What You Need to Know to Teach English in South America
By James Burt
Outside the Box
In this day and age, there is almost nothing in the professional world that is cast in stone. Contracts are hard to come by, job security is a thing of the past, and economies are in a constant state of flux. You would think such problems would not be of concern to the English teacher working abroad, but they often are.
Having the freedom to travel while simultaneously having the security of a teaching-English-to-non-native-speakers day-to-day job is still an option. While many areas of the world still operate using fairly formal teaching policies with centralized schools, those seeking to teach abroad also have to be prepared to work remotely in some locations.
Adapting to Teaching English in South America
Case-in-point: South America. The continent has long been attractive to English teachers eager for new experiences involving such activities as Samba music, mountain trekking, and other long, hot summer nightlife pleasures while earning a living teaching English to the locals. But unlike certain global areas with a much more rigorous application, interview, and hiring process that involve visas or housing appropriations, many countries in South America often utilize a less rigid system of employing teachers.
All this might still sound great, especially for those looking to teach for the short-term in various cities while traveling across South America for extended periods. But there are some matters both the vagabond and long-term teacher must take into consideration when teaching for language companies in America del Sur. There is the call to work outside the box. Literally.
Teaching Location and Logistics
In South America, teachers are often called upon to work outside of the learning center or teaching area. Language centers in South America are prone to accommodate students’ busy schedules and teachers are dispatched accordingly to students’ homes and/or offices. The method of teaching on-site can be beneficial to students with hectic schedules.
Such a style of teaching and working runs counter to many professional considerations, and there must be flexibility on the part of teachers unaccustomed to working in this way. When deciding if you wish work in this manner, consider the following:
- The Offices and Homes: People are busy everywhere, and South America is no exception. As a result, a teacher working on location has to learn geographical information about the city they work in as well as transit schedules to get to where they have to teach. Also, the teacher has to be ready for a break-in period during the first employed week to learn how to get to the student’s office or home on time. Observing how long it can take to get there and what security clearances are needed to access the buildings where you teach should be done as well. Offices and apartment buildings in South America are often strict about security, and as a teacher you have to be respectful of this requirement.
- The Schedules: Most language centers do the organization for you in terms of allotting you students and the times to teach them. But as mentioned earlier, things can get busy. Subsequently, lessons get canceled. Teachers have to monitor their email inboxes for messages or their cell phones for texts alerting them to cancellations. Students are sometimes pulled away from class due to important professional or personal situations. A teacher has to be prepared for such events and make relevant notes on students’ time sheets.
- The Commuting: In Buenos Aires, the buses run rapidly all day, everyday. However the train service is another matter altogether. BA transit can be fraught with strikes and mechanical malfunctions. Other cities, such as Caracas and Sao Paulo, have similar issues.
With this in mind, most students and employers understand that tardiness will happen on the part of a teacher at least once, particularly on days where there is bad weather. It is worthwhile to invest in at least a laptop or at best a cell phone in order to text both employers and students to know that you are going to be late. Such courtesy is respected and will help you later when payday comes.
- The Cancellations: With regard to the last two points, the teacher has to be aware of cancellations, which are part and parcel of life for both students and teachers. What is most important is that teachers make note of such events. A language institute should have a department to register students’ cancellations of classes so teachers are not penalized with regard to their pay. A message to the teacher should be sent to inform them of the cancellation as soon as it is announced. In any event, keeping a record of this on attendance record sheets is absolutely necessary.
- The Payments: Some international teachers still get paid in the form of paper money from the accounting office or via a paper check. Nevertheless, South America has become pretty modern in adapting to the direct deposit system, and the language centers keep detailed pay records for their own bookkeeping records.
As a result, as a teacher you must set up your own direct deposit system. You can handle this by setting direct deposit up with your own bank using your bank account. But if you do not plan to stay for an extended period, you might have to request another payment method. Payment is monthly, and teachers have to produce attendance sheets with notes regarding their students before payment can proceed.
- The Students: Teaching remotely allows the teacher to meet a wide variety of students. From a teacher’s perspective, this can be fun but challenging. Students often enjoy the one-on-one interaction involved in having their own teacher, but might have a tendency to digress and want to spend more time on conversation than on the future continuous verb tense grammar they were assigned.
South Americans tend to be social people, and there is nothing wrong with adapting by allowing some time for chit-chat. But the teacher has to stay focused. Having time to talk is good, but be sure to complete assignments that are pertinent. Testing will occur, and students need to complete what is necessary to be well-prepared so that you can keep your job.
- The Government: Most countries in South America only require a passport for entry, and many allow travelers three months' stay, often with the option to extend their visit. Other countries require visas for even basic entry — i.e. Americans and Canadians need a Brazilian tourist visa. In any case, it is best to prepare for and observe government regulations, based upon my experience. Often language centers in South America do not offer contracts and place teachers on a probationary period to see if they are suited for the job. When teachers pass the probationary period but wish to stay longer, or if their institute wants to sign them to a contract, it is worthwhile for the teacher to bring all government matters to the institute’s attention in order to ensure employment regulations are met and everything from taxes to work permit requirements are dealt with. Taking the pro-active approach here is necessary and saves hassles.
The Teaching Adventure
For teachers seeking the duality of travel adventure and professional English teaching experience, there might be no better place than South America. But being aware of how teachers work on location while experiencing South America can make a stay more enjoyable and a teaching experience run much more smoothly. When you are working on location in South America, or anywhere for that matter, it is best to be prepared to do your job with no potential problems lingering on the horizon.
See Teaching English in Latin America: Find Top Jobs for resources by country.
James Burt is a writer and ESL teacher currently based out of La Plata, Argentina. He has taught in China, Canada, and Brazil. He is enjoying the "gaucho" life for the moment.