I am a 6th and 7th grade Social Studies teacher at a bilingual school in Cali, Colombia. Since before I started, I was a bit apprehensive because I had never taught in secondary school before. After completing my TEFL in May of 2018, I went on a brief vacation to the states and ultimately received an interview from two colegios (or private schools) that I applied to. I like where I work and I was excited to get a job teaching an actual subject in English. Now that I’m working, I see challenges every single day. Listening to colleagues speak in native Spanish at weekly administrative meeting leaves me feeling lost. I teach three different groups of sixth graders in three different groups of seventh graders. Furthermore, on Thursdays I tutor three different groups of second graders. Fortunately my purpose is to expose them to a native English speaker so I’m not required to grade the second graders. Needless to say, most of my days are demanding and leave me exhausted.
I do like that there’s generally very little pressure from coordination and that my schedule allows several blocks of free time to plan and rest in between classes. I also like that there are several national holidays in Colombia which afford many three day weekends. It’s great that most of my colleagues and students are Colombian, whose easygoing culture of kindness and compassion has won me over in the past years. Yet, at the end of the day, they are humans and humans can be annoying sometimes no matter where you go.
Setting the stage: at my colegio, teachers are obligated to offer after school reinforcement or “refuerzo” for struggling students. I know more than anyone how challenging it can be to work with adolescents and have a sometimes even afforded that to my own difficult behavior as a teenager. So although I disagree that students who have been given the answers to a quiz during a class review should be given a second chance after failing it, I obliged. Ironically, yet not so ironically, the same students that present difficulties are the most social and least attentive in class. I scheduled refuerzo today for several students but only six showed up. Of those six there were two of my most talkative students of all my 7th grade classes.
Juan is openly gay and during the first week requested that we do debates on LGBTQ issues and rights. I obliged but I’ve yet to plan my lessons around that. Maria is a very intelligent and well spoken young lady who has a knack for speaking out of turn and going on tangents. These two students engaged me throughout the refuerzo as I observed my 7th grade refuerzo group casually working on correcting their quiz for a higher mark.
As Valentine’s Day approached, the students had organized a candy and gift exchange amongst themselves. Maria began to tell me how it was once a long term tradition at the school that was later discontinued after some seniors were caught exchanging weed brownies. It still startles me how much students are willing to share with me as their elder. I attribute it to my own youth and their ability to relate to me despite being nearly 15 years their senior. Juan continued that he doesn’t like Valentine’s Day because of a past experience he had professing his fondness of another student who later stood him up at a school dance. They asked me if I had ever been stood up and I shared that a girl I went to my junior prom with in high school left me at prom and disappeared with another guy.
“I don’t think I will ever have a real Valentine.” Maria continued to compare herself to her older, more voluptuous sister and seemed to believe she would never be that attractive. Juan interjected that I should “teach these girls some self confidence” so I gave a piece of my mind. I reminded her that everyone has an awkward phase in their teenage years and that she needs to have patience to grow into and define her own beauty. I even shared that I felt ugly, fat and awkward from middle school into my twenties. She shared that she encourages people who are different and have the confidence to be themselves no matter what but has a hard time doing it for herself. Able to relate, I told her it was normal. She felt comfortable enough to share that she had an eating disorder in primary school and she was vomiting from a young age. She proclaimed that it was a thing of the past but my life coach instincts kicked in. “However gross you feel when you look in the mirror doesn’t amount to the grossness of torturing yourself and vomiting to accomplish an image. Seriously, take your time and enjoy the short time you have before taking on the real world.”