Mayank, originally from India, completed the Trinity CertTESOL in our centre in Kerala in 2016. He has since travelled to Colombia to become a Fellow of Heart for Change whose aim is to make Colombia bilingual. In this blog post, he explains how he was accepted onto the program and what it is like to teach English in Colombia.
Where did you take your Trinity CertTESOL course?
I earned my Trinity CertTESOL at OxfordTEFL in Kerala and continued to teach in Kerala for a year.
What did you do once you graduated?
During my first year as an ESL teacher, I realised that the number of places my Indian passport could take me is limited. I signed up for different ESL job portals to look for a job that would give me good international exposure while enabling me to explore a new culture. That’s when I came across the English Teaching Fellowship program by the Colombian Ministry of Education. People told me Colombia was an unsafe country and that I shouldn’t go there. But I took a leap of faith and applied, gave interviews and finally got accepted to the program.
The program is for new and experienced teachers alike. Participants teach English with Colombian co-teachers in public schools all over Colombia. Students come from poor, and sometimes troubled backgrounds. Some families have also been affected by the Colombian conflict that was on until last year. It’s a great initiative by Heart for Change, Volunteers Colombia and the Ministry of Education. Their aim is to make Colombia bilingual so that students can explore a world of opportunities not only in Colombia, but abroad as well.
What is it like to teach in at this program in Colombia?
The work culture in Colombia is very laid back and people are carefree. So if you’re used to punctuality, you may be in for a surprise. A class at 9 AM will usually start at 9:10 or 9:15 AM with a few students coming in even after that. But students love having a foreign English teacher in the class so they rarely miss classes.
Fellows go through a ten-day orientation in Bogota where they’re informed about their role as a co-teacher and given basic TEFL training. This is also the time when fellows learn about cultural differences between Colombia and their own countries. They also get their visas sorted out at orientation. The visa for the program is free. It is called the “TP 1 courtesy” visa. The ministry sends out visa invitation letters to the Fellows before they leave for Colombia and they apply for the visa online, using the letter. The e-visa is processed and sent within 10 days and the actual visa is stamped in your passport during orientation.
After a busy 10 days in Bogotá, fellows fly to their respective placement cities and are assigned their schools. Each region has a regional coordinator who helps the fellows in their region with problems which can be professional, cultural or problems related to health.
Fellows are required to have one hour a week with students to teach them about the culture of their country in addition to the 24 hours class time. Fellows also have two weekly planning hours at school and an hour a week with local English teachers to help the teachers learn or practice English.
What is your day to day teaching life like?
The focus of the program is on ninth and tenth grades (students between the ages of 14 and 17) and most Fellows work only with these two grades. Students don’t have English classes every day. They have about 3 or 4 hours a week of English. Most students are not very motivated as they start learning English from 6th grade and can’t make much sense of it. Also, not many Colombian English teachers have a good enough level of English to teach the students so they end up cutting corners and the students end up learning almost no English.
On my first day at school I asked my 9th and 10th grade students how they were. They didn’t understand my question and I had to ask them in Spanish in order to get a reply. That’s when I set a goal for myself that I would give a class entirely in English by the end of the year. I’m working with my co-teachers and students to achieve this goal. Every month we try to use more and more English in class but the students and teachers still prefer Spanish. It has been a slow process so far, but we’re getting there.
Another challenge has been to motivate the students to learn English. Most teachers don’t seem very concerned about how much the students learn and hence don’t try to make classes fun. I use games and activities in class to make it fun for the students but a co-teaching setting can be a lot more difficult than teaching alone and there may be some disagreements sometimes. We have two planning hours every week at school and all the planning almost always falls apart in class due to one reason or the other.
Public school teachers have been teaching for many years and some try to assert their authority over the Fellow in the classroom. But we get tremendous support from the program team and they try to address all of our issues in our monthly meetings with the school.
Considering how complacent people can be here, the program is quite organized. We were told in advance that we would have to deal with last minute cancellations because everything is uncertain here. I have arrived at my school several times only to find out there were no classes that day. Different participants have different schedules. Some only work mornings, some in the afternoon and some have classes scattered throughout the day. I have it good and I only work from 6:30 AM to 12:30 PM, or 1:30 PM on Thursdays and Fridays. So if I have my classes cancelled I have them cancelled for the entire day.
What are the working conditions like?
Fellows make about 500 USD every month which is meant to cover their accommodation, food and basic personal expenses. In small cities and towns this amount is enough to get by, but in big cities like Bogota, Medellin and Cali, I can’t imagine 500 USD being enough.
After their contract expiration, some people stay back and look for jobs at universities and language institutes. Teaching at a university or a language academy can be very different from teaching at public schools. The students are more motivated, and without a co-teacher, it is much easier to carry out your lesson plan efficiently.
What is it like where you live?
My placement city is San Juan de Pasto in the department of Narino. It’s a small city and has an active volcano just 10 KM away. Because it’s small, it’s easy to keep in touch with the other Fellows and make new friends and socialise. We meet every other week and do something together. There is a good mix of nationalities including people from Ghana, USA, England, South Africa, Jamaica, India and Australia. Since Pasto is in the beautiful Andes Mountains, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, rock climbing and camping. So far I have hiked two out of the four volcanoes in Narino. Looking forward to hiking the other two soon.
What are your plans for the future?
This is my first experience living abroad and so far it’s been great. I plan to do Trinity DipTESOL next year then hope to find work in Russia and eventually earn my Masters in TESOL.
If you are thinking about becoming qualified to teach English to make a difference to people’s lives anywhere in the world, find out more about our Trinity CertTESOL course, get in touch or apply here.