Teaching English and Living
in Santiago, Chile
|The Andes mountains are a backdrop
for Santiago, Chile.
To teach teenagers you have to think
like a teenager. It’s been less than a decade since I was
dealing with peer pressure, rotating best friends, and experiencing
long, lingering sessions in front of the mirror. Even though
I had a good idea about being a teenage girl, I was terrified
when I received the request to teach a class of 13 private
school girls in an upper-income Santiago neighborhood. I
had never attended private school, nor had I ever been a
teenager in Chile. The new environment was completely different
from any previous experience, yet over time, I learned to
adapt and even thrive.
How I Came to Chile
First, let me explain how I came to
Chile and entered the Santiago ESL community.
Before the words were even out of my
partner’s mouth announcing his upcoming internship at the
Canadian Embassy, I was onboard. My Spanish professor at
University was Chilean and always exceedingly proud of her
country; the enthusiasm was infectious. Chile was a dream
I had stored away in my imagination, only to stumble upon
by accident years later. It wasn’t long before we had booked
our flights that I started getting a bit worried about where
we would live and what I would do. Everything I read online
said it was better to wait until you’re actually in Santiago
to start looking for a job and a place. While not totally
convinced, that’s what I eventually did.
We arrived at the Arturo Benítez airport
on an overnight flight, paid our reciprocity fees, and hopped
into a taxi. The city is filled with modern buildings, with
little remaining before the 1970s. The main reason for the
lack of older architecture relates to the earthquakes, which
are common and highly destructive. We saw parks everywhere!
People were really using them too, from the young couple
sneaking kisses under a palm tree to large families preparing
afternoon barbecues or “asados.” While many people
claim to feel the smog right away, we wouldn't notice it
until weeks later when hiking up Santa Lucia hill. Pollution
is an issue the current government is tackling, understandably,
given that Santiago is surrounded by mountains along the
Andes range and home to over six million people.
|A central square in Santiago
with a church and skyscraper in the background. Photo
Once the taxi dropped us at Hostel Providencia,
one of the best hostels by far in the city, we started looking
for a place. One problem about obtaining a flat in a big
city like Santiago is the sheer amount of “agents” who charge
a sizeable fee just for showing apartments and then signing
you up for daunting leases. We spent a few days going out
with them, not knowing any better, before getting wind of
some excellent online resources, including Room-mate and
Flat Finder on Facebook. We had a place in less than 24
Santiago is divided into dozens of neighborhoods,
the most popular for expats being Providencia, Nuñoa, and
Las Condes. These three neighborhoods are known to be on
the safer side, boast a large number of restaurants/bars,
and are accessible by public transit. The edgier student
neighborhoods such as Barrio Brasil and Republica are situated
downtown close to the red, green, and yellow metro lines.
We ended up living in the center of the city, right next
to La Moneda presidential palace. Street food was readily
available, everything was in walking distance, and we felt
oddly at peace knowing the city surrounded us on all sides.
|Students in Santiago are everywhere.
Being in a non-expat neighborhood saved
us a bit of money, and we were still able to live comfortably.
Rent, on average, is comparable to many mid-sized Canadian
and American cities, but with the added benefit of a 24-hour
Taking a TEFL Course and Teaching
With a roof out of the way, I was free
to concentrate on finishing an online teaching course. TEFL
is not 100% essential for finding a teaching job in Santiago,
but is required by the more reputable employers. Every institute
has its strengths: some help with the visa process, others
offer Spanish classes, and all have different schedules.
As a result, I ended up working at two. Many teachers take
this track or combine institute classes with private students,
not because of any disloyalty or due to a desire for more
money, but because it can be hard to gain sufficient hours
from one source. As I said, Santiago isn’t a cheap city
in which to live—in fact, it’s the most expensive
in South America. Working two jobs seems like a small price
to pay, however, when you consider its overall safety and
high standard of living.
Back to the subject of teaching. I found
my first job simply by walking in off the street with my
resume and saying, “Hi, I’m hoping to get a job teaching
English.” As skeptical as I was of ESL blogs I read before
arriving in Santiago, they were right that hitting the pavement
was the way to go. I soon had four students under my guidance,
all from multinational corporations. I learned things about
their industries and backgrounds I never thought I would,
and the experience was fascinating. In addition, I was also
taking weekly language and culture classes through the institute,
which was an unanticipated bonus. I felt that there was,
however, still room for more personal challenges.
After an interview and a demo class,
I was hired at a second institute, which couldn’t have been
more different from the first. Like I said, each institute
has their strengths, and in this case, theirs was a diverse
clientele. After proving myself during the initial months,
I was offered the opportunity to teach at the all-girls
catholic school deep within Las Condes. I had worked with
little kids, between seven and ten years old, but never
with teens. Ultimately, I figured I had come to Chile to
challenge myself and learn something new, so what was there
to lose? After being briefed on expectations, including
a requirement for professional attire, the proper usage
of language, learning all educational outcomes for students,
I was ready to go.
Teaching Young Students
On my first day with the girls, I tried
hard to straddle the line between taking a role as the cool
older sister and the headmistress. It’s hard to relax in
front of 26 unblinking, thoroughly bored eyes. After the
class, which admittedly didn’t go badly, but certainly didn’t
break any barriers, I decided to design the lessons according
to the preferences of the girls. I discovered that they
enjoyed the vast majority things that I had as a teenager,
and actually still enjoy to this day. We even had similar
music tastes, which was going to be the key to communication.
A good chunk of our classes for the
rest of the semester revolved around music. This was a point
of connection not just between teacher and student but also
between the girls themselves. They were divided by personalities:
some were quiet, studious girls who chatted amongst themselves,
while the more rambunctious and extroverted stuck together,
despite the fact that they all knew each other since primary
school. Music was the perfect bridge between the students.
After getting the hang of gap-fill listening exercises,
while subconsciously absorbing gerunds, past participles,
and future perfect, they were belting out lyrics in unison.
The 16 weeks that I spent at that school
were a combination of uncontrollable laughter, cheers of
encouragement, and the occasional dirty look when it was
time to hand grades back. The highlight still remains as
the day the girls, using their newly-formed English skills,
wrote, and performed their own songs regarding the future.
I had no idea that teaching teenagers would be such a rewarding
and fun experience, a realization that has certainly since
kept me open to a wider range of opportunities.
Planning a Return to Chile
Santiago is a unique city, and it’s
no exaggeration to say Chileans are some of the nicest,
most welcoming people you will ever meet. After receiving
an invitation to the umpteenth asado (barbecue)
during World Cup, I was ready to stay. Traveling outside
of Santiago, all the way from the central region to Northern
Patagonia, just further convinced me to return to Chile.
In fact, I’ll be going back to the country in less than
a month in search of a new experience. When you find a place
you love, you can’t help but return over and over again.
Caitlyn O'Brien is
a 26-year-old Canadian who has a passion for having passions.
She loves travel, teaching, soccer (especially during
World Cup), and making funny mistakes in other languages.