So my brief volunteer work in Armenia-Colombia is over. My first month there was hard, mainly because my body had trouble getting used to the food, water etc., as a result I got terribly sick a couple of times that led to weight loss, deteriorated my morale and made me miserable. But I got over it, mainly by traveling a lot around the country, taking advantage of the tremendous amount of school holidays they have here. I met wonderful people like the Canadian fellow that tolerated me and my wicked sense of humor, the lovely little tattooed girl from Armenia that shared her travel stories, poker beer and time with me, the lovely fellows Chloe and Alex, my curly haired co-teacher who had been really supportive and welcoming throughout my stay here, Tilemachos and Spiros the crazy guys from Greece that have been working in Colombia for more than 3 and 8 years respectively!
Teaching English in a Colombian public school had its ups and downs. I’m so grateful I had this opportunity to integrate myself in a local community, interact with the children, learn about the country’s education system and of course interact with the children.
A couple of tips for people that would be interested in teaching English as a volunteer in Colombia: In the orientation in Bogota they had told us that we were supposed to help, co-teach (teach together) with the Colombian teachers and that we were not allowed to speak in Spanish while at the school. Unfortunately, in my case there was no co-teaching as I was given small groups of children to work with them separately and without the physical presence of their teacher. That didn’t work for two reasons. First, I decided to follow the government’s rules and talk to them only in English. It was a pain in the ass, and not fair for the children, trying to set up an activity by giving instructions to them in a language they hardly understand. Second, they didn’t see me as an authority, and why would they? I wasn’t their teacher, I was a peculiar white guy from Greece that suddenly appeared to their school. So keeping them disciplined was a disaster. So if you are going to Colombia as a volunteer and you speak some Spanish, speak in Spanish with them! At least in the beginning, to build some rapport and then try to make them talk in English. Also, demand to be with your co-teacher in the classroom at all times, never alone, which is illegal and it mostly doesn’t work. It was funny that my best experiences at the school were the lovely Chemistry teacher I ran a project with who speaks no English but was an authority in the classroom, and a social sciences teacher I helped by preparing a small group of children for a spelling contest!
I think for the next wave of volunteers ,the Colombian ministry of education should do a local orientation training for both fellows and teachers so that they would learn how to work together and what is expected from each other. Also, it would be useful if they put the fellows in lower grades, like 6-7 grade. Students of 9-11 grades are considered more advanced, but they are not. The books they have introduce concepts like the first and second conditional while the student’s conversational level is “Hello, how are you? Fine thanks and you!” Furthermore, the 11 graders are constantly preparing for the national test. I think Colombia has to make a decision: Do they want their children to learn English or they want to go well in a test? All in all, I believe the fellows would be more useful in lower grades where they could start working more basic aspects of the language and build a good base. In the end of the day it is a lovely program that gives you the opportunity to work and travel in Colombia while having very interesting and possibly life-changing experiences at school.
But what are usually the motives? Why would someone, from Europe, the States or anywhere in the world, become a volunteer in such a controversial country? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer…