Colombia: School Placement & English Programs

NOTE: This post is dedicated to the memory of my former student, Angel Murillo.  Please read the addendum at the end.

Playing a game on the playground

Chloe, Elena, Laura, and I all had the same placement at a school in northern Bogotá.  The schools in Colombia usually have all the grades from entry level to high school on the same campus, so we were going to be working with all levels.  Although, as the details were worked out more between the school and the YMCA, they assigned us to focus on the younger kids, from kindergarten through 2nd grade.  The reasoning being that the school is trying to develop into a fully bilingual program and these younger students are the ones piloting it. We would just occasionally work with the older students as specific events and items arose.

Elena helping in the classroom

This experience has taught me one critical lesson: I can never be a primary school teacher.  I always knew I didn’t want to do middle school.  I obviously chose high school when I became a teacher in the US, but thought maybe I could do primary school.  I was completely wrong about that belief.  Thank God I was only there to support the other teachers; if I had been the actual teacher of the class, it would have been a complete and unmitigated disaster.  The language barrier was one issue (as we were not allowed to use Spanish with the students or even let on that we knew any Spanish, which was not difficult for me given my extremely limited Spanish skills), but just in general, the kids were cute, sweet, little demons.  Just to give one of the best stories from my time there, two boys in the kindergarten class were always the first to yell my name when I walked into the classroom and jumped up to hug me.  However, they could NEVER be trusted.  One day, in the bathroom, they were together and noticed the janitor with his keys on a chain clipped onto his belt.  They proceeded to take the keys off his belt and flush them down a toilet!



I enjoyed many aspects of working at the school.  The kids were extremely friendly and sweet. (One of my classes made me cards on my last day.) However, overall, I had a slight problem with the assignment.  The school I was placed at is actually one of the most expensive schools in the country, so this was not the population I had hoped to be helping.  In fact, I felt a little guilty.  Since we were focused on the younger students, the ones that do not likely realize how privileged they are, we were giving them an advantage (working with fluent English speakers and engaging their language skills) that their peers in the impoverished areas did not have.  I felt as though I was reinforcing an education inequality.  At least if I was working with older students, I could try to challenge them to make their world better, but the younger students do not have the maturity or language skills to understand something like that. I understand that the situation was basic economics in that the school contracted the YMCA for this service, and this helps support other programs of the YMCA, but nonetheless, I was not thrilled with the situation and voiced my concerns to Kiara.  To her credit, she completely understood my perspective and agreed with the assessment.  She did say that we can still make an impact by being positive role models and demonstrating the core values of the YMCA (Honesty, Caring, Respect, and Responsibility).  I admire the positive spin she brought to the situation.

Laura helping with a group activity

In addition to the school, we also supported English programs run by the YMCA-Colombia.  Often, these were single day programs at other schools, usually lower-income populations.  Colombia is currently undergoing an effort to have all their students learn English, so almost all students are taking an English class. These programs are designed to be a break from their normal English class, and have more fun activities, such as sports, arts & crafts, and games, but all activities are done completely in English.  It is also a promotion for the English immersion camps that the YMCA also holds on weekends, or for an entire week during school vacations.  We also do such camps for university students as well, mostly for English students, who often want to become English teachers.  We also supported a program called the International Camp Counselor Program, where Colombian university students go to work at summer camps in the United States, as part of a cultural exchange.  As part of this, we helped with some cultural training at their weekend training camp a few weeks before the summer.

Chloe helping students prepare for a speech

During my time in Colombia, I think I participated in 4 or 5 English day programs, one weekend English camp for university students, one week-long camp for children (from ages 7 to 17), a YMCA leadership training camp, and the ICCP training camp.  There were highs and lows throughout this aspect of the program, from having complete chaos of 2nd graders running amok during an English day, to teens doing a thank-you surprise for their two counselors and I at the week-long camp, to getting food-poisoning the second day of the weekend camp, to learning the fun new sport of gaga.  Working these camps and programs was how I got better acquainted with different Colombians associate with the YMCA, and these were the locals that I socialized the most with during the latter part of my time in the country.

Back at the school, as my time was coming to a close, it turned out that I was able to serve a little bit in a manner that I had wanted to all along. Throughout the semester, I talked with as many of the English teachers at all levels as much as possible, especially with the senior English teacher, who definitely had been hoping for more interaction between us “cultural agents” and her students. In the last few weeks I was at the school, she asked me and the others to come whenever we had free time because the students were presenting art projects about a social issue, and she wanted us to evaluate them and ask questions of the students.  Their subjects included globalization, social networks, drug use, racism, and many others.  This was exactly the type of discussion that I enjoyed, and got me excited as a teacher.  As the students presented interesting pieces of art, they spoke about their issues.  However, in my mind, often they only spoke about the issue in a detached, superficial way.  These were my rare chances to challenge.  I tried to ask probing questions, to get them to think more about their world.  And, more often than not, they rose to the occasion.  They were obviously uncomfortable at times, especially due to difficulties in English teachers, but they were willing to take the challenge and offer some deeper insights, and acknowledge when they had gaps of understanding.

One of my favorite moments at the school was during one of these presentations. The presenters were discussing inequality and corruption.  They had already seen me challenge the other presenters, and they turned it around on me.  As they finished their presentation, they asked me a question directly.  They wanted to know if I had any thoughts and suggestions about the issue and what could be done.  I was a little taken aback by the question.  I did not think they knew me well enough to feel comfortable asking a question, or to care enough what I really thought.  However, I figured this was my one chance to teach the same basic lesson I tried to teach my government students back in the United States:

“There are two things you can do.  Obviously, I’m not from here, but it’s the same anywhere.  First, become informed.  Learn about what is happening, and learn about different perspective and why people may think differently than you.  And secondly, get involved. Do something, anything.  If you think the politicians in this country are corrupt.  Become a politician who isn’t corrupt.  Everyone has a voice, no matter how small it may seem. Use it to make a difference.”

Maybe no one was really listening.  And perhaps I am just self-important.  But maybe there is a small chance that one of the students were slightly challenged and encouraged by those interactions and they will eventually go on to serve their communities and improve the world in some way.  Even if I was nothing more than an encouraging voice in a chorus of encouraging voices (which is likely the best that I should expect), at least my time was well spent.


Upon getting back online after my travels in the Amazon, I learned about the tragic loss of one of my former government students.  Angel Murillo never really needed that lesson about improving the world from me.  He already knew it and was dedicated to serving and improving his community and his world, even as a teenager, and as a young man he was even more ambitious about changing the world.  This post is dedicated to him… #TogetherWeCanChangeTheWorld

You can help his family with the funeral costs here.