Reality Check: Teaching English at a Colombian School

Jessica, and her big orange car
Jessica, and her big orange car
Jessica, and her big orange car
Jessica, and her big orange car

My friend Jessica’s idea seemed innocent enough. Invite interesting foreigners into her 8th grade English class, and have the students ask them questions to practice their language skills.

“The kids will LOVE IT” she said.

How could I say “no?”

All I had to do was show up, and answer questions about my job as a travel blogger, and my life of travel. No preparation required.

Then came the warnings. The kids could get a bit rowdy at times, but I’d be fine, she reassured me.

Despite some concern about what exactly I was getting myself into, I wanted to follow through on my commitment. At the very least, it was something different to do with my day.

Arriving at the School

A few weeks ago, I took a cab to Jessica’s school, a private one located in a familiar neighborhood. I had my camera with me, but when I went to capture my first photo of the school exterior, the female guard was quick to tell me “no.”

I called Jessica, and she came to meet me in the waiting room.

From there, we walked up to the 2nd story English teacher’s office/lounge. I was 30 minutes early, by design. Jessica wanted to brief me on questions I’d be asked and what to expect.

Four students had written questions for me, and each would take turns interviewing me, while the rest of the class watched, and wrote short essays in English about what I was saying.

She warned me again about her rambunctious students.

It’s not that she’s not a disciplinarian, because I would soon see her in action. It’s that they are in a school system that allows such behavior for fear that the parents funding it would either complain, or take their children to another school.

Entering the Classroom

At 2:10 PM, we left the teacher’s lounge for the short walk to her 8th grade English class.

When we arrived, the room was like a scene out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. All the kids were out of their seats, talking, carrying on. There were a few girls seated on the floor under the whiteboard.

One boy came up to Jessica and asked if he could use the bathroom. She told him to ask me. “Sure,” I shrugged, and he darted out of the room.

Jessica’s desk at the front of the room was barely any bigger than the student’s desks. I grabbed a nearby seat and waited, while Jessica began to command everyone’s attention, trying to settle them down.

Slowly, but surely, they situated themselves, but it took about 5-10 minutes.

In all my years of elementary, middle, and high school, I’d never seen a class begin in such a manner. I was glad Jessica prepped me.

My challenge was to keep things interesting, keep their attention for the 40 minutes I was being interviewed.

The Interview

Once everyone was settled, and the four kids interviewing me were seated up front with questions in hand, things went smoothly. Each student had about ten questions, tied together by a common theme.

The first set of questions were about travel blogging in general. How did I get started? What’s the best part? Do I get to travel for free? What does my family think?

When asked how much money I make, I threw out at least $3,000 per month, which Jessica estimated to be 6 million pesos. That figure drew a collective gasp from the kids, and suddenly I felt like a millionaire.

A female student who’d spent time in the USA asked me about my travels in Thailand. I repeated myself a lot with those, managing to tie every answer back to the beach and party lifestyle there.

It was ironic, therefore, that she also asked me my favorite question of the interview, “did you fall in love in Thailand?”

The fourth student asked me all about my two months in South Africa, which is interesting in retrospect, considering it was just a few days before the world’s focus was on the Oscar Pitorius shooting.

“Johannesburg,” I replied when asked the capital of South Africa, realizing almost immediately that I just gave the wrong answer. I corrected myself, stating Johannesburg was the biggest city in South Africa. Pretoria is the capital. I’d only visited the former. There’s not much to see in Pretoria.

Before I knew it, the class was almost over. Jessica had all the kids hand in their essays. She showed me a few, which made it clear the rest of the kids beyond the four interviewers were, for the most part, paying attention.

We waited by the door as the room returned to its natural state of chaos. Instead of a bell ringing to signal the end of classes, music began blaring on the loudspeakers. The halls were soon filled with kids switching classes, while Jessica and I retreated to the teacher’s lounge once again.


Jessica has never taught in a public school in Colombia, but we both imagined that if private ones can be chaotic, than public ones would be even worse.

Later, I relayed my experience to a paisa friend, who attended public schools in a similar (though not exactly the same) part of the town.

She said her classes were well-behaved, and that public schools are indeed different, but not necessarily in a bad way. At least not all of them. Perhaps when you take direct parental funding out of the equation, it impacts how the kids are disciplined, and therefore behave at school.

All the same, the experience reaffirmed my preference for blogging over teaching English. I left the high school, and the experience, with an immense amount of respect for any foreign teacher who goes to work in a Colombian school.

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  1. English teaching to children of the wealthy in Colombia is a huge amount of work. With some exceptions of course, simply put, their shit doesn’t stink and their children can do no wrong; it’s the teacher’s fault if they receive a bad grade. My respect for those expats making a living teaching English in a city with a high percentage of expats trying to do the same.

    When Tomasa and I move back to Colombia, English teaching in Medellín for a living (volunteering in a comuna is different) will be one of my most unlikely options.

  2. I work as a volunteer teaching English in a public college in Medellin. It’s certainly true that the students can be a little rowdy (to say the least) but I am surprised about the 5 – 10 minutes you say it takes to settle them down.

    A class in the college where I teach can be of up to 45 students, mainly aged 16-18 and often from a poor background but I haven’t had too many discipline problems. For the most part they really want to learn English. Indeed often if a student is playing up, the other students will be quick to tell them to shut up!

    For me teaching is something that I have never done before but I have found it to be a hugely rewarding experience. The students absolutely love having a real life Gringo teaching them!

    • Stewart,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. At least one difference is the age of the students. The kids who interviewed me were 8th graders, so about 13-14 years old. I’d expect behavior to improve with age, though from talking to her, I didn’t get the impression that the 11th graders she taught were much better.

      Despite the stress, I know Jessica finds the experience very rewarding as well.