Christina Hoffman is originally from Ontario, Canada and has been living and working overseas in Bogotá, Colombia since 2015. She recently took time out of her busy schedule to sit down with SchoolRubric's Ryan Sagare to discuss her experience living abroad, why she decided to pursue an international teaching position, and offer advice to prospective teachers looking to make the move overseas.
Thanks for spending some time with us today. Can you tell the SchoolRubric community a little bit about yourself and your background?
I'm originally from Ontario, Canada. I went to school in Peterborough, Ontario at Trent University and studied my Bachelor’s of Education at Queen's University. When I was at Queen's, I had a really cool opportunity to go to TORF (Teachers’ Overseas Recruiting Fair) which is the international teaching fair. It's something I always wanted to do since I love traveling and I love learning about new cultures. I didn't want to stay in Canada, because it was difficult at that moment to get permanent teaching jobs so I thought it would be a great opportunity to go internationally. So I went to TORF and got about 10 job offers in one weekend. It was the craziest experience of my life and I ended up deciding to come to Colombia. My mom used to work in Colombia about 35 years ago. I always wanted to come and learn about the culture and learn Spanish, so I signed a two year contract to move to Bogotá… and here I am now. It’s fantastic. I've been here for four years and I'm absolutely loving Colombia.
Your story is a little unique in that you didn’t spend time teaching in your home country and immediately decided to relocate and work abroad.
In Canada and in Ontario where I’m from, it’s especially difficult to get full time teaching jobs. I saw a lot of my friends applying for different school boards and they were getting supply teaching jobs. I didn't find that so appealing because I really wanted to start right away in the field of teaching and to have experience in the classroom right away with my own kids. And I thought that this would be a great opportunity for me to teach and to also see if teaching was for me because I wasn't 100 percent sure that this was the path that I wanted to take. So I figured that by getting experience in the classroom right away I could figure out if I really liked it and if I wanted to continue in that path. I found that the fair was a great opportunity to get experience right away and to learn about teaching around the world. I wanted to develop relationships with other teachers and to see the style of teaching in different countries, which would help me grow professionally.
What made you ultimately decide to accept the job offer overseas?
I loved the culture - that was I think one of my biggest things. I traveled a bit to South America before and I really, really loved the people. Honestly, I think it was also the school because I made a really good connection with the people who were interviewing me and I really liked the ideology of the school because it sounded like a very forward-thinking school. It sounded like they really wanted to be innovative and involve the kids a lot in decisions being made at school.
Another thing that I loved was that the school was very Colombian. There was a small percentage of international teachers and a small percentage of international students which is pretty unique for international schools. So because I really came to Colombia with the intention of learning Spanish and learning about the culture, I thought it would be a really good immersion experience for me to figure these things out.
Tell us about your first year overseas: the positives, negatives, adjustments, surprises.
I think the biggest kind of shock getting here was trying to figure out my life. I was coming to a new country in which I had no friends and I had never taught before. It was everything at once and it was very overwhelming. I didn't speak the language. I didn't know anybody. And because the school was so Colombian, I didn't have a lot of international friends to connect with right at the beginning. I was really lucky because the Colombian teachers at school were fantastic and they became my family. When I arrived at the school, I was a Primary teacher for two months and they changed my position after two months to High School, which I was not trained for. That was an extra challenge for me. But I think that one year I really learned a lot about resilience. I learned to keep on moving and to ask for help whenever I needed it because it was probably the most challenging year of my life both personally and professionally.
I had learned how to teach and I’d gone to teacher's college but nothing is the same as having your own classroom. And then being in another country and another culture with a different language… so it was all these things kind of kept coming together that made it really challenging. I was super lucky that I found a great group of people at the school and outside the school who helped me, but the first couple of months were really difficult.
A lot of international school teachers seem to jump around from job to job and a lot of them have even returned home after a few years. Yet you seem to have found a niche living overseas.
Originally I had a contract for two years at my first school and I decided to renew that contract for one more year, so I stayed a total of three years because I changed jobs midway through my first year. I wanted to have two full years of doing the same thing so I would feel comfortable with the curriculum. By the time I got to the end of my second year here, I felt like I already had a great Colombian family. I had really good friends, both Colombian and international, that supported me and I felt really comfortable. And I loved the culture. I think Colombia is an amazing place to travel - there's so much to do here. The holidays are fantastic. So I feel like the work-life balance is really nice and I feel like there's there's still a lot that I want to do around South America.
Last year, I resigned from my previous job and went travelling in South America for four and a half months because I wanted to see more of South America. I ended up coming back to Colombia because I have a Colombian boyfriend, and so that's kind of why I decided to come back and I really love this country. I don't know if I'll be here forever but I feel like I still have some time left in me for Colombia. I wanted to experience working in a different school that was a bit bigger and a bit more established from the school that I was at before. And I was ready for something new. But I'm in love with Colombia. It's a great place to live.
A little bit along those lines, what kind of advice would you give a teacher in the United States, Canada, or elsewhere looking for an international teaching job?
I think it's important to look for a culture that you identify with because for me one of the biggest and best parts of being in Colombia is actually learning about the culture. I think that some international teachers will go to a school that's very international and only have friends who are American, Canadian, Australian or whatnot and they don't necessarily get to learn about the local culture. So for me, I think that's one of the best things about living here - I want to stay because I have Colombian friends and I have connections with Colombia, whereas if all your friends are international and they're constantly leaving then it's hard to make that connection. So my advice would be to look for a country that you're interested in - you're interested in the food, you're interested in the people, and you’re interested in the travel experiences so that you want to immerse yourself. I would also recommend to look at a school that will challenge you in terms of giving you opportunities to grow and that will give you opportunities different from your home country. One of the biggest reasons why I went abroad was I wanted to get to know about different ways of teaching and so I'm really looking for that in the schools that I'm working in, so that I have new opportunities to grow, for professional development and to connect with teachers with a variety of experiences.
How would you characterize the main differences between education in international schools in Colombia versus back home in Canada?
The first school that I worked with utilized the IB (International Baccalaureate) programme so I used the PYP (Primary Years Programme). The school that I am at now has created their own curriculum that is very inquiry-based. It's also very reflective so the students have to look a lot at metacognition and they have to reflect a lot on how they learn. I think that's one thing that I haven't seen as much of in Canada. I don't think that this is common in Colombia in the public schools; however, I know that the private schools here are trying to be very forward thinking in that they’re trying to be very 21st century, they’re trying to integrate technology, they’re trying to integrate metacognition and find a balance between different subjects and fuse them together, which I really enjoy. Another thing that I love about the school that I'm at now is that it's very connected with the community. So while the students are at a private school, they're trying to connect the students with the world around them and with the realities of the Colombian education system which is that most kids are not in a private school. That’s something that I really appreciate because the school gets kids to go out into the community and volunteer and they do trips all around Colombia to learn about the culture around them. I've seen this at some schools in Canada of course, but I think that's one thing that has really stood out about these two schools.
You had mentioned earlier that at the job fair you received 10 job offers. That really seems unusual for a candidate with no prior teaching experience.
It was definitely a very unique experience. I think something that made me stand out was that I had some international experience before - I'd been in Ecuador a few years prior volunteering for a Summer. So I think that if a school can see that you have a little bit of international experience and that you're comfortable in another culture, they will find that to be a positive attribute because they know that you're able to adapt, you've seen different things, and you've experienced hardships and perhaps things that you're not necessarily used to.
I think it's also great to get other experiences apart from just being in the typical classroom. So getting experiences with kids or with adults - it doesn't matter with whom but in leadership positions where you're showing where you're giving guidance. So I taught music classes. I helped program activities in a day program for elderly people. I've done a lot of random experiences but all with the same goal of being a leader and providing support for different groups of people. It's good to figure out what your strengths are and then how to make your resume look different than everybody else because you’re right, coming straight out of teacher's college there aren't many opportunities out there. I really kept my options open and I didn't say “I just want to go to Europe” which is what a lot of first year teachers will do. So if you want to go internationally, keep your options open and see what options come to you.
Last question: any recommendations for places to go or things to do while in Bogotá?
It's not necessarily the best place for tourists, but to live in - it's fantastic. It's a really cool city because it's very international and you can also get the real Colombian experience. One of my favorite things to do is play Tejo which is a game where you have these metal pucks and you have to throw them at a little paper triangle filled with gunpowder so they explode. Everybody is drinking beer and that's a very typical Colombian thing to do on a Sunday afternoon. Lots of old men do it in the little towns around Bogotá. So you have to play Tejo if you’re in Bogotá.
The nightlife and international restaurants in Bogotá are excellent. I think the lifestyle here is fantastic. But one of my favorite things about Bogotá is that it's easy to leave and it's easy to travel around Colombia. Right around Bogotá, they have some beautiful areas where you can go hiking and biking. You can rent amazing houses in the countryside where they're overlooking canyons with flowers or go horseback riding. You can take a short flight to the coast and go to the beach. So it's a really flexible lifestyle. For me, the temperature is perfect because it's like Springtime all year round. And you can have a really nice balance of having fun and working.
The people here have a great mentality. They're very family-oriented and you'll become a part of the Colombian family if you come here. You'll make Colombian friends and they will invite you to celebrate whatever festivities with them. You can go to the festivals around the country. It's just a very lively and lovely lifestyle with lots of music and lots of dancing, so if you like that kind of lifestyle then Colombia's is a fantastic place to live.