Setting aside Costa Rica and Mexico, which have separate entries of their own, Central America offers a kaleidoscope of different climates, experiences, and peoples. Many of the countries in the region are now politically stable and are experiencing an upsurge in tourism. Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Guatemala all have a very different feel within a relatively small geographic area. Belize is so laid back it is hard to imagine doing anything but being laid back. El Salvador’s bloody civil war is now set firmly in the past. Tourists flock to Guatemala on account of its active volcanoes and Mayan ruins. Honduras is the place to get off the beaten track and get back to nature. Nicaragua boasts natural beauty that few can rival. Finally, Panama offers some of the most sought after snorkelling, hiking and bird watching in the world.
In some countries such as Belize, English and Spanish are spoken; however, in most other countries Spanish is the principal idiom. This is a predominantly Catholic region, with a relatively small percentage of Protestantism.
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, rather than British English. The distinction is noted by locals, bringing considerable advantage to Canadian and North American candidates. Nevertheless, 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. In addition to this America is corporate Big Brother in the region. Its influence and presence is pervasive, and there is a huge market composed of those who want or need to communicate with and comprehend Native English speakers.
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. Therefore, it is a good place to build up one’s curriculum or resume.
With language institutes you can, in the main, 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.
Central 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
In most Central American countries work permits are somewhat difficult to obtain, and whilst some chose to work on tourist visas this can run the risk of deportation and a heavy fine.
Perhaps the wise job seeker, in the best of all Central 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 host country. You can find all about this from the embassy of your target country. Think also about what you have to do to renew your visa. All the way back home, or does a cross-border trip do nicely? As well as this you should consider how many times you can renew your tourist visa.
Getting a Job
A modicum of preparation prior to setting out will pay dividends. Think of not one country in Central America, but the whole landmass. 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 Central 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, Central American embassy to Central American embassy.
Generally in Central American countries jobs are 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 Nicaragua. 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 Central America.
Equally, hone or acquire those language skills. Central America is not the Costa del Sol in Spain with its 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 life experience.
Again one should be aware of the wide variety of different Spanish dialects in use across the region, 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 Central 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 (AASSA, 14750 NW77 Court, Suite 210, Miami Lakes, FL 33016; [email protected]; www.aassa.com ), 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 ([email protected]; www.samexplo.org )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 ([email protected]; www.amity.org) are active in Latin America, offering nine-month placements.
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 fluid with schools and language institutes.