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

Hogar Dulce Hogar: Settling in in Manizales

Hogar Dulce Hogar” – Home Sweet Home

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It’s a cliché phrase, but it’s perfect. I’ve finally started settling in to my home for the year here in Manizales, and I can’t think of a better way to describe it. From the location, to my roommates, to the views, it’s definitely a sweet set-up.

I live on a sixth floor apartment with two roommates, Alejandra and Daniel. They are both really funny, welcoming, and kind, making it a home sweet home indeed! They’re both medicine students in their final year, so often talk about the surgeries or patients they had each day. I’m therefore learning lots about the behind-the-scenes med school life which sounds really hectic, but interesting.

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Roomie Selfie!

Alejandra also has a cat named Polo. He’s a white fluff-ball, not even one years old yet, but incredibly tender and loving. He comes often to hang out with me in my room, curling up to nap next to me, or sometimes even on top of me. He also likes to drink from the tap, which I find hilarious.

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My room is big and spacious, although sparsely furnished for now. I just have my mattress on the floor and a cute night table I got at the used clothing & furniture store across the street. I’ll definitely be getting some more furniture once I receive the first month’s pay, but for now, it’s all I really need!

Buying my mattress was entertaining. I got it from a place downtown for an amazing price, and then had to get a taxi to bring it back home. Lugging it up the stairs was an adventure (why is there no elevator!) but luckily Daniel came down to help me.

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A funny sight to see – the store clerk lugging around the mattress as I try to get a cab during rush hour

The view out my window is also pretty cool. On one side is just a busy street, so not too interesting, but on the other side, I can see far into the valley neighbourhoods. When it’s not foggy, I can clearly see the mountains sitting prettily in the distance. I could even see a small cloud of ash coming out of the nearby volcano one morning!

 

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Small puff of ash coming out of the volcano in the early morning

And it gets better… the apartment is just a 4-5 minute walk to my school! It makes those early 7am starts so much more manageable. I even pass a delicious-smelling panaderia (bakery) on the way, which never ceases to tempt me.

But enough about my new hogar.

On Friday, I finished my first full week of school! It was an incredible experience to introduce myself to all the students and to start getting to know them. I work with two co-teachers in a total of eight different English classes (so many names to learn!!). I have 2-4 hours a week with each grade nine class, and 3 hours a week with each grade ten class. Each of my co-teachers has a distinct teaching style, but I can tell I’m going to learn a lot from each of them. I’ve already picked up some classroom management tips from them that were really helpful for classes I taught solo.

For the most part, the students are very engaged and eager to participate in class, and are excited to have a foreign native speaker in the classroom. It’s so inspiring to see their excitement, and to hear “Hello, teacher!” when I enter the class or when I’m walking in the halls. One sweet student even insisted on giving me her bracelet, so now I wear it happily as a reminder of each student’s individuality.

It’s easy to think of the classes just as “the grade nines” or “the grade tens,” especially at the beginning meeting so many students all at once, but my goal for the year is to get to know each student at least a little bit. I know that my past teachers who took the time to get to know me were the ones that I felt most inspired by, so I can at least hope to try and do the same for my students.

As for city sights,

I haven’t done too much touring around just yet, except for the places I mentioned in my last post. I did visit one amazing place since then though, called Chipre. This is the highest point of Manizales, and is really cool to visit. I went with my friend Chloe and my roommates last weekend after I had finalized I’d live with them.

At a viewpoint on Chipre, you can look in all directions, getting an incredible view over the city and the surrounding lush coffee country. We took a tour there at the intricate Fundadores (Founders) monument to understand it a bit more, and admired the parasailers in the distance.

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Additionally, as a student told me in class, Manizales is known as a fabrica de atardeceres – a “factory of sunsets.” This was an accurate description, I soon learned, as we stayed to take in the sunset. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, the show continued – faint yellows, reds, oranges, pinks, purples, and blues painted the sky. It was stunning.

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Chloe grabbing the sun before it sets 🙂

I’m looking forward to exploring a lot very soon as I settle into more of a routine. For now, I’m content being homey and enjoying my new hogar dulce hogar. 🙂 

Til next post,

L

Made it to Manizales!

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On Tuesday morning last week, all of the new volunteers staying at the Bogota hostel got up bright and early to pile into buses and go to the airport. We split off according to our city, some heading to Cali or Armenia, others to Medellin, Pereira, and Pasto, just to name a few. My particular group was, of course, headed to Manizales.

The seven of us groggily got off the bus and got to the check-in desk at the airport. Since we were so early, the airline workers asked if we wanted to get on an earlier flight – yes please! We then had just a small wait time before getting on our plane.

I had heard all sorts of bad things about the Manizales airport – particularly that oftentimes, it can’t land due to heavy cloud and fog. This means that planes often need to either reroute to nearby Pereira, or go back to Bogota. One group member’s fiancée had texted him that the day looked beautiful in Manizales so we had high hopes that everything would be fine. And there was sun all the way! At least, until we got to Manizales.

The clouds were super thick, and we could no longer admire the lush green scenery below us. When it was time to land, the plane started to descend and we could hear the wheels coming out of the wings. Even after descending and descending, the clouds didn’t seem to have an end. All of a sudden, the plane lurched forward with a boost of power and started to rise again. No luck this time.

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In the never-ending clouds….

We circled the air for about fifteen minutes, the pilot waiting to see if there would be an opening in the clouds. We then started descending once again, but again, after going down and down, we had no luck and launched upwards. Landing was impossible. Off to Pereira we went!

Landing there, there was bright sunshine and beautiful green rolling hills. The heat hit us hard when we got out of the plane, but it felt amazing! It was amusing to see the Pereira fellows show up shortly after us, their friendly greetings quickly turning to confused shoulder shrugs as to what we were doing there.

After grabbing our bags, we got on a courtesy bus that took us to Manizales. About an hour-long trip, I was excited to see the scenery of the coffee region that I’d heard so much about. So much for that though, I could hardly keep my eyes open. I woke up briefly about halfway, thought “wow, this is so beautiful!” and then promptly fell back asleep again until we were entering Manizales.

Taking a taxi with three other fellows to our hostel, we quickly realized there was no exaggeration involved when people had told us that the hills were steep in the city. The taxi pushed up and up the mountain, curving through the streets until arriving at Mountain Hostel, where we’ve been since.

We had that first day to relax and explore, and some of us went out walking pretty far, even to where some of our schools are.

I found out my school was on the main street on the city, across from a beautiful little park and about halfway in between where I’m staying now and the downtown core.

The next day here, we had more free time. I went to pick up my Cedula – my Colombian identification card, and started the search for an apartment.

The hunt technically continues, but I’m pretty sure I’ve found a place. I just need to finalize some things and then we’ll see what happens. If it works out, I’ll be just about a four-minute walk from work. Can’t beat that!

House-hunting has definitely been an adventure, especially since I’ve never had to do it before. I used some leads that were provided by my coordinator and other fellows, but also just walked around calling numbers listed on “For Rent” signs around town. It was great practice for my Spanish, although I’m still struggling a bit with the fast speakers now, since the accent here is a bit different.

It also allowed me to get to know the regional “Paisa” hospitality that everyone told me about. Nearly everyone I met was eager to go out of their way to help out the foreign girl walking around looking for a place to live. Even a taxi driver offered to drive me around so I could write down numbers to call. I definitely think I’m going to like it here!

Another exciting thing that has happened since I’ve got here is that I’ve gotten to know my school! After an event with the Secretary of Education where the fellows got to meet some of our principals, mentors, and/or co-teachers, most of us headed off to go to our schools for the first time.

I met one grade ten class that I’ll be having, and even ended up playing some English games with them when my co-teacher was called to a meeting. I was thankful for the recent orientation, as I had some quick ideas up my sleeve!

Friday was my first full day there. School starts at 7:00AM so I left the hostel at 6:15 for the half hour walk to get there. I got to meet a lot more teachers in the staff room, as well as two more groups of students that I’ll be with for the year. One, a group of grade nines – mostly boys, and one, a group of grade tens – mostly girls.

They were really sweet and a lot of them were eager to ask questions and to participate in the class. The levels of English are quite varied, with some students knowing quite a bit, with others knowing very little. This will definitely be a challenge to overcome, but I’m eager to take it on. I can’t wait to meet the rest of the students next week!

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Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora del Rosario (not my photo)

For now, it’s been nice enjoying a carefree weekend. With nothing to do really, the other fellows and I slept in, had the delicious hostel breakfast, and then headed out to the centre to explore it for the first time. There’s a massive and beautiful cathedral in the main square, so we went there first. On its second floor, there’s a nice café where we had milkshakes and cake with another fellow who came to meet us.

After exploring a bit more of the centre and checking out an apartment that had rooms available, we decided to head to the cable car to take in the city sights from the air. What’s awesome is that it’s not a touristic attraction – it’s a veritable form of transportation to get from the top of the city to the bottom and vice versa. Of course, the best part is that the whole time you get an amazing view! Here are some pictures:

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Tomorrow, there’ll be more of the same relaxation, plus hopefully I’ll get the apartment business sorted. Exciting times, exciting times!

I’m hoping to post more often once I’m settled in my new home. I’ll be sure to share lots more about Manizales and the surrounding areas.

Til then,

L 🙂