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Mexico: What a place. You could easily spend a year in a couple of hours in this hugely diverse and vast country. Whether you prefer snow-capped volcanoes, heavily populated beaches, deserted beaches, superb diving, the hum of the big cities, or the world-class archaeological sites, you would be hard pressed to find a place offering more to the traveller.
On the back of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), governing free trade between Canada, the USA, and Mexico, massive investment has poured into Mexico, which in turn has created huge demand for English language skills. Be choosy. For the well-qualified TESOL teacher it is a sellers’ market, and you don’t have to dive in to the first opportunity that comes your way. Indeed, TESOL teacher poaching is a popular pastime amongst language institutes!
Spanish is the official language, and the population of a hundred-and-one million, fits comfortably into the seven-hundred and fifty square miles. Roman Catholicism claims ninety-percent of religious affiliation, with seven-percent going to other forms of Christianity, and three-percent to other religions.
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. You do, however, need a TESOL certificate.
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.
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.
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. Your application often must be made in your country of origin, but since language schools do not, as a rule, recruit abroad - they want to see you in the flesh before offering a contract - your chances of becoming legally ‘naturalised’ are slim.
In Mexico in particular, ‘visitors’ are not allowed to do any remunerative work, though NAFTA makes the situation a little easier for Canadians and Americans. This means that getting a regular job with a high school, for example, is difficult and that the un-naturalised gravitate towards private language institutes and private tuition.
Amongst the requirements for a work permit is a CV in Spanish, and notarised TESOL and undergraduate degree certificates, which have been certified by the Mexican Consulate. This costs anything from $100 to $700, depending on who you see and under what circumstances. In general ninety-day tourist visas can be renewed in Mexico by approaching the relevant authorities and demonstrating that you have sufficient funds to reside. Otherwise, you are looking at a cross-border trip.
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 Mexico. You can find all about this from your local embassy. Think about also what you have to do to renew your visa, and how, and in what way, can you renew your tourist visa?
The bottom line is: don’t worry! All will become crystal clear once you embark on the process.
Mexico City: Heaven and Hell. The world’s third largest metropolis, boasting fabulous museums, magnificent colonial and modern architecture, and marcha - nightlife - second to none. It is, however, very polluted, and there is dire poverty in striking contrast to its magnificent splendour. A ‘must’ for a visit, but it will depend on your tastes as to whether you make it your home.
To get away from it all, the beautiful people of Mexico City head out over the mountains - not to be travelled at night - to live it up a little in Acapulco. Not really a backpacker’s paradise, more a resort for the Mexican great and the good, who tolerate, but don’t have much to do with the large influx of Gringos. Flash hotels, cliff diving, and water-sports of every variety abound. Cheap hostels do not!
Moving cross country from the Pacific coast to the Gulf of Mexico provides a very different kettle of fish. Literally and figuratively! The Yucatan Peninsula is home to Cancun, and the island Cozumel. The Mayan ruins, great food, and really superb diving - especially in Cozumel - act as a magnet to tourists; however, on the mainland, getting out of Cancun, you will find little difficulty in finding a village on the breathtakingly beautiful Gulf, where they have probably never seen a Gringo before - except on TV - much less a European or an Australasian. The warmth of the people alone could make you want to make this place your home! The castor-sugar white beaches, and the turquoise sea are an added bonus.
A modicum of 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 (AASSA, 14750 NW77 Court, Suite 210, Miami Lakes, FL 33016; email@example.com; 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 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org; 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!
On account of NAFTA many companies have there own in-house English training programme, and this type of engagement could be of great value to the budding TESOL teacher, and would probably help on the work permit front.
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.
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