The Adventure Of Teaching At A Colombian Public School

My Colombian co-teachers and fellow adventurers.

My Colombian co-teachers and fellow adventurers.

I remember getting a call from the Peace Corps for my final interview. I had been teaching English at a private, after-school academy in Seoul, South Korea, for eight months while I played in two folk / rock bands and searched for new work opportunities to consider. I really liked Korea (loved, actually), but I was excited about the possibility to leave the country and join the Peace Corps. (It’s funny, as a current Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m now searching for ways to get back to Seoul after I’m finished).

During the phone interview, I was asked about something that got me on the subject of what I didn’t like about my current position. I described how some of my Korean students were really intelligent and great English speakers, but I never had enough time to sit down and have a conversation with them. The books we were forced to use by our employer usually included too many activities for the amount of time we had, and unless I chose to stop caring about whether or not my students actually understood the material we went over in class, I never had enough time to just speak with my students outside of the book.

This was the big bummer of my job. Aside from the kids who just didn’t care or couldn’t sit still (which every country seems to have plenty of), this was the only real problem with my job. (That and we weren’t paid for all the hours we worked, and my company routinely skipped out on the things they’d guaranteed to give me in my contract, but those two things seemed to happen to all the English teaching foreigners in Seoul.) I remember feeling really stupid when the woman on the phone told me how in the Peace Corps, I would be teaching classes with 40 to 50 kids, about triple that of my biggest Korean class of about 15. I thought if there was a reason to fail that interview, complaining about teaching even a third of the amount of students I would have in the Peace Corps would be it.

But, I obviously got through that moment, and now I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer. After about a month of solid English teaching under my belt (3 months training, one month observing, one month medical evac to the United States, one month co-teaching at my Colombian public school), I’ve identified some intriguing differences between schools here and those back in America and Korea. I want to point out that while I find them to be true, these are my own observations; I hope to educate some people back home about how a public school in Colombia can operate and how that can make it easy / difficult for a foreigner to adjust.

I Am Like A Super Hero

Everywhere I walk, I am greeted by the sounds of children yelling profe, gringo, Chan, Chansay, Chancee, teacher, etc. I am like a rock star to the elementary kids, a shiny new toy for the middle schoolers, and a source of information and jokes for the high schoolers. Of course, a lot of kids are generally interested in me as a person and want to speak English with me, but there are always those students who just want to ask me if I have a Colombian girlfriend, what this or that words means, and whether I like soccer. Unfortunately, from time to time I also hear a heavily accented “F* you,” but I’ve done my best to discipline those students (who are usually just trying to look cool for their friends).

This stardom is multiplied times a thousand if I have a video camera, as seen in my video here - http://youtu.be/oqmHBnMnQj0

As I usually carry a guitar around with me (and give percussion lessons every Saturday morning where I jam with a high schooler who brings in his electric guitar), run an English radio group for students (www.EnglishTimeRadio.com), and also like giving high-fives and telling jokes to students, I may have added to the already present “gringo” powers that any white guy from Iowa would get from the Colombian sun (along with skin cancer if we’re not careful). Either way, I’m interested in how my celebrity will increase or decrease as time passes.

"Super Gringo" would definitely be the lamest and least effective crime fighter. Photo Credit Fabian Padilla.

"Super Gringo" would definitely be the lamest and least effective crime fighter. Photo Credit Fabian Padilla.

All The Students Wear Uniforms

Even during physical education classes, which involve calisthenics and running around the cement basketball / soccer court (a few students do end up changing into lighter clothes, but not many), all students wear a very strict uniform. Boys wear blue dress pants and a white polo shirt, girls wear blue sports pants (plastic) or a checkered skirt with a white top / polo shirt. A few days ago, one of my better English speaking students was sitting outside the main door. He told me they wouldn’t let him into the school because he wasn’t wearing any socks.

Here students with birthdays that month are announced during a typical "community" meeting held every few weeks.

Here students with birthdays that month are announced during a typical "community" meeting held every few weeks.

Adults Addressed As “Profe,” Not By Their Last Names

I now have my older students calling me “Mr. Chance,” a compromise between Colombian and American culture in the classroom. Up until very recently, all the students at my public school had simply called me “profe,” short for professor. Some of them would say “teacher” when they wanted to impress me with their English.

I had to explain to each class that teachers in America are Mr., Ms., or Mrs. plus their last name. Growing up in rural Iowa, my friends and I would never have dreamed of ever calling a teacher by his or her first name, or anything really other than Mr. / Mrs. So-and-so. Here, teachers are addressed in spanish as “professor” and all the kids know their teachers’ first names.

Here some of my Colombian co-teachers are getting down at a party.

Here some of my Colombian co-teachers are getting down at a party.

Colombian Kids Are Great Musicians But Can’t Play Rock Music

During my Saturday morning music classes, I’ve discovered that pretty much every one of my students is a better percussion player than I’ll ever be. Their level of play for congas, bass drums, and a ton of other hand instruments is almost to high for me to even just count along to. And this high level doesn’t seem to have been gained through classes or private lessons, just something they picked up from those around them. Just like the way the dance. It’s such a large part of their culture that it transcends the classroom.

That being said, they can’t play a simple rock beat. It’s just not something they hear enough to be able to replicate. However, their previously discussed awesomeness at percussion allows them to pick things up very quickly.

Here’s an example of my students’ awesomeness for playing latin music - http://youtu.be/RyhKCjRszeE

And here’s a few of the younger kids learning how to play a simple rock beat - http://youtu.be/sP_Y3UK-H5E

This is a video of the first time I brought a snare drum and hi-hat to my school. The kids were stunned - http://youtu.be/j14ayHNTd-U

Me dressed up as Travis Barker (Blink 182) for Carnaval at my school. Photo Credit Elena Cardales.

Me dressed up as Travis Barker (Blink 182) for Carnaval at my school. Photo Credit Elena Cardales.

Classroom Management Is A LOT More Relaxed

The biggest difference I’ve seen between school children in Germany, South Korea, America and Colombia is how they are disciplined / managed in a classroom setting. I’ve seen classes that range from somewhat less controlled than I’m used to to something out of a scene of “Kindergarten Cop” before Arnold learns how to successful motivate and manage his kids. The schools I’ve scene tend to allow students to have loud conversations with each other while the teacher is speaking, kids routinely get out of their seats to go talk to other students, and the amount of noise often goes unchecked until it becomes too much to bear. However, at the same time, students must adhere to a strict dress code, and as I recently saw at my school, when students act out they may have to apologize to the whole school during an assembly (something I could not imagine taking place back home in Iowa). As a result, public schools here have a lot of range when it comes to discipline. A LOT of range.

Students easily get distracted and hop out of their desks if you don't keep your eyes on them.

Students easily get distracted and hop out of their desks if you don't keep your eyes on them.

Bathrooms Don’t Ever Seem To Be Clean

The bathrooms I’ve seen at schools here have been pretty scary. I’m lucky being a boy (as all dudes understand we got it easy when it comes to public restrooms) but I can only imagine what it must be like for a girl to have to use some of these places. Sometimes you can smell the bathroom from pretty far away, other times I just try to look the other way when I walk by. The restrooms used by teachers are a lot better, but still below the standards of a school back home in Iowa. I have yet to find a school bathroom that has soap and paper towels. I’ve found a few that have soap. At my school, teachers bring their own soap and towel to use in the restroom.

A bathroom at a school in Barranquilla. This is a big difference from what I'm used to.

A bathroom at a school in Barranquilla. This is a big difference from what I'm used to.

Classes Are Sometimes Left Alone For An Hour Or More

I’ve heard a fellow volunteer tell a story about how she got left in a classroom by herself (co-teachers are never supposed to leave a volunteer alone with a class, but I’ve heard of everything from leaving the room for a few minutes to coming late or not at all) and her co-teacher actually locked the door, locking her inside the class with her students.

But, sometimes this is not the fault of the co-teachers. Every once and a while, teachers have meetings that are scheduled at the same time as their classes. This could be during one period or the entire day. Other teachers try to cover, but sometimes the students are just left alone in their classes unsupervised.

Here I am in a typical Colombian classroom. There are open holes in the walls rather than windows. It keeps the room cool.

Here I am in a typical Colombian classroom. There are open holes in the walls rather than windows. It keeps the room cool.

Colombian Schools Like Locks. On Everything.

When I first got to see the school that would be my Monday-Friday job (and currently most of Saturday), I was immediately surprised that I couldn’t just walk in. The door is always locked.

As a former public elementary, middle and high school student from the Midwestern state of Iowa, this really shocked me. Unless it was a Saturday (and even then the front doors were usually open for sports or other weekend activities), my school always had multiple doors that were not locked. Granted, after a certain time, those doors would get sealed until the next morning, but that happened after the sun went down. That’s not the case here.

Each classroom has a black metal door (and usually) a large metal gate that are used when the room is not in use.

Each classroom has a black metal door (and usually) a large metal gate that are used when the room is not in use.

My school has 3 ways in or out, and each one, 99% of the time, is locked. This means you can’t get in, but you also can’t leave. In the morning, the doorman unlocks the door to let me in, In the afternoon, he unlocks the door to let me out. If I want to go buy lunch in the street or a fruit stand behind the school, he has to lock / unlock the doors to let me come and go. During the hours of 11 am - 2 pm, our front door is sealed shut, and everyone in or out has to use the back door at the very end of the complex. (I’ve been told this is for safety reasons, but I think it’s also just a way of creating a “bouncer” to keep people out that stand in line at the front door until someone lets them in.) This rule is very strict, so strict that when I first came to school with my crutches after tearing the cartilage in my left knee during a soccer game, I was told I would need to walk the entirety of the complex in order to go outside to get lunch. I tried speaking with my principal, but she held firm that no exceptions would be made for my disability (though unofficially the doorman let me go through a few times when no one was looking).

Simple key padlocks are used to lock most of the doors.

Simple key padlocks are used to lock most of the doors.

Doors inside the school are also locked. This appears to be a way of keeping older students in their part and younger students where they’re supposed to be. It seems to serve that purpose quite well, but it also means that teachers and anyone else that needs to move from one end to the other have to wait until the one person with a key comes to let you in. The first time I saw this being done, I was really shocked. I’d never seen this done before, and I was also worried about what would happen if there was a fire. A fellow Peace Corps Volunteer recently had an electrical fire at her school, and if a similar situation happened at mine, a padlocked door could prevent people from getting out.

Check out all of my HD Videos + Photos + PodCasts at www.ChanceDorland.com