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Firsts: Adjustments to life in Colombia as a New English Teacher
Written by: Sara McKinney
Last Updated: February 12, 2021
Well folks, this week concludes my twelfth week in Colombia, tenth week in Cali, and my ninth week teaching English. I’ve been on a giant learning curve in regards to creating a life here for myself with a lot of firsts. I’ve miraculously and successfully completed my first solo apartment hunt, though it took about four weeks to finally find a place that met my needs (furnished, good area/location, good price. Pictures to come.) I have begun to establish myself in my school as a new teacher, equipped with the practical knowledge I gained from my online TEFL certification course for Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) through the International TEFL Academy.
I am new in several senses: a new teacher in the school, a new foreigner for the school, and a new teacher as a job in my professional life. I have figured out how to navigate the public transportation system, the MIO, even to the dismay of my mentor at the school. It’s essentially like an above ground subway system, with buses instead of trains. Since public transportation navigation isn’t necessarily a natural skill for me having grown up in Vermont, I would say I’ve done well with figuring out the different routes and directions. Yes, I have taken it going the wrong way, but like I mentioned in a previous blog post, these are the learning moments. I just hop off on the next stop and catch the same bus going in the opposite direction. Fácil!
The biggest adjustment I’ve made since being here is establishing a routine and integrating myself into my school. Being blue-eyed and “blonde” (deemed by the Colombians) automatically makes me stand out in this culture, and being the only Teaching Fellow (most other schools have about two Fellows) in my school has put all eyes and attention on me. From the first day of being introduced to all of the teachers and students until now, I have had to learn to accept and embrace the attention and use it to my advantage.
Every day I walk into school, I am greeted by several “hellos,” “how are you?’s,” “I love you!’s” and stares that I can’t just ignore. So, I have to be on every day, ready to respond with, “Hello, how are you?” or “Good morning, I am fine thank you, and you?” And of course, I can’t walk into the teacher’s room without greeting everyone with a “Buenos Días” or “Hola, como van?” and a few personal greetings that include a kiss on the cheek. (God forbid if I forget to greet anyone. I will be considered rude or pretentious. This has happened before, so I have learned my lesson and now greet anyone and everyone without hesitation.) Long gone are the days when I blended in with my peers and was able to keep to myself in my own little Estadounidense world. Hello, new cultural customs and inevitable "gringa status."
Finding my place in the school as a new, foreign teacher has taken some adapting and effort. Establishing my ground as a superior to the students has proven to be difficult because I am in the age group in between my students and the other teachers. I’m older than the students though there are significant generational similarities, and I am the youngest teacher, with a larger generational gap between myself and my fellow compañeros. It’s been difficult trying to position myself as an equal to the teachers because I simply don’t measure up as an equal when it comes to experience or age.
Furthermore, I am a guest that was brought here by the federal government of Colombia through their Public School Program; I am not a teacher that was hired by the school. Therefore I am exempt from the responsibility and power that the other teachers have. So, I find myself in the middle between the students and the teachers, in my own category: a foreign, young, and new (in every sense of the word) English teacher. I feel as though I am finally settling into my role, though it has taken some time to get used to it. The teachers have been so welcoming and have embraced me with open arms. I feel wanted in the school by my fellow teachers and students, which has allowed me to feel more integrated within the school and secure in my position as the foreign English teacher. I have grown more comfortable in this role as time has passed, so I can only imagine that things will continue to progress from here on out.
After studying abroad in Mendoza, Argentina in college, Sara became interested in teaching English abroad because she wanted to travel in a way that would immerse herself more deeply into the culture. She also had a degree in Education, so teaching wasn't too far from her professional interests. After getting TEFL certified through ITA, Sara started working in a public school in Cali, Colombia through Colombia's Ministry of Education.
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