All work and no play? No, thanks!

Since I started teaching, I’ve always written down lesson plans and notes. I keep everything on my PC, and I’m pretty sure that I could find at least some basic information about every lesson I’ve taught. It helps me track my progress as a teacher and see how my views have evolved. There is some other interesting stuff too. For example, when I was going through my work records, I found this schedule from the first half of 2019. Let’s take a look:

All work and no play makes a teacher's hair turn grey

That was probably my longest week as a teacher, and I guess you can imagine that I felt completely knackered at the end of it. To be fair, not all weeks looked like that because the training session took place only once a month. On the other hand, I was occasionally asked to administer exams or substitute for a colleague, which meant a few more hours spent at work.

What we are looking at here is a fairly common schedule that you can expect in an entry-level TEFL position in Colombia. Working for a private language institute is hard work; split shifts and six-day working weeks are the norm. If you sign a full-time contract with a company that sponsors your work visa, they will inevitably want to use your services as often as possible. Also, as I mentioned in the post about Colombian cities, Bogotá is infamous for even more demanding jobs that sometimes include commuting. Living close to the place of employment and not having to travel around the city is an advantage, but spending more than 30 hours per week at work eventually takes its toll.

Non-teachers will probably look at the schedule above with a sense of bemusement since a typical Colombian working week is 48 hours long. If you are a shop assistant in a run-of-the-mill clothes store, you can expect to spend six days a week at work and earn a modest salary that won’t allow you to rent a nice apartment on your own and pay all your living expenses. That’s why it’s so common to see adults living with their parents, which isn’t really surprising when you consider these circumstances.

I think that it’s very important to say that being a teacher involves more duties than the work you do in the classroom. You’ll spend a lot of time writing all kinds of reports and marking homework, tasks, quizzes, etc. You also have to plan your lessons, which is a crucial component of the job. When teachers are tired, they start cutting corners. Simply following the coursebook without personalising the content to your learners’ needs isn’t a good idea. Giving all your students random general recommendations instead of individual feedback won’t help you build rapport with the group. Don’t get fooled by ads that paint teaching jobs as a carefree experience; you have to be prepared to work hard. Teaching online doesn’t necessarily make things easier because you need to spend a lot of time making the activities user-friendly and appropriate for the tools you use.

The main consequence of working long hours is having less time for other activities. I decided to study for my Delta Module One exam while working those 30+ hours per week, and I experienced the most exhausting four months of my life. I had to find extra time for researching new topics in addition to my work schedule, which meant studying in the afternoon between the lessons and then doing most of my reading on Sundays. Fortunately, all that work paid off and I managed to pass the exam without any negative effects on my job, but it’s not something I would like to repeat.

I believe that having a life outside the classroom is extremely important. There are so many things to do in Colombia, so it would be a shame to spend most of the time here working. Being involved in something else than teaching is good for one’s well-being. That said, it’s important to have correct expectations because teaching English in Latin America isn’t a walk in the park. If you have no experience whatsoever, your first job probably won’t be great in terms of work-life balance. You may need to settle for a position that involves working long hours both inside and outside the classroom and getting a salary that is much lower than what you could get in some Asian countries.

The good news is that it gets a little easier with time. When you get some experience under your belt, your lesson planning will become more efficient. You can also recycle materials and activities, so it’s a good idea to store them in way that makes them easy to find. With that in mind, I really don’t think that working long hours is something one should get used to. If you aim to deliver quality lessons to your students, you need to have time to prepare them. Having enough rest is crucial as well, because overworking has adverse effects on your private and social life.

What is important to emphasise is that you don’t need to stay in an entry-level position forever. Once you complete one or two years in that kind of job, you will become a more interesting option for other employers. Obviously, they are more likely to hire someone who is settled in the country rather than an inexperienced teacher who has just arrived. Speaking the local language and getting involved in professional development are things that will help you as well. I think there’s nothing wrong with getting in touch with other employers to see if they could offer you better terms.

Fortunately, I managed to escape the confines of a work visa, and my stay in Colombia doesn’t depend on an employer anymore. Switching to being an hourly-paid teacher isn’t great in terms of job security, but there is a lot more flexibility because I can decide how many hours per week I’m going to work. My usual schedule in recent months has been much more pleasant to look at:

All work and no play? No, thanks

I still work six days a week, but it’s more manageable now. While I was doing my Delta Module Two, I decided to reduce my teaching hours, which helped me pass the course. I sometimes accept extra work in the afternoon when I feel that I have enough energy for it. Having more free time is great because I have time to update this blog and do other stuff that helps me develop professionally.

Of course, it’s also necessary to completely disconnect from teaching from time to time. If I feel like reading a book or watching a movie, I can do so without a nagging feeling at the back of my mind. I absolutely love teaching English, but I don’t think this job should make me feel the way it did in 2019. Taking care of your physical and mental health is extremely important, so there have to be opportunities to take a break from all the teaching, planning, and doing administrative tasks. I’m much happier with my current schedule; I don’t need to rush anything, and I believe that this has a positive effect on the quality of my lessons.

How about you? What’s your work schedule like? Let me know in the comments section.

How to rent an apartment in Colombia

Even though the cost of living in Colombia is lower than in most of Europe or the US, you need to be careful with your expenses. I always keep reminding prospective teachers that you can’t expect to earn a lot of money here unless you have advanced qualifications and several years of experience. Your rent is going to represent your highest monthly expense, so it makes sense to check out various places before committing to a contract.

First of all, you need to understand the concept of estratos. Every Colombian neighbourhood is assigned a number that represents how ‘good’ the place is. The scale goes from number 1, a low-income area where you probably don’t want to live, to number 6, which is a prime location. The funny thing is that if you live in one of the higher estratos, you have to pay more money for the same service (internet, water, etc.) than those from worse neighbourhoods. It leads to some strange situations, but that’s the way it is.

How to rent an apartment Colombia

You should definitely explore the area in which you plan to live to get an idea what the neighbourhood looks like. You can walk around the place, or simply use Google Street View in order to save time. Remember to look at the surrounding areas because Colombia is a land of contrasts. A luxurious neighbourhood can be just a few blocks away from a dodgy area, so it’s important to use common sense and be aware of your surroundings. For the past year or so, I’ve been living in estrato 3 without any issues. The building has a 24-hour reception service and my apartment is in a better state than the one in estrato 5 where I had lived before.

If you are like me and feel that you are too old for flat sharing, you will probably consider renting a furnished apartment. The former option is definitely more economical, but I didn’t even consider it after arriving to Colombia. Teaching involves talking to people all day, so I just prefer to have some peace and quiet when I come home. That said, if you don’t mind living with strangers, you can check out CompartoApto.

If you are moving to a new city, it’s a good idea to book a hotel or Airbnb room for a week or two and give yourself time to find something more permanent. You can start by asking your employer or other teachers for recommendations because they might know of an available place. You can also search for apartments online; there are numerous real estate agencies and Facebook groups dedicated renting flats in every city.

Going through a real estate agency is always going to be more expensive than renting a place directly from its owner. Another point to consider is that you will most likely be asked to sign the contract together with a fiador – someone who has to pay the rent in case you disappear. Obviously, if you travel alone to a new country, you will find it difficult to find someone who would be willing to do that for you. The fiador requirement can be overcome by paying a few months of rent in advance, but it’s still a pain in the backside. Try to avoid real estate agencies if you can.

You should aim to get in touch directly with owners. If you speak Spanish, the easiest thing is to walk around the area you’d like to live in. There are always signs advertising rooms or apartments for rent. You can also talk to porteros and ask them if they know of any available apartments. It takes quite a lot of effort, but you can find a pretty good deal that way by cutting out the middleman and avoiding unnecessary paperwork. There are also websites like OLX, which are quite popular in Colombia, but it’s not always clear if the ad was posted directly by the owner or a real estate agency.

I also think it’s worth checking out apartments on Airbnb. Obviously, booking the place directly through the platform isn’t always the best option because the prices are usually exorbitant. What I suggest is taking advantage of the fact that Airbnb has become extremely popular in the country. As a consequence, some apartments lie empty for long periods of time. If you get customers only at weekends, it’s not ideal in terms of cleaning and security, and some owners may get tired of that.

Fortunately, Airbnb allows you to contact the owner directly before you make a booking, so you can tell them that you would be interested in a long-term rental agreement. It’s quite possible to negotiate a pretty good discount. I’d just recommend that you not use English to communicate with the owners because they may ask for more money. If your Spanish is basic, use a translation app or ask someone to help you out. You also have to make sure you understand how much you are expected to pay in total because there are more fees involved than just the monthly rent. You also need to pay utility bills and in some cases even the building administration fee. Take your time and read the contract carefully.

Renting a furnished apartment on your own is always the most expensive choice. However, if you want to avoid dealing with a lot of hassle, you simply need to bite the bullet and pay extra money for a place that you can move into immediately. Unfurnished apartments are cheaper, but they may not represent the best option when you don’t know how long you are going to stay in the city.