Monday, March 19, 2012

Teaching English in South America

English: Vicuña, one of two wild South America...Vicuna in Front of Chimborazo Volcano, Ecuador - Image via WikipediaBy Tracy Noel

So you want to teach abroad, possibly in South America; considering Ecuador, but haven't the slightest clue where to begin?

The following is an exhaustive article containing relevant information for prospective "newbie" TEFL teachers who are entertaining the idea of working abroad as an English teacher, and really haven't a clue where to begin.

Because I have worked in Asia and South America, I fully understand that it is a large, overwhelming, and intimidating field to get into - but don't be frightened! There is a plethora of information out there that offers detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to get started and eventually land a solid job.

Not unlike other big decisions one must make in life, a lot of patience and research is required both before, and after, landing your gig. Without a doubt, it will all pay off, as there could be nothing more special than the experiences you will have inside, and out of, your classroom while living and working abroad.

Due to the global economic downturn, the field of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is booming. Why? Not only are more people around the world using their newly found free time (read: laid-off or unemployed) to study at language institutions, but native English speakers from around the world are also more willing (read: laid-off or unemployed) to take a risk and search for international employment.

Yes, the TEFL industry is "booming," and there are some places in the world where one can actually make good money (Asia), while in others, you are more likely to make just enough to keep afloat. Unfortunately, this is the case in most countries in South America (SA).

There are exceptions though: if you are a credentialed teacher with a lot of experience, you can land jobs in universities or international schools that offer respectable salaries. However, if you're coming into South America armed with little experience and a basic TEFL certificate of sorts, you can expect to make an average of $5/hour (U.S.).

Now keep in mind that this kind of salary (roughly $300/month) is quite survivable, but if you want to do some side-trips and dancing on the weekends, you better arrive with some savings, because your teaching salary will only cover your basic living expenses.

But you need not fret. Don't allow a low salary stop you from coming to South America! There are plenty of other ways one can supplement their salary while here. Once more acclimated to your new surroundings, you should find it quite easy to score some side-gigs as a private tutor, or working within another field you have previous skills in. And the intangible advantages of working in South America vs. Asia are abundant.

First, learning Spanish will come relatively quickly if you put some honest effort into studying in your downtime. And having a working knowledge of Spanish is obviously a great skill for your future.

Second, South American culture, while most likely having its fair share of differences than your own, is not going to be vastly different, as Asian cultures will. The acclimation process and culture shock factor, therefore, is going to be a lot less overwhelming. It is for these reasons that you will make more money in Asia: companies must offer more perks and higher salaries to actually get people to come and stay a while.

So where to begin?

1. Choosing a country

If you are choosing a country completely blindly, then all you really can do is read-up on it. There are a vast amount of blogs and websites dedicated to helping you choose your country wisely. Obviously, pay, cost of living, weather, and general safety are things to consider, but unless you're going to a politically unstable country, there aren't many countries in South America that are "unsafe."

It could be argued that Los Angeles and NYC are much more dangerous than the vast majority of South American cities. Don't let stereotypes or your parents' over-worry scare you away from a country of interest.

To put this in perspective, before coming to South America, I was warned constantly to not go to Columbia to teach, or even for travel. I quickly learned after mingling with tons of travelers that Columbia is not only very safe, but a top destination for many travelers, all who rave about their visits there.

2. Being qualified

It is important to realize that each continent, country, and sometimes city has different governmental regulations and requirements. Furthermore, different schools will require different qualifications.

It should be a red flag if a school doesn't seem to require what you'd consider "basic" or "industry standard" qualifications. Remember that some schools will hire "warm bodies" just to have a foreign face in their classroom.

Spend time researching different TEFL certifications and be assured that they are accepted world-wide. Take this seriously, as you don't want to find yourself unprepared or feeling under-qualified when you're suddenly standing in front of a group of professionals who have paid a lot of money to be taught by you.

However, not unlike any other new job, confidence in the classroom comes with time and experience. You will be nervous for your first few weeks or months, but that's completely expected. If you plan on being hireable, confident, and being in the field for a while, a CELTA certificate is highly recommended.

In general, though, you should expect to have the following qualifications before applying:

- Native speaker of English
- A four year degree (of any sort, but English or teaching related majors are preferred)
- A TEFL certificate (an in-person certification class is highly recommend, as many reputable schools these days don't simply accept a basic, online certificate. The "rock-star" of all certifications is the CELTA, which can set you back as much as 2,000 dollars)
- Teaching or tutoring experience (preferred, not a necessity)
- Have at least 2 years since you've graduated from university at the time of application (this is negotiable and varies)
- Willingness to sign a 6-month to 1-year contract (also negotiable and variable)

What about having to speak the local language? NO! Don't worry. While obviously having a basic understanding of the native language of the country your in is a plus, you will be expected to speak ONLY English in your classroom, as it is more beneficial for your students

3. Choosing a school

Aside from the obvious decisions to make about salary and environment, you want to find first-hand recommendations and insights concerning the schools credibility and functionality - this cannot be stressed enough!

Many schools are shady and will try to lure you in, promising X, Y, and Z, but because there is little regulation in the industry, there is no accountability. You do not want to find yourself contractually obliged to X-amount of time in a school that you are miserable in.

The best way to find this information out is to directly ask (demand) that whoever you are in contact with (director, recruiter, etc.) gives you email addresses of both current and past teachers. If they are not willing to do this, consider this a huge red flag. You need to have the ability to ask them their honest opinion of the school and if they are (or were) generally happy there.

Also, in the age of Facebook, many reputable schools will have a FB page. This could be a great source for you to personally attempt to contact current teachers. Lastly, there are TEFL "blacklist" blogs out there. Seek out your desired school to see if anyone has blacklisted them.

If you find yourself overwhelmed at the prospect of browsing the endless TEFL websites out there, another option is to sign up for a paid or free of charge recruiting agency. This can offer you the luxury of sitting back and receiving job offers.

However, be wary of these agencies, as they are essentially "head-hunters" and "middle-men" looking to score a commission from your being hired. They then, by default, are not looking out for your best interests. You should therefore take all of the previously mentioned precautions even when investigating a job offer via a recruitment agency.

4. Regulations/Visa Requirements, etc

It is important to note that each country and school (private or public) has different regulations and requirements. It should not be hard to find said info via online research. One usually has the option of taking care of almost all visa requirements before arrival (which could prove much more convenient and less stressful) or (depending on the country) you can enter the country on a tourist visa and upgrade it to a work visa upon arrival.

Your prospective employer should offer you detailed info regarding the current requirements for you to legitimately work. The key word is "legitimately," as there are still plenty of schools out there that will hire and pay you under the table, which again, should be considered a huge red flag, as it diminishes their credibility and accountability. In general, one should never sign an online contract.

Finally, some schools will offer to foot the bill on your visa costs, but usually under the guise that you will sign a one-year contract (in South America, you won't find too many schools that offer perks like "visa fee coverage", or others such as "free accommodation" or "comped return airfare").

5. Accommodation

Your school should offer you housing options, whether it is a home-stay, assistance in finding your own flat, or a shared-living situation with fellow teachers. Depending on where you are working and what accommodations are like, finding accommodation can be quite stressful at times, but it is all part of living abroad. Patience is key.

Also, you can expect "sub-par" living conditions as compared to back home, unless you have the resources to pay for more than what your wage allots you. Home-stays can be a wonderful experience and will quickly improve your Spanish, but of course, you sacrifice a certain amount of privacy. You could always do a short-term home-stay and opt for something else in the long run.

6. Why Ecuador?

While I cannot personally vouch for working and living in other South American countries, I have over one year's experience living and teaching in Ecuador - specifically in Cuenca and Quito (I recommend the former).

I highly recommend Ecuador because of its year-round beautiful weather, low cost of living, the use of the U.S. dollar (especially for Americans), vast geographical diversity (for travel and side-trips), overall safety (though one still must be vigilant and smart), warmness of its people, affordable Spanish classes, a very "neutral" form of Spanish that foreigners find easier to understand, job opportunities, lively nightlife, and cultural diversity.

With an open mind and patience, I can hardly fathom how someone could have a "bad" experience in Ecuador. I assume, however, that this could be the case with many South American countries.

To conclude, teaching in China and Ecuador are vastly different experiences (each in their own good and bad ways) rendering it nearly impossible to fairly compare the two. However, both experiences have left me with a lot of knowledge and insight into the TEFL world, and I know exactly what it is like to be diving into this field for the first time.

In retrospect, I wish I had done more research and exhausted more resources before I first dove in, so I hope these insights can offer some harm reduction and stress relief for prospective TEFL teachers out there.

Tracy Noel is a three-time expat (China, Ecuador, UK). As a writer and editor, she loves to write about living abroad, travelling, teaching, and studying. She is the co-creator of a popular website, You can also see more of Tracy and GoGo-Gringo here.

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