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Teaching English In Colombia Was A Life Changing Experience

Teaching English In Colombia Was A Life Changing Experience

Colombia isn’t all cocaine.

Young, lost and at a crossroads, I knew I had to make some radical decisions at the age of 24. I’d ‘gone with the flow’ most of my life, doing things because they seemed like the natural progression. I’d only read about breaking away from the norm and following your gut, but to me they were more romanticized notions than actual practice. I found myself at this juncture one day, with a job I didn’t love enough, and a boyfriend who didn’t love me enough, to hold me back. And I thought, ‘if not now, then when?’

It took me six weeks of nerve-wracking research to find a project of my choice. I wanted one that was well out of my comfort zone - someplace I didn’t know anything about and didn’t have family or a friend I could fall back on. I also wanted to make sure the project had substantial strength, enough to ensure I had learning experience as opposed to a six month long vacation. That’s when I found SHAPE Colombia, a teach English program in Bogota which had been running for two years.

Fellow SHAPE trainersFellow SHAPE trainers

I think the desire to be a teacher was born quite innocuously. Movies and books I loved always had an English teacher as the protagonist. Whether it was the refreshingly unorthodox Professor John Keating from Dead Poets Society or the alluring Miss Rosemary Cross from Rushmore, the sweet Miss Honey from Dahl’s Matilda or the bookish Emma from One Day - I loved all of them. I decided to give this dream of mine a shot and hit apply, went through the interview and found my passport stamped with a Colombian visa, just like that.

Lost in the streets of Candelaraia, BogotaLost in the streets of Candelaraia, Bogota

Was Colombia drastically different? All I knew about it was cocaine and magical realism. To begin with, coming from a country that boasts 400 odd living languages, being multilingual felt natural to me. I’ve lived in cosmopolitan Bombay, where you walk down the street and speak to a Maharashtrian rickshawala, have Gujarati neighbours and converse with your uncle in Sindhi. I felt drawn to foreign languages, their varying melody and semantics. So when I first heard conversational Spanish, I was captivated.

The organization in charge of the project I was in, Secretaria de Educacion (the Secretary of Education), provided us with a structure and a curriculum that was designed to help non-native Spanish speakers facilitate their lessons in English. I got assigned to a support teacher, who’s name was Nubia. She was sixty-five, had frizzy ginger hair, wore black boots and reading glasses that she hung around her neck. She was supposed to be my translator, but had so much trouble with my accent. Colombians are more exposed to American media and hence the roll of tongue that I lack, befuddled her.

Post class de-stressPost class de-stress

I found her endearing. She introduced me to the safer parts of the neighborhood (Alqueria) and took me out to lunch. We went over the curriculum the British Council had set for us in association with the Secretaria de Educacion. She seemed enthused by it, in her words, ‘it is the need of the hour’. The education system was crumbling, and this program was here to save the day.

My two other constants at work were Guillermo, the accountant of the three public schools that I’d been assigned to. He helped us with data entries and maintaining records. And Priscilla, my carefree ‘tranquilla’ co-teacher from Uganda. She covered the same load for the afternoon shift. We got along like long-lost sisters.  Every time I took over from her, we discussed what we hated about our day and what we loved about our work and our new lives in the city. I think challenges feel smaller when they’re shared, and that half hour chat was enough to set me for the day.

Priscilla with her support teacher, Luz MarenaPriscilla with her support teacher, Luz Marena

My students ranged from little twelve year olds to young adults of eighteen. They came from violence-ridden, broken and financially strung families. To me they represented a new generation, a fresh face and a new hope to the still reeling country of Colombia. The education program aimed at utilizing their moldable minds to create future responsible citizens. They were keenly aware of the importance of working on their English. They’d been exposed to American media - Netflix and pop music commanding their thinking of the outside world. I didn’t have much to do when it came to instilling a sense of urgency in them, however the work ethic in general seemed to be quite laid back. The teachers went on strike for a whole week, two months into the semester, demanding a pay rise from the government. Education wasn’t well funded, and strikes of this kind were not uncommon.

How were the sessions going? My first few classes with the fourth graders felt a little overwhelming. They were adorable, and looked at me with the sort of reverence that I found intimidating. They needed an umbrella, they were looking for a role model and a guide, and their admiration threw me off. Nubia would say I was their window to the outside world.

Grade four: pure innocence and boundless curiosityGrade four: pure innocence and boundless curiosity

With all the worldly wisdom I’ve gained in the first quarter of my life, I did my best to infuse my classes with a combination of conversational English and Q&A sessions. Things like where I’ve travelled, what I’ve learnt and what life is like for an Indian millennial. Their childlike curiosity was endless.
We began with a formidable student teacher distance, one that I had to work hard to thaw. Working on my Spanish was integral for this purpose. Educating the mind without educating the heart is simply not education enough, and my very first week got me to realize that it was essential that I pick up the language they had grown up with.

The older kids were more versatile; they knew what they wanted and where they wanted to go. They regarded me with disdain in the first two weeks, wary of yet another adult about to preach something to them. It was our shared urban roots that helped us break that barrier. We went on to become friends, discussing music, movies, life and love with such effortless ease, a third person would find it hard to tell we’ve come from opposite sides of the globe. I truly felt it was a tribute to the homogenous nature of culture we’ve been exposed to in India. I shuffled from being friend to mentor and mentor to friend. Some teachers may think maintaining a distance from students is more effective, but the opposite worked for me.

Cuz football is in every Columbian kid’s bloodCuz football is in every Colombian kid’s blood

Three months into moving and living in Bogota, I could speak broken colloquial Spanish. Duo Lingo helped a lot, but nothing compared to greasing one’s grammar by conversing with the locals. My neighbor John and I would only exchange awkward smiles at the beginning. Slowly we moved on to ‘Hola’ and ‘Hello’. By the end I could ask John how the weather is, what he did that day and what was interesting to watch on TV. He was a full time artist and a carpenter, and a part time cycling enthusiast and an amateur guitarist.

By the time I had to leave, Bogota started feeling like home. The local lunch lady knew the meal of my choice even before I ordered. The security guard knew exactly what time I take my breaks and the kids invited me to their lunch hour gossip sessions.

Magnitude of cultural diversity at SHAPE ColombiaMagnitude of cultural diversity at SHAPE Colombia

I wrapped up my project with an official conference, after submitting exhausted reports and getting reviewed by the British Council. We were required to plot changes and spot differences in attitude and behavior as benchmarks of the success of the project (and of us, as teachers). My last day had a total of around hundred of us in one conference hall. It was inspiring to see the big picture and the collective of what our micro tasks had achieved. A hundred young adults from different parts of the globe in one city. The seeds of change had been sowed. The magnitude of it could get a little overwhelming. But I like to think of it as a gear we set in motion, hopefully facilitated by future trainers to help establish long term change and guarantee impact.

I’m now back in Bombay. Every now and then I still get a message from my student Gian Franco Duarte Polo. These messages fill me with warmth, they serve as a reminder that I might have actually created something worthwhile. The fact that I am remembered, loved and respected in a country I didn’t know, by people I did had no connection to and no idea about, makes a difference to me. Clichéd as it may sound, SHAPE Colombia did shape me, and I hope I helped shape them too.

Sometimes I find it hard to recognize myself in the mirror. Many people say I could easily pass of as a Colombian. I take that as a compliment.

Read Divya’s South American diary here:


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of

By Divya Punjabi
Photographs by: Divya Punjabi