Teaching in Belén

I’m now two months into my teaching post in Belén de Umbria and it’s been very interesting so far. I work at Colegio Nuestra Señora del Rosario every day except Thursday. It’s got over 800 students in grades 6 through 11. The school is just one block uphill from the plaza in Belén. It’s got an amazing view of the green mountains from the second floor.

Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Belén de Umbría, Risaralda, Colombia

Nuestra Señora del Rosario

View from Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Belén de Umbría, Risaralda, Colombia

View from Nuestra Señora del Rosario

I work with a few groups specifically during the week, but the idea is to visit each class at least once a month. I work with three English teachers at the school – Diana, Ludy, and Yuly. They’re all fun to work with and we have shared many ideas and activities. They’ve also taught me a lot about working with children.

On my first day of school, the teachers prepared a huge surprised for me. They had an assembly especially for me in front of the entire school! A few students welcomed me and interviewed me in front of everyone. I was humbled and a bit embarrassed. It was a welcome that I will never forget.

My first day of school at Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Belén de Umbría, Risaralda, Colombia

My first day of school

The classes have been great for the most part. I have a few favorite classes and students and I’ve seen a big improvement in some of students. A few students who had serious discipline problems have even changed their attitudes in classes with me. The sense of humor of many students makes it enjoyable to go to some classes while other classes are unbearable. It’s always great when students say hello to me in the hallways and on the street.

In one 11th grade class, I organized a pen pal program with friends and relatives from all over the world. It has been tough to get some the students to actually sit down and write emails, but with most so far it has been more positive than negative. A few of the lazy or irresponsible students have stepped up their work ethic a bit for this program.

Where one student likes to keep his homework at Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Belén de Umbría, Risaralda, Colombia

Where one student likes to keep his homework

The system in Colombia is very different than what I’m used to in the USA. First of all, the students don’t have electives and move from class to class. They stay in the same class all day and the teachers go to them. There are six class periods of one hour each. Classes start at 7AM and finish at 1:30PM with a half hour break at 10AM. After that, the kids and most teachers are free for the day. By law, Colombian teachers work 22 contact hours a week with the rest for paperwork, planning, helping students, and meeting with parents. Students wear uniforms

Class sizes can be ridiculous. Some classes have nearly 50 students in one class! That’s nearly impossible to control and give proper attention to each student. There are also frequent interruptions for assemblies and programs, and sometimes meetings. These interruptions happen on very short notice. This frustrates some teachers because they lose an entire hour of class planned and have to readjust their schedules to cover the curriculum accordingly.

The biggest negative is the lack of discipline and respect for teachers in some classrooms. Many students are very loud and don’t like to listen to the teachers, talking over them and talking back at times. Some students also show disrespect by listening to music or playing on their phones during class. If they don’t want to participate, they aren’t afraid to let the teacher know. Unfortunately for the students in these classes who actually want to learn, the noise level and lack of respect from the other students makes it a difficult learning environment in which nobody can win. These students have to work harder.

After a day at school in Colombia, I am exhausted. The kids have so much energy and I often find myself shouting at the top of my lungs. The noise drives me crazy at times and I only want peace and quiet after classes are finished.

In addition to the high school, I also work one hour a week with a 4th grade class in the primary school, Simón Bolivar. We have a lot of fun playing games and learning new vocabulary. One week, we learned parts of the body and the students drew pictures of monsters according to their classmates’ descriptions.

Parts of the body drawings at Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Belén de Umbría, Risaralda, Colombia

Parts of the body drawings

Parts of the body drawings at Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Belén de Umbría, Risaralda, Colombia

Parts of the body drawings

Every afternoon except Friday, I have special classes for those who want to learn more English. On Mondays and Thursdays, I work with teachers. On Tuesdays, I work with 15 students from grades 7 to 10. And on Wednesdays, I work with 15 students from grades 4 to 6. I have some monitors helping me in those classes.

My afternoon class at Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Belén de Umbría, Risaralda, Colombia

My afternoon class

My afternoon class at Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Belén de Umbría, Risaralda, Colombia

My afternoon class

The extra classes with the kids can be a real challenge. Most of them would rather be out playing football or video games with their friends. They don’t have much of an attention span and they rarely do homework. They would rather play games the entire class than learn grammar and vocabulary. It also doesn’t help that their levels are mixed. Their test scores haven’t been that great, either, but some of their answers made me laugh.

English test at Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Belén de Umbría, Risaralda, Colombia

English test

English test at Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Belén de Umbría, Risaralda, Colombia

English test

On Thursdays, I work in a rural school in a small village called Taparcal. And once a month, I visit a different rural school seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

We have another five weeks left in this school year before a two month break. I’ll be back in February working with the students. I hope to implement a level testing system for my afternoon classes and get students who really want to be in them. I would prefer to make it more of a discussion-based class than just grammar and vocabulary.

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