What's it like to teach English in Colombia?
Colombia Is a fascinating place for teaching English, as it lies at the crossroads of North and South America. Educational spending in the country has nearly doubled over the last two decades, and foreign teachers are welcomed with open arms to teach in Colombia in classrooms of all levels. Whether you’re teaching in the hills of Bogotá or modern Medellin, it's important to know the phases you'll go through on your first days teaching in Colombia.
Just like any teaching abroad experience, your life will be an emotional rollercoaster of ups and downs. Knowing what to expect will make you more comfortable adjusting to this Latin American destination. Here are the 10 phases you can expect to go through your first few days (or weeks) as you teach English in Colombia.
Phase 1: Que chevere es Colombia!
Everything is awesome and perfect and you’ve never been anywhere more magical! Upon your arrival, you’ll be swept off your feet by Colombia’s diversity of food, culture, and language. You want to go everywhere and do and see everything. You’ll be bombarded with accents and slang you they didn’t teach you in your high school Spanish class. You’ll want to pick up every new Spanish saying. You’ll hear so much Spanish that you'll be drained trying to keep up with it, but in a few weeks, you’ll start referring to “cool” things as “chevere” and “bacano.”
Teaching English in Colombia is exciting because it offers as much geographic diversity as it does linguistic diversity. You won’t want to wait to get out and explore its national parks, coffee farms, waterfalls, and canyons. There’s also countless museums, art galleries, and festivals to feed your cultural appetite. You’re riding that honeymoon phase of just having arrived, but wait...
Phase 2: Why am I so dizzy?
The highest highs bring the lowest lows. Literally and figuratively. Cities in Colombia tend to be high in the mountains, so in your first few days of teaching, you may experience some altitude sickness. The weather depends on the altitude of the place and the amount of rain. Bogotá is a staggering 8,530 feet high and its people enjoy a consistently cool, spring-like climate. Medellín, the “city of the eternal spring” is a bit warmer, and Cali is hotter. The coastal cities like Cartagena are super hot, and you’ll see people rocking that fan culture there and heading for the mall for the air conditioning.
You might have given yourself some whiplash from all your initial excitement trying to do and see everything. Now it’s time to buckle down, settle in, and teach. As things start to slow down and even out you might be feeling some emotional altitude sickness. It’s all part of that roller coaster we in the biz call culture shock. Don’t worry, you’ll adjust.
Phase 3: Everything I thought I knew about Colombia was wrong.
The media, your friends and family, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker all seemed to have very strong opinions on your decision to find a teaching job in Colombia. It’s too dangerous, they said. It’s too far away. It’s too this or it’s too that. Now you know the REAL Colombia. It may have a complicated history, but the present and future are bright in this Latin American nation.
Here’s a PSA: Colombians don’t appreciate narcotic trafficking related jokes, comments, or innuendos. Just two decades ago, Bogota and Medellin were some of the most violent cities in the world because of drug trade violence. This tarnished image of Colombia is finally fading away as the country has become a safer and popular tourism destination.
Medellin was known as the home base of Colombia’s most famous drug lord, Pablo Escobar but now, it’s known as one of the most innovative cities. The people pride themselves on the country’s only metro system; it’s spotless. You can’t eat or drink inside of it! Don’t miss the shiny metrocable, the cable cars that carry people up the hills. Medellin feels like a shockingly efficient city, not a warzone.
Phase 4: Where are my students?!
Classroom etiquette in Colombia may be more laid back than you’re used to. Colombians would say they’re descomplicados, which means that they don’t get too worked up about things. For better or worse, this attitude has influenced the educational system, making punctuality a more gray area than in most English-speaking countries. You might notice students and teachers coming late to class. Private schools have more structured absence policies and consequences than public schools do.
Don’t be taken aback if your kids call you by your first name. It’s normal for students to be a on a first-name basis with their profes.
Phase 5: What do you mean “There’s no teaching supply closet?”
While this nation isn’t South America’s poorest, you’ll have limited resources. Public school teachers are given little to no school supplies. Many of them don’t even have their own classrooms, instead rotating around the school once a class finishes up. Some teachers search for empty rooms or resort to teaching outside in the heat.
A private school might have an English lab complete with air conditioning (gasp!), a smart board, and computers. Even in the nicest schools, you’ll learn how other teachers improvise when the power goes out. Being creative is an art, and learning to improvise will make you an even stronger teacher. You’ll certainly need to stay on your toes.
Phase 6: I AM ROLLING IN DOUGH!
As an affordable country to live in and travel throughout, it is likely that you’ll save up a decent amount of pesos while teaching in Colombia. In general, expect to earn from $800 to $3,000 a month, depending on your placement and experience. You can rent a nice, one bedroom flat in most Colombian cities for $400 or $500 a month and the cost of daily necessities, like food and transport, tend to be quite inexpensive in Colombia.
There’s lots of affordable, delicious street food like ground beef empanadas, buñuelos, and Chocolate en Leche de Coco. Locals eat at market comedors to save money, and you’re a local now, so you know what’s up. You can chat with vendors and haggle for produce and souvenirs for friends and family like the best of them. Your wallet and your tummy are full and happy.
Phase 7: No Uber?? I have no idea how to get anywhere.
Buses? Taxis? What? How?! The traffic in big cities like Bogotá is chaotic and very overwhelming. The main transportation system is called Transmilenio made up of red busses, but there are many other kinds of buses that only locals know how to navigate- not to worry, you’re basically a local now, you can figure it out! If you want to grab a taxi, it’s better to call a cab company or to use a mobile device application to get an accountable ride.
As for traveling between cities, going from the coast (Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa Marta) to the interior is super different. On the coast, there are public buses (In Barranquilla it's the Transmetro), but most people take colectivo buses with drivers who might have one hand on the steering wheel and the other hand wrapped around an arepa, but you’ll survive. Buses are decked out in brightly-colored decorations, from playboy bunnies to crosses. You basically have to ask around to find out where to go, but Colombians are generally helpful.
Phase 8: Why are people (and my students) staring at me like I’m an alien?
Not many immigrants came to Colombia after the period of Spanish rule. Most of the immigrants who did come to Colombia moved to the coastal city of Barranquilla. A range of immigrants from Lebanon to Catalonia to China settled there (Shakira is from Barranquilla and is of Lebanese and Italian ancestry).
If you’re caucasian and wandering the streets outside of large cities like Barranquilla, get ready for stares and prepare for street harassment if you’re a woman. Most of the stares are just curious stares, as locals try to decipher where you’re from until they’ll straight up ask you. It’s fun making them take a guess before you reveal your identity! Even students will look at you curiously at first, full of questions about who you are and where you’re from, but then they’ll just be staring at you during lessons to convince you they’re paying attention. Hopefully they are paying attention (maybe you should quiz them?).
Phase 9: How am I not more exhausted?
Teaching is a tough gig, and can take a lot out of you. In Colombia, the amount of free time you’ll have will shock you, so you’ll probably feel more rested than you thought you would. No more late nights grading and lesson planning (unless you’re more of a night owl anyway)!
To meet enrollment demands, most primary and middle schools offer morning and afternoon sessions, giving teachers flexibility in determining their own schedules. You might have entire mornings off and not get to school until noon or 1:00 p.m. Or, you might get to work early and have the entire afternoon off. On top of that, classes get cancelled for the many fiestas patronales throughout the year.
Phase 10: I LOVE my job!
There are ups and there are downs, but at the end of the day you love your students, your job, and Colombia. You’re a teaching rock star, a regular Dewey Finn! You’re building a great rapport with students and colleagues and you are confident in your abilities. You know you can make it through the semester or year, and the urge to pack up and go home is all but a distant memory. There’s nowhere you’d rather be but in your classroom. The roller coaster is far from over, but it’s nothing you can’t handle!
(Bonus) Phase: Back on the roller coaster. I WANT TO SEE AND DO EVERYTHING!
Now that things have calmed down and you’re adjusted to life as a teacher in Colombia you can start checking things off your bucket list! Take advantage of your weekends and those bank holidays to soak up everything Colombia has to offer.
Cities like Bogotá and Medellín are bursting with activities from opera, theater, museums, salsa dancing lessons, and lectures. You can attend local festivals like the Rock al Parque, which is Latin America’s biggest free rock concert every year. Bogota also hosts an annual LGBT pride parade. If you’re on the coast, don’t miss the Carnaval de Barranquilla. Along the sidewalks, graffiti and intricate murals of animals, movies, politicians, and landscapes give the cities their own character.
The highlands of Central Colombia are home to forests, coffee and tobacco farms, waterfalls, and Chicamocha Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world. Take a weekend bike tour along the canyon and stop to watch the sunset. Other sights include the Tayrona National Park, the huge wax palms of Valle de Cocora in the coffee region of Salento, and the stunning Caño Cristales, a Quartz-filled river with a kaleidoscope of colors.
Teaching English in Colombia is as fun as it sounds
Colombia’s colonial architecture and abundance of museums, festivals, and national parks make it an exciting place to teach. Now that you're aware of what to expect, you’ll be able adapt to the challenges and find that teaching in Colombia is incredibly rewarding.