Living and Teaching in South America: A Guide for Prospective English Teachers

Increasingly, South America is a popular destination for English teachers looking to live abroad. With large metropolitan hubs like Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Bogotá, and Lima, there is plenty of demand for English language instruction. These cities also boast relatively low costs of living, a supportive network of expats, and plenty of activities to do in your spare time. If you’re considering teaching English in a South American country, read on for some insider information and tips about what it’s like.

 

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Get your TEFL certificate

 

There is plenty of work for English teachers in South America, under two conditions: first, that you are a native English speaker; second, that you have a TEFL certificate (or an equivalent certificate, such as TESOL). These certificates require that you take a class, which will usually range from one to several months, depending on the institution and intensity. It’s best that you take these classes in your home country, as it will be much less expensive than doing so when you’re already abroad. Plus, that way, you’ll be able to dive right into work when you arrive in South America.

 

If you are a TEFL-certified teacher, you will find plenty of job opportunities — just go to the “Education” section of Craigslist for any major city, and you’ll find a demand for English teachers year-round. Note, however, that many of these classes require that you be a native English speaker — for some students, this may be even more important than having a TEFL certification. Thus, read carefully what the course expectations are before showing up to the interview.

 

Finally, given the high demand for English teachers — especially for businesses — having lots of teaching experience is not crucial, nor is having a strong background in language or linguistics. In fact, you’ll have no problem finding a teaching gig even if you’re a first-time teacher.

 

Plan to live in cities

 

Many of your classes will be sponsored by businesses, who require that their employees speak English. Indeed, with English increasingly becoming the lingua franca of business and politics, there’s lots of pressure on companies to train their employees in English. However, these are generally multinational corporations that are based in cities. Therefore, the demand for English teachers will be much higher in cities, so if you want a full schedule, you should plan to live in an urban area.

 

Further, many rural areas in South America do not feature the amenities that cities offer, which can make your job as an English teacher quite challenging. For example, in small towns, you may not have reliable Internet access, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bookstore that sells appropriate teaching materials. For that reason, it’s advisable to reserve the countryside for your travels, instead of looking for work there.

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Prepare for lots of travel time

 

Some are lucky enough to find a full-time position in a school or business. However, the vast majority of English teachers in South America will work for several different clients, and as a result, will have classes in several different locations throughout the city. So study up your subway maps and bus schedules, because you’ll be doing a lot of traveling. In fact, you could spend up to two hours per day in trains, in buses, and on foot.

 

The travel-heavy lifestyle of an English teacher is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a great excuse to explore the city, and you’re sure to find great cafés and shopping in between classes. On the other hand, traveling can get tiring, especially when you’re battling rush hour crowds in a subway car without air conditioning. Further, the cost of using public transportation so frequently adds up. Therefore, if it’s possible, try to find clients that offer block scheduling (multiple classes in a row in the same location) to minimize your travel time.

 

Don’t expect to live a cushy life

 

You’ve probably heard about English teachers in Hong Kong or South Korea who are set up with luxurious apartments and great support. But don’t get your hopes up: this will not be your life in South America. English teachers make decent salaries — at least, those who fill up their schedules — but after rent and day-to-day expenses, you won’t have a ton of spending money for luxuries.

 

Luckily, the cost of living is relatively low in most South American cities, so you certainly won’t have to worry about making ends meet. And traveling within South America is often inexpensive as well, so take advantage of this opportunity to visit other South American countries.

 

Beware of the expat bubble


One of the great things about teaching English in South America is that you’ll find yourself part of a large and supportive network of other expats, many of whom will be your fellow English teachers. While it’s wonderful and comforting to have this support network, be aware that it can quickly turn into a bubble if you’re not careful. After all, you’re in South America — you’ve got to immerse yourself in the culture.

 

Try to avoid spending all your time with English-speaking expats, especially if your foreign language skills aren’t up to par. After all, the best way to learn is to interact with native speakers! And devote some time each day to practicing your Spanish (or Portuguese, if you’re in Brazil). The Internet has plenty of free resources for learning foreign language. For example, practice your verb conjugations with a Spanish verb conjugation game, or find an online pen pal on a conversation exchange website.

 

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Don’t feel pressure to accept all job offers

 

When you first start working as an English teacher, you’ll want to fill up your schedule quick. But don’t feel compelled to accept all offers that come your way — it’s okay to start with a light workload. For instance, if you receive an offer that doesn’t pay well, or that requires a two hour-long commute, don’t be afraid to turn it down. This will allow you to get acclimated to your new home, and will give you time to find and accept better job offers.

 

It’s easy to find classes through language teaching institutions. However, the courses that pay the most will be your private students, as there’s no middle-man to take a share of the money. Once you’ve gotten the hang of teaching, consider posting ads on Craigslist and in local newspapers, creating and distributing a business card, and putting up fliers near schools. This way, students will come to you, and you’ll be able to fill in your downtime with classes that pay well.

 

Learn to live with instability

 

An unfortunate reality of teaching English is that your work schedule will be unstable. If you’re a type-A personality who needs to have everything organized and planned well in advance, teaching English abroad might not be the ideal career for you. First, classes frequently get cancelled — often at the last minute — and, depending on your policies (or those of the institution for which you work), you may not receive payment. Thus, there can be some discrepancy between your predicted monthly salary and your actual salary, after rescheduling and cancellations.


Second, students come and go quickly, and courses often last only a few months. Therefore, your schedule will constantly be in a state of flux, and you’ll have to be on the lookout for new students at all times. For those who enjoy a fast-paced work environment with lots of change, this can be ideal; for others, not so much. Further, be warned that during the summer months, the demand for English teachers drops significantly, so consider scheduling travels or

vacation in the summer (which spans from December to March, as a reminder for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere).

 

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Come with an open mind

 

Though it comes with its own set of challenges, teaching English in South America is a thoroughly rewarding experience. You’ll be exposed to new people, a new culture, and a new language. You’ll cherish the relationships that you cultivate with your students, and after classes are over, some of them may end up being your close friends.

Teaching English abroad is an excellent way to sustain your travels, and it’s relatively easy to do so. Though the prospect of teaching can be daunting at first, especially to someone without prior experience, don’t be afraid — you’ll get the hang of it quickly, there are plenty of resources for teachers on the Internet that can help you. Indeed, if you’re thinking of teaching English in South America, I highly recommend it. Ask any English teacher in South America — it’s an interesting, eye-opening, challenging, and incredibly rewarding job.

 

 

Paul writes on behalf of Listen & Learn, a language tutoring service that offers Spanish classes in Houston, as well as other language classes all over the world. You can check out their free foreign-language level tests and other language-learning resources on their website. Visit their Facebook page or contact paul@listenandlearn.org if you have any questions or if you’d like more information.

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One Response to Living and Teaching in South America: A Guide for Prospective English Teachers

  1. The ESL landscape in quite different in Latin America compared with Asia – thanks for letting us know what to expect!

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