Inevitable Challenges & Unparalleled Benefits: Teaching in Colombia


  Fiona McClure is spending her year teaching English in Colombia with WorldTeach. In her most recent blog post, Fiona explains the negatives & positives that come along with volunteering - but more importantly, the ultimate sense of personal growth that these positive and negative experiences provide. Both setbacks and opportunities exposed Fiona to her purpose in Colombia. From this range of experiences, Fiona is able to conclude why she decided to volunteer:  "When a student learns something new, when I see their smiling faces and hear them call my name when I pass because they are excited that I am here, when they hug me in class because they know that I care for them, when they overcome a challenge, when they change a behavior- these are the reasons that I am here."

Three Month Update: The Challenges and the Positives

Here I am, a quarter way through this WorldTeach journey and what an experience it has been so far. Each night at dinner, my little family of volunteers and I play 'The Pit and the Peak' where we one low and one high of each day, or one challenge and one positive. The first period of teaching has finished and the Easter break has given me a chance to reflect on my time here so far. I have had some really challenging lows as well as some amazing highs and I thought now would be the perfect time to share these with you. I will start with the lows so we can end on the highs.

The Challenges:

  • Getting sick in the first weeks of arriving in Santa Ana: Not only did the timing of this make it really challenging to adjust to life here but it also meant that I missed more than a week of teaching my students.
  • Bureaucracy: in so many aspects of society. From the immigration office to the bank, and most frustratingly, at school. It drives me crazy when there are seemingly pointless bureaucratic processes that take up valuable time that could be spent on worthwhile things.
  • The challenges of teaching with limited resources and the workload: I knew that this experience would be challenging but I could have never imagined how hard it would be to stand up in front of a class of kids with the bare minimum and try to teach a great lesson. It is truly daunting and challenging and takes hours of planning, preparation, thought and effort. Preparing for ten class groups across six grade levels takes up a tremendous amount of time and effort, and this, along with the meetings, extra-curricular activities and administrative paperwork required by the school and WorldTeach makes for hard work!
  • Having a bad day at school: There are just some days which are bad, really bad, where everything seems to go wrong. The kids can really push you to your limits and on occasion on these bad days, I have questioned what I am doing here. Lucky these days are the minority and I am learning how to deal with them a lot better than I did at the start.
  • When there is no power or water: Living in a place with little infrastructure has it's lows. There's nothing more refreshing than getting home from a long day of classes, having a cold(ish) shower and sitting in front of the fan to cool down. There's nothing more disappointing than realizing that you can't do this.
  • Missing friends and family: I've spent long periods away from home before and haven't missed friends and family like I have here. This experience has been really challenging and it's been hard not being around my usual support network. I'm lucky to have such a supportive group here.
  • Self doubt and perfectionism: These are things that I always struggle with in many aspects of my life. Here, in this experience, these two qualities are amplified. I often wonder if I am what I am doing here is enough and I am sometimes frustrated that I am not making the progress that I had hoped with my students. Being a perfectionist in this type of situation never helps as I am constantly trying to get everything right all the time when it's not always possible.
The Positives:
  • Experiencing a new culture: What a blessing to be able to spend a prolonged period of time emerged in a culture, to experience the quirks, the great (and not so great) parts, the language, the food and everything else that comes with it. This is a priceless experience as anyone who has done this before will know.
  • Being a part of a small community: I love being a teacher here, being a part of this team of educators, living in this community and getting to know some of it's people. Now that I am adjusting to life here and my responsibilities, I look forward to playing a bigger part in the community as the year moves on.
  • My students: Although some of them drive me crazy, I adore my students, especially the little ones. I never knew I could love these little people so much. They constantly surprise me, make me smile and roar with laughter at some of the things they do and say. I feel so lucky to be a part of their lives.
  • My fellow volunteers: I couldn't have asked to be placed with a better group of people. These people who I am surrounded by 24 hours a day are my family, my friends and my support here and without them I don't think that I could do this. We see the best and the worst of each other and it's lucky that we get along, because the only time we are alone is when we are in the bathroom (if we are lucky!)
  • Colombia, the country: What a beautiful, diverse place. I am a stones throw away from one of the most spectacular beaches I have ever seen, a short trip away from the beauty, history and culture of Cartagena and so many other places that are a part of this wonderful country.
  • The fried food: This one needs to go in both columns. As much as I love the deditos, papa rellena, empanada and pastel de carne my body certainly doesn't. I will soon be sporting 'the poonch', present on many costeño women, a large protruding stomach, sometimes mistaken for a pregnant belly thanks to our fried friends which I eat on an almost daily basis.
My final point is the most significant high:
  • Being proud of myself and what I am doing here: Being here has pushed me to the limits and has tested me. In my most challenging moments I have seriously considered the possibility of giving in but I am so proud that I have pushed through and stuck with it, thanks also to the words of my friends and family. I really feel that I am here doing something great. In a moment of doubt in my abilities, mum told me something very true. She told me that whatever I do here, however small, will be more than what the students would have if I wasn't here. By me just being here, they will learn something, and however small that may be for some students, it's more than what they would learn if I wasn't here. I have realized that I can't change a community, or a culture, or a country. That's why I look at the small positive things and realize that they are the reason that I am here. When a student learns something new, when I see their smiling faces and hear them call my name when I pass because they are excited that I am here, when they hug me in class because they know that I care for them, when they overcome a challenge, when they change a behavior- these are the reasons that I am here. In the words of Mother Teresa, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” I hope that the stone I cast creates ripples for even just some of my students and that it makes them look outside of what they know to see that there are many possibilities for them if they try.

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