My experience working as a volunteer teacher in Colombia

When I arrived to Colombia in 2017, I noticed several opportunities to teach English as a volunteer. There were positions offered by organisations that help you get a volunteer visa and also informal arrangements with individuals or businesses through Workaway, and I’m sure they’ll appear again in the post-pandemic world. If you are interested in this kind of teaching roles, don’t forget to do your research. It’s better to be careful and make sure that you are dealing with a legitimate place whose offer is right for you. For example, I certainly wouldn’t recommend considering unpaid internships in public schools because you should be able to find something better without being exploited.

My first teaching position in Colombia was with Heart for Change, a prominent provider of volunteer opportunities. I had been offered a job in Medellín by a language institute, but the employer was taking ages to produce the necessary documents for my work visa, so I responded to a post on Facebook offering short-term work in Villa de Leyva. A Heart for Change representative immediately scheduled an interview, after which I was offered the position and promised a plane ticket to Bogotá. Even though I was called a volunteer, I would receive a salary of 1.5 million pesos. It’s not that much, but it would allow me to cover my living costs. I realised that it would be a better option than haemorrhaging money in Medellín, so I decided to accept the offer.

Villa de Leyva, main square

The Colombian government has ambitious plans to improve English proficiency in the country. Various providers have been tasked with finding foreigners to teach English in different contexts in Colombia. I joined a programme in which Heart for Change cooperated with the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism to provide classes to professionals involved in tourism. Villa de Leyva is a major tourist destination, so I was really happy with the location. When I arrived to Bogotá for the induction, I met another teacher who signed up for the same programme. He was placed to Mocoa, the site of a deadly landslide a few months prior to that.

The programme had already started, so we were the only two teachers still in Bogotá getting ready for the assignment. And to their credit, Heart for Change took good care of us. They paid for our hostel for a week or so while our visas were being processed, which gave us an opportunity to explore the city a little bit. Their employees helped us open a bank account with just a passport, went to the visa office with us to get our permits, and showed us how to apply for a cédula de extranjería. It was really nice to get assistance with the paperwork.

My Spanish was very limited at the time, so I was happy to find out that I wouldn’t be alone in Villa de Leyva. My teaching colleague was fluent in Spanish and he showed me the ropes. Our workload wasn’t that bad: one class in the morning and another one at night from Tuesday to Friday. At first we taught at the local community centre Punto Vive Digital and hostel Posada Santa Catalina. For the last month or so, we were asked to give classes at Hotel Duruelo, which was a really nice experience. We had to wake up very early for lessons starting at 6am, but the hotel provided us with delicious breakfast, so it was worth it.

Ráquira, Boyacá

Since we had no classes on Mondays, Heart for Change arranged for us to teach 4-hour lessons in Paipa, a town 80 kilometres away from Villa de Leyva. It meant waking up at 5am and returning exhausted in the afternoon, but it was nice to explore another part of Boyacá. All of our classes involved teaching mixed-ability groups, which was a bit challenging. We were provided with a textbook Oxford English for Careers: Tourism, but it was too difficult for most of the students. I decided to use only the recordings from the book and design my lessons from scratch, and that was really helpful for my development as a teacher. Those classes made me feel confident about my abilities and I believe I managed to build good rapport with the learners. I made a few mistakes along the way, but the students didn’t pay anything for the course, so I didn’t feel under pressure at all.

The whole experience proved to be very eventful because my students kept inviting me to various activities. Villa de Leyva is a nice place to visit for a couple of days, but there are also other interesting locations in Boyacá. Our students took us on a hike to Laguna de Iguaque, cycling trip around Paipa, guided excursion to Pantano de Vargas (Boyacá played a crucial role in Colombia’s fight for independence) and several other places. I always had something to do thanks to the locals’ friendliness and hospitality, which helped me improve my Spanish in the process.

I was grateful for getting a chance to get some valuable post-CELTA experience under my belt in such a nice environment. That said, I wasn’t completely convinced of the programme’s effectiveness. There was very little interest from the mayor’s office in promoting the classes; I even met the director of a local museum who hadn’t heard about the opportunity. Quite a few students weren’t involved in tourism at all, and we actually taught a few teenagers who just needed help with their homework.

Cárcavas de Ritoque, Boyacá

Basically, the government decided to pay twice the minimum salary to foreigners whose only necessary qualification is to be a competent English speaker with a Bachelor’s degree. Damien Le Gal provides valid criticism of the strategy in his article English Language Teaching in Colombia: A Necessary Paradigm Shift. In fact, I believe that if all that money were invested in supporting and training Colombian teachers, it would be much more beneficial in the long term.

Anyway, when the programme finished at the end of the year, Heart for Change stopped offering those positions because of some behind the scenes issues. I wasn’t really worried about my future because I had updated my CV and applied for a job with dozens of potential employers. I decided to accept a full-time teaching position in Manizales, so everything worked out really well in the end.

Volunteer opportunities in Colombia are offered by a few providers, including the resurrected Heart for Change, and you’ll be able to find many interesting offers on social media once the pandemic is over. I probably wouldn’t recommend this option to an experienced teacher, but if you are new to the profession, a short-term position like that can provide you with very useful teaching experience.

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