The curious case of native speakerism in Colombia

A lot has been written on the topic of native speakerism. In short, some people believe that a teacher’s passport is more important than their actual qualifications and experience. That kind of thinking obviously isn’t very enlightened, but it’s something non-native English speakers have to deal with if they decide to get involved in teaching.

Fortunately, there are people who fight against this type of prejudice. If you aren’t familiar with the work of Marek Kiczkowiak from TEFL Equity Advocates & Academy, you can watch him being interviewed on the subject of native speakerism in English and Spanish. I believe that he provides relevant arguments to support his point of view. Most of that is common sense, but convincing people to change their long-held beliefs is the tricky part. I think Hugh Dellar made some great points in his post The curse of native speakerism, which was published just a few days ago.

Dealing with native speakerism

My own experience with native speakerism has been rather peculiar. When I got my first teaching position in Colombia, another teacher and I delivered classes to professionals involved in tourism. Both of us were referred to as ‘nativos’, even though neither of us qualify as native English speakers and we wouldn’t be able to get a visa in some Asian countries. I just figured that it was probably a marketing ploy to promote Colombia Bilingüe, which is an ambitious programme run by the Ministry of Education. Our classes were free of charge, so I just let it go.

Fast forward a few months, and I started teaching in a private language institute. When I introduced myself to my students, I openly talked about my origins. I described some traditions from my country and taught a few Czech words to my students. After the course had finished, the students were asked to fill in a survey and evaluate my performance. To my surprise, quite a few of them said that it was great to be taught by a native English speaker. Hold on, that doesn’t make much sense…

Then I realised that it wasn’t just my students who thought that way. I had sent my CV to the language centre of a university, and its director decided to interview me via Skype. It was quite an ordinary conversation until the director said, ‘Our new teachers have to take a language proficiency exam, but since you are a native English speaker, you don’t need to do that.’ I didn’t want to take the job anyway, so I didn’t respond to that. I guess they didn’t even bother to properly read my CV.

It all got even stranger when I spoke to a teacher born and bred in the USA who told me that some Colombians didn’t believe that she was from her country of birth. Then I read Cristine Khan’s research paper that focused on the same issue, and it confirmed my suspicions that it’s not just about your passport or accent. I think it’s obvious why I am incorrectly considered to be from an English speaking country while genuine native English speakers have their identity questioned. In many people’s eyes, a ‘nativo’ is simply a white foreigner.

I think this misconception stems from the way stereotypes work. If you look like a native English speaker, then you must be a native English speaker. To be honest, it makes me feel quite uncomfortable at times. I often get asked by students or their parents for private classes because they want to be taught by a ‘nativo’. When I tell them that I am not a native English speaker, they can’t get their head around it. If I am too busy to offer private classes, I recommend that the students contact some of the local teachers who might be available. Of course, there are many amazing Colombian teachers here. Some of them actually grew up in the US and their accent is more “native-like” than mine. Sadly, my suggestion usually isn’t met with enthusiasm.

As you can see, we are dealing with something completely irrational. If you wish to get involved in TEFL in Colombia, you need to be ready for the fact the country is still a bit conservative in some respects. I have already mentioned that your CV should include a photo when applying for a job. It’s really strange to see that some irrelevant features can be so advantageous. I know these stereotypes won’t disappear in the near future, but I feel it’s important to share my thoughts. When someone brings up this subject, I always say that looking at someone’s passport and complexion is a pretty unreliable way of judging their ability to teach English. We need to move on from those unhelpful ideas and make sure that teachers are given equal opportunities to prove their worth.

Applying for a teaching job in Colombia (post-pandemic)

Even though Colombia has reopened its borders, I don’t recommend looking for a job here this year. Many teachers have lost their positions or had their teaching hours reduced because of the health emergency. Classes take place online, which presents numerous challenges. This articles describes a situation before the pandemic. I decided to publish this post because I believe we will eventually return back to normal at some point during next year, so some readers may find the information useful in the future.

Latin American countries are considered to be traditional when it comes to applying for jobs. Don’t expect to be hired from abroad. If you contact potential employers while being outside Colombia, they won’t get back to you in most cases. There are some exceptions, though. One is having an excellent academic profile with relevant qualifications and experience. The other is applying for a programme that is based on bringing foreigners to Colombia. Most people simply travel to Colombia as tourists and start looking for a job after their arrival. This is perfectly legal and the good news is that you don’t need to leave the country to get your employee visa.

Please note that when you travel to Colombia as a tourist, some airlines may ask you for proof of onward travel. You can book a refundable ticket and cancel it after arriving, or there are some online services that can help you overcome this issue.

When you finally make it to the country, you should get a Colombian phone number because nobody is going to call your foreign number. What is important to know is that when you use a Colombian SIM card in a phone imported from abroad, the mobile phone provider will probably ask you to register the phone. You might even have to produce a receipt to demonstrate that the phone is yours. This anti-theft policy is quite annoying, but you have to go through the process, otherwise your phone will be blocked.

When it comes to applying for a job, you may use websites like CompuTrabajo. However, most of the offers there aren’t great and the whole process takes a lot of time. The fastest way of getting an interview is simply dropping off your CV in person. Just look for schools, institutes and universities in the city and leave your CV there. If you are lucky, you may even get an interview immediately. I also recommend getting a nice photo taken for your CV. It may seem unimportant, but in some cases your appearance can improve your chances of landing a job, especially if you look like an obvious foreigner. It shouldn’t really be that way, but that is how it works with some employers.

As I mentioned before, you should be flexible in terms of locations. Putting your eggs in one basket may not be the best strategy. It could be a good idea to contact potential employers in various cities so that you can compare their offers and choose the best option.

The problem is that most places don’t believe that having a ‘Work with Us’ section on their website could be beneficial. Sending your CV to e-mails like info@[schoolname] is completely futile and your message will most likely never be read. What you have to do is to get contact details of a relevant person. They are not called Director of Studies here, but their title is something like Academic Director, Academic Coordinator or Director of Language Department. You need to ask the potential employer to pass you the person’s details. If your Spanish isn’t good enough to make a call, try to contact the place through social media.

Once you have the person’s e-mail, you can send them your CV that way. Apparently, sending cover letters is not a thing in Colombia. Most people just submit their CV and wait for a call. That seems like a missed opportunity to me, and I believe that adding a personal message can’t hurt. Try to indicate why you would be interested in moving to that city. If you have some references, you should attach them as well. I highly recommend mentioning that you will need visa assistance to set correct expectations. Someone might go through the hiring process with you and then tell you that they can’t help you obtain an employee visa, making the whole thing a colossal waste of time.

Don’t be disheartened if most people never respond to your e-mail. Receiving a polite rejection message is not common and in many cases your application will simply be ignored. Applying in person or getting recommended by someone else is still preferred.

If you are a qualified teacher, you should receive some responses. You will probably be invited to teach a short demo lesson in addition to an interview. Many employers are worried that a foreign teacher may leave after a few months, so coming across as someone who is serious about the profession is a huge advantage. Being well-dressed definitely helps. Don’t be surprised if you get asked to undergo an intrusive psychological evaluation and a perfunctory medical exam (both completely in Spanish).

I would also recommend that you take your time and talk to more employers. Accepting the first offer that comes your way may not be the best decision you can make. It is always a good idea to have a backup plan. I will always remember the time I was offered a job at a private institute and everything looked fine. Well, instead of preparing all necessary documents for my visa application, the employer stopped communicating with me without any explanation. By the time they got back to me with the papers a month later, I had already found a better position.

Hiring in Colombia works in a slightly different way to other parts of the world, but if you are qualified, professional and persistent, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to find a job once the pandemic is over. Good luck in your search!