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Mighty big place, Partner. As Ferdinand Braudel, the great French historian observed, ‘the land dictates the people’, and it is a good idea never to stray too far from this theme. If you want to know what ‘cold’ is then head up to Minneapolis, north of Toronto, in the mid winter. If you want to know what ‘hot and humid is’ then try Orlando in the height of the summer. If you transcribe a line from Los Angles to Miami and turn this into a road trip then the number of different peoples and environments you will encounter is immense. By all means there is a thin veneer of Americanism, and everywhere you will find both McDonalds, and the presence of the Federal Government; however, you shouldn’t let this take your eye off the ball of the fact that the people and environment of Beverly Hills are markedly different from the people you will meet in Arkansas, both of which are different from the people you will meet in New Orleans. It is, indeed, a mighty big country, with mighty different people and mighty different environments. Accepting diversity is the key to comprehending that wave upon wave of immigration, preceded by Anglo-French colonialism and subsequent revolution, have made America what it is today.
A fairly meagre population of two hundred and ninety millions fits into a huge landmass of three and a half million square miles. Plenty of room for everybody! There are three time zones, and climate variations from virtually artic, to tropical, to arid desert. The principal language is English, though Spanish is widely spoken, thanks to the porous border with Mexico, and there are nearly half a million native American Indians, who speak a variety of languages and dialects. The religious complexion of the country is fifty percent Protestant, twenty five percent Roman Catholic and two percent Jewish, with one percent devoted to Islam.
Given the long tradition of immigration, which continues whether the Immigration Department likes it or not, there is considerable and stable demand for English language tuition. The key to teaching in America is, though, in doing it legally, and the through the correct channels. There are plenty of options detailed below, but getting naturalised takes time, resourcefulness and persistence. Nevertheless, there are lots of options for suitably qualified people to do things the right way, and you don’t want to get deported for working illegally as you will never be let back in.
Private language institutes offer the best potential for aspirant teachers. America is the world’s most dynamic economy and there are many, many people from other parts of the world who need to have there English in good order. Hence, business English and IT English may be interesting avenues to pursue.
Don’t be fooled into the idea that just because you speak ‘English’ English, you can sail through in America. You can’t. The language is quite different. The system of measurement is Imperial, long abandoned by Britain, and the weights and measures are unique. An American gallon is smaller than it’s British counterpart, because in the good old days of Empire it permitted the British to extract more tax! Hence, the ‘English’ English speaker, or any other dialect for that matter, needs to take time to adjust to, and be mindful of, the differences in vocabulary - particularly in areas such as construction and engineering.
Because of the huge variety of standards in education and experience you can expect a commensurately patchy student body. Some will have very little experience; however, others, with more experience in English, will have many years experience in studying English.
Take a deep breath, and be prepared to think laterally! First port of call is can you get a student visa? Can you afford to study in the US? If so then you are entitled to work. Period. Next port of call is: do you hold an undergraduate degree? America likes to attract talent, and if you can find a company to sponsor you then you can get a one-year work permit, solely to work for that company. Next up to bat is the L1. The L1 visa is issued when you transfer from the office of a company in, say, the UK to its counterpart in the US. This visa is renewable annually, and permits you only to work solely for the sponsoring company.
The illustrious Green Card really takes a lot of work. Allow three years for application, much of which you won’t be able to leave the country for. You should apply for this, even if you are sure you will be rejected, since you are entitled to work whilst the process is being carried through. You need to tout yourself as something highly qualified and highly unusual - teaching some exotic version of IT or Business English is the key. For example, this writer obtained his Green Card as a multidiciplinarian project manager. What’s one of those? Don’t know, and neither did the Immigration Department. You will need a good immigration lawyer. Ask to speak to some of their former clients for references. Lots of people waste lots of money with lawyers that simply no good.
Citizenship: Available to you after seven years of continuous residence once your Green Card has been issued. Why bother? Well, the green card is only good for seven years, and if you are not a citizen and are a resident, if you die, then Uncle Sam will come and take half of your property and then talk to your family about the rest later. This is the practical reason that spurs many ex-pats on to citizenship. With this said, very, very few go through the formality of surrendering their passport from their country of origin, and hence retain quasi-dual nationality.
Becoming a real person: You need to get a social security number as soon as possible. Employers will ask for this, not your Green Card or your work permit. Following this you need to get a state driving license. If you can drive a dodgem car at a funfair then you can pass the typical state driving test. Get a bank account. For this you will need a kindly American friend to step up to the plate and say that they know you to be a good egg. Finally apply for a credit card - ask at a car dealership, or some place similar, as to what is the easiest way to build a credit rating. America runs on plastic, and you are, to all intents and purposes, an unperson if you don’t have a credit record and attendant plastic. You may find it difficult, for example to get your phone turned on.
In sum it takes time and consideration to build a functional life in America. It’s not a place to drop into and do some teaching, but the rewards are considerable for those that apply themselves.
Of course there is one more way to work in the US; and that is as a ‘consultant’. You can travel to US as often as you like and enter on a tourist visa. Always declare that you are visiting on business. You are permitted to do this as often as you like; however, you must get paid abroad. You are, at time of writing, permitted to be paid $50 per day, in the country, for your living expenses.
One more thing to bear in mind: You cannot convert visas from one type to another in the country. You have to go right back to your country of origin. This can be a tedious business if you live in LA and were born in the UK. All visas, apart from tourist visas, are issued by the US embassy in the country of origin. Look out for agencies that handle this. In London for example there is a visa shop, which specialises in handling US work permits, and for a small charge do all the running around, hanging around and queuing up for you. This is a very handy service.
Once again one should never stray too far from the idea of the land. Twenty minutes from Hollywood you can be in Tapanga Canyon, home to mountain lions, bobcats, deer and rattlesnakes. Indeed, American civilization is but a thin veneer on the land and the environment.
For inspiration one can read Steinbeck’s Travel’s with Charlie, or the Log From the Sea of Cortez, and this provides a means of getting one’s arms around what America is, or at least was.
If one divides the country into quadrants starting with the North East, one finds older cities where Europeans are far much more at home. Quite unlike Los Angeles, which has no perceptible ‘down town’ and is eighty miles across, these cities are organised on a grid-iron, a la Rome, with everything gravitating and concentrically organised around a town centre, where the major organs of government reside.
The South East is a world of its own, sometimes feeling like a little bit of a time capsule, where those ‘damn Yankees’ from the North are still slightly resented. Hot and humid in the summer but beautiful in the winter, when it is home to migrant ‘snow birds’ from New York and Boston aiming to escape the deep-freeze of the northern winter.
Next up to bat is the Wild West, Texas, Arizona, huge tracts of prairie and desert of types too varied to describe. The Grand Canyon, a must see, is quite some hole in the ground, and it is remarkable to look across and see a completely different weather pattern on the other side.
California is a world of its own. The world’s seventh largest economy gives you some idea of scale. Home to what the rest of America describes as breakfast cereal because it’s ‘full of fruits, nuts and flakes’ it’s quite a liberal place, and interestingly is now a white-minority state, so the further south you go the stronger the Mexican influence is to be felt.
The Pacific North West, offers stunning scenery and is home to Microsoft and the now defunct Nirvana. Seattle is always cloudy and it often rains, but the seafood is out of this world.
Where ever you go in the US you will be able to get back to the land, much of which is national park territory. Road trips are de rigor, and one of the best ways of tackling America is to land in a state, and then take a recreational vehicle (RV) on a great big road trip. For California alone there is a yellow-pages sized book full of RV parks, and this is simply an amazingly flexible, pleasurable and cheap way of getting around. But a small piece of advice: RV parks tend to be on the outskirts of town, and people commonly tow another vehicle - even a motorcycle- on the back, so that one doesn’t have to drive and park a 30’ vehicle in the centre of town to go out and eat!
A note on the tourist potential of the US would not be complete without a comment on personal security. In a place like LA great wealth is only a block or two away from great poverty, and a vibrant drug scene. It takes careful planning to avoid the places where the police patrol by day and the gangs patrol by night. In New Orleans, for example, the authorities hand out maps outlining the charming, interesting and really good fun area around Bourbon Street, but heartily advise that you don’t stray out of the carefully policed tourist area, outside of which you are in no man’s land. But don’t let this spoil your fun. It’s an amazing land, like a rain forest of diverse people, places and things.
Getting a job couldn’t be easier: Just look in the electronic Yellow Pages under ‘Language Schools’ and you will find a plethora of entries for your locale. Nevertheless, finding the right job for you may take a little application. One should interview the schools as much as be interviewed by them. A common issue is whether or not, or how many ‘privates’ you may be required to teach in addition to classroom teaching. In London, for example, the trend is towards classes at institutes, but privates at the home of the student. You can easily find yourself doing an awful lot of running around which you are not getting paid for!
Obvious questions for a potential school are class sizes, preparation time, materials, etc. Look for well-resourced schools, but be aware that you probably will not get paid for preparation time. Also be aware that you are in a market where there are a lot of people who ‘Teach English and...’ In other words a good part of the market is oriented to people who teach English part-time, whilst pursuing other goals in life.
Again, some modicum of specialization will help bump up your salary - for example, teaching IT English or Business English are a good areas in which to work. In addition to this building up a portfolio of your own ‘privates’ is an excellent mid-term goal, and is a method of greatly increasing your earning potential. It is also something that language schools expect - though they may get markedly unsympathetic if you start stealing their students!
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