How to Teach ESL and Live in Mexico as a Freelancer
The author and friend Froy in Mexico.
I am sitting in a lawn chair on my rooftop with my laptop on my lap. Helicopters buzz all around me. Today is the governor's annual speech about what has been done during the past year here in the State of Mexico. Most downtown roads are shut off, so besides the steady hum of roaring bus engines, I hear frequent bursts of car horns and police whistles.
A Day in the Life of a Teacher
Traffic being terrible, most of the students in my two classes this morning were late. Tardiness is common in Mexico — either habitual or caused by unforeseen occasions like today.
Aside from the noise, it is pleasant on my roof, sunny but not hot. Toluca is the highest city in Mexico — actually one of the highest cities in the world, which gives it a yearlong temperate climate, aside from a month or two of rain. All around are brick and concrete buildings. Four big churches are in sight, their bell towers and domes in various states of disrepair — sky blue trim on one, peeling yellow paint on the other. Pine-forest mountains rise right out of downtown, with the big wide-cratered volcano off in the distance. But sunshine and these views are not the reason why I am here on the roof. The Internet is down again and I need to upload test grades. Up here I get reception from my landlord’s house when it fails in my apartment.
In three hours I will hop on the bus — I have to remember to leave early because of traffic — to go to the university. This afternoon I am teaching a class I designed called Real Communication for the Business World. It is for students who have fulfilled their language requirement but need some English practice before graduating with their engineering, law, or marketing degree.
I also have to remember to drop by the translation department of the state university on my way home to pick up my paycheck. I do not teach there — I work at a private university — but was hired as a translator a few years ago, translating official documents like transcripts and birth certificates from Spanish to English. My Spanish still was not the greatest when I was hired, but they need a native speaker for documents that will be translated into English, and there are not many here in Toluca.
Dinner follows with my girlfriend and a quick look over the classes I am teaching tomorrow. It is a busy week, but if I can get my work done I will be free on the weekend to go mountain biking or to accept one of the endless invitations I receive for parties such as weddings and baptisms.
It is an average day, really. At least today I have a 3-hour break to write. Aside from teaching at two schools, designing classes at one of them, and doing translation work, I earn coveted U.S. dollars writing articles online. Being a freelance writer, especially for those who are really just starting out, like me, is mostly research - which magazine/websites are looking for writers, their all-very-specific requirements, and a few weeks of reading the current and back issues to see what they want and what they already have. Having the Internet go down can interrupt an evening’s work, though I must say that it is not nearly as inconvenient as not having running water for a few days.
A Story of Adaptation to Teaching Life in Mexico
My schedule requires some juggling. I am flying to an old friend's wedding in Denver in two weeks, so I have to find substitutes and leave lesson plans. Also I just found out that this coincides with a study abroad fair in Mexico City, which unfortunately I will have to miss. A few weekends a year I travel to these fairs to represent the school I worked at in Vancouver before I lived in Mexico. Once my Spanish had reached a sufficient level of usefulness, my former boss hired me for a fair. Being Colombian, he was a capable judge of my emerging skill in this often-difficult language.
I got my teaching jobs here the old fashioned way — writing my resume in Spanish and hitting the streets. I never received an answered email or returned phone call. Maybe it is a cultural thing. I put on a suit (Mexicans are very formal) and visited every school in town.
I think Toluca is hot, but you never see people walking around in shorts and flip-flops. Jeans and a collard shirt are the norm for casual wear, but for business and formal parties it’s all about dark suits. When you enter a room you must greet everyone — a handshake for the men and a kiss on the cheek for the women.
My first interview was at Berlitz. The job was traveling to businesses and factories all over the city. A suit was required. The teachers rotated classes so the hours always changed. Rather than giving the same class for a month or two, every evening the school would call to say where the teacher would be going the next day. You had to be available from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, and all morning and early afternoon on Saturdays. It paid 65 pesos an hour, which was about five dollars at the time.
The Jobs I Chose
I left that interview wondering why I had come to Mexico in the first place. But after interviews in many more schools, such as Quick Learning, Harmon Hall, Ingles Individual, and the University of the Valley of Toluca, I found two I liked. Why not work at both?
Each school is quite different and they complement each other well. Mornings I teach at the Anglo, a small language school near my house. This morning I had two classes from 7:15 to 10:30. The first were four people in their 20s and 30s who come to class before work. They are eager to learn and always participate. The second class has a few housewives and a few students who go to work later in the day, including a professional guitarist. Like the first class, these students want to speak more than anything else.
The Methods I Choose to Use to Teach
I have a few rules I follow as a teacher that have served me well. One of them is that the students should be encouraged to speak as much as possible. I ask students questions such as: “What was your favorite vacation?” — and never answer the questions myself. They do not come to hear my personal stories, no matter how much it seems like a real conversation.
I had a Spanish teacher who wasted the first 10-20 minutes of class telling us about her morning, her children, the night before, just about any topic on her mind. It was a beginner’s class and I think I was the only one who understood her. The other students just sat though it, suffering in silence.
So I try to speak as little as possible. I don’t answer a question or explain some grammar point if another student can do it for me. I don’t give lists of vocabulary, but give a topic and have the students write the list. The students can study grammar at home. For the money and time they spend on classes, they want practice — with corrections, of course.
This strategy does not work exactly the same in a university here. First of all, as many as half my students simply do not care. English is a requirement and they would rather be somewhere else. The maximum number of students is 35, so I cannot spend an hour-long class letting everyone speak.
So I adopt a different strategy. Discipline is the first thing to develop. In Mexico, if you don’t have control of the class the students will talk and talk to each other in Spanish. My trick is to have a very tough first week. The first person who disrespects me by speaking when I’m speaking gets asked to leave. I used the same strategy when teaching little kids in my first teaching job. They are intimidated at first, which can be a little hard to take. You want them to like you. But later, when you loosen up and the class is fun, they will love you for it. But you can always get the class back under control.
As lazy as many of the students in university appear to be superficially, I believe that very few of them truly do not care. They have just been beaten down by a system that teaches English in the same way math or science is taught. It is not a subject of facts and information, but a skill that requires practice, like sports or music.
Like in all my classes, I ask a lot of questions — both open questions that anyone can answer and cold calling on specific students. It is something approaching the Socratic method, where the teacher leads the lesson by only asking questions. With this technique, students who do not like English will start studying and participating, and as for the ones who really do not care, well, I eventually leave them alone.
The University, TecMilenio, is an offshoot of Tec de Monterrey, the best engineering/business school in Mexico. TecMilenio is doing well, adding more and more campuses each year. Now there are 33 campuses throughout Mexico.
Another Teacher's Story
I have a coworker at the Anglo who used to work at Tec de Monterrey, earning what I earn at TecMilenio along with all the meetings, homework, and headaches. He is from Canada and married to a Mexican. He quit a few years ago and now only works at the Anglo, for less pay.
“All the foreigners have left. As you know, you are only paid for time spent in the classroom. It was good money, but then there was all the homework, making the tests, all the meetings, and all the problems with classes and students.”
Now Tom works about 20 hours a week and is at the mercy of cancellations and times of low student enrollment. But he would never go back to the “better” job.
“Obviously we work less here, but if you add up all the prep time then the pay is probably the same, maybe better. And here, all the students want to learn. Discipline is never a problem. Also after working here a few years I know all the books, so planning classes is easy. At Tec, things were always changing, and there was BlackBoard to deal with.” BlackBoard is the computer system I use for grades and class notes.
He has a tempting argument. You can have it easy teaching English in Mexico and be broke. Or you can be like many Mexican teachers I know and teach wherever you can. One of the big differences between Tom and me is that his wife is an engineer, while I spend three months a year traveling. Having enough money for long trips requires income from several sources.
Travels While in Mexico
Last summer I got a 50-dollar flight to Cancun and traveled by bus down through Belize and Honduras, coming back through northern Guatemala. The year before I did a similar trip, but in Chiapas and the Highlands of Guatemala. And in Christmas I have time for a quick beach run in Mexico and then a few weeks with family back in Michigan and Wisconsin.
The big summer trips are not just a vacation. I learn more Spanish on these trips than I do at home, not to mention culture. It gives me plenty of material for travel writing. And while traveling I continue doing my online writing and translation work. It can be hard to find a decent Internet connection in a small beach town in Belize, so I write the old fashioned way on a pad and paper, and then copy it over later. I am too paranoid about getting robbed to carry a laptop. A simple Macintosh would cost six months' salary.
ESL as a Way of Life
In the end, ESL is a way of life. You might get stressed out of your mind teaching little kids. Or you may beat your head against the bureaucratic wall teaching university. But you have that exotic, long trip to look forward to, if you plan things right, not to mention all the fun you can have working and living in a vastly different culture.
It takes a bit of preparation, but you can only plan so much. And you do not want to over plan. Part of being successful is keeping an open mind and trying to learn as much as possible, be it the local language, a new computer program, or more effective teaching techniques. Then opportunities will arise, often when you least expect them to.
I have finally broken a sweat up here on the roof, but my time is up. It is time to head for the bus stop. I pack up my books and make sure my iPod is charged for the bouncy 40-minute trip. I spend it listening to Spanish podcasts, trying to practice whenever I can. It is a never-ending process.