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.

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.