What To Expect from Barranquilla, Colegio Parrish,
And Life On The Colombian Coast
And while there is plenty of information about Barranquilla, there is next to nothing about KCP and what it’s like to work here. With that in mind, I decided it might be beneficial to future teachers, who are considering working at KCP, to know a little more about what to expect.
The secondary side, on the other hand, has gone through a string of principals over the past 2 decades and I think that in part, the issues I raise in this post can be somewhat attributed to that discontinuity in leadership.
So, with all that being said, let’s take a look at what it’s like to live in Barranquilla and work at Colegio Karl C. Parrish.
The Highlights of Working for KCP
1 | The Apartments
For me, it helped because I was coming from Korea and had lived in a shoebox the two years before, but even my apartment (which is one of the smallest) with it’s 1BR/1.5BA, balcony, living room, and kitchen was way more space than I needed.
The majority of the teacher apartments are within a block of each other, so you’ll be living close to your colleagues as well. And the apartments are located in a nice part of town, on a bus line, and a 5-10 minute walk to grocery stores, malls, and restaurants. Here’s a tour of mine:
2 | The Colleagues
Many of the foreign teachers are young and/or fresh out of college, but there are a few veterans around as well. The turnover rate at KCP is pretty high, as it is in many international schools, so you end up with around 4-7 new foreign hires coming in each year.
And, as a whole, the staff here is great. They’re friendly, hard-working, and eager to show newcomers around the city. However, it should be noted that there is not a huge foreigner population in Barranquilla, so it’s likely that the friends you make at KCP will be the people you spend most of your time with, especially if you’re not fluent in Spanish. There are some foreign hires at the universities, and a few at the other private schools, but basically, get to like the people you work with at Parrish, because you’ll be seeing a lot of them.
3 | The Students
To begin with, 99% of the students are fairly or completely fluent in English, so you don’t have to worry about a language barrier, which is an enormous benefit in the classroom.
The other main point about the student body is that it’s fairly homogenous. Aside from a small handful of foreigners, the student body is entirely Colombian. Not only that, but they are, as a whole, incredibly well-off. Most of these students are in the upper 1%, as far as Colombian SES is concerned. Their parents are the business owners, the politicians, the industrial tycoons, and so on.
Additionally, the vast majority of them have been at KCP since preschool, so they’ve grown up together, they’ve known each other forever, their parents went to school here, plus they’re pretty much all related on one level or another.
For those students who don’t fit the “typical mold” at KCP, this can be difficult, and there is definitely a lot of teasing and mockery that goes on. The hard thing is, when this happens, students on both sides are usually quick to say “everything if fine, nothing is wrong!” rather than get teachers involved in the situation. Plus, this style of hard-joking/mockery is also inherent to the coastal culture here, so if you look at it within the cultural context, it’s certainly not out of the norm.
But again, on the individual level, KCP is full of excellent students, who are welcoming, friendly, and courteous. I have forged some amazing relationships over the past 2 years and I am incredibly sad to say goodbye to the students and friends I've made here.
4 | The Country
On top of that, Colombia is absolutely beautiful. From the beaches, to the mountains, to the rain forests, Colombia is immensely diverse, and each ecosystem has it’s own unique wonders to explore.
The people in Colombia, overall, are welcoming and friendly; eager to show tourists what their country has to offer. I have met some of the most hospitable, kindest strangers here, who have gone out of their way just to make sure I had a positive experience. I’ve also been ripped off a few times, as is always the danger abroad, but, those occasions have been the exception, not the norm.
As a whole, Colombia is an amazing country full of stunning beauty, rich history, and kind-hearted people. It is absolutely worth exploring.
5 | The Travel Opportunities
And, as you probably know, one of the biggest benefits of teaching is the schedule. You’ll have plenty of long weekends, holiday breaks, winter & summer vacations, and random days off to explore the continent. During my time here I was able to check out Ecuador (including the Galapagos), Peru, and Bolivia, all of which were absolutely amazing. And, if traveling isn’t for you, you’ll be able to spend that time relaxing here in Barranquilla, soaking up the sun at the beach or the pool!
6 | The Prado
They’ve got great food and drinks (not for free…), plus a gym and a Sauna (although they aren’t in the greatest shape). So, if you wind up down here, definitely get yourself over to the pool before the end of the first week.
7 | The Benefits
That being said, aside from the salary and bonus, you also get your rent covered, as well as excellent healthcare and dental coverage. I’ve visited the doctor a decent number of times and I’ve barely paid anything. Prescriptions aren’t covered (unless you have a chronic illness, then the national insurance will cover them, and if that’s your case and you want more information send me an email, because I’ve gotten pretty familiar with the system), but doctors visits, operations, procedures, labs, and all that good stuff is covered and it’s covered well!
8 | The Technology/Infrastructure
Really, the only thing lacking is the availability of resources for students (there’s not a well-functioning computer lab that teachers can bring their students to, but there are 3 laptop carts that are shared throughout the school). However, this lack of student resources is currently being remedied by the implementation of a BYOD (Bring your own device) policy which is finally starting to take root and be used throughout the secondary school.
The only major point I want to make here is that it’s important to remember Colombia is a developing country. It’s easy to forget that, especially given where KCP is located and the population it serves. If you keep that in mind, and realize that some days the internet is just not going to work, and some days the electricity will die (and those will be HOT days), and some days the school servers will be down, and so on, I think you will find the experience much less frustrating. Relax! The internet will be back tomorrow!
The Unexpected Challenges of Working for KCP
I’d also like to point out that these issues are certainly not unique to KCP. There are plenty of schools in the states with similar challenges, and, from what I’ve heard from peers around the world, these are fairly common issues within the international school community. With that in mind…
1 | The “Costeño” Lifestyle
You see this Costeño style throughout the city of Barranquilla, be it waiting 30 minutes in a grocery line, waiting 1 to 2 hours in a bank line, or waiting all afternoon in a traffic jam. Things just move slowly here.
Unfortunately, this attitude carries over into life at KCP as well. People show up to meetings late (if they show up at all) and things that should take someone 5 minutes to do, end up taking days.
And for me, the only way I’ve found to live with the Costeño style, is to accept it. Which, when it boils down to it, is really my main theme of the second half of this post. It's also the best advice I can offer, especially to any teachers with a type A personality like myself.
My class lists won’t be in my gradebook until after classes being? Tranquilo Mike, Tranquilo. My classroom repairs will actually be starting 2 weeks before break and you need me to move my entire class without any notice? Tranquilo. The supplies I ordered never actually got ordered and are never showing up? Tranquilo.
So, if you can adopt a new mantra, and accept the Costeño way of life, things tend to go more smoothly. If you can’t, prepare to be beating your head against a cultural brick wall for the entire year.
2 | The Communication
To start with, a quick example. As is common in education, when a teacher was going to take a sick day, they needed to let the administration know and they needed to send sub plans to the office so that the sub could follow those plans. The whole process was incredibly straightforward. The problem arose when teachers would come back from a sick day, only to find that the substitute never actually showed up for one or more of their classes, because they never got the message, or they misread the message, or something in the communication process went awry. The students were literally left alone, in the classroom, for an entire period, to do and act as they saw fit. It happened to me twice, it has happened numerous times to other teachers throughout the years as well, and it the perfect example of the kind of problems that can arise when there are not clear channels of communication.
Let me give you another example that encapsulates my entire experience at KCP. This sort of relates to communication, but also to the experience as a whole. The school bell is a tool that is almost as old as the school system itself. It rings when class begins, it rings when class ends. You can count on it to measure the periods throughout the day. It’s an incredibly simple idea, but one that helps teachers and students stay organized throughout the day. Without it, you have teachers and students relying on watches, or clocks, or computers, which of course are not always in sync. Anyway, you get the idea, having bells that ring on time are important.
And, for whatever reason, KCP has IMMENSE difficulty with this concept. Some days there are no bells. Some days the bells are completely off from the schedule. Some days the bells are ringing for an early-release schedule when we’re on a normal schedule (or when we think we’re on a normal schedule, but we’re actually on an early-release schedule and the administration has just forgotten to let us know).
This, in a way, seems to be par for the course here. Little things that should work, consistently, without issue, do not. And there is rarely, if ever, any communication about this. No email from the administration letting us know why we are having these problems (even though teachers regularly ask), no principal stopping by the room to let us know these issues will be resolved soon, there is nothing, just silence.
But of course, all these minor issues in and of themselves can be dealt with, they can be laughed off, they can be adjusted to.
The problem is, that over time these little issues can add up, can weigh you down, and can begin to make what would be an otherwise positive experience, more and more frustrating.
But back to my main point, if you can manage to stay tranquilo, and if you can accept the system for what it is, if you can stay flexible, if you can shrug it off and say, “this is just KCP,” you’ll be absolutely fine.
3 | The Support
The first thing that immediately hit me when I arrived at the school was that there was no phone system in the classrooms. I asked what we should do if we had an emergency in the classroom or an unruly student who was out of control. After two years, I never got a good answer to that question. Yes, you could put the office staff numbers into your cell phone, but there are times throughout the day when no one answers those phones. You could send an email to the counselors and administrators, but emails aren’t always opened quickly. In short, as a teacher, you’re basically on your own.
In some ways, this is obviously great. You’ve got an enormous amount of freedom in your classroom, to teach how and what you want. You can be as creative and off-the-wall as you would like to be. The classroom is yours. But, the flipside of that, is when you need support, it can be difficult to find. However, if you are a self-motivated, flexible teacher, who is ready to tackle this challenge on your own, you are going to be completely fine.
This is also a good time to mention the special education (SPED) support that is available at KCP. While we do have a SPED department, it is only staffed by one professional and her assistant. She does an awesome job with the resources she has, but, the caseload here is much larger than 2 people can effectively handle. As such, there are many students in need of support, or even an individual para-educator, who are simply left without anything because we don’t have the resources.
But again, if you are the kind of teacher who can keep yourself motivated and stay flexible within this type of system, you will have very few problems.
4 | The Weather
If not, then prepare to get sweaty. Like, every single day. Like, as soon as you step out of the shower you’re already sweating again. If you can deal with that, then you’ll be right at home!
5 | The Parents
The main time this reality can be seen is during discipline cases and academic issues. Almost any time a serious discipline consequence is assigned for a student, the parents are in the office, up in arms, and fighting against the charges. And the same goes for any time a student receives a grade the parents (or student) believe is unfair. Not surprisingly, they almost always win the dispute because the administration knows if the parents don’t get their way, it will almost certainly lead to a lawsuit. And, without getting into too many specifics, KCP has certainly had its share of angry parents suing them over the years.
6 | The Entitlement
So to start, a little perspective. As mentioned at the beginning, these students come from the most wealthy families in the city. They are, without a doubt, the upper 1%. Because of this, many of them are raised with maids, butlers, chauffeurs, and employees of all kinds. Many of them are also, unfortunately, not very close with their parents. They spend more of their childhood with their maids and chauffeurs than with their moms and dads. But, when you’re raised by someone who is hired to do whatever you tell them to do, that undoubtedly warps your perspective on the world. Imagine never having to cook, clean, do a chore, share a toy, or anything that might bring the slightest displeasure.
Now, imagine you start school, and all of a sudden you have these teachers (many of whom aren’t Colombian and don’t speak your language) telling you “no” for the first time. Telling you there are rules. Telling you that you aren’t in charge. I honestly can’t imagine what that would be like, and I can see why these students have difficulty adjusting.
And that never changes for them. During the day, they’re at school, where there are rules and guidelines and consequences, but as soon as they step out of the door, they’re back in charge, they have employees working for them, and they can do whatever they want. So inevitably, some of that outside world bleeds over. Many of the students treat their teachers like their employees, and they treat the janitors, maids, and school workers even worse.
My least favorite time of day there was lunch duty. During this time, I managed the line and make sure only a few students purchased their lunch at a time. If a teacher wasn't there to manage the line, it was literally a hoard of 30-50 students standing at a counter, shouting, screaming, and insulting the 2 lunch ladies who are desperately trying to get food for everyone. As one teacher put it, “It’s like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, only uglier.”
And all this occurs because many of the students have learned the lesson that they can treat people however they would like to, especially if that person is seen as being “beneath” them. Which brings us perfectly to...
7 | The System
There is, of course, also a middle class, but the divide between the upper and lower class here is absolutely immense.
And, while this divide is unfortunate, it’s not uncommon nor unexpected, and is the same throughout… well, basically everywhere in the world. What is more unfortunate, is how much KCP adds to the propagation of this system rather than the remediation.
The price of KCP tuition is, to the vast majority of the Barranquilla population, prohibitively expensive. If KCP was serious about making a difference in the community (as they say they are), in the system, in the divide between the upper and lower classes in this city, I firmly believe that they would be offering scholarships to those in the lower class. Why not let these students from the poorer barrios get a first class education, so they can, in turn, begin to affect change outside of the wealthy neighborhoods? Why not try and make an actual, tangible, and immediate impact on the community?
That being said, the administration at KCP is certainly aware of this cultural divide, and the system of which they are a part. And, while we do have a fledgling community service program that is headed by a full-time coordinator, the efforts are mainly focused on occasional, short visits to schools in the poorer areas and bake sales to raise funds. Additionally, the school subscribes to the “character counts” program which “teaches morals” to students at all grade levels (and which has met with little success at the secondary level).
However, given that KCP is literally the wealthiest school in the entire city, they absolutely have the resources to make service-learning more institutionalized, more integrated within the curriculum, and so much more beneficial to the surrounding community. Instead they focus on superficial programs like Character Counts, and bake sales, which, unfortunately, often feel like they are more designed to boost KCP’s image and self-opinion, rather than make an actual difference in the community they claim to serve.
But again, the community service coordinator position is a new one, and my hope is that over the next year or two, the program can grow and help the school realize its full potential as a community leader and activist.
The problems that KCP has are not unique and are also not unsolvable. They exist in schools around the globe, and, with strong, charismatic leadership from teachers, parents and administrators, can be fixed.
With all that being said, I have had an amazing time these past two years. I know I have spent half of this post discussing the seemingly negative aspects of working here, but in the end, they’re not so much negatives as they are unexpected challenges of the culture that take getting used to.
Knowing these things before I came wouldn’t have changed my mind about working at KCP, but I do believe they would have made my first year here far easier and more understandable. If I had had a more accurate vision of what to expect (other than what the recruitment video or 75th anniversary video show for example), I wouldn’t have been faced with so many frustrations as I tried to navigate the cultural waters of the city and the school.
So, if you’re considering working at KCP, I say go for it. You’ll be working with outstanding colleagues, you’ll get to experience an incredible culture, and you’ll have opportunities that aren’t available anywhere else. Just keep in mind that the environment you’ll be entering has its share of challenges and obstacles, but they are not insurmountable. And they will shape you. You will leave KCP being able to handle pretty much any educational environment, and above all else, this is what I feel most grateful for.
And of course, remember to keep it tranquilo.
If you have any questions at all about my experience, the city, or the school, please send me an email, I’m more than happy to help in any way I can!
To end things, here is a tour of the beautiful campus!