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. ūüôā

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. РBring 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. ūüôā

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 ūüôā

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

Lessons from the Inca Trail: Part Two ‚Äď The Trek

In my last post I wrote mainly about our arrival to Machu Picchu. It was the culmination of our four-day trek along the Inca trail, a journey that was decidedly more exciting than just visiting the ruins. It offered amazing views, it passed lots of other Incan ruins, and for me, the over-thinker, it offered up a lot more life lessons!

Beautiful Views

The trek is 45km long, and follows what is largely the original trail that was used by pilgrims on their way to Machu Picchu. It was a sacred, ceremonial route more than anything. Meandering up and down various mountain passes, it enabled pilgrims to admire the mountains that surrounded them and to perform ceremonies and rituals to honour them.

The landscapes themselves are proof of why the Incans believed what they did. A mountain range of snow-capped peaks melts into the lush, green mountains of the rainforest ‚Äď creating an impressive clash of sceneries. The peaks protrude powerfully around you as you walk, inspiring awe and reverence at their beauty.

However, like I mentioned in part one, we unfortunately did not have the best weather for a lot of the walk. There was a lot of fog, so we couldn’t always see the mountains around us, but when they did appear, they took our breath away. This leads to life lesson numero cinco, continued from part one:

Not all beauty is visible right away.

Walking along the path, unable to really see what was around us was, at times, a bit of a bummer. When it cleared though, and our surroundings were revealed, it was incredible to discover what had been there the whole time, hiding.

It made me think about how many things in life are just like that, particularly with getting to know people. It’s so easy to make quick judgments against those who do not conform to our notion of how one should live, or dress, or act, or believe, but this is a type of social fog. It blinds us from seeing the beauty that hides behind every person. If we just remain patient (remember lesson numero dos?), and wait for the fog of our ignorance to clear, we will often find a person‚Äôs essential beauty: something that had been there the whole time, just that we had not been able to see it. Let‚Äôs always keep our minds open, and look for the mountains beyond the fog!

Incredible Ruins

The other amazing thing about the trail is that you come across a lot of ruins that are incredible, but that have more novelty for being much less known than Machu Picchu. A lot of them are seemingly carved into the mountains, or perched atop high lookout points, accessible by steep stairs. There are full-blown temples, agricultural platforms, messenger stations, even just simple storage facilities. All are amazing, welcome surprises. As you turn a corner, bam! there they are, sitting patiently still after hundreds of years.

Here are some photos and descriptions of the ones that impacted me the most:


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These are the very first ruins we came across, on day one. Walking along, I noticed those who were ahead gathered at the edge of a cliff with Mario, our guide. Approaching to see what they were looking at, I was overwhelmed with how cool this was, appearing out of the blue! The site is called “Llactapata,” and was¬†an agricultural town. Crops would be grown on the different levels – a farming style found at Machu Picchu as well.

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These ruins were right nearby, overlooking the ones above. They served as a watchtower to look over the town below. It is called “Willcarakay.” Our group excitedly explored the ruins, overwhelmed by the awesomeness of having these ruins all to ourselves, and the beauty of the scenery all around.

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These was the next big site we came across, on day three. Known as “Sayaqmarka,”¬†the ruins are those of a well preserved Inca town. To access it, we needed to climb a set of steep stairs that looked over a cliff. While climbing, I hit my head on the wall while contemplating how easy it would be to fall off. Classic. Luckily, nobody actually fell off! We just explored and learned about the site from Mario.

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For example, he gave us a demonstration to show us how this¬†rock wasn’t just a rock, but actually had an image on it! See it?

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After walking a bit more, and getting over the third and final mountain pass, we found this site at the bottom of a long set of stairs. Called “Phuyupatamarka,” it is a well-preserved site that has a long series of Inca baths. There were a few llamas grazing around the baths area, so that distracted us a bit from the site itself, but turning the corner to this view snapped us back to reality – it¬†was immense!

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About an hour later, after walking through the rainforest on the beautiful winding stone path, the foliage¬†cleared for a view of this¬†incredible¬†site, “Intipata.” I still remember the feeling of total awe that struck me, and how I yelled out in excitement. As I was just slightly ahead of my cousins and another group member, I turned to looked at them wide-eyed –¬†you guys are going to love this¬†painted across my face.

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Not only were the ruins incredible, but the fog cleared just in time for us to get this view, overlooking the Urubambu River.

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Carlos smiles after walking down the steep stairs of the site. Not only were these some of the coolest ruins we’d seen, but we also had a view of our campsite after about 15km of walking that day.¬†Almost there!

Of course, the final ruins we saw were those of Machu Picchu. Like I mentioned in part one, they were spectacular. But as you can see from the photos above, the novelty of these lesser known, wilder, less commercialized ruins seen along the Inca trail were unbeatable. Bringing us to life lesson numero seis:

Getting off the beaten track has its benefits.

This is a bit ironic, since the whole point of the Inca trail trek is to walk the beaten track: one walked hundreds of years ago as a pilgrimage, and one walked today by 500 visitors per day, plus guides and porters. But even for the Incas, the trail was the lesser-travelled. There was a much easier, more straightforward route to the sacred city used for commercial and practical purposes. The Inca trail was strictly ceremonial, an intentional meandering path to honour the mountains. In the modern-day pilgrimage, while not ceremonial, it certainly feels more reflective than just taking the train. My cousins and I were so glad we decided to do the trail because we were able to see these awesome ruins and views that the majority of visitors to Machu Picchu are not able to appreciate.

Taking the path less travelled in anything – whether it’s taking a different¬†route to work or school, or whether it’s making less common¬†life choices – allows for a change of air. It offers¬†time to reflect on yourself, and your place in the universe without getting¬†swept away with the multitudes.

Altitude

One element that makes this trek especially challenging is the altitude. We had felt its effects in Cusco, which sits at 3400m. Each of us got a bit of a headache and got winded just walking up stairs in the city. We were thus a bit worried about the trek since the highest point on the climb was 4200m, significantly more than Cusco. And indeed, the altitude was a big factor of the challenge, particularly on day two.

The day consisted of walking just 11km, but was made extra difficult as we got higher and higher to that First Pass. It felt like we were walking in slow motion the whole time. We had to take frequent breaks just to catch some air. It was like walking with someone sitting on your chest! At one point, we were overjoyed to see the first pass; it looked like it was really close, that we were almost there. And it was close Рbut at that height, it took us over half an hour just to get there, climbing up the steep stairs, fighting against wind, rain, and even hail, not to mention our own lungs.

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Happy but FREEZING cousins at the first pass!

It made me think about life lesson numero siete:

Don’t take anything for granted.

Just like getting a paper cut makes you realize just¬†how¬†much you use your thumb, climbing at high altitude made us realize how¬†hard it was to do something that normally comes so¬†naturally. Just to breathe, to live, is an amazing gift. The way the world is made, the way that human bodies adapt to enable survival in different conditions is incredible.¬†Who knows how many planets out there in the universe would allow us to do that – not many I’d bet. Shout out to the Earth for letting us humans chill here for the past 200,000 years! Let’s not take advantage of this beautiful place – just like us, it won’t be here forever. Let’s take care of it!

Porters 

The Inca trail hike is unique in that it is not possible to do it solo. To access the trail, you must join a guided group (we used the group Inca Point¬†and I definitely recommend them if you’re interested).¬†¬†Everything is well-organized: you do not have to set up camp, or cook, or clean at all – it is all taken care of by the group’s porters. You don’t even have to carry the tents, and if you hire an extra porter, they can carry up to 15kg of your own stuff for you.

This initially was odd for me – during¬†previous hikes, I’d always done it all on my own, stuffing tent, food, sleeping bag, clothes, etc. into my bag, but I’ve got to say it was all pretty useful. At the high altitude, with the insane number of stairs – up and down – carrying everything without much experience would be a massive challenge. Unless you’re a porter, of course.

These guys never failed to impress. We’d be huffing and puffing getting up a set of stairs and they would breeze by, with 3x our load and wearing measly sandals or converse. The food as well, cooked by the chef, was incredible. Each meal¬†was certainly better than anything I’d ever made while camping! These guys would also get up before us, and go to bed after us each day, and still manage to fly through the trail. Of course, many chew the coca leaf, a light stimulant, to help them through it.
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Two porters walking ahead of us near the beginning of the trek with their large loads.

They made me think about life lesson numero ocho:

Accept help. 

My initial reaction when finding out that you¬†need¬†to be with a group to¬†hike the Inca trail was disappointing. I’ve always been pretty independent and I like a good challenge. Having a bunch of people carry my stuff for me just didn’t seem right. Not putting up my own tent or making my own food was¬†an unwanted intrusion into my notion of adventure. But man, was I ever humbled.

My cousins and I¬†had hired one extra porter to share between the three of us, and we still had somewhat heavy packs to carry ourselves. Without the extra help I’m not sure what we would have done! And if we had had to set up our own camp in the relentless rain¬†of day two, I think everyone would have been pretty grumpy. The porters thus make the impossible possible, allowing relatively¬†inexperienced hikers like me to enjoy the trek more comfortably.

This leaks into everyday life as well. I know I personally am not afraid¬†to ask for help, but sometimes I think I can do more by myself than I actually can. I know that for lots of people it’s the same. But we are social creatures, and not meant to do it all on our own. Never hesitate to ask someone for help if you feel you need it!

A Parting Tale: The Cactus and the Pig

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Anyone who knows me knows that I love animals. You may even know that I love pigs and hope to have one as a pet one day. So when on day one, just about one hour into the trek, Elena told me there was a pig nearby our rest stop, I couldn’t help but run over to say hi and give it a pat. The poor thing seemed a bit distressed however and didn’t seem¬†all too into the idea of visitors. It was tied to a post with a rope just a bit beyond my reach. I leaned in closer to see what was the matter, wondering if it was lack of water. As I decided that I’d better not bother it any longer, I felt a prickly sensation on my shoulder. Hence my final lesson¬†learned from the Inca Trail:

 Cactus needles are hard to get out of your skin, and harder to get out of clothing. 

I had been leaning on a cactus the whole time! Thankfully I’d been wearing two layers underneath so most of the damage was done to my sweater, but I had a fair share of thorns in my shoulder as well. As people helped get them out of my back, I laughed at the silliness of it all. Mario emphatically suggested that I never¬†ever¬†wear the sweater again, that I throw it out, or even burn it. A bit dramatic, perhaps, but I certainly didn’t put it back on again that trip! I also carried around a pair of tweezers in my pocket for the rest of the trip for whenever I would find¬†small thorns in my hands. I think they’re all gone now!

My sweater however is still sitting quarantined in a plastic bag under my bed awaiting de-cactusification! If anyone has any tips on how to remove them, do let me know! For now, I’m thinking tape? We’ll see.

Well that’s all for now about the Inca Trail! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it. If you’re thinking of doing it yourself and have questions, feel free to comment below or send me an email through the “Contact Me” button. Also remember to SUBSCRIBE to my posts if you’re interested! You can do so below by clicking “Notify me of new posts by email,” or by using¬†the sidebar. ūüôā

Thanks for reading, and happy Christmas preparations!

L