In High Demand: How to Teach English in Colombia

Students in Bucaramanga, Colombia. Rasmus Lerdorf via Flickr.com CC BY 2.0

Written by  October 31, 2017

With a rich cultural history, unsurpassed biodiversity and a hot job market for English teachers, add this country to your work abroad list.

Caribbean beaches, luscious coffee regions, the Amazon, and modern bustling cities—Colombia has it all. While South America’s second-largest nation may have a less than desirable reputation (given its history of a 52-year civil war), times have changed and Colombia’s "English as a Foreign Language" (EFL) market is booming.

“If a native English speaker wants to teach in Colombia, it is incredibly easy to find work,” says Jack Dowling, who left Colorado to work in the country’s capital, Bogota. He’s already landed his second job. “There is a great market here, and the opportunity for private classes also exists.”

I found this to be true in 2016 when I began teaching in Medellín. Institutes are always hiring, and the demand for private lessons is high. With an active expat community and many nearby universities, it was also easy to connect with locals who were interested in tutoring.

Why teach English in Colombia?

Although Bogotá, Medellín and Cali are among the most popular cities for EFL teachers, there is demand across the country thanks to Colombia Very Well. Launched in 2015, the 10-year initiative aims to increase the number of high school graduates with an intermediate level of English by more than 2000 per cent. To achieve this, the Ministry of Education pays recruiters to fill teaching assistant positions with native speakers. Due to varying academic calendars—between public school programs, private language academies and bilingual institutes—it’s always hiring season.

A thriving job market isn’t the only reason to teach in Colombia; it’s also a fun and social place to work.

But a thriving job market isn’t the only reason to teach in Colombia; it’s also a fun and social place to work.

“There’s a thinner line between student and teacher [in Colombia] than in the States,” says American Andrew Macia, who has been teaching since 2011 and created Medellin Buzz, a website that bridges the gap between EFL students and native speakers. “We would go out for a beer with the students after class. It’s a great aspect socially.”

How to get the job

If you tackle your job search on the ground, you can readily find a job any time of the year in a language institute, some of which won’t even require a visa.

However, if you’re looking for better hours, higher pay and a sponsored visa, then plan to apply to private and government schools at least three to six months before your desired start date. If you’re interested in a university position, then start contacting directors as early as a year in advance.

When contacting employers, email is less reliable; expect slow replies, often weeks late. However, many language schools have active Facebook pages where they list cellphone and Whatsapp numbers.

“Don’t shy away from contacting them by direct message,” advises Macia. “Whereas in other countries it’s frowned upon, that kind of persistence pays off here.”

Visas

Teachers from Canada and the U.S. can stay in-country as tourists for 90 days and later request to extend the visa for another 90 days. This means you can search for a job as a tourist and later secure a work visa.

However, be cautious of language institutes that require a visa but are unwilling to sponsor one. This means that they expect you to get sponsorship via another school, then to leave the first job and carry the visa to their school. This dishonesty can get messy. If you’re applying to jobs in advance, ask employers outright about their visa standards.

Types of positions

Most schools require a teaching certificate (CELTA, TEFL, or TESOL), and public primary and secondary schools will also require a university degree. Familiarize yourself with the type of position you may apply for so that you can plan financially.

Full-time, contracted: Teachers receive a work visa, sponsored by the school. The school completes the paperwork, but the teacher (if already in-country) will have to make a trip to Bogotá to complete the legal process. Because the school has sponsored the visa, teachers agree to teach at one school and cannot work outside of the school. They receive payment through a Colombian bank account and receive a set schedule.

Part-time employee: Teachers receive payment in cash according to their number of classroom hours; lesson planning and offsite work is unpaid. Some employers will follow the rules and require a visa, while others will not.

Independent contractor: Teachers are paid an hourly rate for part-time services, with no benefits. Schedules often change, and a work visa is not required.

Where to find work: Recruiters & language schools

Greenheart Travel is a recruiter that offers EFL teach-abroad programs in seven countries. Because the Colombian government pays recruiters like Greenheart Travel to hire native instructors, teachers are reimbursed for monetary deposits, and the government covers all visa costs.

Teachers who are matched with the Ministry of Education will co-teach alongside local Colombian English teachers in public high schools. SENA is Colombia’s government agency that provides free education and technical development to university-aged students. Instructors matched with SENA will teach English and life skills to help build a bilingual working class. Applicants have to pass interviews with representatives from both Greenheart and the Ministry of Education. Teachers are not able to select their specific placement location, but accommodations are completely covered by the program.

Colombo Americano is perhaps the most recognized English language school in Colombia. Founded by American and Colombian educators, the non-profit institute offers cultural and academic programs in every major city. It holds a reputation for the high demands it places on both teachers and students.

The Colombo also offers exceptional benefits. In addition to sponsoring visas, airfare is covered for foreign teachers, and the institute also provides a living stipend and a competitive hourly rate at 22,000 pesos an hour. While teachers cover visa costs upfront, Colombo Americano will reimburse this upon signing the 11-month contract (which usually runs from mid-January to mid-December).

If you take a job with the Colombo, be prepared for a full schedule. The Colombo requires native English teachers to complete 35 in-class hours a week; outside planning and grading is not included.

Universidad EAFIT is a teaching and research university based in Medellin, with additional campuses in Bogotá and Pereira. Widely recognized for language studies, they offer courses in eight languages. At EAFIT, it is best to apply in January for a position that would begin the following academic year. Note: Even for native English speakers, EAFIT requires a proficiency certificate in TOEFL, IELTS, or TOEIC if hired. However, this is not required to apply.

• With locations in more than 70 countries, and in six cities in Colombia, Berlitz allows teachers to transfer from one center to another with 6-month or 12-month contracts. The language center holds a good reputation in the EFL industry.

Jack Dowling worked at Berlitz Bogotá for five months in 2016. He says that although Berlitz offers the security of a job aligned before arrival, teachers are only hired part-time and are not permitted to teach at other schools. In addition, the class schedule can be erratic from one day to the next. “It was impossible to have a life outside of work,” he says.

However, if you’re totally new to teaching, Berlitz does hire first-timers. “It does look good on a resume,” says Dowling, who has since started teaching elsewhere. “If you get hired at Berlitz and work there for a year, you will be able to find a job afterwards,” says Dowling. 

Where to find work: Bilingual international schools

Private international primary and secondary schools allow EFL teachers who carry university degrees to teach subjects outside of English language. Many schools send representatives to job fairs in Canada and the States, so you’ll want to check their websites for a job fair calendar.

While many require two years of prior teaching experience, these schools can have fast turnover rates for foreign hires; new teachers shouldn’t shy away from applying.

Bogota 

Colegio Gran Bretaña

Colegio Nueva Granada

The Victoria School

Medellin

The Columbus School

Marymount School Medellin

Colegio Canadiense

Elsewhere

• Colegio Panamericano, Bucaramanga

• Colegio Anglo Colombiano, Cali 

Colegio Bolivar, Cali

The George Washington School, Cartagena

• Colegio Granadino, Manzales

The bottom line

Colombia may boast a low cost of living, but the country ranks poorly in pay rates across all industries. Education is no different. Hourly wages can drop below 18,000 pesos, even for certified native English teachers with a university degree. Teachers tend to work many hours, and often teach on Saturdays. The work-life balance is determined by the school’s schedule and types of hires, so ask questions about what an average workday will look like.

But don’t let this deter you. The trade-off is affordability and ease of travel. (Did I mention that Colombia ranks third in the world for the most public holidays?) Rent rates, taxi fares, and prices at tourist sites are negotiable. So while you’re more likely to break even rather than boost your savings account, you can earn enough to live comfortably and explore.

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Published in Work Abroad
Caroline Cassard

Caroline Cassard is a travel and food-enthused English language teacher from the U.S. Excited to explore Latin America and beyond, she scavenges for vegetarian meals and attempts to pick up the local language between classes.

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