Inspired by and drawn from just a fragment of the dynamic people in my life “Getting to Know A…” is my way of introducing you to a variety of professionals who are excelling in their various fields. Some follow a traditional path after finding their inspiration in unexpected places. Others carved out their own non-traditional careers. What they have in common is they are all incredibly passionate about what they do. My hope is something in these inspires you, the readers, as well.
Since the subjects of these pieces live far and wide I had initially sent each of them a personalized questionnaire with the intention of drafting them into articles. Their answers were just so dang good there was no way I wanted to change them. I decided, with permission to leave them as is.
Tell me first what you do. The title and what you actually do.
I am a teacher at a bi-national center in Colombia, South America. It’s a nonprofit institution recognized by the U.S. Embassy as a cultural center. The center offers English classes to adults and children from absolute beginners to people who use the language in their jobs. It also aims to foster cultural exchange through film series, art exhibits, concerts and theater presentations. My students are mostly working- to middle class. I teach classes and also do professional development for my fellow teachers.
What drew you to teaching?
Well, I hated school for its seeming effects of discouraging creativity and churning out cookie-cutter people. I tolerated college but found much of what I learned irrelevant and found the school of life to be a better teacher, so I never imagined myself returning to a classroom. Back in 2003 I volunteered to tutor English to immigrants in San Diego. My hours were after working my regular job and long commute but there was something about it that made me feel energized after tutoring was over. Even though I had a job where I wrote for a living, I wasn’t happy making money for someone else. I joined the Peace Corps two years later. My assignment was teaching English in a public school in Ukraine alongside Ukrainian teachers. I was learning Russian so I understood what it was like for the students to learn another language and to be afraid of making mistakes. Teenagers are teenagers wherever you go and sometimes it was rough but it was so much more interesting and fun than sitting in a cubicle all day. I realized that education, if used properly, can change people’s lives. I could show these kids a different world from the one that is presented to them by exported mass culture like pop music and Hollywood action movies. I taught them that poetry doesn’t have to rhyme.
Is this what you went to college for?
I majored in Spanish and Latin American studies as an undergrad and got a masters in journalism. I got most of my teacher training in the Peace Corps and by trying new things in the classroom.
How did this help your career?
This helped my understand the process of learning a language because Spanish is a foreign language for me. The journalism degree helped me teach writing.
Who were your biggest mentors/influences in your career?
The Ramones. They didn’t go to music school but they played from their hearts and souls. They made some of the most influential rock music. I didn’t go to teaching school but people tell me I am a good teacher. I always try to put my heart and soul into it and I hope I have a lasting influence.
From a personal perspective, how does how does your work inform your life outside the classroom?
I have to be careful who I go out drinking with because my friends or their siblings sometimes show up in my classes, hehe. I come into contact with so many different types of people everyday and I feel like I have a deeper understanding of the culture here than I would if I worked in the Foreign Service or for an NGO. I learn a lot from my students.
What’s a pretty cool thing you get to do regularly that someone who ISN’T an International Teacher would get to do?
The coolest thing is when I have a student for a couple of classes and I can see them becoming more confident, not only with a new language, but also with their peers and in life in general. There really aren’t community colleges here. It is very competitive to get into the free public universities and very expensive to go to private ones. Most of my students want to be in class and want to learn, so that is a big benefit.
What is a personal career highlight so far?
When I met up with a former student who had gotten a job in a call center where she answered calls in English. Her dad had died recently and her job made the difference between the family having enough to eat and not. I can’t take all the credit but I think I contributed in a small way.
Does your life inform your work? If so, how?
I am gonna use the F word here. Well, actually I believe in gender equality and it is trickier than a lot of feminist authors seem to make it. Colombia, especially on the coast where I am, has a very macho culture. I try to encourage women to be autonomous in my classes. They have this habit of asking they guy next to them to ask me a question they have, so he becomes the hero. When that happens I tell them they have to either ask me the question themselves or pay the guy a representation fee. I also like to think that I can be a role model and show my students that having a family is but one way to have a life. I am almost 43 and don’t have children and don’t want them. I hope to show them that you can be happy choosing a different path in life.
Because my students are mostly in their twenties, we talk about partying a lot. I try to get them to talk about partying responsibly and that drunkenness does not imply consent. I try to impress on them that drinking so much that you are not in control of what happens to you is not a good idea.
How do you separate your life from your work?
It’s hard. I am in the classroom 36 hours a week. That means I have about 10 hours of additional planning and grading. I have to be really good about organizing my time. I go to the gym after classes and that is my hour and a half to not do work. I think that is why I have been able to stick with it this time. But the trainers always want to practice English with me. I have to work on Saturdays but Colombia has 20 three-day weekends so I take full advantage of them to see more of this fabulous country.
Creatively and personally, what are the major benefits of your career?
Here in Colombia, most people feel that English is a necessity, whether it’s because of the Free Trade Agreement, the number of multinationals doing business here, the Internet, the increasing number of tourists coming here or many Colombians’ increased earning power and ability to travel abroad. People always respond positively when I tell them what I do. In general, I really like this job because I gain a deeper understanding of the country where I work that I would not have if I were a tourist. Even working for a multinational, an NGO or the Foreign Service/USAID, you are kind of isolated from the kind of regular people you would meet as teacher. Most of my students want to be in class and want to learn, so that is a big benefit.
Living abroad is a series of challenges and I feel stronger and smarter with every challenge I am able to face.
What are the drawbacks, if any?
It can get very lonely. It doesn’t seem to matter what what country I’m in but seems like ex-pat guys, even if they have as much game as the San Diego Padres, can always find companionship. It’s different for girls, especially if you don’t look like what U.S. girls are supposed to look like: blonde cheerleaders of average height. Then there are the guys who think you will be their ticket to a U.S. visa.
I have made friends here but I don’t know how long they will remember me. I really miss the people who have known me for years. I am lucky that I get paid on time and treated with respect where I work. That’s not always the case at other places. Some schools are little more than businesses and you are not really a teacher but a customer service representative, so you have to be careful.
What advice would you give someone considering this as a career?
Start by volunteering at a community organization that provides English classes to immigrants or at a school with a large population of English learners. If you like it, get a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) certificate, preferably from a university. There are private institutions that grant these certificates but the quality varies. If you get your certificate from a uni, you can sometimes apply that coursework to a master’s degree. If you are a U.S: citizen, Peace Corps is also a great place to start your career but it is a two-year commitment and only places people in developing countries. There is the JET Programme in Japan, too, which accepts people from many countries.
It is hard to arrange a good job outside of the country unless you go with the aforementioned programs so plan on getting your certificate, saving some money and making a leap of faith. Some countries are easier than others. Korea and many places in Asia are very easy but the working conditions are sometimes tough. Brazil is nearly impossible. Europe is pretty much closed to anyone without an EU passport.. But don’t be discouraged. Where there is a will, there is a way.