Teaching English as a Foreign Language in Guadalajara, Mexico
A Challenging But Important Experience
It was spring break of my sophomore year of college, and I was panicking.
I had no plans for my summer yet. Last year, I had spent weeks looking for work before realizing that finding a seasonal job in the current economy was about as likely as my Chicago hometown having good weather during my stay. I had finally landed an internship that was less than ideal (unpaid, and consisting mostly of sending press releases), but by then I had been too relieved to be rescued from a summer of sweating on the couch and flipping through novels to be picky.
I wanted this summer to be different. I wanted to do something interesting and valuable. So far, I had been applying to tutoring and camping jobs that were not much different from what I had been doing so far in my career as an English major and future teacher. But as May drew nearer, I began to wonder: what if I took a risk? What if I tried something new?
An hour later, I had submitted an application to the International Teacher Training Organization (ITTO) program for Teaching English as a Foreign Language in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Choosing a TEFL Program
Although it sounds like I made my choice instantaneously, it was based on weeks of research. Not all TEFL programs are created equal. While each certifies you to teach English, they vary in the amount of preparation they provide and in how they are perceived by prospective employers. The program you choose should be the best fit for you, depending on how much you are willing to invest and for what reward. Here are some things to keep in mind while making your decision:
- CELTA? CELTA stands for Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults, and is awarded by the University of Cambridge. In order to become certified, the program and your performance must meet certain standards. The CELTA is not the only legitimate means of certification — other programs will often provide comparable (or even better) preparation — but it is a well-known gauge of quality. If you wish to teach in the UK or some other parts of Europe, you may need a CELTA degree. However, CELTA programs are often more expensive. I chose not to follow the CELTA path because I found a program that was recognized to be equivalent. If you do the same, just make sure your program lasts about 100 hours and includes teaching practice.
- Length? The shortest programs only last for a weekend or about 20 hours. Weekend programs are a good introduction to TEFL, especially if you are uncertain if you wish to commit to the certification or have a tight budget. Full length courses last four weeks, and these are the industry standard. If you are serious about teaching English, these will be the best preparation and will offer you the best chances in the job market.
- Online? Some certifications can be obtained solely through online work. These are less expensive, and the convenience may be appealing. Remember, though, that you will usually not be able to practice teaching in an actual classroom, which may leave you feeling unprepared and may make finding a job afterwards more difficult since employers prefer candidates with hands-on experience.
- Location? TEFL programs can be found all over the world, from China to France to New York City. Programs based in the United States require less preparation in terms of travel and culture shock, but programs located abroad offer a new dimension to the experience. Training in a foreign country lets you interact with English learners daily; allows you, as a foreigner not speaking their language, to sympathize with their struggles.
- Cost? This was an important factor for me, since I wanted to earn money rather than spend it, so I wanted the initial costs of certification to be minimal. When calculating your expenses, be sure to consider not just the cost of the program itself, but also the amount of your room and board wherever you decide to live, the cost of living in the country itself, airfare, transportation, passport, and visa fees, incidental expenses, etc. I chose the ITTO program in Guadalajara because it was the best value in terms of certification, and because I knew I could live cheaply in Mexico for a month or more.
Before You Go
Planning an international trip might look like a lot of work, but if you get organized before you go it makes everything run much more smoothly and lets you concentrate on why you are there. Before you leave:
- Passport. Make sure it is valid! If you have to get it renewed, follow the government's instructions (see link below).
- Visa. Different countries' regulations vary, but you may need a visa to study/work abroad. Figure out what you need to do by checking the government link below, and start the process as soon as possible if you need to. It might take a while.
- Immunizations. Depending on where you are going, you may need to get a few immunizations before you leave. Do not be blasé about these: you do not want to spend half your time abroad moaning in bed, do you?
- Accommodations. TEFL programs offer a variety of options. You may be able to live in a home stay with a local family, in student apartments, or in a hostel/hotel of your own. Consider cost, the amount of independence/privacy you require, and how much you want to immerse yourself in the culture. Once you have decided, make sure you make your arrangements and confirm them so you know you have a bed on your first night!
- Transportation. It is worth doing the research to save a little money on flights. Personally, I like Kayak.com, but Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, etc. all work, too. Be careful when booking a return flight — it is possible you will want to stay past the end of your course, especially if you are offered a job where you are studying (as I was). See if it will be easy to change your reservation. Also, make sure you know how to get from the airport to wherever you are staying, be it by cab, bus, or shuttle.
- Money. If you are going to be using a credit/debit card while you are away, notify the company before you go. Otherwise, they might assume your card has been stolen and freeze it, leaving you in a bit of a mess! Look up the exchange rate, too, and figure out how to change your money into the local currency.
- Phone. Making international calls can rack up quite a bill, so decide how you are going to keep in touch with people at home and friends you meet while you are abroad. You might consider a calling card or an international plan for your cell phone in order to call home, or buying a cheap local phone in order to talk to locals. If that all looks too expensive, Skype (free!) worked like a charm for me.
- Other documents. If you are planning on working after your course, you may need a resume, diplomas, or other documentation. Bring them with you when you go and you won't have to hassle with having them mailed later.
I spent a lot of energy preparing for my trip, meticulously following the checklist above, but there were a few things I neglected. Paying attention to the following will help prepare you emotionally and mentally for your trip, and will help you get a lot more out of it:
- Practice the language. If you are going to a non-English-speaking country (which I recommend, since it makes teaching much more interesting and challenging), it helps to know a little of the language. Even if you can only say “hello” and “where's the bathroom?” natives will appreciate you making an effort. It gives you a great feeling of accomplishment to be able to communicate, too; every time someone complimented me on my Spanish, I walked around glowing for the rest of the day. You will pick up a lot while you are there, but the more you know at the start the easier it will be!
- Research the location. Do you have a map? Guidebook? Bus schedule? TEFL programs are intensive, but you will still want to make time to explore and have fun. Knowing some of the local sights and how to get around your area will make this a lot less stressful. I went without any materials, which led me into quite a few adventures as I figured things out! Knowing something about the culture you are approaching is invaluable as well. How do they treat elders? Women? What clothing is typical? What do they do for fun? It is embarrassing to make a faux pas and offend someone without meaning too, but a little bit of prior knowledge can save everyone's feelings.
- Have an open mind! Even after you have learned everything there is to know about Hong Kong or Athens, when you arrive there will still be something to surprise you. Do not hold on to your preconceptions too tightly; half of the fun is the unexpected, so be flexible and just enjoy the ride.
What To Expect From Teaching
For me, this was the most nerve-wracking part of my experience abroad. I could handle customs, the different language, paying for things in pesos... but how was I supposed to get up in front of a classroom and convince them I knew what I was talking about?
- Be confident. Even though you are still learning and will naturally be nervous, act like you know what you are doing. Chances are you know a lot more than you think, and if you are not shaking from anxiety you will be a lot better equipped to help your students.
- Know your stuff. That said, do not think you will be able to skate by on the English you have been speaking all your life. In order to teach someone else, you have to know everything much better than you do just to use it yourself. Do you know the difference between present real conditional and present unreal conditional? Are you sure? Before you walk into the classroom, make sure you have reviewed all your rules and are ready to answer related questions that might crop up.
- Do not be afraid to say you do not know. But never make up an answer. It is okay to say that you will check and get back to them later, or that you'll make sure their regular teacher (if you are subbing in someone else's class) answers for them. It is a terrible idea, though, to risk teaching someone wrong.
- Adapt. Any number of things might go wrong: you might only have one student, or the class might not have covered the previous material, or they might already have covered what you are supposed to be teaching them, or you might finish the lesson twenty minutes early... All of these things happened to me. Always have a back-up plan (or three) in case things do not go as planned. I had classmates who said they did not even consider their back-up plans as back-up anymore, since they always ended up using them! Try not to expect anything, and be ready for whatever comes your way.
- Be creative and energetic. You will be working long hours and it will sometimes be hard, but the more you put into your lessons, the more students will take from them. Not everyone in your classes will necessarily be motivated to be there, so you might have to work extra hard to keep them interested. Students respond better to teachers with an engaging persona, as well, and that can sometimes save a lackluster lesson.
- Sometimes, it will go badly. I taught one class of ten-year-olds who would not stop screaming, kicking each other, and throwing things across the room. Do not get discouraged; one bad class doesn't mean you are not cut out to teach. Tomorrow will be better; I promise.
- Be a role model. Especially for younger students, you have the chance to set an example. In Mexico, I learned that teachers are second in respect only to doctors. Children will look up to you, so make sure you control what they're seeing. Even with adults, you are representing your country abroad. That's a lot of responsibility.
Getting the Most Out of Training Abroad
OK, you are working and studying... but if you chose to do it abroad, make sure it does not feel like you are still stuck at home!
- Meet the locals. One of the best ways to get to know a foreign country is to spend time with the people who live there! They can help you practice the language, show you their favorite parts of their city, and give you valuable tips. Try signing up for a conversation class, hanging out at a local spot, or just introducing yourself. Most people will be unbelievably friendly and helpful.
- Be a local. Are you really going to go to Germany and not eat sauerkraut? Immerse yourself in the culture, from movies to food to music.
- Explore. Do not get stuck in the same part of the city every day; chances are, there are amazing places you have never seen before just a bus ride away, whether you want to travel within your city or somewhere nearby.
- Cope with homesickness. Chances are, it will hit you at least once. When it does, know how to get out of the slump. Call a family member or friend, read a favorite book, or force yourself out to have fun (depending on what works best for you). Remind yourself that you are having an amazing adventure, that it is natural to miss the familiar, and that things will be better soon.
In And Around Guadalajara
Guadalajara is a beautiful historic city. I was busy exploring almost every day of my stay, and I feel like I could have stayed months longer and still not seen everything. If you go, here are some of my recommendations:
- El Centro Histórico. The ITTO school is located here, and (as the name says) it is the center of historic Guadalajara. It is full of beautiful plazas and buildings, and it is worth dedicating a few days to exploring it all. Do not miss the Catedral, Palacio de Gobierno, or Instituto Cultural Cabañas. Murals by José Clemente Orozco, a native of Jalisco, can be found throughout Guadalajara's public buildings, but some of the most impressive cover the chapel in the Cabañas.
- Mercado San Juan de Diós. This is the biggest indoor market in Latin America, where you can find everything from pirated movies to leather sandals to an entire cow's head. You can get lost in here for hours!
- Tlaquepaque/Tonalá. These are two towns famous for the work of their artisans. They're only half an hour by bus from Guadalajara, which you can ride for only a few pesos. Tlaquepaque has become more commercialized in recent years and some say Tonalá is the more authentic of the two, but both offer beautiful work such as furniture, pottery, and weavings. Many businesses do their sole shopping here to furnish and decorate places like hotels and restaurants.
- Lake Chapala/Ajijic. Located about an hour from Guadalajara, Lake Chapala is a popular getaway. You can easily pass an afternoon strolling along the square, eating fresh fish, and paddling in the lake. Many Americans retire to Ajijic, a nearby town, due to the combined attractions of beautiful location and low cost of living.
- Tequila. Yes, Jalisco is famous for its tequila. Even if you are not interested in drinking it, you would be surprised at how much there is to know about it. For instance, did you know you are supposed to sip, not take shots? (Yeah, try telling that to the guys down the hall in your dorm.) You can book tours that drive you outside the city to a tequila plant and provide refreshment and entertainment along the way, or you can choose a less expensive package based in Guadalajara itself.
Benefits of a TEFL Degree
You have done it! It was a lot of work — 140 hours of work, in my case — but you finally have your degree! After returning home, I interviewed for a job teaching young children in a progressive childcare center. When they found out that I had been teaching in Mexico, they offered me the job immediately and decided to add teaching Spanish to my duties. TEFL gives you concrete job skills like public speaking, lesson preparation, and working with others. But it also taught me how to be more culturally aware. It taught me how to adapt to any situation. It taught me compassion. And it taught me that I can do scary, big, important things.
That might have been the best part of all.