Teach & Travel in Latin America – I did!
Many of my readers may know that I spent a good part of my vacation time over the past decade traveling to various countries to teach English and in one instance, basic computer skills. I chose to do this not to earn additional income; in fact, I paid my own way and volunteered in the schools where I taught, wrote curriculum, and mentored new teachers. However, after people hear stories of my experiences, they often ask if it’s possible to get paid to teach in developing countries so they can travel and see a bit of the world.
The answer is yes, you can!
The two countries I visited the most were Haiti and Ecuador. While it’s very difficult to obtain a paid teaching position in Haiti simply because the country is so poor – the only options are missionary schools and the school in Port Au Prince run primarily for the children of United Nations employees and missionaries – Ecuador offers numerous opportunities to earn a livable wage while teaching English to students and business people.
I was based in Quito while in Ecuador, the capital and a city much like any mid-sized North American city. There were many tourists on the streets, thriving retail businesses and office buildings that appeared close to capacity. In this city as in many others in Latin America, you can either tutor on an individual basis, work for a company teaching English to its employees, or teach at the equivalent of the primary and secondary levels in the US. There are also opportunities in rural areas; I taught up in the mountains in a small village school. Be prepared for very little in terms of supplies if you teach in such a school. This can be very challenging but also quite rewarding. You’ll discover just how inventive you can be when you have only one crayon per child!
Still not sure teaching abroad is for you? Below I answer some of the most common questions friends, family, and students often ask me when I tell them about my experience in Ecuador.
Why should you consider teaching abroad?
Language immersion – I was never very good at languages in school but found in every country I’ve visited as either a teacher, student, or vacationer that if I’m surrounded by the language, I begin to pick it up without much effort. If you decide to teach in Latin America for a semester or a school year, there’s a very good chance you’ll come back fluent in Spanish or Portuguese depending upon what country you visit. I even picked up a few words in Quichua, the language spoken in the mountains around Quito while in Ecuador!
Work experience - This is especially important if you want to go into education in the US but valuable no matter what your chosen profession in the future. The ability to adapt to unknown conditions, communicate clearly, and meet the requirements set for you by another culture are all valuable to future employers. For teachers, this experience will set you apart from all of the other applicants in the shrinking education market here in this country.
Job Opportunities – We all know the current economic climate isn’t good. However, countries in Latin American have a host of paying jobs for Americans willing to teach English. Mexico may be your best bet if this is what motivates you; it has the strongest economy in Latin American and benefits from the recent reforms in travel and trade regulations with the United States. Due to the rise in cross border trade, the ability to speak English makes a Mexican businessman more valuable as an employee so many seek out language tutors, You may also may find private schools pay higher than public schools in Mexico, the opposite of what you find here in the US. Finally, Mexico has relaxed its requirements for teachers of English. As long as you have a TEFL (Teacher of a Foriegn Language) certificate and are a fluent English speaker, you don’t need a post-secondary degree.
Nearly Free Travel – Some employers will pay your travel expenses at least for your initial flight down and your return flight, and some schools, especially those with American students whose parents work abroad, will provide for travel during the holidays and school breaks. Be prepared, however, to pay your way; that will be your biggest expense. Food, lodging and travel once in country are much cheaper than we pay here in the States. For example, I rarely paid more than $2 for a meal while in Ecuador, and even had the unique experience (prior to becoming vegan) of eating chicken feet soup!
Costa Rica, another popular destination for teachers because of its close proximity to the US and relatively cheap airfare, also offers inexpensive dining as well as indigenous roadside treats. A friend who travels to Costa Rica to surf – it’s known worldwide for it’s superior surf beaches – looks forward to buying pipas or green coconuts from roadside vendors as he travels to and from the beach. Hacked open with machetes, pipas contain a clear, slightly sweet liquid that, he says, quenches your thirst better than water!
Give Something Back – I traveled as a volunteer. Even if you travel as a paid teacher, you’re still providing education to individuals who may not have the opportunity to learn English if you didn’t make the decision to teach in their country. Most teachers choose their profession for the rewards it provides and just hope for a few dollars – and maybe a chance to travel – along the way. You can find some volunteer programs reviews here.
What qualifications do you need to teach in Latin America?
Some schools and countries are stricter than others. I have a Masters Degree and therefore am qualified to teach just about anywhere. If you have an education degree, that’s probably all you need, but additional certifications just make you more attractive to potential employers. Make sure you have at least one of the following:
- Masters Degree
- Bachelors Degree
- TEFL (Teacher of English as a Foreign Language)
- TESOL (Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages)
- Volunteer experience teaching abroad
- Any business or tourism experience outside the United States
- Journalism experience
Make sure you provide all your documentation to a potential employer before you leave the country. Also make sure you have any work or residential visas required before you leave the States as they differ from country to country and may not be available once you arrive.
What type of salary can you expect?
While Latin American teachers have some of the lowest salaries in the world, the cost of living in these countries is much less than the US. Teachers in Brazil, one of the more affluent countries with thriving cultural and urban areas, can make over $700 per month and Chileans, another wealthy South American country, pays their teachers more than $800 each month. Peru and Honduras are two of the lowest paying countries. I found Ecuador to be in the midrange based on the few teachers I spoke to there although the teachers in the rural village made much less than their city counterparts. Just as teachers do here in the US, be prepared to supplement your income with private tutoring especially in countries like Brazil and Chile where the cost of living is high.
Where will I live?
While in Haiti, I stayed in a compound with the family that ran the remote village school since this is a country with few public accommodations. In Ecuador, I stayed in a high end hostel because I was only in country 2 weeks; if I’d stayed longer, I would’ve sought accommodations with a local family in the village. Many families rent out rooms for very little and offer the opportunity to practice your language skills and sample local culture and cuisine. Imagine the difference between staying in your guest room or a hotel in your hometown – who knows better where to go and what to do than local residents? Again, costs are higher in urban rather than rural areas, but are not nearly the rental rates in the US.
Is there an age limit for people interested in teaching abroad?
NO! I started in my mid-40s and have found that other cultures value maturity over youth when it comes to who teaches their children. Business people also appear more open to a seasoned professional rather than someone right out of college. Turn that layoff into an opportunity! Members of other cultures value your experience. That said, if you’re young, don’t be discouraged! If you’re female and specialize in teaching younger children, a job abroad is perfect for you! Many Latin American countries prefer female teachers especially in the younger grades. Guys do well as coaches and gym and secondary school teachers.
No matter what your age and experience, there’s an opportunity waiting for you to teach abroad! If you’d like to learn more, explore job opportunities in Latin America at TeacherKick, a new service matching prospective teachers with a variety of teaching opportunities.
A note about the thumbnail: yes that is me preparing to eat Chicken Feet Soup. This was prior to my decision to go vegan although I have traveled outside of the country since then. If you don’t eat meat, be prepared to eat a lot of french fries. For some reason, every country I’ve visited thinks that’s the appropriate substitute for a non-meat eating American!