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.

There is no magic bullet

A new academic year is upon us, and I can’t wait to teach again! It remains to be seen if or when we will return to physical classrooms, but I feel cautiously optimistic about 2021. It can’t get any worse than the previous year, right? The unexpected switch to remote teaching inevitably caused huge issues in the ELT industry. A lot of students decided not to join online courses for various perfectly understandable reasons, which inevitably led to economic problems and job losses in many institutions.

Private language academies now have to convince potential students that paying for English classes is a good idea. Colombian economy has been hit hard by the pandemic and many people need to think twice before spending their money. Businesses are looking for ways to dig themselves out of a hole, and those involved in education are no exception. Some may consider copying their competitors’ practices or even trying something completely new. When it comes to ELT, I have encountered a few ideas that definitely wouldn’t represent a step in the right direction, and I’d like to write a few words about them.

There is no magic bullet

Hiring unqualified teachers
Giving a teaching job to someone whose only qualification is being (or looking like) a native English speaker is usually a recipe for disaster. If you want to avoid the risk of poorly delivered classes full of incoherent rambling, you should hire someone with relevant teaching qualifications. I mean, this is just common sense.

There are plenty of experienced teachers in Colombia looking for work right now. They are ready to hit the ground running, and they deserve to be given a chance to do so. Local teachers are the backbone of any ELT community, and that’s why supporting them should be their employers’ priority. In fact, I believe that providing existing teachers with incentives to get their CELTA, Delta, Master’s degree or other qualifications would be a better long-term strategy than looking for quick fixes from abroad.

Relying on a magic method
I can’t imagine myself teaching from a script. Schools that claim their unique method is the best way to teach aren’t my cup of tea. It’s certainly useful to be familiar with different teaching methods and techniques, but having to use only one of them seems like a missed opportunity to me. Why would you restrict yourself to repeating the same thing again and again? It must get boring pretty fast.

I really don’t think there is just one way to teach. It is imperative to take your teaching context and students’ needs into account instead of applying global solutions. Building rapport and personalising your lessons is much more useful than following some random ‘method’ imposed from the outside.

Peddling debunked myths
I spent most of my life believing the theory that says the left side of the brain controls logic and the right side is responsible for creativity. I heard about it at school and accepted it as something that is true. When I started teaching, I noticed the theory again in some coursebooks, so I decided to read about it a little more. It turns out that the whole thing isn’t true and there is hard data to prove that.

While the left/right brain myth is relatively harmless, some theories are actually applied in teaching practice, and that’s where problems arise. The theory of multiple intelligences is quite attractive, but even its Wikipedia page says that it isn’t supported by evidence. According to the article Each to their own, which was published in The Guardian in 2005, Howard Gardner himself made some damning remarks about using his theory in teaching.

The Harvard professor never intended his book on multiple intelligences (MI) to be a blueprint for learning, but he was aware that many educationalists were adapting his ideas. The shock came on a visit to Australia.

“I learned that an entire state had adapted an education programme based in part on MI theory,” he says. “The more I learned about this programme, the less comfortable I was. Much of it was a mishmash of practices – left brain and right brain contrasts, sensory learning styles, neurolinguistic programming and multiple intelligences approaches, all mixed with dazzling promiscuity.”

One idea that always seems to pop up is called learning styles. Again, I understand the theory’s appeal, but the problem is that it has been debunked many times. Asking your students to fill in a learning styles questionnaire and then building your classes around the results could actually have detrimental consequences. I recommend that you read The ‘Learning Styles’ Myth: Don’t Spread Fake News by James Egerton. It’s time we stopped wasting our time with this.

It would be unfair to blame the people who came up with these ideas. They thought that they were onto something good, but their theories turned out to be incorrect. That’s quite common, so we should simply move on and focus on something more useful.

Adopting fads and hoping they work
There are some ideas that need to be researched more in order to determine how effective they are. Take growth mindset, for example. I can’t deny that its premise sounds good because self-improvement is undoubtedly a good thing. The issue is that it still isn’t completely clear how growth mindset can be used in the classroom. It all seems to be based on wishful thinking. You should read Philip Kerr’s post A measured approach to mindset interventions for more details. I am not in favour of utilising new ideas in our teaching practice just because they are popular at the moment. Shouldn’t we be primarily concerned with finding out if our students will actually benefit from them?

I understand that it’s tempting to look for simple solutions, but that can lead to losing track of what is truly important. If you want to provide high-quality classes, you have to support your teachers. They need to have access to books and academic papers and be encouraged to read them. They need to get relevant training, be observed, and receive individual feedback on their performance in the classroom. Professional development is a long-term commitment, and I don’t think that taking shortcuts is likely to produce positive results.