After my studies in Serbia, I desperately wanted to visit South America and wondered how to stay in Colombia for a year. Well, to be honest, more like how to stay anywhere in South America. In the end, in a way, Colombia chose me. But, I couldn’t but wonder Is Colombia safe?
Since I had just finished my studies, I had to figure out how to travel on a very low budget. That meant that I would have to work while traveling. So, I figured that the best way would be to find a job in advance and get there with a plan. On the other hand, I have to admit that I am not an avid tourist in that most common way of speaking. I like to travel, but rather spend more time in one place. Living in a country and then traveling while working or studying there is definitely my favorite way of discovering the world.
How I chose Colombia
Colombia did not come as a first choice. When I was preparing for this travel, it was 2011 and no one spoke about this country, at least not in Serbia where I lived at the time. Argentina and Uruguay came as first choices since many said that they were quite European. Also, because I had met some people from there and I absolutely loved them!
I started looking at different options and AIESEC, a students’ international organization popped up as a pretty good choice. They organize internships for students and some of those are well paid. I am saying well paid, because most of internships in Europe are not enough for living, while you can still find an internship with an excellent pay.
The first step is to sign up with them, you have interviews and then they put you in their date base where you can look for internships on your own. Their internet platform was well organized and most of jobs were explained in details, the salary was clearly displayed. And students seeking an international internship are not the only one looking for opportunities. Volunteers from AIESEC organizations all over the world also look for best options for the internships in their country.
After looking for couple of months, I got the first offer to go to Colombia. Then the second, the third… I figured that I should look it up since I was not really interested in anything else, and there was nothing in my field in Argentina or Uruguay. Questions like Is Colombia safe, inevitably popped up. I had to be sure where I was going. I looked up places to live in Colombia, since in 2011, we thought that Colombia was pretty dangerous.
How I chose the internship in Colombia
Finally, I got three internships options in Colombia. Out of three places to live in Colombia that were offered, I figured that living in the capital would be the most interesting experience. Specially because, even though I had lived in three countries up until that moment, I had never lived in a big city. Bogota was not big, it was huge!
Few different options you might get
In Bogota, I had two choices between a private school for English language and a regular school where I would also be an English teacher. Here is how I decided.
In a private school, you have one-on-one lessons or lessons with small groups and often you commute to certain companies to teach. I figured that I would be on the move all the time and I would not really have a chance to meet people. Yes, you meet a lot of people, your students, but you have one hour interaction with them here and there. While, when you work in a school, you get to have closer connections both with students and other teachers.
The other thing was the commuting part. Being in a capital city with almost 10 million people and no metro, I thought that moving around for one class would take more time than the class itself. And I was right!
The offered salary was the same. But language schools do not have as many vacations as the ”regular” schools. Not that it was my primary goal, but one of the most important things about spending time in South America was to travel. What I didn’t know at the time was that my summer holidays would also be paid if I was to go back. At first I only though about how to stay in Colombia for a year, but if you don’t have a strict plan and would like to stay for a longer period of time, then this would be a better option. These schools give you your summer salary if you come back in September since most of the time contracts last for a year.
Transportation and food
Another reason why I chose a school-school for work was the transport and food. I guessed I would have lunch at school, so I could save some money with that. And I read somewhere that you can take the school bus to go to work in the morning. Now, be careful because most of the schools actually make you pay for both. The school where I was an intern did not ask us to pay neither for the bus nor for the food (both lunch and snacks), but that was because we were treated like students in the beginning. All other teachers had to pay.
The second school where I worked had that policy for their workers. They considered that they should not charge for those, and that these were simply a part of good working conditions there. And they were right! They save you money and you don’t have to think about certain organizations, like preparing lunch in advance or having to think about the chaotic transportation in Bogota. A school bus picks you up in the morning and then you come back in the afternoon with it. You have your seat and don’t have to think about how you are going to get in an overcrowded Transmilenio public bus.
Here is a list of benefits for choosing to work in a regular school and not the language school:
- A chance to meet people – other teachers, children and their parents
- More holidays
- Paid holidays
- Free transportation
- Lunch and snacks
- Learning new teaching methods
Private schools in Bogota, Colombia
As you probably already know, Colombian society is deeply divided and there are huge differences in salaries. The public educational system is not the best. The conditions can be pretty tough both for teachers and students. There are sometimes between 40 and 50 students per class!
There is also the need and intention to separate kids from an early age. Where you will go to school will be defining for your future. Who you hang out with from an early age and what kind of education you get is very important for all parents all around the world. But separating kids by their class from an early age has also long lasting consequences for the whole society. I cannot blame the parents for doing this, everyone wants the best for their kids. However, I had tough time accepting this system, being from a country with communist heritage and having the same opportunities at school as everyone else. Then, on the other hand, the structure of the society I grew up in could not be compared in many things with the class society of Colombia.
Colombia, being in South America, has school calendars different from the ones in Europe and Northern America. However, most of these international, bilingual schools have the same school calendar as we do in Europe and Northern America. That is one important thing to take into consideration when choosing a school. Another one are the vacations. Not all the vacations last equally nor they are at the same time. Teachers usually have 1 month less than students over summer, which still gives them 1 full month of vacations and usually 2 or 3 weeks in the winter time. In autumn and spring there are one or two week vacations, again depending on the school.
Teaching at a private school
How to stay in Colombia for a year
Teaching at a private school is taken as any other full-time job. That means that you cannot leave whenever you want, even though you do not have classes. The schools are usually from 7 or 8 AM up until 3, 4 or 5 PM and you need to stay the entire time even though you have only one class that day. This rarely happens since most of the teachers have more classes during the week than teachers in Europe do. For example, teachers in Colombia would easily have 30, 35 classes per week, without counting the preparation hours. This is something you might take into consideration when negotiating with the school before starting.
Private schools are pricy
Most of these schools have sections from kindergarten up until high school. Even middle class parents send their kids to these schools because there is a wide range of schools and prices.
You can pay it from 50€ up until 1200€ a month! Yes, they can be very expensive. Parents would also say that it was not easy to get into certain public schools because there was not enough space for all students. I often wondered what would the public schools do if, all of a sudden, private one disappeared. On one hand, it is difficult to get into a public school, but on the other hand there are tests and interviews for the private school. It makes you think… We, Europeans, see education as something that every child should have and has the right to, but this topic is actually complicated when we think about countries that don’t have the same opportunity for all children.
The downside of this is also the fact that parents have an attitude of clients. Since they pay, they consider they have the right to ask what they want to ask for… And that is… Well, not that great in many moments when you have a parent telling you how you should do your job, when you are already doing something very responsible and giving your best.
Good thing for teachers
Since these schools are private, they pay better their teachers. But that is not the most important thing. There is a lot of competition between them, so they need to distinguish themselves somehow for the parents. They do it with different methods of teaching and languages taught at the school. This is also pretty great for teachers because they give them an opportunity to learn new things.
Schools I worked in
The first school I worked for had an international certificate and worked according to a special international program. The school in question is Buckingham school. While being there, they offered me to stay and I negotiated the salary. However, teachers had too many classes, they wouldn’t have enough time to prepare them and most of them worked nights. Because of the international certificates, there was a lot of paperwork on top of class preparation and classes, meetings with other teachers and with parents. I also wanted to see what else there was and I applied for few different schools.
I chose Rochester school
I found a school called Rochester school and fell in love with their method, the fact that they were an eco-friendly school that transmitted these values to their students. The premises of the school were new, everything was oriented towards technology and they had a special pedagogy called Choice Theory. I was intrigued. I got a phone call, had an interview and got the job. I must say that the salary was lower than what they had offered me in the first school where they knew me, but I figured that all these other things were more important. The salary was good enough.
I never regretted that choice. People were wonderful, caring, warm. I learned a lot and got very attached to my students. There was a relaxed, but hard-working ambiance. Also, the premises were amazing and this gives you an additional reason to be happy to work there. This might seem like a trivia, but you need to know that weather changes in Bogota all the time, there are basically all seasons in one day and houses do not have the heath. If you live in the North, apartments have good isolation, so the heath is not really extremely needed. But you are cold sometimes. Well, I was always cold in the first school, always with my jacket on… Rochester school had perfect isolation and heath regulation.
Another wonderful thing, something I absolutely adored, was the fact that these schools were huge and usually had a lot of things going on outside. They had huge yards, few different building and in order to do something you would need to go from one building to another. You moved a lot and spent a lot of time outside.
Before wrapping up, I feel like there are other things I need to say about AIESEC. If you are young and are looking for an adventure, AIESEC is a perfect choice. They are there to provide all the necessary paperwork, they wait for you at the airport and if you are lucky, they might even find housing for you.
My first apartment was through this organization. I had a house for the first month with other students that came with AIESEC. Another thing is that I arrived at the same time as Canadian and Ukrainian girls that had the same job. We lived together, worked at the same school, did many things together. This is awesome on one hand, because this makes your life easier, at least in the beginning. It could also be tricky because you, spend all of your time with them (if you like them of course) and it gets more difficult to get out of the foreigner’s circle.
If you are not a student anymore
If you are not in your post studies years, because there are certain age limits with these kinds of programs, you can look up straight away these kinds of schools and apply directly. There are very few that organize absolutely everything for you, but that is a part of the negotiation.
When I was there in 2012, there were not many foreigners, I imagine that there are many more now and that it got a bit more difficult to get this kind of a job. In any case, it is even better if you are a native English speaker and if your area of study were not languages. The most looked for and best paid were natives that taught math or science for example.
I also heard that teachers had been much better paid before I went there. Since Colombia was pretty closed, there were not a lot of foreigners living in Colombia and these bilingual schools needed to brag about having native speakers as their teachers. That is what also justifies their studying fees.
How to stay in Colombia for a year
I hope this answers your question how to stay in Colombia for a year. Even though I finally stayed for three! I really enjoyed my experience and would definitely recommend it to everyone that would like to embark on this kind of an adventure. You have someone caring for you, you can easily meet people.
And remember, I spoke about Colombia, but the same rules can apply for almost anywhere you go in Latin America. If this article made you think, visit AIESEC or other organizations that might help you and start packing your suitcase!