woman on a scooter

Teacher Tales: What it’s like to teach in Kenya and Colombia

Canadian-American Hanna L. is a secondary English teacher who has traveled to dozens of countries and taught in Canada, Kenya, and Colombia.  She tells us about teaching abroad, online, and her thoughts on the International Baccalaureate program.

Q: So tell me about yourself.

A: I am a dual citizen with a passport from Canada and the U.S. but I think I consider Canada my home more than the U.S.  I like to do things outside. I really like to read and I like to do anything I can with my dog

Q: You’re an English teacher, so I have to ask you what your favorite book is.

A: That’s a hard one. My long term favorite book from classics or literature, I guess, was always A Christmas Carol, which is more of a novela.  I like to read every year. It has a special place in my heart. 

My favorite recent book that I read was Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and I think that it will be something that we are teaching in schools 30 years from now, because it’s absolutely incredible. I think it’s the best thing I’ve read recently. 

Q: How did you end up teaching here in Colombia?

A: I went to a job fair at the University of British Colombia because it was a snow day and I had nothing else to do. And I ended up meeting with Bruce who was the BC rep and he gave me a pretty good sales pitch and I figured it seemed like a really cool opportunity. I’ve been to Colombia once before and I really enjoyed it. And yeah, I just couldn’t really resist and next thing I knew I was here.

Q: And what had you been doing before you became a teacher or before you came to Colombia?

A: Before I was teaching, or before I was in Colombia, I was doing all sorts of random jobs for a while. In between my degrees I was teaching English as a second language. I was working as a kayak guide in Alaska. I was leading these youth trips in Kenya for a while. Just kind of all over the place. I was trying to see as many jobs in as many different places as I could go and enjoy life. 

Woman kissing giraffe

Q: Wow, tell me more about Kenya.

A: Kenya was amazing. It was the first place I really traveled by myself. That was significant. It was the job that definitely inspired me to become a teacher because I was working with high schoolers at the time and I really enjoyed it. I thought it was so cool. It was a really good opportunity for me to connect with younger people in a way that was outside of a school context, but was still in an educational context. And then Kenya itself is still my favorite place I’ve ever been. The people are so amazing. I was there seven years ago, and I still have so many close friends there that I keep in touch. I’m just so grateful for it still.

Q: You said you taught English online. Do you think that having taught English online before the pandemic helped you teach virtually?

A: Yes, definitely. It was really funny. I was at my school in Vancouver when we went virtual in March of 2020 and was probably the least experienced person there. I was the most experienced with teaching online, so it was a really big flip for me, where all the sudden the people who had been mentoring me on things I was mentoring them on how to teach online. But it was a lot better because at my old job I was teaching kids in China so I was teaching at  4:00 in the morning. And so it was actually a lot better to teach online to the kids in Vancouver than in China

Q: You have traveled a lot. Have you noticed differences in education systems around the world?

A: I think there are differences in education systems, I’m getting to know them better. I think also more than anything, there’s different approaches to the way we think of education. I think more than anything, I think traveling to different places and seeing the way that they approach education from Kenya where it was such a huge center of life and education was everything – to Hong Kong where it was incredibly competitive and it was almost a competition to do well. It’s been really interesting to see the different ways that we approach things and it’s also really helped me, I think, to understand the way that not just culturally we see education as different things but also as individuals.

Woman with Chinese landscape

Q: What do you like most about living in Colombia? How has your experience been so far?

A: I love living in Colombia. It’s been so great. It’s hard to choose one thing. I love the food. I love the culture. I love you know, just going out and exploring Medellín is so cool because you’ve got so many cool natural places. There’s so much incredible nature and natural resources here. But there’s also so many cool cultural and historical sites in the city. as well. But I think I just appreciate more than anything, kind of the pace of life. It’s a little bit more relaxed than Vancouver which is very fast paced, kind of stick to yourself, keep your head down and go for it.

Q: And for other teachers that are interested in teaching abroad, what advice would you have for them?

A: I would say just keep an open mind and you know, stick to your beliefs while also making sure that you’re keeping an open mind to others. I think one of the really cool things about teaching abroad is kind of co-constructing new ideas of education and merging these different conceptions of school and learning together and so be open to new things but also stick to what you believe in as well.

Q: And you’ve also taught the International Baccalaureate. How does that compare to other curriculums that you’ve taught? And would you want to teach that again?

A: Yeah, I have a love-hate relationship with the International Baccalaureate. I think there’s lots of incredible things about it. There’s lots of things that can be improved about it. I think what I really like about it is the way that they assess students is focused on skills and competency. If you’re doing testing, you’re focusing just on an ability to analyze or you’re focusing just on your ability to communicate or write original texts. And I think that’s a really cool way to define a focus –  even though a lot of times you’re using more than one skill – it’s cool to really hone in and master that one skill or competency. On the other hand, I think that sometimes it can be a little rigid as you get into the later years of the IB and the Diploma Program in the last two years. But I would definitely teach in IB again. I think it’s a really good model for education and I think a lot of places in the world are trying to kind of copy it now. So it’s a good structure to know.

Q: Okay, and last question. Have you had any crazy things happen while being abroad?

A: [laughs] Yes, lots of crazy things. I guess the weirdest or craziest one was in Kenya actually. We would live in tents for a few weeks at a time when we were out in the more rural areas. My coworker and I left to go get our group ready and I forgot something in the tent, so I ran back to grab it. And I noticed some movement in the tent and I was so confused. And I looked and I had monkeys in the tent, going through our bags and putting things all over the place. It was very interesting because everyone had warned us that would happen and it was my second year so I didn’t believe anyone and finally, I had to eat my words because the monkeys went through all my bags.

Haha, that is not a story I would have expected.  Thanks for sharing with everyone, Hanna.

Want to read more international teaching stories? Read about Johnny who has taught in Kuwait, China and the Ivory Coast

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