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One of my endeavors returning to Colombia has been to complete my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification. I’ve found that even though it requires lots of preparation and patience, it can be quite rewarding to teach English. It was one of my favorite and most successful subjects as a student. It’s especially rewarding when part of the incentive is to live in a place like Cali. The TEFL is one of the most acknowledged qualifications for teaching English as a second or foreign language. I’ve been taking classes 12 hours per week that consist of learning methodologies for being an effective ESL teacher; and applying those methods to assigned projects over the course of three months. I was rejected from the most prestigious program of its caliber, which I’d originally applied to in Bogota, but I didn’t let it discourage me. When I’d previously lived in Cali, I remembered the Colombo Americano was one of the most popular institutes in Cali for learning English. When I discovered that the Colombo also offered a TEFL course during my desired time frame, I initiated correspondence with them and before I knew it, I’d been accepted and the first day of class had arrived.

During introductions, I shared that I come from North Carolina but have studied in Finland and South Africa, previously taught in Colombia and most recently worked in Washington D.C. I wasn’t that surprised to find an American instructor and a group of seven other classmates who were all Colombians.  However, I was surprised to meet such a dynamic group of Colombians in one classroom. I found it interesting that my classmates were aged between 17 and 72.  One of the teenagers in my class is Caleña (female from Cali) but was raised in London from infancy and recently moved back to Cali. Though, her accent is oddly American aside from a few spurts where she sounds insanely British. There are two other Caleños (males from Cali) who are recently out of high school: one of whom seemed quite shy and the other went to secondary school in South Carolina; not far from my hometown. I was immediately reminded how small the world is. There’s a middle aged mother whose a seasoned teacher and who also spent extended time in South Carolina. Of the two older gentlemen in class, one is Caleño who moved to Miami as a teenager and loves to recite memories of his prime back in the 80’s (I fancy hearing his stories too.) The other is a younger-looking senior citizen born to Colombian and Croatian parents. He’d spent most of his childhood as an adult life outside Colombia and had once visited my home state of North Carolina. There’s also a guy in his early 30’s like me whose English isn’t perfect but great considering he taught himself. After I’d done my introduction, he shared that he’d self-taught himself English through watching films and listening to music from the United States. At the same moment, he mentioned that he had never left Colombia and apologized to the class that his English was not as good as mine. It made me uncomfortable to be made a spectacle of another person’s insecurities in front of the class. So, I told myself I’d eventually offer my compliments and try to encourage him.

 What can you do now to live the version of your life that brings you the most joy? 

After class during my second week, a few of the guys from my class invited me to walk with them towards the Mío (bus) station. At that point, we’d all only spoken briefly but I’d already gathered that the guy closest to my age was a bit insecure about his level of English. As the four of us walked towards the bus stop, I told him how fantastic it was that he was able to teach himself English with such autonomy. Although most of secondary and high school involved a Spanish elective, I’ve used acquisition as my method of learning my second language (L2) since living in Colombia. Writing and reading in Spanish have been my strongholds. I don’t speak eloquently but I can be understood when I have conversations with locals, though I can’t always interpret what they are saying. Comprehending Spanish has never come naturally to me in all of my experience learning it so listening to music and films in Spanish has always been difficult. I admitted that I’ve acquired most of my L2 by being immersed in the culture and speaking Spanish with locals on the daily. I shared that I sometimes get discouraged when speaking with native Spanish speakers and understand very little or nothing that they’ve said. This is likely due to the fact that I haven’t been taking full advantage of limiting my first language (L1) usage. Though my Spanish has improved, I frequently listen to music, absorb media and have contact with friends in English. He was surprised and told me he’d spoken better English in the past but he doesn’t have anyone to practice with. We sat for a moment on a bench in the park to continue our conversation while the other two guys continued to the bus stop nearby.    

At some point he spoke in English,  as I responded in Spanish. He went on to tell me how much of an advantage I have as a native English speaker living in Cali. He told me that all the schools here prefer native speakers and that I can go to any school in the city to find a job because of the myth that exists: native speakers are better teachers. I reminded him that the majority of English teachers at the Colombo Americano are Colombian and that everyone in our class started the course with intentions to be effective English teachers. Yet, he insisted that I was in tip-top shape to become a teacher anywhere I wanted, as a native speaker. I acknowledged that being a native English speaker does work to the advantage of foreigners living in many parts of the world, including Colombia. However I reminded him that as a Colombian, he has ways of relating to other Colombians that I never could and that it could work to his advantage. He rejected that idea and mentioned how he’s 33 and still living with his mother. He concluded that since he’d studied Social Studies in college, he hadn’t accomplished as much as most men his age. I felt bad listening to him express his self-image in comparison to others, perhaps because it related to it so well.  I empathized that after my teaching fellowship ended years ago, I left Colombia to move back to my country because that’s all I could afford to do at the time given my average living stipend. I felt I was worth more than I was being paid, but without a TEFL, such job opportunities were limited. Moving back to D.C., I’d had quite a hard time adjusting and although I’m 30 now, until recently I’d also been living with family. I had been cast under the spell of comparisons to my peers in D.C. who were seemingly doing well, and it had pierced my self-image. 

Before saying goodbye, I told him to keep confidence with him because he speaks better than most Colombians and it’s not impossible for him to find a job teaching in Colombia. I suggested moving to a smaller city or possibly working at SENA, the national institute I’d previously worked for in Cali. He confirmed, “You believe that it’s possible I can work there?” I told him, “I believe anything is possible if you believe it is.”

After talking with my classmate, I have an even stronger belief that this TEFL certificate will not only open doors for me in Cali but all over the world. Though idea of teaching isn’t always exciting, the idea of not being confined to one country for work is an attractive one for me. Which is why I decided to pursue this certification, as part of my professional development. In the midst of a cracking self-image, I asked myself: what can you do now to live the version of your life that brings you the most joy?  I’ve just about done it. I went from being a miserable government contractor to a digital nomad and student living in Colombia. Plus, in just a few weeks I’ll have the certificate that will qualify me to work at several schools across the globe with increased earning potential. Though Cali remains in the horizons, I can’t help but envision what my next chapter may look like.

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