On Peace Corps’ Return to Colombia
By Erica Burman on Wednesday, May 19th, 2010
[Recently, the Peace Corps announced that it will be returning to Colombia after a nearly 30 year absence. We asked National Peace Corps Association board member Allegra K. Troiano (Senegal 80-82), who is currently a Senior English Language Fellow in Bogotá, Colombia, to offer her thoughts on this news.]
After having spent the last 9 months in Colombia, I can easily say that this is one of the best countries I have ever lived in: the people are very friendly and welcoming; the country is beautiful, clean, diverse, and alluring. Last July I was asked to be the Senior English Language Fellow (a State Department English program) where I would do teacher training throughout the country. I readily accepted, as my Colombian students had always been some of my favorites.
Upon arrival last August, I was quite happy to hear that Peace Corps officials were coming to do their initial site assessment. Then last week, Aaron Williams, our PC director, signed official documents with Jaime Bermúdez, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, for our return at the end of the year.
After having spent the last 9 months training public school teachers in 10 different cities throughout the country, I can vouch for the need for more quality training in methodologies and strategies for teaching English, more access to native speakers, more cultural exchange, and more exposure to what works in education that can be applied to the Colombian paradigm.
After the government officially decreed that Colombia would be a bilingual country (English/Spanish) by 2019, there was a rapid expansion of English instruction at all levels and the adoption of the European Common Framework (a standardized curriculum and system for measuring competencies in the language). As a result, there are many Colombian English teachers, who barely speak English, teaching English in the public schools.
Bringing PC volunteers in to teach EFL (English as a Foreign Language) or do teacher training can meet the needs of the public sector as long as the volunteers are properly trained and willing to work within an imperfect system. What is most needed are PCV teachers committed to working in very large classes, often lacking concise discipline plans, in difficult conditions (with few or no textbooks), where teachers often pay for their own photocopies for their classes. One idea is to put PC volunteers in classes with Colombian co-teachers, which will work as long as the roles of the co-teachers are clearly defined and executed properly.
After just visiting and observing World Teach Volunteers in Shakira’s school Pies Descalzos I can safely say that there’s a lot of work to be done, a lot of room for improving the education system. If experienced PC volunteer teachers are willing to work hard within a different cultural context, they will be welcomed with open arms and smiling faces. As Proexport’s Colombian campaign’s catchy byline states, “The only risk is wanting to stay.”