Martin Higgins: The best institutions are in Bogotá

My next interviewee is a Delta-qualified teacher who moved into TEFL from another career. We talked about differences between private academies and universities, teaching other subjects, his own professional development journey, and other topics related to teaching English in Colombia.

Martin Higgins is an English teacher from the UK. He obtained a BA in International Studies in 2009 and an MSc in European Social Policy a year later. Before moving to Colombia, Martin was employed by Cambridge Assessment in various non-teaching roles. He also worked as a news reporter writing about Colombian politics. Martin started teaching English in Bogotá after taking a CELTA course in 2013, and he has been working at Universidad Externado de Colombia since January 2017. He successfully completed his Delta in 2020.

Martin Higgins: The best institutions are in Bogotá

Let’s start with your work before becoming a teacher. Could you briefly describe how you landed a job at Cambridge Assessment and what your responsibilities were?

I’m from Cambridge originally and had worked for Cambridge Assessment in various roles as a temp during the holidays when I was at university. When I graduated from university, jobs were pretty scarce due to the recession, and I wanted to work in politics, which turned out to be a very difficult sector to work in when you have no experience, no contacts, and no ability to work in unpaid internships for a couple of years.

By fortune, a vacancy came up in the Public Affairs department at Cambridge Assessment where I was temping at the time, and I got the role. At first I did the admin for the events team, but after 6 months I was promoted to the Unit Coordinator and got involved in more things related to my desired career path at the time. My boss was really good to me and supported me with my development, but in time I realised that working in politics wasn’t for me, so I decided to move to Colombia with my partner, who is from here, and to take up teaching.

In your role as a reporter, you dealt with topics such as illegal mining, same-sex marriage, and workers’ rights in Colombia. What was your experience like?

It wasn’t as interesting as it might sound. I was living in the UK at the time and wrote articles in the evenings for a mate who was running the Colombia Politics website. It was essentially churnalism, that is regurgitating news into English from other websites.

What prompted you to make a move into teaching?

Necessity, really. As I mentioned, I moved to Colombia with my partner and I didn’t speak any Spanish at the time, so this was the obvious career move. My father worked in EFL for many years and having worked for Cambridge Assessment, I was aware that the CELTA was the best way to start. After a few months working as a teacher, I realised that it was an enjoyable profession, and luckily I’ve been able to secure some decent roles here in Bogotá over the years.

You did your CELTA at International House Bogotá eight years ago. Looking back, did you feel ready for your first teaching job after taking the course?

I’m not sure anyone is ready after the CELTA, but you’ve got to start somewhere. I started off working with very small groups, so that was an easy way in before teaching large groups in my first university role.

What are the main differences between teaching at private academies and universities in Colombia?

The money and the hours. Working in private academies in Bogotá is pretty poorly paid, and the class times are usually first thing in the morning or in the evening. Not fun, but a rite of passage you have to go through I guess when you have no experience and cannot get a job at a university or bilingual school.

You have also taught subjects such as Diplomacy and International Relations Theory. How does that compare to teaching English?

It’s not entirely different. Most of what you learn in terms of lesson planning and classroom management can be transferred across to teaching other subjects. The key difference with teaching those courses was that I would have to spend a lot more time preparing for the classes by reading.

Have your degrees and experience in non-teaching jobs helped you in any way in your work as an English teacher?

Of course. Working at Cambridge Assessment certainly helped me organise my time better, which is an essential skill for teachers. Plus there are all the admin skills I developed that make life so much easier when you’re a teacher.

You spent four years working as an IELTS speaking examiner. Would you recommend this role to other teachers?

Absolutely. It gives you much more confidence in evaluating student’s level, and it’s a really good thing to have on the CV.

Some schools and universities in Colombia are finally returning to in-person education. How would you describe your experience working during the pandemic?

We are still teaching completely online. I can’t say I’ve particularly enjoyed teaching during the pandemic. Virtual teaching is something that can work, but only if the students choose it. The current situation has been imposed on our students and many of them don’t particularly enjoy it and would much prefer to be back in the classroom, as would I. Here’s hoping next year will see that possible.

Let’s hope so! It would be great to finally see the students in person. By the way, where did you do your Delta? Do you think that it has helped you in your teaching career?

I did it through Bell and their distance programme. I chose that school as I had worked there as a teacher before and I really like the institution. I was fortunate enough to find a really helpful tutor here in Colombia to assist me through Module Two, which was by far the most useful in my development as a teacher. After doing that, I really feel confident about entering any classroom in any environment and being able to teach a principled and interesting lesson.

I remember that you weren’t impressed by the structure of Module Three. If you could make some changes to this module, what would you do?

I would change the word count. It’s far too short and it hinders your ability to really explore the course design element properly, so you end up just trying to tick the boxes that the assessment criteria require, which leaves very little room for creativity.

Do you have any further plans for post-Delta development?

I would like to find some extra work in materials and course design in the long term, perhaps for a publisher. That’s a long term plan and will require more development, but I’m not sure if I’ll do any formal qualifications in the short term.

You have spent many years in Bogotá, so I imagine that you enjoy living there. Have you ever considered looking for a job in another city?

I’m very happy at the Externado and wouldn’t want to work anywhere else in Colombia – Bogotá is where my partner’s family live and the best institutions to work in are here. Who knows what the future holds, though.

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