A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series — How to Teach When Students Won’t Talk to You – The North Star Reports – by Laura Blasena. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal
I am tall, and have light brown eyes and light brown hair.
(My hair is definitely light brown, but everybody in Colombia assures me that I do, in fact, have blonde hair. I`ve been told to “not be modest” about my hair color when I try to argue, as if having almost-blonde hair is a great personal achievement).
It isn´t a big deal in Minnesota, but my goodness it`s a big deal here.
As a white person growing up in Minnesota I never experienced what it meant to be the “other”. I was never a foreigner and I was never what could be considered, in any way, “different”. While the sudden shock of becoming utterly and completely “other” when I moved to Bogota was just that —a shock— I know that I will look back on this experience as incredibly valuable.
I am not a large, imposing person. I have issues twisting caps off of plastic water bottles — I am not strong.
Before moving to Bogota, I would have laughed if somebody told me that they were afraid of me. In fact, I did laugh (or, at least chuckle) the first time one of the English professors informed me that the students were shy and afraid to talk to me. I didn’t believe him, until I tried to communicate with students.
In many classes, I am lucky if the students speak Spanish to me. (An English conversation is a far-off dream).
Students will ask questions to the teacher and try to use the teacher as a medium to communicate with me. When I refuse to answer the question unless I receive it directly from the student (Spanish or English—I am just desperate for communication) the students will often shake their heads, look away, and laugh and giggle to their classmates. These students are of a traditional college age (18-22) or, in most cases, older than 22 and older than me.
My favorite conversation with a student went as follows:
I sit down in the classroom in a desk at the far side of the room, waiting for students to finish arriving so that I can begin my activity. I turn to the student next to me and say in Spanish , “Hi, my name is Laura. I am the English assistant here. What’s your name?”
Rather than answer my question, the student turns behind to her friend and loudly exclaims, “Oh my God! She’s a foreigner,” while her friend stares at me with wide eyes.
They tell me that I`m scary.
It`s frustrating, but the English professors constantly remind me that for some of the students I am the only foreigner that they have ever met. While I find it hard to believe that I am literally the only foreigner that they have met in a large city like Bogota, it`s very possible that I am the only foreigner that they have been forced to talk to.
(Sometimes I feel like my English students are like these angry, wet pigeons. Me speaking English to them is like water. They’re flooded with the language when I speak to them, but they just let it flow around them like an annoyance. They sit in the water/English class just because it’s a requirement for them to graduate.)
About our special correspondent Laura Blasena: Ever since I was a little Kindergartner I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.
I graduated from St. Scholastica in the summer of 2015 with a double major in Elementary Education and Spanish Education after student teaching as a 5th grade teacher and also as a Spanish teacher at NorthStar in Duluth, Minnesota.
While my future plans before graduation were initially to become a classroom teacher, I decided to wait a year to begin teaching in the United States and have chosen to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, I will be working with a university as an assistant in the language department, attending classes, running conversation clubs, and offering the perspective of a native speaker.
I’ve always loved to travel. In college, I participated in several study abroad trips, visiting England, Guatemala, and Mexico. (I loved visiting Mexico so much that I even went back a second time!). I’m looking forward to the travel opportunities that I will have while working and living in Colombia.
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28 responses to “A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series — How to Teach When Students Won’t Talk to You – The North Star Reports – by Laura Blasena. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal”
Reblogged this on The Middle Ground Journal.
I can’t imagine having this barrier between me and the 9th graders I’m teaching. Trying to engage students in their own language as an “insider” is difficult enough, but being the outsider they are afraid of only makes this more difficult as I would imagine. Hopefully your students start to see that even though you are different than them you’re there to help them and teach them and they begin talking to you.
You make such a good point about how it feels to be the other for the first time. It really must be shocking. If people and students will not talk to you and are in fact afraid of you I would imagine that it must feel scary or disheartening to teach or talk in front of them. Have the professors given you any hints or advice on strategies to make the students not so afraid of you?
It`s usually common for the teachers to warn me that the students are “shy” before or after an activity. It isn`t particularly helpful advice, unfortunately.
At first I would go along with the excuse of being “shy”, but the classes where the professors emphasize that I should be nice to them because they are shy are usually the classes with the oldest students (Ex. most are 28 or older), which means that I as a teacher have very little patience. They`re adults, and I usually give them a speech about acting like adults and they respond to it well and begin participating.
I have to call them out on their excuse!
Wow! That’s shocking, whenever I’ve studied abroad people have been very excited to speak with me, usually in English but even more excitedly when I can use their language. Is there a cultural explanation for their shyness with strangers? Or it simply because you are a foreigner?
I definitely have the experience of people being excited to talk to me when I`m outside of the school setting!
It`s in the school setting that a lot of people suddenly don`t want to talk to me, and I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that it is a school setting (they`re getting graded), and also the fact that there is a somewhat strong attitude of laziness among the students regarding English. They complain A LOT about being told to do very simple things, like speak in English in the English classroom.
Some of them are genuinely scared of talking to me, but a lot of them use the “being scared” as an excuse to hide behind because they don`t want to put forth effort to talk, and because it just takes them out of their comfort zone.
I think your comparison of English as a flood could point to another possible reason they are reluctant to communicate with you. Perhaps they aren’t confident in their ability to use English orally. Speaking a language one is studying, especially with foreigners, can be incredibly intimidating. I had the opportunity to meet Russian high school students (14-15 years old) last year. For me, at 21 years old, it was quite intimidating to attempt to practice using the Russian I had learned with them. I imagine native-level speech is intimidating to most students of a language.
It definitely is intimidating for them to suddenly be speaking with a foreigner! And oral communication is not heavily emphasized in the curriculum, so many of them aren`t accustomed to speaking in the language all the time.
However, one of the main reasons that they don`t feel confident in their English level is that many of them don`t study at all/don`t go to class/don`t do assignments, so I`ve become a bit jaded after so many classes and don`t allow them to use fear as an excuse anymore.
It really weirds me out to imagine students that are many years older be afraid of you, I can’t imagine what it must feel like; almost as if you have sudden accidental superiority over them? How well does the English professor speak English, are you able to have regular, one-on-one conversations with him/her? I know I wouldn’t be able to handle being immersed in such a different world, it takes a certain kind of bravery, that’s for sure. Do you expect your students to become less shy as they spend more time with you, or is it an impossible feat?
Students definitely become more willing to talk when I`ve been around them more. There are a few students that regularly show up for conversation clubs, and while I they haven`t drastically improved their English knowledge, they`ve become more willing to talk and make mistakes which is an integral part of learning a language!
The majority of the teachers have a very solid English level. Many of them went to the public university here, which is the best university available. However, I have walked into a grammar lesson a few times and seen errors. As for communicating, we speak in English and Spanish and either one works. With lower-levels, the professors generally talk to me in English because the students don`t understand and then they can talk to me about them.
I can only imagine how frustrating this must be. I know that in my current placement, students feel comfortable talking with me because I don’t seem very much older than them (it’s a 5 year difference, but I look younger). I would be the one that would be intimidated if I was teaching people older than me, culturally younger Anishinaabe people are to respect and serve our elders. I hope it becomes easier to get your students to speak to you.
I found myself wide-eyed and jaw-dropped after reading this article. It was very strange and surprising to hear that your students were not willing to communicate with you directly, especially since teacher-student communication can be a vital proponent of a proper education. If a student is afraid to say hello, I can’t imagine they would be wiling to ask a question about a lesson. I find it especially odd that they will not even communicate with you in their native tongue. It is almost as if they do not think you can understand what they are saying when they whisper to their friends about your “foreignness”, even though you had just spoken to them using it. I wonder if they discredit your “superiority” over them as an educator simply because you are foreign. I am also lead to wonder if this happens often across the globe. I try to imagine what it would be like if a foreign educator in the U.S. experiences something similar. Perhaps in Minnesota the “Minnesota niceness” may not allow an educator to experience this in a face-to-face situation. I hope the best for you!
There definitely is a different expectation for student-teacher relationships here that lower the level of “superiority” a teacher has in a classroom. Student-teacher relationships are accepted, which, given the fact that many of my students are my age or older, leads to a lot of especially male students treating my presence as a novelty.
I have to be very strict with students. They`ve never been told to put phones away/not take a phone call/not talk to each in many cases, so when I come into the classroom I have to start off by often by telling a student to leave the classroom for cellphone use or else they`ll take calls when I`m in the room. They`ve never experienced it before, so it usually shocks them–which doesn`t really help in making them talk to me!
It`s a balancing act between trying to get them to participate by following rules and trying to get them participate by actually wanting to talk to me.
What a werid/frustrating experience. I really appreciated your analogy with the water and pigeons- beyond being funny, it may represent another feeling your students may be experience: English is considered a necessity to their education, as water is a necessity to life. Perhaps their resistance is intensified because they feel your understand is superior and recognize the age disparity as equally awkward. I wish you the best of luck in further lessons. It maybe worth setting up individual student meetings to learn more about each individual, if at all possible, to create relationships with the students outside of the structure of the classroom.
What a strange/frustrating experience. I really liked your analogy about the water and pigeons- beyond being funny, I think it may indicate another dynamic about your relationship with these students. To them, english is necessary for their education, as water is to life. (Obviously, not quite as severe but worth mentioning). Perhaps this adds to the disparity between student/teacher, as well as the age gap. Is it possible to set up meetings with the students individually to create a relationship with them outside of school?
I have never had the opportunity to be the foreigner or different, but the way you described it is exactly how i imagine it would be like. Being a teacher you always want the class to be involved and i can see how annoying it can get if you only have the opportunity to talk with the other English teachers when you are really there to talk to the students. Like you said though you are most likely the first foreigner they have ever seen, i know i would be stand offish at first. Great Article, i would love to read more!
It is very shocking, and then humbling to realize when you’ve reached a standstill or an area of discomfort. I really like how you expressed your feelings as being the ‘other’ now that you’ve moved to teach in Colombia. It’s a very alienating feeling that I also felt when I moved to the U.S. But by experiencing this, it’s given me an entirely different outlook and understanding of life.
I never really thought about that before. When my school had foreign exchange students, we would probably freak them out more than them scare us because everyone would want to talk to them and be their friends. Maybe it is because the students are not use to the idea that someone comes from a completely different country and do not know how to act in front of them and are scared to mess up. I am sure the students will warm up to you eventually.
I can’t imagine how it must feel to be seen as “scary” when you can’t even open a water bottle cap! I believe that it must be a culture shock for someone to see someone from a different race when they aren’t used to it. Do you think the students notice the teaching gap they experience because of the resistance they feel towards you? Or do you think they’re just over come with emotions to even notice the barrier? I hope the experience is nothing but positive for you!
I am sorry that the lack of communication is frustrating you, but I am sure you have gained a lot by this experience and will continue to do so. I’ve had several friends study aboard to student teach, but this is something I haven’t heard of happening much. Even when I spent a little time in Costa Rica, the students I met were very excited to try practicing their English with me. I hope you are able to reach out and find a common ground to connect with them. Keep working hard, and I am sure it will pay off.
I`ve definitely experienced the flip side and had excited students before!
I`ve come to realize that a lot of student “fear” is actually an excuse for not wanting to participate in class. It`s easier to say you`re scared than you haven`t done your homework all semester and have no idea what`s going (or care, for that matter).
English is heavily emphasized here because of government initiatives, so students are used to always being told them have to learn English, and I think a lot of them are tired of it. They have very little interest because they`ve been ” learning” the same basic components since grade school.-
As the year goes on, I hope the level of comfort among students increases. But this essay is an interesting read. Particularly the comment you make about realizing it was the first time you were the “other.” Although it’s an uncomfortable feeling, I’m sure you’ll return with important lessons from these kind of interactions.
It’s interesting how things can change so quickly when you go to a different country. I like your tactic of not answering their question unless it’s directly asked to you – I would be tempted to respond through the teacher just so they at least get their question answered, but I think your way is much more valuable in the long run. I also liked your analogy about the students being angry wet pigeons, it definitely sounds like they are! I hope they warm up soon.
I am in no way cut out for education because reading this terrified me. Even when I give a presentation and no one comments or asks questions I feel defeated, so props to you. It was also nice to know that you didn’t take offense to this; many would arrive and be given this type of treatment and assume it was rude or because they did not like you, much less that you intimidated them. Such an interesting thing to come across: you, Laura Blasena, are not scary whatsoever 🙂 This would have been the last thing I would have pictured happening, especially after seeing you with the kindergarten kids in Cuernavaca. Funny how even cross culturally, kids still are at the purest, bravest age.
Hopefully as the year goes on your students will warm up to you. It must be difficult to teach, when there is zero communication. The only thing that they say to you is that your a foreigner, must be hard to take and weird role switch. It seems strange that being of older age that they treated ya this way. Like they say, “kids will be kids.”
Laura, I find this article important. I think it draws out some of the problems within education systems and within cultural exchange dynamics. As a student, I have visited Germany twice, and while I had 6 years of German by the time I went the second time, I was still very reluctant to speak German with native-speakers. It wasn’t that I was intimidated by the people themselves, it was that I was embarrassed that after studying for so long, I still couldn’t hold a proper conversation in the target language. Meanwhile, most of the people I came across knew at least some English, if not more English than I knew German. Even in a European country where people didn’t look all that different from me, they could tell I was foreign right away and always spoke English to me before I could try to speak German to them. The only case where I was confident enough to speak German was to people who immigrated to Germany and German was the only common language between us (it was much less intimidating because German was not their first language either).
One of the things I think is worth pointing out in this article is your frustration that people were only there to graduate and didn’t want to learn English. Examine your place of privilege as an English-speaker who can go almost anywhere in the world and find someone who also speaks English. Then examine the place of your Colombian students, their backgrounds, their cultures. Do they need English to succeed within their own country? /Should/ they need English to succeed within their own country? Try to reach an understanding of why students were resistant when you were present. It’s easy to look and say “It’s required, therefore it is something you should know”, but why is it required in the first place? Who designed the university? In order to best serve communities, it is important to be curious about how those communities work and why they work the way they do. Without that curiosity, we are prone to believing that our way is best, an attitude that has been destructive to many regions of the world for centuries.
Thank you for provoking my thoughts, Laura. I hope you learned a lot through your experience.
Thank you for sharing this story! I find it really interesting how much perspective changes as you travel throughout the world. The idea of being intimidating is certainly a wierd one for many of us, but I found the same to be true in Guatemala. Many Guatemalans would be hesitant to start conversation with members of our group, especially the louder, more exuberant people. I hope you enjoyed your time in Bogota!
Thank you for sharing your story. In my own experience as a student observer in different area classes, I also struggle to communicate and relate to students. I couldn’t even image trying to do that in a different language. Although this is something that I may have to work on in my career if I have students that are English language learners. I don’t think teaching abroad is in my future, but I guess I never know until I get there!