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As the wealthiest country in Latin America, Costa Rica - the ‘rich coast’ - stands out in stark contrast to many of its neighbours. It also suffers from none of the political turmoil so characteristic of the region. It’s an eco tourist’s paradise, thanks in large part to the governments desire to preserve habitats and species. It’s a fabulous place to experience the tropics, and since it’s comprised mostly of coastline there are miles of pristine beaches, and it is a heaven for those into diving, surfing an any other eco-friendly water sport.
Spanish is the official language, with English, now taught in primary schools, coming a close second. The population is a shade over four millions, fitting snugly into a landmass of about twenty thousand square miles. Seventy five percent of the population profess the Roman Catholic religion, with the remainder Protestant.
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 great place to build up your curriculum.
There are many language institutes and in the main 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.
Because of the huge variety of standards in education you can expect a commensurately varied 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.
Temporary, six-month, renewable work permits are now issued to those with a contract with a registered school and institute, making Costa Rica one of the most visa-friendly places in the whole of Latin America.
One the one hand you may get a job thorough a recruitment agency and sort all of you papers out before you arrive. One the other you may turn up for an on-the-spot job hunt. In either case you will need copies of your educational certificates. If you intend to arrive on a tourist visa check with you Costa Rican Embassy in your country of origin, as entitlements vary from country to country.
San Jose, the capital, attracts many travellers. The combination of modern and colonial architecture combined with the nightlife and restaurants constitute a great lure to many. On the other hand there is a vast multitude of beach resorts, where you can get away from it all.
A modicum of preparation prior to setting out will inevitably 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 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 experience.
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 (AASSA, 14750 NW77 Court, Suite 210, Miami Lakes, FL 33016; firstname.lastname@example.org; 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 keeps lists of schools which employ English language teachers, and maintains 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@example.com; www.amity.org) are active in Latin America, offering nine-month placements.
VSOs are also a great way into Costa Rica. Few high schools can afford to employ a native English speaker. However, many VSOs have placement schemes for ‘teaching assistants,’ and a little bit or research will yield some leads.
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 working some hours for a sponsoring employer but to also be aware 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.
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