Teaching English as a foreign language is a funny one. In Chile, you need virtually no qualifications other than the ability to speak English (helpful, I know) and in some cases the luck to have been brought up in an English- speaking country. ‘Natives’, we are flatteringly and not always accurately called.
Never have I taken my nationality for granted so much before. Sure, I have a degree and an online TEFL qualification. But these details are often irrelevant- many companies here will happily employ you based on where you were born and your ability to speak English. Teaching experience is not necessary for many companies, who are desperate to employ as many teachers as possible for an ever- expanding demand for English classes.
Without any teaching experience, I found myself working within a week of arriving. Of course, a useful contact always helps, but even without this you do not have to look too hard to find work with one of the multiple companies or institutions offering English classes to Santiago’s growing middle class.
The actual teaching is another matter altogether. ‘Teaching’ is sometimes a very loose description of my job. For example, this morning’s classes included a discussion about a Guardian article entitled ‘Disney Fans like their Princesses like their Coffee: Hot, Skinny and White’, the future of the Custom Unions post Brexit, and one student nostalgically and enthusiastically recalling his first camera forty years ago.
These are the dream students; advanced enough to be able to discuss a variety of topics in detail, offering their opinions, criticisms and personal experiences. I usually go into these lessons with some kind of plan, but more often than not we get sidetracked by a particular article or topic and end up disregarding whatever I had in the pipeline in favour of something more interesting, be it a social or political issue, or England’s World Cup chances. Which are pretty low according to all, but hey ho, we still believe.
Luckily, I have quite a few of these students, with professions including engineers, a CNN political journalist, Doctors, a cultural programme director (who was responsible for organizing the Chilean version of the Grammy’s), Geography Professors and lawyers, each with different passions and interests. This means I have had multiple conversations about the Chilean healthcare system, immigration, Chilean music, Feminism, the treatment of indigenous Chileans (the Mapuche), and renewable energy efforts. But sometimes what is just as enjoyable and interesting are less high- brow and more personal topics. I have also passed entire lessons merely talking about family life, weekend plans and childhood memories. Yesterday, a student was confused about the lyrics ‘there must be an angel, with a smile on her face, when she thought up that I should be with you’ from James Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful,’, and we subsequently spent forty minutes listening to and analyzing his lyrics (a lesson well spent). And sometimes my students just want a good old rant, which is also fine by me. I often feel a bit like a councilor, providing sympathetic nods and encouragement (with a few grammatical corrections thrown in here and there when I remember that I am actually there to teach).
I frequently leave these lessons feeling slightly guilty. I have in effect just been paid for having an extremely interesting and culturally enriching conversation, and often feel like I have benefitted from the lessons far more than my students.
And not only have many of these lessons been extremely informative, but they have also provided countless moments of amusement. For example, I recently gave a lesson on phobias which featured a dialogue that went along the lines of:
Me: ‘So, what are some of your fears or phobias?’
Student: ‘I don’t have any.’
Me: ‘Seriously? What about Spiders?’
Me: ‘The dark? Needles? Heights? Horror films? Come on, everyone is afraid of something!’
Student: ‘Well…..well yes, there is one thing. That man… Stephen Hawking.’
He meant Stephen King. The lesson was paused while I went to the bathroom to compose myself.
Another thing that makes it very easy to enjoy my job is the fact that all my students are genuinely lovely people. For example, I was given a bottle of gin for my birthday (gracias Flavia, top marks for you), and last week I turned up for a lesson with a new student who had a sandwich and coke ready and waiting for me. His English was elementary and so I awkwardly and messily ate it in front of him (it was an enormous sandwich) while he scrolled through his phone, but it was still a lovely gesture. Hopefully he thinks this is a requirement for all classes and continues bringing me lunch.
However, teaching English is not always interesting chats, James Blunt, alcoholic gifts and oversized sandwiches. The pay for a start is generally pretty poor, and Santiago is not a cheap city. Additionally, when a student’s English level is more elementary, it is much harder to go off piste and discuss topics such as Brexit chaos. These lessons require much more planning with a larger focus on grammar, which can be tedious and frustrating for us both.
Easily the most exasperating thing about teaching English for private companies is the travel. The nature of the work here involves teachers having to go to houses and offices for lessons; which is fine if you are lucky enough to have back-to-back lessons in the same location, but a pain in the arse if not which is more often the case. The weather this past week in Santiago has been reminiscent of England 80% of the time, and so has involved me trawling around the city in the rain while getting to classes, closely resembling a drowned rat. Although I am far exceeding the daily recommended 10,000 steps a day challenge (no need for a gym membership here) this is a rather less enjoyable and time- consuming side of the job.
Another tiring aspect is the hours. On an average day I may only have 5 hours which doesn’t seem like much. But when you start at 08:00 and finish at 21:00, with the lessons spaced out sporadically throughout the day it suddenly seems like a lot. Luckily, I have found a few favourite café’s located near most of my classes where I set up camp for a couple of hours most days. Some friendly café owners have even on occasion given me complementary coffees and brownies as I have proven to be such a loyal customer. Although this waiting around can be irksome, it does also allow me the opportunity to relax. Whether it be spent learning some Spanish, reading, writing or watching love island clips this job does allow you to find much time to yourself, which is something a 9-5 job at home did not.
Despite some of these drawbacks to teaching English, the underlying beauty of this profession are the unrivaled opportunities it gives you to live in and build a life in a new country. As cliché as it sounds, the common marketing tagline that teaching English as a foreign language is a ‘passport to the wider world’ could not be more accurate. The growing demand for English and its unique status as the global business language enables English speakers to literally pick anywhere in the world, without speaking the language and make a life there. Whilst I do not think it is a lifestyle that I would like to continue for many years and indeed make a career out of, the opportunity it has given me to live in Chile, exploring and learning about the country through my students and my own experiences has been invaluable. So, moral of the story….do it. Even if just for a few months, there is no better way to discover a new country.