been a morning person. In university, I avoided 9 a.m. classes like the plague. Getting up at 7am just doesn’t work for me. But here, I’ve had to make it work for me; school starts at 7, so that means I wake up between 5:30 and 6! It’s usually still dark out at that time so it’s a struggle to get myself out of bed. On the plus side, I am in the coffee region… coffee is never hard to come by!

I’ve also recently had significant help from Polo, my roommate’s cat, who comes and attacks my pillow or sits on my chest until I get up. Three alarms and a cat have thus helped make it *slightly* easier, but I definitely still have a lot of progress to make on that front!

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You won’t see me smiling this big in the morning, but Polo helps!

10. You learn how to dance your troubles away!

While in Peru last December, my cousins overheard a drunk backpacker raving about Colombia because “people are just dancing all the time!” And well, he wasn’t wrong. Even though Manizales is not one of the most popular cities for dancing in Colombia, students and teachers alike can be seen dancing regularly inside and outside class. It’s awesome!

 

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Teachers spontaneously dancing during a break 🙂

So there you have it – ten things I’ve learned while teaching English in Colombia! I’m excited to keep working and to share what other fun things I learn throughout the year. And of course, if you have any questions about teaching English abroad or about anything really, feel free to leave a comment or send me a message!

Til next post,

L

Writen by Lois

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