Now, after just over a year of teaching, I’m hardly an expert on the subject. In fact, if you want the best advice, read Sally’s post. But, as she’s covering a lot about teaching in Japan and China, I figure I’ll take over the Latin American part of her advice column. And, as she does mention snippets from her time teaching in Brazil, I’ll narrow my ‘advice’ down to what I do know – teaching in Mexico.
So let me get all serious on your arses and take you through this process step-by-step:
- Why do you want to teach EFL/ESL?
Is it so you can travel and see the world? Or is because you like the idea of teaching? Is it to gain experience in another country? Are you thinking of taking a gap year? Any reason is fine but you have to really know in your heart of hearts why you want to do this. The sooner you have a clearer idea of your reasons for doing this, the better you’ll be at deciding where to work and what kind of contract you’re looking for.
- Do you need a TEFL certificate?
This is actually where Mexico can be quite helpful: A lot of Latin American countries – particularly poorer towns or cities – are happy to take you on as a teacher on the basis that your first language is English. Seriously. If you know teaching is only going to be a temporary 6-month thing to help fund your travel habit, LatAm is the way to go.
However, some of the more reputable schools or universities – that increase your opportunity for higher pay and a steady contract – do ask for a teaching certificate. It all depends on the type of school.
What kind of teaching certificate?
You can get a TEFL certificate online these days for just £100.
But be warned: a lot of schools around the world don’t like these online qualifications. They want to know that you’re well-prepared and have the experience to back up what you say you want to do.
Some TEFL companies help you get a job abroad after you’ve completed a certificate with them but, personally, I like knowing that with my CELTA, I can teach anywhere in the world I want.
- Do you need a degree?
This definitely depends on where you want to teach.
If you’re looking at Latin America, I’d say ‘Not necessarily.’ Some schools would prefer you to have a Bachelor’s degree but the majority would take a teaching certificate any day over that.
From what I’ve heard, Eastern Asia is the place you need a degree for. A lot of people with degrees who don’t have teaching certificates find much more success with jobs over there than they do in Europe or LatAm.
Again, it all depends on where you want to go.
- Do you need experience?
This depends on the type of school you want to apply to. Universities will definitely want you to have at least 2 years of teaching experience.
And language schools vary.
If you’re looking at a language school like the British Council – with chains all over the world and a reputation for setting very high standards – then yes, you’re going to need experience.
However there are language schools (like the one I worked at) who are open to people fresh from doing their teaching certificate and looking for first-time experience so don’t be discouraged when you see neverending lists of jobs needing “experienced teachers”. The ones willing to give you a chance are out there.
Again, with Mexico, it all depends on where you look.
I worked for over a year in Mexico City where there’s a very high demand for English classes so schools are in an abundance and always looking for more teachers, no matter what the experience.
- How do you get a working visa?
Ah, now this is a funny one.
About 90% of the foreign teachers I know got their working visa after they arrived in Mexico and secured a job, myself included.
I know, right? Completely illegal given that you agree to do the exact opposite when you sign your tourist card but, hey, this is Mexico. And a lot of people bend the rules without consequence. That’s life.
There are two ways to get working visas in this country:
1) If you happen to find a school that wants to offer you a 1 year/2 year contract, chances are that they’ll arrange the paperwork and get you a visa. Baddabing baddaboom! You’re sorted.
2) Smaller schools in the city or smaller schools in the more rural areas will happily allow you some holiday time every six months to do what is affectionately known as “the border run.”
I’m sure long-term backpackers are already familiar with this.
When you enter Mexico you get given a tourist card that’s good for 180 days. If you overstay your welcome and then want to leave the country, you’re going to find yourself facing a pretty hefty fine, so a lot of part-time teachers at the smaller schools take a couple of days every six months to jump the borders to Guatemala, Belize, the U.S., Canada … wherever they want so that – on their return – they’ll get a brand new six-month tourist card.
I’d just like to say that I’m definitely not advocating this. I mean, it is illegal to work in Mexico without a working visa. I’m just mentioning that this is how some schools do it and, if you’re only passing through the country for a few months, hoping to pick up some work, this is probably how it’s going to be for you too.
- What are the students like?
No two classes are ever going to be the same and it all depends on where you work.
If you work at a language school in Mexico City, you’re probably going to be asked to do a lot of Business English. There’s a really high demand for Business English here and if this is where you’re planning to live, you’re going to have to face the fact that, at some point, this is what you’ll be teaching.
With Business English students, you’re going to have to dress formally as you’re likely to be teaching them at their offices. This’ll also be your introduction to the White Mexican world, where prejudice rules supreme and you’ll get your first lesson in the social order of this country. Students are usually really nice but it’s these huge companies where I taught Business English that open your eyes to the realities of the social classes.
I’ve always preferred teaching General English because my students have always been much more relaxed when they’re outside of work and able to talk about personal things. In general, people in this country are incredibly warm and kind so it’s a pleasure to teach those who’re open to learning.
I will stipulate that I taught adults over the last year. I can only imagine that teaching teenagers or children is a whole other ball game and, of course, every single person is different so one of the fun parts of teaching is that you never know what you’re going to get.
- What kind of schedule do you have?
Again, I need to stress that this is just my experience but, if you work for a language school, you have to be willing to work ‘unsociable hours.’
You’ll probably be given Business English classes during the day which means travelling to different offices around the city, teaching students either before they start work (7am) or during their lunch breaks. I was also given General English classes at the actual language school in the evenings (7pm) and worked six months of Saturdays per year.
It’s all about being flexible.
- What kind of holidays do you get?
I’m going to warn you that people in this country work crazy hours. They have the same work mentality as the United States which is ‘Live to work’ rather than ‘Work to live’. Most companies in this country offer their employees only 5 days of holiday per year when they start so if you’re going to work for a Mexican school, you might end up getting the same deal.
I was very lucky and ended up working for an international school who offered four weeks of holidays per year: One at Easter; Three at Christmas.
If you’re going to teach children, I’m sure you get part of the summer off, just like they do too. It all depends on where you work.
Not only that but Mexico has a lot of public holidays so you’ll find a lot of three day weekends popping up.
- What do you need to look for in a contract?
Don’t be afraid to disagree with something you’re unhappy with in your contract.
Make sure your contract tells you how many hours you’ll be working and that it outlines how much you’ll be getting paid for any extra time you do.
Read it through thoroughly before you sign it so that you know you’re not being tricked into working ridiculous hours for nothing.
It’s also important that you know what benefits are written into your contract so that you can raise these points with your boss if you’re half way through the year and still don’t see them coming your way.
Benefits that came with my contract included a bonus at the end of every year, a flight to London upon completion, details of holidays, etc.
You deserve them so make sure you get them.
- Will you need to find your own accommodation?
A lot of people ask this because there are terrific schools in Eastern Asia that offer you an apartment with your teaching position. In Mexico it’s a little different.
I arrived in D.F. just before my job started and managed to find a good place to live through Craigslist.
At the language school I worked at, I know that some new teachers were given temporary homestays with older couples or famiilies until they could find a place of their own.
I don’t know if this is the same with most schools but, as a lot of teachers get their jobs when they’re already living here, I can only imagine that in most situations you need to be looking for a place yourself.
Luckily, some schools (like mine) employ a huge number of new teachers at the start of every year so you’ll probably find that there are other teachers just like you who are looking for a place to live. Join forces and see if you can find a place together!
- What’s the pay like?
Okay, let me just stress the fact that no-one comes to Latin America to pay off their debts or save a grand fortune. It’s all about the experience.
As a foreign teacher, you’re probably going to be paid better than 90% of the country (if you work in D.F.) but, remember, you’re getting paid in Mexican pesos. If you want to convert it back to pounds, euros, dollars, whatever, it’s not going to look like much, but things are cheaper in this country so you’re getting paid enough to live here, not anywhere else.
- Anything else to remember?
Yes. When you’re arranging the final details with the school, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into.
Ask about the facilities: Are there printers and photocopiers you can use? Will you be given coursebooks to work from or are you expected to plan all your lessons yourself? How flexible is the syllabus?
Will you be expected to work extra hours? Will you be shown to your any Business English classes at the start of each course or do you have to find your own way? Will you be refunded for any money you spend on public transport?
What’s the dress code? What size are your classes? What levels are you teaching?
All of these questions deserve an answer before you commit to a school. Don’t be afraid to ask. If you’re still unsure, ask the school for the number or email of a past/current employee who you can get in contact with and ask questions. If they refuse, there’s clearly something wrong there.
Most importantly: Use your instinct. If something doesn’t sound right to you, keep looking for a better offer.
Do you have any other questions about teaching EFL in Mexico? Are you a teacher in Mexico? Is there any other advice you’d give?