Don’t be put off by the fact that Bolivia is one of the poorest Latin American nations. The Andean and Amazonian landscapes offer a breath-taking experience in themselves. In addition to which, there is an interesting class system at play composed of the upper classes - those of Spanish decent; the middle classes - those of mixed race; and the native Bolivians. The interplay between culture and topography make for a fascinating travel and work experience.
Spanish is the lingua franca; however, Aymara - a composite of Spanish and native dialects is also, intriguingly, an official language. The population is a shade under nine millions, and ninety-five percent of those profession religious faith are Roman Catholic, with a smattering of Evangelical Methodism.
In a continent where baseball and US television is enormously popular, there is considerable enthusiasm for learning English. However, it is American English that has most currency and is most sought after, not British English. The distinction is noted by locals, bringing considerable advantage to Canadian and American candidates. However, schools such as the Centro Boliciano Americano actively seek to expose their students to native English speakers from all over the globe, rotating teachers in classes every three months to provide exposure to different English idioms. There are many opportunities and, as ever, persistence pays dividends. Those actively looking for work will find it, and be rewarded by the experience of teaching some of the most enthusiastic, fun-loving students on the planet.
Quite unlike Europe, for those wishing to teach in a state or private school, there is not the requirement for a PGCE or an undergraduate degree. Nor is there a requirement for two years’ teaching experience. A TESOL certificate is enough.
With language institutes you can expect to find yourself teaching those who work in business or tourism, less so those doing it just for fun. This ‘needs-driven’ market makes for sharp, well-motivated students. Don’t expect to find people dozing at the back of the class. Commensurately, these people are paying for the privilege, and will expect a respectable, well-turned out, professional teacher. Another thing to be aware of is that because Latin languages are inflected, students will naturally have a much higher awareness of grammar than English-speakers. Be on your metal, and prepare well. You don’t want to have your knowledge of tenses tested by your students, who learned them all by heart before they were ten!
Because of the huge variety of standards in education you can expect a commensurately patchy student body. Some will have very little experience; however, others, privately educated, will have many years experience in studying English.
Latin American students are amongst those most highly and warmly spoken of by experienced TESOL teachers. Expect fun, great enthusiasm, but don’t be surprised if nobody shows up if there is a major sporting event in the offing.
Visas and Regulations
For those with a need of a hobby, a full-time occupation, and/or a passion for the Kafkaesque, then by all means make an essay at getting a work permit in a Latin American country. With this said, ‘naturalisation’ - ie the legal right to work and reside, which is strictly necessary in, say the EU or the US and Canada, is not paid much attention to in Latin America. For all practical purposes, you do not really need a work permit to work, and… you will not get a work permit unless you have a job, and will not get that kind of job unless you have a work permit.
Nevertheless, matters are somewhat easier in Bolivia. It is perfectly viable to enter the country on a tourist visa, then, with the help of an employer, gain a one-year work permit.
Perhaps the wise job-seeker, in the best of all possible Latin American worlds directs their attention to their visa requirements and entitlements. This will depend on what your country of origin has fixed up with the Bolivia. You can find all about this from your local embassy. Think about also what you have to do to renew your visa. All the way back home, or does a cross-border trip do nicely? How many times can you renew your tourist visa?
The capital, Sucre, was declared a Unesco cultural heritage site in 1991. Beautiful, and impressive colonial architecture abounds, and, in terms of picture postcards, one could easily be in old Spain, rather than the other side of the world. This impression is heightened by the fact that, de facto, the general habit is to whitewash buildings, making for a very picturesque vista.
La Paz, the second city is something quite different. At two miles above sea level it is the highest city in the world. Located in what looks like a lunar crater the colour comes from its inhabitants - who are very colourful - rather than the lunar topography or architecture of the town.
Getting a Job
Some preparation prior to setting out will pay dividends. Think of not one country in South America, but the whole continent. You may end up moving around quite a bit once you hit this part of the world. Hence, it is a very good idea to contact all of the Latin American embassies in your country of origin, enquiring about teaching and visas, and see what you get back. You will find that you have a nice big file folder of leads and information, but will vary from country of origin to country of origin, Latin American embassy to Latin American embassy.
Like most Latin American countries jobs are mostly gained on-the-spot. Hence you will need a letter of introduction, in Spanish, your resume or CV translated accordingly, plus a translation of your transcripts and certificates. But there are judgement calls to be made. You don’t want to use any old Spanish - Venezuelan Spanish will appear idiosyncratic and strange in Argentina. The best bet if you can is to use Castillian - Spanish as spoken in Spain. This is seen as the mother tongue, universally comprehended, and carries style, weight and considerable currency throughout Latin America.
Equally, hone or acquire those language skills. Latin America is not the Costa del Sol in Spain with it’s huge, English-speaking tourist industry. Do not expect English to be widely spoken or in use. For all practical purposes a little bit of Spanish can go an awfully long way in determining both your employability, and the quality of your experience.
Again one should be aware of the wide variety of different Spanish dialects in use across the continent, and choose carefully what idiom you acquire. In Castillian, as spoken by the King of Spain, ‘calzone’ means, after the Italian, a pizza folded in half. In ‘Mexican’ Spanish, it means ‘underpants’. Hence, caveat emptor! Language acquisition takes time and effort and the buyer should beware what Spanish they buy into. Again, to all intents and purposes, Castillian both sounds up-market, and is most widely understood. Nevertheless, expect fertile ground for amusing confusion here and there as you travel from country to country.
There are avenues which can be utilised to gain a placement prior to setting out. Most US TESOL schools have close ties with one or more Latin American countries. The Language and Training Group of the British Council arranges for ‘language assistants’ to be placed for one academic year, though applicants must be 20-30 years of age, with at least ‘A’ level Spanish. The Association of American Schools in South America acts as a recruitment agent. Candidates must pay $25 to register, then the placement fee is $300, normally reimbursed by employers. The South American Explorers keeps lists of schools which employ English language teachers, and maintain a database of volunteers. They charge $50 a year for membership, with a $10 premium added to non US members to cover the cost of postage. Amity Volunteer Teachers Abroad are active in Latin America, offering nine-month placements.
Centro Boliviano Americano ([email protected]), as mentioned above, is a major player with large schools in many cities. But there are plenty of opportunities around, and don’t be scared to tell taxi drivers, hoteliers and anybody else you meet what you are up to and what you are trying to do.
One issue particular to Bolivia is, the not inconsequential matter of getting paid. It is not unusual for month after month to roll by with no payment made. Make it quite clear to a potential employer that this is not a practice you are willing to tolerate, and that you will quite happily walk out the door if you are not paid on a regular, weekly basis. It is simply a matter of making the ground rules clear to your employer, and for you to be up their priority list.
For many, getting a job will mean knocking on doors - hence, the need for those translated documents, helped, hopefully, by a smattering of polite Spanish. Local telephone directories detail universities, schools and language institutes, etc, which are often only too willing to interview candidates. Highly-qualified, and more importantly, well-turned-out, organised and enthusiastic teachers are in short supply. If they like you they will most certainly find some teaching for you!
Hence, one of the best and most realistic propositions is to build a working life based around constructing a curriculum a few hours here and a few hours there, bearing mind that revenue from ‘privates’ can double a teacher’s income, one should always be on the lookout for private students, whatever one’s employment or visa status. The market for those wanting private tuition or conversation practice is huge, and potentially very lucrative, therefore, not be neglected. Give yourself time to build a portfolio of work. This is best safeguard to both your income, and employment status, the latter of which can be highly fluid with schools and language institutes.