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Notes From the Field: Interview with Martin Higgins in Colombia

TEFL teacher in Colombia

Martin Higgins took the Cambridge CELTA in Bogotá last year and is currently teaching in Colombia. Originally from Cambridge in the UK, he actually worked for Cambridge Assessment, part of the University of Cambridge and the parent body of Cambridge English Language Assessment, which issues the CELTA. His father also worked in the EFL industry for over 20 years, making teaching English a logical choice when he decided to move to a new country where he couldn’t speak the native tongue.

Would you like to know more about teaching English in Colombia? I asked Martin about his experience in Bogotá and his answers help to shed some light on this often overlooked teaching destination.

How did you decide on Colombia as a teaching destination? 

Like many a gringo before me, I fell for a Colombian woman. After a number of years in Europe, we decided to move to Colombia last year.

Was the CELTA a challenging course? How did you like it? 

The CELTA course was a challenging four weeks but was also extremely rewarding. The long hours leave you exhausted by the end but the practical nature of the course makes it incredibly enjoyable. At International House in Bogotá, you teach on the second day of the course which, though daunting, means you learn very quickly.

What are some of the things you like best about living and teaching in the country? 

Colombians are incredibly warm people with humour and humility. They are very proud of their country and there is much to be proud of – the landscape is as diverse and beautiful as the people. One of the things I love is that you can choose your preferred climate. Bogotá is cooler with average daily temperatures around 20 degrees Celsius (about 68 degrees Fahrenheit), but if you want to enjoy a bit of sun you can go out of the mountains into the Magdalena valley and enjoy scorching temperatures close to 40 degrees (104 Fahrenheit). Flights to the Caribbean coast from Bogotá are also reasonable, meaning the beach is not that far away. And, of course, you have the Amazon in the southeast of the country and the coffee region, which is stunning. Though Colombia has its problems with inequality, and the armed conflict stunting the country’s progress, its people are resilient and optimistic. They enjoy a good party and a good drink, which makes for many an enjoyable evening.

Teaching in Colombia is a challenge. The general level of English in the country is not great, meaning there is plenty of work! Colombians can be somewhat unreliable, by European/North American standards, in terms of punctuality and commitment to their learning, which can be frustrating but, as long as you can get by this, teaching is a real pleasure. All of my students are incredibly open and fun to teach, and they love to talk, which means keeping the lessons communicative and productive is never a problem.

Can you walk us through a typical workday? 

I work at a company named The Edge, which teaches students in small classes (mostly one-to-one) in their homes and places of work across the city. Because most of my students are very busy people working in high-end companies, I usually teach them early in the morning and in the evening, after they finish work, with a lunch time lesson to fill the long gap in between. It means early starts (6:30/7 a.m.) and lots of free time in between lessons, but that gives me a chance to explore the city and practice my rather miserable Spanish during the day. Getting around Bogotá isn’t too bad – the small busetas, though manic, are convenient and cheap, and the Transmilenio is fairly practical.

What would you say to people who worry about the issue of safety in Colombia? 

My attitude towards safety is one of probability. Though the probability of being a victim of a crime in Colombia is higher than in the USA or Europe, it is still fairly low. The main threat to your safety here is being robbed. Colombians have a saying no dar papaya – “don’t give papaya” – which means something like “don’t give someone a reason or chance to rob you.” As long as you are vigilant and don’t do anything stupid, like flash large amounts of cash or a smartphone around in the street, you should be fine. One thing that you should appreciate is that the high level of inequality in the country means that you have people who consume conspicuously alongside people who are struggling to consume – a toxic combination. An iPhone to some of Colombia’s poorer inhabitants is worth about a month’s wages to them, so the temptation to take it from you is very high.

The days of kidnappings are mostly gone – these only happen in rural regions which most tourists stay away from anyway. In the big cities it is not a concern.

I would stress that Colombia is nothing like it was in the 80s and 90s, even though it still struggles with the image of being a dangerous and lawless country. Most people in Europe and the US are pretty ignorant of what life is like here, no thanks to the dearth of news coverage about the country focused on stories involving drugs or violence.

What do you plan to do next?

In the coming year, I will begin working one afternoon a week teaching English at a charity named Casa B, which is based in one of Bogotá’s more disadvantaged areas. In the future I may work in a university in the country, as it offers a bit more security in terms of the number of hours guaranteed, as well as to help with my professional development by teaching a different type of student. There is plenty of work in this city for qualified English teachers – it’s just finding the right job for you that’s the hard part. I’m unsure as to whether I will stay in Colombia in the long term – only time will tell. For the meantime, I’m enjoying the challenge and I hope that my Spanish will improve with time.

Jennifer is from Tampa, Florida, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in both English and psychology. After a short career in social work, she gave in to wanderlust, got TEFL-certified, and moved abroad to teach English. She has taught students of all ages at language centers in Costa Rica, Morocco, and Spain.