Teaching English, learning Spanish

September 17, 2009 at 2:56 pm (Colombia, News)

Here’s an article I wrote for the newspaper I used to work for in Ottawa, to give you a glimpse into my world of teaching English in Cali, Colombia.

Nine students in maroon, grey and white uniforms sat neatly at their desks, eyes wide, as the door closed on the tiny classroom.
I was probably just as wide-eyed as I faced my seventh grade pupils for the first English review class of the year at Colegio Ekklesia. It was 7:30 a.m.
I wrote my name on the whiteboard with my brand-new red marker, hands shaking and sweating a little – but I hoped not so they would notice. I picked up the course textbook and flipped to the first page.
It might have been a normal review class, with games and introductions, like those happening all over the world as the academic year began, except there was an extra teacher in my classroom.
He was the translator between me – a first-time, inexperienced instructor – and the Spanish children.
It was intimidating, to say the least.
I made it through 50 minutes, allowing the other teacher, Jacob Roggero, to jump in when necessary to urge me to slow down my instructions or add explanations.
When the bell rang to signal the end of the first period, I gathered up my papers and books for the trek to my next class, which was on the second floor of the concrete school building.
I felt a little like a failure, but strode through the hallway with my head high anyway.
Thankfully, the day improved from there.
Roggero followed me from class to class, helping with misunderstandings and keeping the largest class – 15 students in Grade 6 – in some sort of order.
Grades 10 and 11 were advanced enough that Roggero wasn’t needed; students with better English translated for those with less knowledge and we made it through the rest of the day at the small Christian institution.
I was able to breathe a little easier when the final bell rang at 2 p.m., but was still overwhelmed by the realization that I completed just one day out of 10 months of my teaching commitment in South America. And Roggero was only available to help me during the first few days before he began his own English and computer classes.
By that evening, my back ached and my head hurt, but I finished my notes from the day and preparation for the next with a strange sense of accomplishment. And a new respect for the teachers that instruct classes of 30 kids at a time, year in and year out.

I left my job as a reporter for the Kanata Kourier-Standard in July, and jumped on a plane for Cali, Colombia, ready for an adventure of gigantic proportions.
Since my arrival more than three weeks ago, I am more thoroughly convinced that gigantic is definitely what I got myself into.
There are numerous challenges in teaching over 60 students from grades 6 to 11 (which constitutes high school in Colombia) how to speak my native language while being able to communicate just barely in their own. Nevertheless, I am completely thrilled to be here.
I am living in a little brick house mere steps from the school building, with palms growing outside my bedroom window and mangos, bananas and oranges picked fresh from trees on the same mountain acreage. Lights of the city – which nearly three million people call home – twinkle across the valleys and hills after the sun goes down around 6 p.m.
The school staff and affiliated church congregation have welcomed this gringo with open arms – and as they do here, a kiss on the cheek with the obligatory “Buenois dias. Como estas?”
The beauty of the people and geography have captured me already.
Though I have only been here a few weeks, I already look forward to Colombian staples like sancocho, rice and arepa at our 2 p.m. lunchtime, and the cool mountain wind (viento) in the evening.
I have picked up some of the rapid-fire Spanish of my surroundings, but have far to go before I could consider adopting the title “bilingual”.
For now, my English – as well as my blonde hair and blue eyes – makes me stand out among the black-haired and dark-skinned students and teachers. The smaller children stare unashamedly, asking me in speedy Spanish who I am and where I’ve come from.
I’m sure the novelty will wear off sooner or later.
When it does, I’ll be just another profesor.



  1. Kristine Gravelle-Rystenbil said,

    You’re a trail blazer Cheryl! Good for you for your gumption to have this experience. Essentially, what you’re going through is like a cultural cleansing of the psyche and a brain washing ofthe mind. You’re totally immersed in a new language and culture, completely out of your comfort zone and being pulled in many directions simultaneously. It’ll be neat to see how this experience changes your approach and outlook on life; trips of this nature have a tendancy to leave wonderful marks on the heart, soul and mind. Keep your chin up! You’re doing great.

  2. Peter said,

    I can empathize with the headache you had at the end of that first day, but from the other side of the desk, as a student taking an intensive Spanish course in Mexico. I thought I’d never make it through the six weeks, but I did. The headache started 10 minutes later into the class each day and by the end of the fourth week, they were completely gone.

    I must admit I am slightly envious of you working in Latin America as it has been a long time dream of mine and wish you the very best.

    Now being fairly fluent in Spanish I have found that classes are usually below my mastery level. Movies and novels work, but are not as personal. What has worked well for me recently are online classes in which I can chat to someone to improve my conversational skills. I have been happy with http://personalspanish.net/ which offers classes from a variety of teachers that fit my schedule. My days are long.

    How did you find a job there?

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