Teaching at SENA: One Month Update

If you’ve been following my blog, you might be excused for thinking that I don’t actually work, but just spend my time in Colombia drinking coffee, relaxing on the beach, and hitting the tourist spots of Medellín.

And, well, until this month you wouldn’t really be wrong! That is because I just finished up my first month of class (and yes, I have been here for almost three months).

I won’t lie, when I first arrived at my school there was a lot of disorganization and confusion (and very, very little communication with me), which is why I did not actually get a schedule or any classes to teach for more than six weeks.

Things have gotten a little bit more organized now though, and I actually have some things to do. Here is how things have been going.

My school

I work at a SENA center located in Itagüí, a suburb south of Medellín (for more about SENA check out this post). The school itself is made up of three buildings surrounded by a very tall and intimidating barbed wire fence, somewhat reminiscent of what one might find surrounding a prison. Despite its outward appearance, the inside of the center is actually quite pretty and tranquil, with trees and views of the mountains. Here are are a few pictures:

Inside the fence
Picnic tables outside the cafeteria

Each of the school’s three buildings is dedicated to a different trade: furniture manufacturing, fashion design, and leatherworking – though in reality there are other subjects taught in each building as well. I teach in the furniture manufacturing building.

Besides me there are five other volunteers who work at my center, although we all have different schedules, and there are never any group meetings, so I almost never see any of them. There are also many Colombian English teachers who work there, though I have only met a few of them.

My schedule

I currently teach three three-hour classes and one four-hour class each week. Each of those classes meets only once per week (which, unfortunately, is not ideal for students actually retaining information). I’m not exactly overworked here, but I’m not complaining!

Here’s how my schedule looks:

Daily Schedule SENA

Extra Projects

As part of my contract, outside of teaching I am supposed to plan and run an extra project at my school.

I currently have two projects: a “culture-sharing club” on Tuesdays and a “conversation club” on Fridays, both of which are open to all students, faculty, and staff at my SENA center.

My clubs only started two weeks ago. So far they don’t exactly draw big crowds (there have been between three and seven people who have come to each) and most of the people who join are teachers or administrators. Still, I really enjoy them, and I’m looking forward to getting to know my regulars.

My students

My Monday morning, Tuesday afternoon, and Friday afternoon classes are big (about twenty students each) and the students are all quite young, mostly in their late teens.

Here is my Monday morning class relaxing during a break:


My Monday evening class is about fifteen students. They are adults, mostly in their thirties and forties, who are studying industrial production (at SENA the night and early-morning students are typically older because they are are working while they study and must go to class outside of working hours). Here they are playing a game:

Having fun?

My Thursday class actually takes place at a public library way up in the hills above Itagüí. The students are a lively and hilarious group of mostly middle-aged women who are studying handicrafts. Here is the view from my Thursday classroom:

Pretty nice!
Pretty nice!

And here are my Thursday students doing a class activity:


The vast majority of my students know little or no English, so we teach the very basics, like the alphabet and how to say phrases like “What is your name?” and “Nice to meet you.”

Before I came to Colombia, I had been under the impression that we would be teaching students who had a real desire and need to learn English (at training, they often gave the example that SENA-trained welders who speak English have access to high-paying overseas jobs). I assumed that English was an optional class that would be taken by students who would benefit from it.

The reality is that all SENA students are required to study English for one semester, whether or not it is of any use or interest to them. (Why? I have no idea.) This means that many of my students have no desire or need to learn English. Furthermore, the SENA English classes are pass/fail and we are basically not allowed to fail anyone… and the students know that.

Unfortunately, this means that there are more than a few students who do not take class all that seriously – and I guess I can’t really blame them.

There are, however, many others who come to class every week excited to learn and eager to participate, and they are fantastic. I am even more impressed with these students knowing that they are so enthusiastic despite the fact that they didn’t elect to take English and that they might not have any use for it.

I do wish that the system could be changed so that English were elective rather than forced on all SENA students whether or not they need it. That way, the students who want and need to learn could get more attention and learn without the distraction of students who don’t want to be there (and there might be more space for the many Colombians I meet who want to study English but don’t have the opportunity!).

I also wish that we could at least pretend that failing is a possibility, just to give the less-interested students a little more motivation. (I’m mean!)

My co-teacher

I teach all my classes alongside a lovely Colombian woman named Ana. Ana is 33 years old, and has been teaching English for six years, though this is her first semester teaching at SENA.

Ana and I get along really well, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know her. Plus, she has a car and drops me off at my apartment on her way home every evening! Last Monday we had a break from 12 – 6, and we spent the afternoon at her parents’ house, where we had lunch, chatted with her family, and planned some lessons. It was fantastic.

As much as I like my co-teacher, to tell the truth, there are moments when I really do not like co-teaching. I am basically an addition to a classroom that would otherwise be taught perfectly well by just Ana, and though I do my best to add value for the students, sometimes the whole situation makes me feel pretty useless (not a good feeling). Other times I really miss the autonomy of being able to plan and teach class exactly the way I think would be best.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of benefits to co-teaching. Not only do I have the opportunity to be friends with my lovely co-teacher, but I also learn a lot watching her teach and get great new ideas from lesson-planning alongside her.

That’s all for now. If you have any questions feel free to comment or send me a message!


2 thoughts on “Teaching at SENA: One Month Update

  1. I am super impressed with your study plan. Takes a lot of discipline to do all that on your own when it would be so easy to remain a gringo. But, knowing you like I do, I am not surprised at your work ethic.
    I agree wholeheartedly with your belief that English should be an elective for those who are really interested. Even though as a middle school teacher I had many with no interest in my subject, I had the carrot of grades which is a great motivator for 95% of students. Don’t know how I could have done with a pass/pass system like you have. I think I would resort to bribery– two M&M’s for every correct response. LOL
    You are also on target with co-teaching…difficult for each person to feel like an equal partner unless you really plan it out that way. Even then it takes a lot of time…more than you have left in Columbia…to make it really work seamlessly.
    I love your Thursday class setting! WOW! Sounds like a fun group to work with too.
    Sounds like you are really making the most of this experience, professionally and personally. Looking forward to hearing more as it goes along.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Carol! You’re so kind and it makes me feel a lot better to know that I’m not alone in having these issues and that even seasoned teachers have gone through this stuff!


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