Teaching English in Barranquilla, Colombia: Q&A with Cameron Evans

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What is your citizenship?
United States

What city and state are you from?
Yorktown, VA

How old are you?

What is your education level and background?
Bachelor's degree

Have you traveled abroad in the past?
Some international travel with friends, family, business, etc.

If you have traveled abroad in the past, where have you been?
Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti

What sparked your interest in going to teach English abroad?
From the moment that I started my very first job as a swim lesson instructor at age 15, I knew that I had a passion for teaching. I leaned on this passion and worked my way through college tutoring anyone and everything from swim lessons to calculus. Having already secured what I thought to be an ideal job, I decided to treat myself to a Caribbean cruise during spring break before graduation. This was my first time abroad, but I instantly knew that it wouldn't be my last. After graduation, I got into the grind of what was supposed to be my dream job, but I never felt fulfilled. So I decided to pursue happiness and combine my two passions of teaching and traveling. I took a leap of faith, quit my job, and enrolled in a TEFL course the very next day. One year later, I can confidently say that it was the best decision I've ever made.

What were some of your concerns before teaching abroad?
My biggest concern right off the bat was the feasibility of surviving in a new country. At the time, I didn't speak a lick of any language other than English, so I knew that I was about to encounter a challenge. However, I instantly found myself immersed in a great support system and felt comfortable from day one. My second fear was of a financial nature. However, once immersed in my new home, I created a budget and laid all of my financial worries to rest.

What did your friends and family think about you moving and teaching abroad?
A lot of my friends thought that I was crazy and irrational for giving up stability in the states for what they merely viewed as a year long vacation. My family, on the other hand was extremely supportive. I grew up in a military family, so they too have a sense of adventure and a love for travel. They were very excited that I was going to chase my passions and even joked that they wished they could do the same.

Why did you decide to get TEFL certified and choose International TEFL Academy?
I didn't really have any formal instruction in education because I studied chemistry in university; and although I had years of tutoring under my belt, I lacked any form of traditional classroom experience. Therefore, I figured that a TEFL course would help me in the job hunting process and more importantly later down the road in the classroom. I chose the International TEFL Academy, because I was seeking an online option, mainly because I couldn't get out of a lease, and International TEFL Academy came highly recommended from two friends of mine that are alumni.

Which TEFL certification course did you take?
Online TEFL Course

How did you like the course?
I really enjoyed my course, and I feel like I owe a lot to all of my instructors. The course was more intensive than I expected. In addition to the lectures and readings, the course consisted of weekly essays and lesson planning. However, it was these tasks that revealed my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher and allowed me to grow and learn.

I now know that I couldn't have survived my first job abroad without this course. Planning a 25 minute one-on-one tutoring session is one thing, but developing a curriculum for a group of fifty high-energy teenagers to follow throughout the course of a year is a whole other animal; and this course prepared me to do that. I remember the first lesson plan that I had to do for this course. When my instructor sent it back, it looked as if an animal had been slaughtered upon it as a result of all the red ink. But it proved to be some of the most valuable constructive criticism that I have ever received. In hindsight, I think it was this thorough feedback provided by all of my instructors that was my favorite component of the course. In university, my professors only told me what I did wrong, but at the International TEFL Academy, it was obvious that all of the instructors truly wanted to make great teachers out of their students.

How has your TEFL training helped you in your current teaching position?
First, it was the ITA's job assistance team that helped me find my current teaching position with a resume that they helped me draft.

Second, everything that I learned in this course has been invaluable in the classroom. As mentioned above, the intensive lesson planning required in the course facilitated the development of the skills that allow me to walk into every class feeling prepared.

Also, I am forever grateful for the lessons provided on classroom management. Some of this training pertained to traditional, well-researched management strategies, but it is the personal anecdotal tips provided by my instructors that I have found most useful.

My first day at my new job, I was placed in a classroom of 40 wild students. I immediately felt overwhelmed and wanted to run out of the room, when what I thought to be a silly little trick taught to me by one of my ITA instructors popped into my head. I waved my arms like a Maestro signaling the end to his orchestra. I was astounded as the class went silent. Throughout my time here, I have used countless quirky little tricks like this and continue to be amazed by their success. Another aspect that I love about International TEFL Academy is that your education doesn't stop upon the completion of your course. To this day, I continue to listen to the webinars provided by the academy and implement what I learn with my students.

Which city and country did you decide to teach English in and why?
I decided to teach English in Colombia in the city of Barranquilla. I have always been fascinated with Latin American culture and had the desire to learn Spanish. Because of this, I primarily directed my job-seeking efforts in Central and South America. I was seeking a position with high-school students, and I also wanted the opportunity to use a little bit of my science background. So, when a bilingual high school in Barranquilla reached out to me, I signed up right away.

How long have you been in this country and how long do you plan to stay?
I have been in Colombia for one year now and will be hear at least until I complete my contract in December (18 months in total). However, I am I love with the school, the city, and the country, so I fully intend to renew my contract for an additional year.

What school, company, or program are you working for?
Jorge Nicolas Abello, Colombian Ministry of Education, Heart For Change

During which months does your school typically hire?
Year round

Did you secure this position in advance of arriving?

How did you interview for this position?
Skype/Phone Interview

What kind of Visa did you enter on?
All fellows technically have a TP-1 NGO Volunteer Visa which functions very similarly to that of a work visa.

Please explain the visa process that you went through.
My program, Heart for Change (HFC), provided the majority of the groundwork needed for me to obtain a visa. Upon accepting the position, I sent the program scanned documentation of my university degree, background check, and passport. HFC then submitted all of my documentation for processing. About two weeks later, I received a "Visa Invitation Letter" from the Colombian Ministry of Education. I brought this letter, my passport, and all of the original document copies to the Colombian Consulate in Washington, DC. They stamped my visa into my passport, thereby activating it.

What are the qualifications that your school requires for teachers? Please check all that apply
Bachelor's degree

What is the best way to apply?

Tell us about your English teaching job!
I work at a bilingual public high school primarily teaching students in grades 9-11. Although the level of English varies greatly within the student body, all of my “kids” are amazing and I love each and every one of them. The job consists of a standard 40-hour work week. However, only twenty four of these hours are physically spent teaching in the classroom.

One of my favorite parts of my job is the weekly culture hours that are also included in our schedule. We have complete autonomy in regards to what type of activity we want to lead, as long as it represents our home country. I usually let my students select from a list of topics that I create what they want to do for this component of my schedule, but some of my regulars include a basketball team, a Hands-On-Science club, and movie nights.

Another two hours of my schedule are dedicated to helping my native Colombian co-workers improve their English, and the remaining hours are set aside for lesson planning. In regards to finances, we are technically volunteers and are compensated and live accordingly. Especially after factoring in the currency exchange rate, I rarely am able to accumulate any significant savings. That being said, the generous volunteer stipend I am provided is more than enough to live comfortably, cover all my basic necessities, and even travel occasionally.

One thing that I have learned is that Colombians love their vacation time. All teachers in public schools receive the following weeks of paid vacation annually: One week in March (unique to Barranquilla for the Carnival Festival), one week in April (Easter Holiday), four weeks in June/July (summer vacation), one week in October (Education Week), and the majority of December. In addition to this, there are many three day weekends spread throughout the year. Teachers are permitted to relax or travel during these breaks.

Teach English in Colombia TEFL

How did you find somewhere to live and what is it like? Do you have roommates?
Housing was provided in a hostel, free-of-charge, for the first month of my contract. It was dormitory-styled accommodation with one room shared by eight volunteers. This month provided an excellent opportunity to form lasting friendships and find your support team. It was also during this first month, that we were responsible for finding our long-term accommodation. The program provided excellent resources for assistance, but at the end of the day, the choice was ours. Some volunteers rented apartments together, others preferred to live solo in studios, and a few even stuck with the hostel long-term. Any form of accommodation was available; it just depended on what you wanted and how much you were willing to spend.

Ultimately, I knew that my main reason for choosing Colombia was to fully immerse in the culture, so I opted to live with a host family. I have my own private room in a house with a loving couple and their two cute nieces. I couldn’t be happier with my decision and now have two families: my birth family and my adoptive Colombian family.

Please explain the cultural aspects, public transportation, nightlife, social activities, food, expat community, dating scene, travel opportunities, etc...    
As previously mentioned, I have completely fallen in love with Colombia as a whole but especially the city of Barranquilla. Like the majority of Central and South America, family is an integral part of the culture and a way of life; it is not uncommon to have four generations living under the same roof. The Caribbean Coast of Colombia exists as its own microcosm of everything pure and wholesome. Whether you find it while dining at your local mom-and-pop shop/ restaurant (known as “Tiendas”), relaxing on the beautiful beaches of the Caribbean Sea, or elsewhere, it won’t take long for you to recognize and fall in love with that “Costeño Hospitality.” Natives live their lives in a state of “tranquilo” or relax. No one seems to be in any sort of hurry, and it’s not uncommon for a complete stranger to give you directions or even personally escort you to your destination.

For me, the food did take some getting used to. There is not a lot of variety and most meals just consist of rice, some meat, and plantain. However, being that Barranquilla is located in the Caribbean, its selection of fruits is outstanding. All of my friends, both Colombian and expats alike, always joke that I have a serious mango addiction.

The public transportation in the coast is an adventure of its own. Whether you decide to take in the sights from a jam-packed bus that looks like an American school bus from the 1960’s or weave through traffic on the back of a motorcycle taxi, you’ll eventually get where you’re going.

I found the nightlife in Barranquilla to be unparalleled; the city is after all the birthplace of pop superstar Shakira, so whenever you hit the town be sure to bring your dancin’ shoes and make sure “your hips don’t lie”. There’s a little something for everyone ranging from the mega salsa clubs to more relaxed bars where you can shoot pool and play the national sport of “Tejo”.

Although the expat community is not nearly that of the neighboring cities, Santa Marta and Cartagena, small populations of expats do exist, and meetings are regularly arranged via social media.

For those that need to “get away”, Cartagena and Santa Marta are two major tourist hubs accessible in two hours for about $4 USD by air conditioned bus.

The dating scene alone makes Colombia a unique and worthy destination. Locals like to joke and refer to it as the “gringo advantage”. Men and women alike are so interested in foreigners and their culture, that they very much enjoy the opportunity to get to know you. Only in Colombia will a beautiful woman walk past the well-built salsa-dancing machine to talk to a clumsy gringo.

All jokes aside, I just refer back to the endearing hospitality that makes the Colombia coast so desirable. Barranquilla has become my home, and I would recommend the city to anyone.

What are your monthly expenses?
Monthly expenses vary greatly depending on how you budget and the lifestyle that you expect to live. I live a very modest yet comfortable lifestyle. I spend $100/month on rent including utilities. I always choose to eat the lunch offered for free by my school and cook in the evenings. In a normal month, I spend about another $100 on food and groceries (including a few nice meals at restaurants) and $50 on transportation. I purchased a yearlong phone plan with unlimited WhatsApp (popular texting/calling APP) for only $15!!!!!. As you can see, I only spend about $250/month for all the basic necessities, which is only half of my stipend. The rest I can choose to spend however I please, whether it be traveling the coast, spending a night out, or going on a date.

How would you describe your standard of living?
I would describe my standard of living as very comfortable. I sacrifice some luxuries such as hot water and air conditioning in order to have a little more money to do the things I want. However, I don't view this as a sacrifice, but rather a more complete immersion into the Colombian way of life.

In your opinion, how much does someone need to earn in order to live comfortably?
In my opinion, the $500/month stipend is plenty for someone to earn and live comfortably. I would, however, recommend saving a little money before arriving to assist you with start-up costs such as security deposits and furniture and wares for your accommodation.

What advice would you give someone planning or considering teaching abroad? Would you recommend teaching in your country?
I think the best piece of advice that I can offer to anyone is to just "take the leap and believe in yourself'. Of course, I recommend doing a little research beforehand, but at the end of the day, no travel blog or Lonely Planet article is going to prepare you for what you are going to endure. Sure, this may sound scary. GOOD! Because it is. But I can guarantee that it's ten times more rewarding. Don't go halfway, and don't get overwhelmed. Learn all your students' names, invite your co-workers to dinner, start a conversation with a complete stranger.

Dive in headfirst, and the city will catch you.

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