ODU Graduate Making an Impact in Colombia Teaching English
Whether working as a chaplain’s assistant in the military, studying at ODU to become a history teacher or traveling to Colombia to teach English, Brett Martinez has always had the motto “people helping people.”
Martinez came to ODU in 2012 right after leaving the military with the plan of becoming a history teacher. When he started, he thought he wanted to teach U.S. history, but after taking a course on Latin American history, he became interested in learning more about the countries.
“I am embarrassed to say, up until that point, I kind of assumed that all Latin America was basically just Mexico,” he said. “It really ignited an area of interest I never previously considered.”
After studying abroad for a summer in Buenos Aires, Martinez realized he wanted to live abroad, so he received his certification to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL).
“I knew I wanted to do something that would allow me to continue to serve a greater cause,” Martinez said. “For me, teaching English abroad was a natural transition which would allow me to live abroad.”
He was able to find a program in Colombia through the Ministry of Education, which accepts foreigners and pairs them with Colombian English teachers to help them teach English in public schools.
Martinez was drawn to the option because he is not fluent in Spanish and also because the program dealt with public schools.
“I like the fact that I am really providing a service that the students otherwise would simply not have the resources to obtain,” he said. “A foreigner teaching English is a luxury that is normally only available in elite private schools.”
Martinez graduated from ODU in December 2015 and left for Colombia the next month. He was placed in the city of Pereira, which has about 400,000 to 500,000 people and is the commercial center of the country’s coffee region. He said there is “always a stock of premium coffee available at the cafes.”
He teaches three ninth grade classes and two 10th grade classes. The class sizes are large with 30-40 students on average. His co-teacher Marleny, studied in London and is fluent in English.
“We work very well together,” Martinez said. “I will often present information in English, and she will present complex concepts in Spanish.”
Martinez has enjoyed his experience and said, “They are some of the most gracious people I have ever met. They love their country, and it is easy to fall in love with it.”
He added there are some cultural differences and personal relationships have a bigger emphasis. When a student asked him if he was their friend, he said, “I like all my students, but I am not your friend. I am your teacher.” He said this is standard in the United States, but to them, it hurts their feelings.
Martinez thinks he and the other teachers in the program are having an impact there.
“In the U.S., people talk ad nauseam about increasing access to education, but very little gets done. Here, I am actually providing that access to education,” he said.
He encourages others to use the program because of the benefits and experience of living abroad. In addition, it is an opportunity to learn a new language and culture.
He thinks a program like his bridges the gap between perception and reality for people in other countries.
“For many of my students, I am the first person from the U.S. they have ever met, and that comes with responsibility,” he said. “I am an ambassador from the U.S. who is there to show them that every preconceived notion they may have about our country is not necessarily accurate. Just like I am learning many of my preconceived notions about Colombia were wrong.”
As for the future, Martinez wants to become fluent in Spanish and to continue teaching abroad or come back to the U.S. and work for Teach for America or a study abroad office. In addition, he is preparing to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship.
“Regardless, I am going to do something in the field of education,” he said. “This opportunity has truly opened up so many avenues for me. I am so grateful and humbled by my experiences here in Colombia, and I wholeheartedly recommend everyone to participate in a program like this–not just for the experience, but to serve a greater cause. It’s all about people helping people.”