A day in the life of a teacher in Medellín


This profile aims to highlight the work of an outstanding teacher in Colombia. I met Virginia Gómez as part of the Mobility Labs research during a visit to the Marina Orth School, a public school in a rural area of Medellín, supported by the Marina Orth Foundation.

Virginia Gómez looks at a TV displaying a paused YouTube video while her students sit quietly in a U-shaped arrangement facing her. Their silence is not from any fear of authority figures, but is due to their level of engagement – this group of seven-year-olds cannot wait for their teacher to start the lesson.

Maps of Colombia line the blackboard. As soon as Virginia unpauses the video, Lucho Bermudez’s song “Colombia tierra querida” rattles out of the speakers. She dances to the cumbia music, using her lab coat as a twirling skirt, inviting her students to join her. The kids dance their embarrassment away, clapping their hands to the rhythm and singing in unison until the song ends. “The brain is a prodigious learning machine,” Virginia says, her tone of voice enigmatic, her speech deliberately slow-paced. “We’re getting ready for today’s learning experience.” Suddenly switching to an upbeat, energetic inflection, Virginia says: “It’s about our beautiful country!”

According to Virginia, the positive lyrics of the song evoke a sense of love and belonging, an ideal state of mind for a geography class about Colombia. Judging by her students’ reactions, she’s right: they correctly name the towns of the department of Antioquia (Medellín is Antioquia’s capital city) as they point at a map she’s taken down from the blackboard. Throughout the activity, she moves the map around, dramatically zooming it in and out of the student’s view.

Virginia keeps students at the edge of their seats for the entire class. She uses multiple textures of information, switching between lectures, YouTube videos, student discussions, and activities like coloring maps and finding the names of cities in word searches. If she plays a video about Antioquia, she encourages her students to recognize things in the video from past lessons. “Learning it’s a process of discovery,” she says.

To prepare for a lesson like this, Virginia typically spends three hours searching YouTube at home to find the perfect videos for her class. She likes short videos because they are a great tool for engaging her students, who enjoy visual content. While searching for new material, she asks herself, “How is this useful to me as a human being?” to ensure the video will benefit her students. Her students request new material all the time. They set the bar, tell her their expectations, and share what they really want to learn. “If you make an effort to prepare it, they’ll appreciate it and will make an effort to learn it,” she says.

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After a conversation about Antioquia, she announces one of the class activities: designing a poster to draw tourists to Antioquia. Every student has an XO laptop with Scratch software to complete the assignment. Virginia cheers them on while they work on their designs. “I don’t understand technology, but I know what to do with it,” she tells me. “Kids are mesmerized by technology.”

With her glasses, short hair, and white coat, Virginia looks like an archetypal teacher, but she doesn’t act like one. After graduating from the University of Antioquia with a degree in Preschool Education, she worked three years as a school leader, and then became a teacher, her job for the past sixteen years. Thoughts about retirement have crept in, but she brushes them off. “How can you do it?” she says. “Kids touch your soul.”

Plus, she has a professional challenge: helping the school get higher scores on SABER, the national test measuring the quality of education. In order to meet this goal, she has asked the school principal if she could be the group’s permanent teacher. This is her third year with her students. She says this long-term relationship allows her to minimize paper-based testing while assessing individual progress in a deeper way. “I always tell my students: you don’t learn this for the class, you learn it for life.”

Virginia asks the class: “what else do you want to learn about Antioquia?” “Coffee plantations!” one kid shares.  “And what did you feel during the design of this poster?” “Happiness,” another student says, “because of all the places I didn’t know I can visit.” The questions engage the students in a conversation. Because of concern that this generation has weak critical thinking skills, Virginia focuses more on writing exercises and opportunities for language development. “Language development,” she said, “improves logic and reasoning, and helps them perform better in math.”

After leaving the classroom, I come across a child impersonating Virginia to entertain her friend. It’s an accurate imitation, complete with her teacher’s unique voice inflection and nonverbal behavior. I think it’s a little disrespectful and ask her why she’s doing that. She explains, “Because I want to be like her when I grow up.”