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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine January/February 2005
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Teaching English in Ecuador

Adventure Awaits at Latitude Zero

I spent a year teaching English in Ecuador. It was an incredibly rewarding experience. People often ask me how they, too, might land a gig teaching there. Here's what you need to know.

First and foremost, Ecuador's a great place to live. Ecuadorians are very welcoming and warm, and they're particularly passionate about their futbol and salsa dancing. In addition, the natural beauty of the country is astounding: Ecuador, which is the size of Colorado and straddles the equator (hence its name), is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. I went on a whale-watching expedition off the largely unspoiled coast; I camped and hiked in the central, mountainous sierra, which is rife with active volcanoes and rugged peaks; and I hiked through a part of the country's Amazon jungle.

Interesting geography and friendly people aside, costs in Ecuador are among the lowest in South America. If you arrive with some money saved up from home, it will go a long way. Then there are the benefits of learning Spanish—or perfecting your command of the language if you already speak it. Most Ecuadorians talk with a slow and clear accent, so the country's a popular destination for Spanish learners.

Finally, teaching English is just plain fun—you'll meet a lot of new people, learn about the local culture, and contribute something meaningful to the lives of your students.

Sound good? Okay, here's how to do it:

You should get a TEFL certificate

TEFL—or Teaching English as a Foreign Language—courses teach you tactics for educating non-native English speakers. Such classes are usually a month or two long, and can even be completed online. Be aware that they're expensive—although online courses are much cheaper. (The alphabet soup of teaching-related acronyms can be confusing, but TEFL, TESOL, TESL, EFL, ESL, and CELTA are all very similar.) Don't make the mistake of assuming that since you can speak English, you automatically know how to teach it. Would you feel confident parting with your hard-earned money to learn a foreign language from someone who didn't have any teaching training?

Not only will a TEFL certificate prepare you for the classroom, but the best English schools in Ecuador require it. And they should, as it ensures that they're employing well-prepared teachers. Note that although you'll need such a certificate (or, occasionally, substantial teaching experience instead), you don't necessarily need an undergraduate degree. Many schools require the TEFL or teaching experience, and if you've got those, they may be willing to waive their normal undergraduate degree requirement. It's also possible to get a teaching job without TEFL training, but if you're serious about teaching—and want to be able to teach in other parts of the world, where the demand for qualifications is greater—you owe it to yourself to invest in some high-quality preparation.

One last word on the issue: if you have your undergraduate degree in education and are certified to teach in the U.S., you may be able to find work at an international school. These are truly enviable assignments: you'll make a salary similar to what you'd make at home, but the cost of living will be much lower. Plus, you'll likely enjoy an American academic calendar, with its traditional breaks, in addition to Ecuadorians holidays.

Teaching wages in Ecuador are modest, but so is the cost of living

On the low end of the pay scale, you can expect to make $3-$5 per hour in the classroom. That's a typical wage at a chain private English school, where you can get hired without a university degree or a TEFL certificate. At the higher end of the scale, teaching at a good English school (where you'll need a degree and TEFL training or commensurate experience), you might make between $5-$7 per hour. At my school, teachers were in the classroom about 16 hours a week, and we made about $5 per hour. After taxes, we took home roughly $300 per month.

If you're coming from North America, this isn't much money. But you can live modestly on between $250 and $400 a month in Quito, Cuenca, and Guayaquil; you can get by on even less in the smaller towns. If you want to eat frequently in restaurants and travel on the weekends, you'll need about $500 a month. That means, then, that depending on your lifestyle, you'll need to teach more than the typical load or arrive with money in the bank.

Remember, though, that while you may not make a high hourly wage, your school can offer you other sizable benefits. For example, good schools may offer free Spanish classes. And they'll often help you find an apartment, assist you with travel arrangements, and, of course, process your work visa so you can reside in Ecuador legally. In a broader sense, though, don't forget that if you're lucky, your school will provide you with a sense of community. Your fellow teachers will become your new friends and social network.

Look for jobs in Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca

Teaching jobs are most plentiful in Ecuador's three largest cities, so look there first. Quito is the capital and is Ecuador's most international city; Guayaquil is the nation's largest urban center, a teeming port city where commerce is king; and Cuenca, where I lived, is Ecuador's most beautiful city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site nestled in the foothills of the Andes. Jobs outside of these main cities are available but to a much more limited degree.

Other Ideas to Consider

Here's a grab-bag of miscellaneous items that are worth thinking about:

  • As opposed to teaching in other parts of the world, English teachers in Ecuador are often not required to sign contracts. (The notable exception is teachers at international schools, who usually commit to 2-year stints.) Private English schools may ask for a verbal 6-month or year-long commitment, but contracts are rarely formalized.
  • Don't expect to get paid for preparing lesson plans, which might take up to an hour per class. You likely won't get compensated for such prep time.
  • As in all of Latin America, machismo is a reality in Ecuador, and women considering teaching there must be aware of this fact. Non-Latino women—especially those with light-colored hair—are often subject to cat calls and leering. Be aware that Ecuador is a patriarchal society.
  • If you exercise common sense, Ecuador is a safe place to live. Like with any developing country, petty crime is a problem. When traveling by bus, keep an eye on your bags; don't walk alone down unsafe streets at night. And while medical services are cheap and usually good (at least in the bigger cities), you should take out an emergency healthcare policy to protect yourself in the unlikely event of a serious injury.
  • Enjoy your autonomy in the classroom. Ecuadorian school systems are based on the Western educational model, where teachers have authority over their classrooms and are mostly free to teach as they please. This isn't the case in Asia, where local administrators often take a much more active roll in planning classes.
  • Be a professional; take pride in your work. Teaching English, thankfully, involves working in a casual environment. That's a real benefit. But take your job seriously and remember that you're being paid to provide a service.

Most of all, have fun!

For More Info

Centers for Interamerican Studies (CEDEI). Options for teaching English, Spanish language immersion, internships, and international programs..

International Schools: Academia Cotopaxi American International School (in Quito).

Private English Schools: In Quito and Guayaquil Berlitz and InLingua have branches as part of large chains.

TEFL Resources: TransitionsAbroad.com offers a comprehensive list of TEFL programs around the world.

Job Listings: You should also be sure to check out the job listings on Dave's ESL Cafe and TEFL.com. Teaching English is a high-turnover business, so many schools are continuously accepting applications for new positions. If you've saved up some money and want to arrive in your city of choice and try your luck there, look for job ads on bulletin boards in gringo bars and restaurants.