When I began working for International House, it meant that my time at Centro Colombo Americano came to an end. The institution has played a very important role in my professional life: In addition to spending four years there as a teacher (in Manizales and Bucaramanga), I attended in-person conferences in Armenia and Pereira, taught public schools students through a project run by the Cali branch, and delivered a webinar at an online conference organised by CCA Bogotá. It doesn’t make me an expert on all matters related to Centro Colombo Americano, but I’d still like to take this opportunity to reflect on my time there.
Centro Colombo Americano is a network of non-profit organisations supported by the US Embassy. Apart from teaching English, these binational centres run public libraries, organise cultural events, and help Colombians study in the US through EducationUSA. They also participate in the Access scholarship programme, which allows young people from economically disadvantaged areas to study English, and other social projects.
I suppose that I should address an important point about this organisation: I was never asked to push any political agenda during my time at Centro Colombo Americano. I did include activities on US culture in my lessons, but they usually led to discussions involving a variety of opinions and I stressed that all points of view were welcome. Colombia’s relationship with the USA has been rather complicated, so many of my students often expressed strong criticism of some US policies. Nobody had any problems with that approach, and I felt comfortable working for the institute.
To be honest, I didn’t know much about Centro Colombo Americano when I received an offer to join it; all I wanted was a job. In November 2017, I was enjoying the last few weeks of my stint as a teacher in Villa de Leyva. I’d had a couple of interviews with language academies based in Cali and Bogotá, but both wanted me to deliver a demo lesson in person, which wasn’t a viable option because my classes were scheduled to finish in the middle of December, right before the main vacation period in Colombia.
Out of nowhere, I got an email from the academic supervisor of Centro Colombo Americano Manizales inviting me to teach a demo class through Skype. It took me a while to realise where that came from. Three months before that, I had sent my CV to dozens language institutes all over the country. Most of them never replied to my email, but it seems someone in Manizales liked what they saw and the institute decided to get in touch with me when they were looking for new teachers. The demo lesson went quite well, and a week later the academic director called me and offered me a full-time job. Compared to my contacts with other language institutes, the people from Manizales were really keen on hiring me, so I decided to accept the offer. It was amazing to secure a job before the vacation period, and after a trip to Bogotá to get my employee visa, I took a bus to Manizales at the beginning of January.
My time at Centro Colombo Manizales was very useful in terms of gaining teaching experience, particularly at the beginning. I taught split shifts and had to learn how to manage my time effectively. Fortunately, I could lean on my CELTA training, which I found extremely helpful at that time. It didn’t work very well when teaching 10-year olds, but it was still important for me to go through various challenges and get out of my comfort zone. It was also interesting to find out that other CCA institutes in Colombia are academically independent and use different approaches and materials.
In my second year in Manizales, I decided to get in touch with other potential employers. I had a full-time contract, so I was working long hours and didn’t feel that my salary reflected the amount of work I did for the institute. Even though I had passed my Delta Module One exam in June 2019 and indicated that I would do the whole diploma, the institute was reluctant to offer me improved terms, so I knew it was time to look for a job elsewhere.
My priority was to get a university job in Bucaramanga, so I travelled to the capital of Santander and taught a demo lesson there. I was offered the job, but the conditions were so bad that one of the teachers who played the role of a student during the demo lesson privately told me that I shouldn’t take it. Thanks, mate! You saved me from a lot of trouble. I paid a visit to the local Centro Colombo Americano instead and accepted their offer to join the institute.
By the way, you are obliged to undergo psychological evaluation before signing a contract with CCA. This involves completing a weird multiple-choice personality test with questions that are difficult to understand unless you are proficient in Spanish. The test is followed by an interview with a psychologist. In my case, one of the interviewers was very reasonable and asked only some basic stuff. Unfortunately, the other psychologist was probably the most unprofessional and incompetent person I have met in Colombia and the interview was a deeply unpleasant experience for me. Unfortunately, you have to deal with some crap if you want to teach English in this country.
Anyway, moving to Bucaramanga proved to be a good decision because I switched to being an hourly-paid teacher, which allowed me to complete my Delta. I wouldn’t have been able to do a three-month Module Two course while teaching in Manizales. Working for CCA Bucaramanga wasn’t that time-consuming and I used the extra time for studying. There were some issues with switching to online teaching due to the pandemic, but everything turned out to be fine. In fact, I’d much rather continue working online than deliver in-person lessons in a face mask.
The main reason I moved to Medellín and started working as an independent contractor was that staying at Centro Colombo Americano would have been a bad move for my career. In December 2021, I was paid exactly the same hourly rate as in January 2020. Continuing working in Bucaramanga would have been an excellent deal for the institute but a terrible one for myself. There didn’t seem to be an opportunity for an upwards move, and as a Delta-qualified teacher I feel that I can do more than keep teaching the same courses for the same money. There are supervising roles at the CCA institutes, but they are more about administration and don’t seem to involve any teaching, which isn’t what I’m looking for at the moment.
Another thing I struggled with was what I would call a tendency to fall for magic solutions in the academic area. For example, I attended seminars about the benefits of learning styles and multiple intelligences, and I was instructed by my superior to apply the PPP lesson framework in my classes. Obviously I decided to completely ignore those instructions and kept doing my own thing. Nobody had any issues with my work, but it was still disappointing to see that we weren’t on the same page in terms of teaching approaches.
Before the pandemic, I attended a lot of professional development sessions delivered by visitors from other cities. Some of them were really good, but I felt that most of those seminars weren’t very effective. Let me give you an example. At first, I attended a session by one of the senior teachers on in-class flipped learning. It was great because it was based on loop input and I love learning new things in a practical way. However, it was then followed by numerous sessions over the course of several months dealing with exactly the same topic. I didn’t feel that it was necessary to listen to someone speak about the benefits of in-class flipped learning when I had already been trained on that. I definitely learnt much more from experienced colleagues at the institute than from those externally-led sessions.
The main issue with the CPD programme was that there was hardly any follow-up. In fact, during my two years at CCA Manizales, I had just one 30-minute observation and two 5-minute ones. The academic department in Bucaramanga didn’t observe me at all and I didn’t receive any personalised advice on my teaching in two years. As a consequence, I felt isolated there because it seemed to me that nobody cared about what I was doing in my classes. I kept developing as a teacher only thanks to individual studying, figuring things on my own, and paying for teacher training courses.
I spent four eventful years at CCA and met many amazing teachers, students, and staff members there. That said, if you are a foreigner with no family links to the city, it’s difficult to see this organisation as a long-term option for experienced teachers. You’ll eventually hit a career ceiling and it will be necessary for you to look for a better-paying job elsewhere.
I understand that this blog post may seem overly critical, so I think it’s necessary to emphasise that in the context of Colombian private language academies Centro Colombo Americano is a good employer – after all, I voluntarily spent four years there! There are some absolutely terrible companies that don’t treat teachers well; you can read some horror stories in the Blacklist of Colombian Language Institutes Facebook group. Fortunately, Centro Colombo Americano isn’t mentioned in the group in a negative way, which is aligned with my own experience. I was always paid on time and everything was done by the book, including contributions to my health insurance and pension.
To sum up my ramblings, I believe that Centro Colombo Americano is an organisation that does things with good intentions. I left it because I want to make TEFL my long-term career, but I’d say that as an entry-level job it’s a pretty good option. It provides newly-qualified teachers with valuable experience, and you don’t need to worry about getting conned or having to teach scripted lessons. If you are looking for your first teaching job, I recommend that you get in touch with CCA and try to make a good impression because there aren’t many better places in Colombia to start your career in ELT.