Guns and the good life in Colombia

8th April 2005 at 01:00
Mention Colombia and drugs and violence first come to mind, but teachers will find a better standard of living than at home, says Anastasia Moloney

layer of early morning mist has settled along the Andes, 3,000m above Bogot . On the northern outskirts of Colombia's capital lies the English School.

Through the classroom's large windows, the rooftops of houses built precariously on barren slopes can be seen in the distance.

It is 7.40am and 19 5-year-olds sit in silence as Lynne Stewart takes the morning register. Ms Stewart, 35, spent her probationary year at a primary school in Glasgow before landing a job at this prestigious school, teaching the sons and daughters of Colombia's political and business communities, whose parents pay steep fees for them to follow a British and international baccalaureate curriculum.

Seeing armed security guards patrol the grounds and children escorted to and from school by bodyguards in bullet-proof cars is common. Earthquake drills also become part of school life, making teaching in Glasgow seem a distant memory.

The school provides a bilingual experience. For pupils, it is not just about listening and speaking in English but writing in a foreign language too. This challenge has made Ms Stewart appreciate how hard it is for children to adapt to different languages.

"I'm now more patient and sensitive to the needs of ESL students," she says. "Looking back at my teaching experience in Glasgow, I didn't really realise how difficult it was for students with English as a second language to learn in English."

One big difference between Scottish and Colombian education is that pupils may have to repeat an academic year if they fail a certain number of subjects, which can mean tense conversations with some parents once results are published.

A more visible difference is the way students and staff interact. While most Scottish teachers fear that displaying affection towards children may be met with disapproving looks and law suits, Colombians are more tactile and informal with students.

"Pupils find it strange when a teacher doesn't take their hand and give them hugs," says Ms Stewart. "They're aware that foreign teachers refrain from making physical contact with them."

Colombian pupils tend to see teachers as an older friend and mentor rather than a figure of authority. Such cultural distinctions can be difficult to get used to.

"British teachers keep their distance and are used to building barriers between themselves and children," says Ms Stewart.

The social problems confronting these privileged elite of Colombian society are different from the problems of inner city Glasgow. Some parents spend little time with their children and do not know them well. "Many are brought up by their maids," she says.

Foreign teachers are more vocal than Colombian staff when it comes to expressing their points of view. Scottish teachers can expect support and protection from their teaching unions. Their Colombian colleagues do not enjoy such luxuries and few teachers working in private schools belong to unions. Ms Stewart says: "They tend to keep quiet and are generally afraid to complain for fear of losing their jobs."

Language barriers, rather than intrinsic cultural differences, provide the biggest obstacle in terms of Colombian and foreign staff interacting. "At the beginning of the year, the staffroom can feel segregated as native English speakers will stick together because of their limited Spanish," says Ms Stewart.

During the day, primary teachers usually have two one-hour free periods to catch up on marking and planning. Weekly department and pastoral meetings are timetabled into the school day, which means teachers can go home right after the last school bell at 3.30pm (2.40pm on Fridays).

Foreign staff are paid well above local teaching salaries, often providing a better standard of living than in Scotland. The school provides free annual flights home, help with finding accommodation, private health insurance and free Spanish lessons.

There are plenty of attractions to lure intrepid teachers to Bogot , such as a vibrant nightlife, weekend trips to lush fincas (farms) and country clubs. "It's a sophisticated city with great bars and restaurants," says Ms Stewart.

In wealthy residential areas, police and private security guards are visible in the streets. For this reason, Ms Stewart says: "I've felt more threatened walking the streets back home than in Bogot ."

* hour's drive from the English School, up the winding mountainous road and overlooking the panoramic landscape, is the Colegio Hacienda Los Alcaparros, nestled amid pine woods.

Richard Miller, 29, from Lockerbie, has been teaching English to 14- to 18-year-olds at the elite private school for a year. Working as a teacher in Colombia was never part of his original plan. He took a sabbatical from a stressful job as a nurse to backpack around South America. He eventually travelled to Colombia on the recommendation of a friend, who convinced him that the country's notorious reputation was not as bad as foreigners presume.

"I had no teaching experience or qualifications when I first arrived in Colombia," Mr Miller explains. "After gaining experience teaching English at a university, I applied for a job at this school."

At Los Alcaparros, there are no set schemes of work to follow. The school's philosophy is based on independent learning, taught through investigative projects and cross-curricular activities.

"I consult with the head of English about the books I wish to study with a class, but the way I approach literature and examine students is mostly left up to me," says Mr Miller.

He has only 16 teaching hours each week, which allows time to plan lessons and mark work during the school day.

The morning ritual in Scotland of looking at the cover board is not an issue at Los Alcaparros. Lessons rarely need to be covered here. "As most Colombian staff are on one-year contracts, they are careful not to jeopardise their jobs by taking days off work," explains Mr Miller.

Most Colombian staff are bilingual and keen to practise their English with native speakers. Speaking Spanish is not a requisite for foreign teachers.

"In fact," says Mr Miller, "the less Spanish the better, as far as the school is concerned. I'm paid to speak and be spoken to in English."

Scottish teachers give the school an added cultural diversity. "It means the students don't just get used to an American or Australian culture and accent," he says.

Colombians have a certain respect and admiration for Britain that makes teaching an enjoyable experience.

"Colombians consider British culture to be civilised and its education the creme de la cr me," he says. "So students, even though they're sometimes pampered and spoilt, are responsive to foreign staff, who are respected and looked up to."

"With my salary, I can go out, travel around Colombia and South America and live in a comfortable modern flat," says Mr Miller.

Colombia's reputation as a violent country cannot be ignored but, Mr Miller says, staying out of trouble is about common sense and listening to local advice. "During the past four years, I've had few problems. It's best to hang out with Colombians and keep your wits about you."

For a list of bilingual international baccalaureate schools in Colombia, www.ibo.orgColegio Hacienda Los Alcaparros,

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