In my career, I’ve had the privilege to serve as a teacher and tutor at a variety of students in different contexts at home and abroad. In the picture above you can see me visiting some of my former students during their English day celebration at Colegio Colsubisidio Ciudadela in Bogotá, where I served as a Volunteacher with VC. Through these experiences I have come to appreciate the huge responsibility we have as educators to serve as positive role models and resources for our students. Whether sharing our knowledge of the English language, our home culture, a game or even a smile, we have the potential to make a lasting difference in a young person’s life. Before engaging in any sort of volunteer service, especially when it deals with education, I like to ask myself a few questions:
1. What are the needs of the community I will serve? English is a priority for Colombia. On a macro scale, for the first time in decades the Colombian national budget allocated to education surpassed military expenditures in 2015. The current administration has made education, and specifically bilingualism, a pillar for their national development plan. Based on a recent study performed by the British Council, 48% of Colombians consider English to be directly associated with better education and employment opportunities, yet most don’t have contact with the language in their daily lives. Within the co-teaching model, our program aims to address this need by supporting the existing English infrastructure within SENA by building capacity in the local staff and promoting language and cultural exchange. 2. What skill set can I contribute? This one is more straightforward. We all have C1 level English or above, so we have the know-how to serve as a resource to our classroom. Our volunteers represent 22 different nationalities and a wealth of past professional experience. Even those who have a background in education, my invitation is to continue learning about pedagogy from our co-teachers and fellow volunteers. Investigate and share best practices for teaching English and take advantage of classroom observations in order to really push yourself to become a better teacher and to refine that skill set that you are bringing to your SENA center each day.
3. What mentality should I assume in order to carry out this service in an ethical manner? This question is clearly the most nuanced and takes some reflection. Especially when talking about international exchange, the important aspect to consider is that service is a two-way street -- we have the chance to “get” just as much as we “give”. Ultimately we are guests here in Colombia and though we might have the best intentions and a desire to change the world, it's important to understand that the scope of our main social impact is in the classroom and on SENA campuses. There are times when we confront deep systemic issues and become discouraged, but I encourage you to take these new challenges as an opportunity to learn and to avoid passing judgment. Remember different doesn’t equal bad, different equals different. By identifying commonalities between yourself and those you serve and keeping an open mind and heart, we can join our efforts with our SENA counterparts to make a local impact for global change. Our program isn’t the "answer" to the "problem" of bilingualism in Colombia; we are instead, an important piece in the puzzle of education and an invaluable resource for our centers and students alike.
I understand that teaching in an entirely new culture and educational system is far from an easy task, but believing in the power of education and recognizing how even small things can alter the trajectory of our students' dreams and goals makes it all worth it.