Staff Spotlight: John Bartolome


Following retirement as a social worker/counselor from the San Francisco Bay Area in 2014, John completed a TESOL/TEFL certification program with Oxford Seminars. Since March 2017, he has been teaching English in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Why did you choose this program?

I initially put in applications to several countries in Asia, Europe and South America, but because I am over 60, no one seemed interested. I knew I had much to offer and really wanted to apply myself in teaching English. I was referred to this program by Oxford Seminars and it so happened that Cambodia was one of the countries on my list. I chose this program (CWF) because it is legitimate and engages in a social enterprise to help marginalized people in remote areas of Cambodia.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

Conversations with Foreigners (CWF) walked me through the process of getting the necessary permit/visa to volunteer, gave me options and information about accommodations and other daily living needs, and provided all new volunteer teachers with a week-long orientation and training. Periodic training was also provided throughout the term. The school also provided books and other teaching materials.

I chose to find my own apartment near the school and I brought along teaching materials with me which I utilized to supplement my lessons.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Be positive. Expect the unexpected. Ask yourself if you want to do this to serve others, or is this a self-serving endeavor? Those who come unprepared, mentally and emotionally, find themselves unhappy. Those who have open minds and the right intentions find the experience gratifying. Remember that teaching is about the students and what you can impart that would have positive benefits in their lives.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

When I taught at this program, I would usually spend time to prepare my lessons at home because I liked the peace and quiet. I would arrive at school about 30 minutes to an hour before my first class, depending on whether I had to make multiple copies for any of my classes, or prepare props, etc. Before classes or during breaks, teachers would gather in the volunteer room and share information about anything - lessons, places to eat or visit in the city, get to know each other, etc.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

I became aware very quickly about discriminatory practices outside the US. As an Asian-American over 60 years of age, I practically had no chance of getting a teaching position, especially a paid teaching position. The volunteer opportunity gave me a chance to prove that I could do a good job. I have taught at three schools in Phnom Penh these last two years and I have not been late to school once. I have a total of three absences due to food poisoning. I was always prepared to teach each time I set foot in a classroom.

My views on the issue: I am very disappointed that discrimination is alive and well in Asia. The focus is not on competence or work ethics, but on superficial and commercially driven reasons. Their first preference is a young, white female; followed by a young, white male. As long as they have minimum qualifications, most schools will bypass more qualified, more experienced persons in favor of the "image" they seek.

What's your favorite memory of this trip?

It's hard to guess what prospective travelers would want to know because, in my experience, they vary considerably. I shared some advice above which I hope others would take seriously.

I have many favorite stories, but I am limited in time to share them here. All I can do is sum up those stories and say how much I have been enriched by my experiences, and how grateful I am that I summoned up the courage to conquer my fears and always stayed positive. I am touched and humbled at the same time by my students' positive feedback about me.