My four-year experience with Centro Colombo Americano

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.

Cerro del Santísimo, Floridablanca

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.

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.