Brooke Walis - 2013 Program Participant

American teacher with Colombian student

With a student on her graduation day

Why did you choose to become a volunteer teacher abroad? What made you select Colombia?

I had always wanted to get abroad to live, not just travel or study. Not only is teaching English an option to make living abroad possible, but I had always wanted to try teaching. I’m one of those people that enjoys editing other people’s writing, and correcting their grammar, so I knew I would enjoy teaching English.

The reality however, I had no teaching experience nor certification, so I knew that nobody would sponsor my visa to work abroad. Therefore, I joined WorldTeach because as a volunteer teacher I didn’t need prior teaching experience, and they handled the visa and all other logistical details.

I had been living in Miami for a few years, so all of my friends were Latin and I finally had a chance to speak Spanish conversationally, which I had been studying in the classroom for over 10 years and still hadn’t mastered. I knew I wanted to become fluent in Spanish, and I had the opportunity to visit Colombia for vacation. As soon as I was there, I knew I had to return. It is a very special country that has been plagued with a history of violence, but that history is in the past, and currently the people and place are thriving. I feel so fortunate that I took a chance on an unknown place, and that place is now my second home.

How did you find out about WorldTeach and what attracted you to their programs?

I spent a solid two years researching opportunities and jobs abroad. I wanted to find a job on my own, but again I knew with my lack of experience I wouldn’t be hired. So after two years of online research, reading reviews, watching webinars, and speaking with alumni, I had confidence that WorldTeach was the best option. This was because the organization seemed focused on academic success, since they were connected to Harvard University, and because of the support I would receive in-country (housing, visa, monthly stipend, training).

Teaching in Colombia

Brooke’s co-teacher snapped this shot, posted it online saying “thank you for your help” - little did her co-teacher know how much she and this student were helping Brooke

What was a typical day like as a volunteer with WorldTeach?

I woke up at 4:30 a.m., way before the donkey next door started howling. Some schools in Columbia provide school buses for teachers and administrators, so it picked me up quite early. Once at school, it was a mix of tinto (coffee), onces (snacks), lunch, and of course class. But there’s always time for food and break in Colombia.

I was a co-teacher, working alongside local Colombian English teachers in their middle and high school classes. I also conducted weekly one-on-one sessions with each of my English teachers to help them improve their own language skills. When we weren’t in class, we would plan lessons together, or just discuss the beautiful complexities of both the English and Spanish languages. They were some of my favorite conversations ever, seriously.

After school I would spend time with my host family, head into Bogota to wander the city, see other volunteers, hang out with my Colombian co-teachers who became my second family, or do language exchanges with administrators in my school to help them with their English, and they helped me with my Spanish. It was a beautiful, simple life!

Your volunteer work was focused on teacher training, how did your background help you improve the teaching skills of Colombians and work with them successfully?

I had no professional teacher training, education, or certification. That’s why I was “volunteering.” However, I had been a teacher’s assistant throughout school, and in a previous job I was in charge of job-skill training for new hires in my department. That was a very corporate setting, however I learned two major skills: patience and how to communicate difficult concepts into easier language for students; and it served me well in Colombia. 

You organized a large event while volunteering abroad, tell us about it.

English Day! The English department hosted a day-long English celebration; we were in charge of creating events, activities, and performances, all conducted in English, for the entire school of 900 students and 60 teachers. It was exhausting and amazing. There was a lot of practice and planning involved, on the part of the teachers as well as students. We were holding a dance and singing competition, and two fourth graders came to practice their song with me weekly before the event. It was Adele, of course. These girls sang that song in English better than I ever could, and their pronunciation improved drastically over the course of our practicing. Whenever I hear that song my heart is heavy. 

What was your most memorable moment from your time in Colombia?

The pronunciation of simple past tense verbs ending in “ED”, like “invited,” “tried,” “confirmed,” is very difficult for English language learners, including my teachers. It was painful to hear the teachers make mistakes with this pronunciation, because of course the students would pick it up. We practiced every day, individually, in the cafeteria, hanging out in Bogota, anywhere! I never held back from correcting them. They loved me and hated me for it. Finally, we had a group “quiz” of sorts during a department meeting and everyone did so well, and we were all smiles. It was an amazing feeling that I’ll never forget.  

International teacher with male Colombian students

With my sixth grade boys/angels/devils

What advice would you give to others who are interested in volunteering in Colombia?

Do it! All the fear you have right now will disappear the moment you’re on the plane. You’ll never be the same, but you’ll be better.

How has your experience volunteering abroad impacted your life?

The question is, how hasn’t volunteering abroad impacted my life? I now have a second home, a second family, a second dog, and abuela (grandmother) even! I now think and dream in a second language, and define my personal and professional lives and successes differently. Never did I imagine it to impact me so personally and deeply, but that’s what these communities do, they get to you. They welcome you in and you’ll never be the same. If I had taken a fancy expat position at an international school, I never would have received that welcome, nor would I have been as needed.

The success I felt in the school, the relationships I built there, and the host family that welcomed me into their home, are all reasons why I now consider Colombia to be my home.

On a professional level, I gained many skills in Colombia that have transferred home with me: Spanish fluency, intercultural communication skills, ability to work in an under-resourced environment, classroom management skills, flexibility, and the attitude that if I can teach in a foreign country, I can do anything!