Teach English in Colombia: Grappling with Grammar, Gold, Guns, and Guayaba
Americans avoid Colombia for good reasons. A virtual civil war has been waged for nearly 40 years. Rates of crime and violence are among the world’s highest. And then there’s the “drug problem.” Why would anyone consider coming here to teach English?
“I came because a friend who was working in Cali liked it here and recommended it,” says Glenn Yates, a teacher now in his second year at a bilingual school. Tired of Canada’s frigid winters, he fled to a land of year-round warm weather and an even warmer welcome.
Colin Jacobs, weary of gloomy days and drizzle, found his way to teaching English in Cali from his native England more than 20 years ago and hasn’t left since. “I don’t think I could live in London again,” he says. “After adjusting to the near-perfect weather, the food, and the easy-going lifestyle here, I’m not really keen to go back. I’m spoiled for life.”
So am I. Hundreds of varieties of flowers perfume the air, even in winter. Pantries abound with exotic fruits like Guayaba and Carambolo. The year-long growing season allows papayas to reach nearly the size of watermelons; mangoes can weigh up to two pounds each. Colombia’s strong, black coffee, considered the world’s richest, is served everywhere.
But Is It Safe?
There are problems, yes, but not of “run-screaming-to-the-hills” intensity. Most conflicts occur in the countryside. While this can make inter-city travel risky at times, residents inside major cities like Bogota, Cali, and Medellin feel little impact and live quite normally. Adjusting to power failures, phone or water outages, and rainy season flooding is more of a nuisance than life-threatening. Larger cities are reasonably well policed and usually safe, if you’re careful.
Drugs? Most illicit production is for export, so, except for warring drug factions in the coca-growing areas, there’s not much everyday impact. During major holidays the government steps up military patrols of principal highways and vacation resort areas to insure protection and safer travel for vacationers.
Quality of Life
Cali, with two million residents, is known as the “Salsa capital of the world,” rivaling Cuba. The two largest shopping malls house multi-cinema complexes featuring first-run U.S. films in English with Spanish subtitles. English publications are readily available at bookstores and newsstands. Material in English can be borrowed free from the Universidad Santiago de Cali and for a $3 annual fee from the Centro Cultural Colombo Americano. The Municipal Theatre, Tertulia Arts Complex, and Jorge Isaacs Theatre offer regular productions in Spanish. Ethnic restaurants specializing in Latin American and Mediterranean cuisines continually tempt Caleño palettes. Holiday celebrations take place year-round. Check them out online at [ festival.com/ Colombia.html. You will never be bored in Cali.
Native-speaking English teachers are scarce here. Salaries reflect the high demand. Most teaching positions require an applicant to be a native speaker of English and have a university degree. A teaching certificate and some experience are a definite plus. Work is available at bilingual colegios, language institutes, and universities. Sending out a dozen or so resumes in English should land you half that number of interviews, culminating in several on-the-spot job offers.
No hablas español? Interviews are typically in English, but as a working resident you’ll likely want to pick up more than just tourist Spanish. The Universidad Santiago de Cali and the Pontifica Universitaria Javeriana have Spanish programs for foreigners. Berlitz (www.berlitz.com) has offices in Cali with Spanish classes. A private tutor is fairly easy to come by.
“It hasn’t been a problem to find someone to help me when I need something done in Spanish,” said Glen Yates, who, with his limited Spanish, has found Colombians to be very friendly and sociable.
So, don’t worry needlessly about the news reports. Call, write, or email the schools and institutes to get a feel for their needs and requirements. Check out the web sites. Assemble your diplomas, certificates, and reference letters. Don’t forget to collect materials like maps, postcards, flyers, magazines, and memorabilia from your hometown. These will be invaluable for your conversations with students.