Hey Teacher! – Teaching English in Colombia

“Hey teacher leave those kids alone!

Cos all in all your just another brick in the wall” – Pink Floyd

When I was at school I was bright yet bored, often disruptive and sometimes downright bad. In short I was never one of the little boys you imagined would grow up to become one of the big boys whether that be a teacher, a prefect or even a groundskeeper.

Yet some 15 years after finishing St Catherine’s Catholic Academy for Under Achievers I decided it was time to head back to the classroom but this time as the teacher. So what inspired this about turn? What caused me to completely re-asses my career trajectory and decide that it was time to enter the sphere of education? Was it for the love of children, their smiling faces and bright young minds thirsty for learning? Certainly not! Or was it  maybe the sheer passion for my chosen subject? Hmm not quite. So was it just the job security, pension and 12 weeks paid leave a year that, lets be frank, does it for most teachers? Well it was none of these. It was simply that I wanted to go travelling and realised that at some point I may want to work, may need to work and moreover should work. But what could I do? An unqualified, unskilled habitual dropout such as I? Harvest Coca leaves in the Andean highs? Then I realised what countless other travellers, adventurers and vagabonds throughout the ages have realised. That I possess a natural (as in second nature natural) asset that is worth its weight in dollars/rupees/drachma throughout the world that could be mined and traded in exchange for bread, water and shelter. I am of course talking about my Mother tongue, the beautiful, brilliant English language.

Native English speakers will always* be in demand all around the world and therefore any native speaker willing to brave it in a classroom will always be able to find some form of work. Natives of our little Atlantic island have increasingly less and less to be proud off these days yet I for one take great solace in the fact that our language (a bastard hybrid of Latin, Saxon and other influences) remains THE international language although granted, largely solely because of the cultural and economic influence excerpted by that colony in the Americas. It is the language of Shakespeare, The Beatles and Freeborn Aiden and it will always open doors for you and in some cases will even kick them of their hinges

Learning to Teach

I decided to get some form of qualification so did a 3 day TEFL workshop followed by 150 hours on-line. This involved some English Language study including a whole day looking at various tenses as apparently, there are not only 3 as we were all led to believe from school and from a lifetime of using only the past, present and future tense, but there are in fact 13 and half tenses (yes there is half tense…). It also involved lessons in lesson planning, practice in delivering them (the chronically shy need not apply) and a whole lot of horsing around with some pretty cool characters some of whom I am saddened I never heard from again (Humble Hal, if you’re out there get in touch!).

A month after graduating I was off headed to Colombia. It’s a funny thing but everything leading up to getting there I had taken in my stride. I never batted an eyelid or shed a drip of nervous sweat about quitting my job, about getting rid of my possession or about travelling alone to a far away and reputably dangerous country. Yet the night before taking my first class I was terrified. Yes, partially because I had seen City of God so I knew that Latin school kids are trigger happy hoodlums and partially because I was plagued by remorse for the time I made my language teacher cry back in year 9. However it was so much more than this. What truly unnerved me was that for the very first time in my life I would be completely and solely responsible and accountable. It would also be the first time I would be the centre of a groups attention for a whole 2 hours.

The day of my first lesson came and I set off. This was in Cartagena which is a very, hot, humid city so the schools conservative policy of “no shorts and no visible tattoos” had forced me into an uncomfortable assortment of clothing which assured that I was hot and bothered and sweating profusely before I even entered he classroom (which didn’t have aircon). The school I was some 10km from the centre of Cartagena in a once notorious barrio called Nelson Mandela that had undergone a regeneration owing to the charitable endeavours and relentless campaigning of a determined Catholic Nun. I had never seen the likes of it before, mud roads, breeze block houses with iron roofs and pigs roaming the streets. The classroom was in a breezeblock library building and the class were a motley crew of kids of varying ages from the neighbourhood school who had come along to take advantage of the free English lessons.

Pigs

I made some simple introductions in the most basic and clear English I could yet was greeted by faces showing only complete bewilderment; they clearly hadn’t understood a single word I had said. With that it became clear that the class were nowhere near the level I had been led to believe and therefore that the lesson plan I had spent all the previous night constructing and rehearsing was not going to fly. In my career history to date I have represented a major bank in the court of appeal, have worked in busy bars on bank holiday Sundays and once had an alcoholic chef have a meltdown in my face yet this was definitely the most stressed I had ever felt in a work situation. But I remained calm and as cool as I could given the punishing humidity of the day.  I re-designed the lesson plan on the hoof and instead resorted to some very simple “about you” Q & A’s and some language based games such as English words hangman and mime the verb. And with the aid of a lot of gesturing and the fool proof technique of speaking loudly and slowly it just about worked.

Don’t call me “Sir”

The first thing I noticed was the immediate and tangible respect and reverence which the students looked at me with. They addressed me as “teacher” and listened when I spoke. Maybe they were awestruck by seeing a real life Englishman or maybe my simple act of standing up next to the white board assured me an authority I otherwise felt undeserving of. I guess it’s much the same as the respect a Policeman’s uniform lends its inhabitant, you don’t actually have any idea who they really are you let them stop, search and question you just because they wear a particular hat. Either way I felt like a chancer, a phoney who would be exposed at any minute.

But I never was exposed as a phoney. Au contraire, I actually turned out pretty good. I was told  I was a natural and had a gift for teaching although personally I just think that the time spent learning how to properly plan lessons as well as good old fashioned time and effort really paid off.  Over time I worked with adults in a community centre as well as entering barrio schools (where the kids were generally well intentioned but unwilling to concentrate, sit still or stop flirting for more than 30 seconds at a time.) Generally, the standards of English teaching in normal Colombian schools is very mixed and the native teachers, whilst dedicated, can pass on all kinds of basic (and sometimes humorous) errors so I really was made to feel welcome and appreciated.

BE!

Cinquenta/Cinquenta

During my 3 day TEFL course I remember one of my fellow hopefuls gave me some pretty sound advice; “Its 50 per cent performance and 50 per cent crowd control”. My experience largely verified this except that I would add that one also needs a base layer of sound lesson preparation (and always have a Plan B) and to garnish, a dash of genuine enthusiasm for the subject does make all the difference. And it turns out I do. Whilst I hope that from me my students may have learned about different types of nouns, when to use “ies” and the existence of Wales, what I learned or at least re-learned was that I indeed do have a genuine passion for my language and that re-discovery eventually led me to start this blog which you are reading now.

I also found something more surprising, that under the right circumstances I actually like kids. Don’t ever tell anybody this as it will tarnish my carefully crafted image as a heartless misanthrope but on my last day when the kids all rushed to hug me (which would never be allowed to happen in the paranoid, PC school regimes in England) I did well up a bit.

Til next time, schools out.

medellin school

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