If you’re considering doing a TEFL certification course or applying for a teaching job in Latin America, you probably have at least a few questions about the whole thing (and if not, you might want to start asking some!). Though it can seem intimidating to move to another region to teach in a country that speaks another language, especially if you’ve never taught English before, there are plenty of reasons why you should make Latin America home base for your TEFL training process or job search.
We’ll take a look at a few of the most common questions about TEFL certification and teaching English abroad in Latin America.
What is a TEFL course?
The TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification is a professional-level course that provides you with the training necessary to be qualified to work as an English teacher in another country. There are a number of different programs and courses that will help you gain TEFL certification, which will in turn qualify you for English teaching jobs. Some volunteer teaching organizations include TEFL training and certification as part of their programs, while others ask you to complete it before applying. If you’re hoping to ultimately get a job at a school, you’ll almost certainly be asked to have your TEFL certification, and it can be an advantage when applying for other types of international jobs as well.
TEFL training courses are typically a blend of theory and practice, combining readings, lesson planning and evaluation with hours in the classroom, observing and teaching. If you’ve never taught before, a TEFL course is vital to pick up some of the key methods of lesson planning, classroom management and evaluation. Even if you do have teaching experience, teaching a language is very different from teaching science or history, especially when many students may not understand anything you say, so it’s important to have training that prepares you to work within this environment.
Some providers offer the option to do TEFL certification online – while this is typically a more cost-effective option, it also means you won’t have the same opportunity to practice on a real classroom of language learners that you would if you did your certification abroad.
Always make sure that your TEFL organisation is accredited or affiliated with a well-known university, otherwise you’ll end up paying for a certification that isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.
Why should I do my TEFL course abroad?
The main advantage of doing your TEFL training in another country is that you’re already immersed in a context similar to the one in which you’ll be working in the future, which gives you more opportunity to practice your teaching with students who are English language learners in a real context. While there are many opportunities to teach English in the UK, US and other English-speaking countries – particularly if you’re interested in working with immigrants or refugees – there’s a difference between teaching English as a second language (TESL, which is what you’d be doing in your home country) and as a foreign language (TEFL). If you’re abroad, your classroom may be the only place where your students have the opportunity to practice their English. Plus, getting classroom experience abroad will better prepare you for some of the cultural differences you’ll have to contend with as a teacher in that country.
What is working as a teacher in Latin America like?
There’s no one answer to this question, as the context between – and within – countries varies wildly. Teaching in a rural school in southern Mexico will have almost nothing in common with a placement in the middle of São Paulo, so location makes a big difference. That being said, there are some common denominators. Overall, Latin American institutions tend to be much less structured then what you’re probably used to, meaning you’ll often find out about a faculty meeting or assembly the same morning it’s scheduled – or 15 minutes after it’s started! Patience and flexibility are key attributes to work on if you’re going to make it as a teacher in Latin America, especially if you’re coming from a culture that’s more rigid about timetables.
Depending on your school, you may also be shocked at the lack of resources or class sizes. While private schools in large Latin American capitals are comparable to elite private or public schools in other countries, public schools, particularly those in poor neighborhoods or rural areas, are often overburdened and under-resourced. You might have 45 students in your 5th-grade class, or just two whiteboard markers to use for the whole semester. Learning to make do with what you have will help you become a more creative thinker and resourceful teacher.
Despite the challenges, working as a teacher in Latin America is also immensely rewarding. Many students have a strong sense of the importance of learning another language, and as technology access and consumption have increased, the popularity of English-language music, movies and other media have helped pique interest in learning English in particular.
Do I need to speak Spanish?
The short answer is no, although there are plenty of times when knowing some Spanish will really come in handy. Many TEFL programs encourage maintaining an immersion environment in the classroom, which means only using English with your students, no matter their age or level. While this can be confusing and frustrating for students at first, there’s plenty of evidence showing that it ultimately helps them learn much more quickly, as well as developing other skills like creative problem-solving and finding different ways to express thoughts. Even if you do speak Spanish, it can be helpful to pretend that you don’t, so students can’t simply ask you to translate everything for them.
However, there’s the small issue of daily life outside of school. While you can get by in most places with minimal Spanish (besides, there are plenty of parts of the region where Spanish is the second language for people living there, too!), it definitely makes life easier, particularly if you’re not in a major city where there are likely to be more English speakers. If you’re the only English speaker in your town, you’re probably going to feel lonely and isolated if you can’t talk to anyone else. Knowing some Spanish can even make your job easier, as other teachers and administrators at your school may not speak English. It’s absolutely possible to show up in another country knowing absolutely no Spanish and commit yourself to learning (I’ve seen it done), but knowing at least the basics before you set off can’t hurt.
Do I need any other qualifications?
Your options within countries or cities will depend partially on your own experience and qualifications and partially on the requirements for teachers there. If you’ve got your sights set on a private or international school, they’ll likely want more than a TEFL certification – a master’s degree in education, for example, or several years of teaching experience. Public schools or volunteer programs that place you in a school may have less stringent requirements, asking instead for a bachelor’s degree or experience working with children. No matter where you go, though, your TEFL certification will make you a more qualified candidate.
What does the job market look like?
You’re in luck – there’s currently massive demand throughout Latin America for English instructors, especially native English speakers, which means you have more options and control over where you’d like to go.
Many capitals and major cities throughout the region have a number of bilingual and international schools, which are often eager to hire native English speakers. Again, these schools tend to have a somewhat higher bar for qualifications, but if you do meet the standards, these schools can be a great option if you’re willing to sign a contract to stay for a minimum of 1-2 years.
Working in a public school is also an option, since they’re less likely to have quality English instruction and often have much more need. The logistics of securing a teaching position and contract can be a bit more complicated than it might be at an international school, especially if the school has never hired a foreign teacher before, but if you’ve already done your TEFL training in-country, you should have some connections and local experts who can help advise you through the process.
Volunteer programs can be a great conduit to jobs, too, as many already have contacts to help place teachers in high-need schools, so don’t rule out volunteering as a way to get your feet on the ground. Many schools prefer to hire people who are already in country, so getting yourself there can often be the most important step toward getting hired.
No matter where you go, you’ll need a work or other type of visa in order to work as a teacher, unless you have dual citizenship. Be sure to check out the visa requirements and discuss visa logistics (how to apply, who’s paying for it) with your potential employer before signing any contracts.
Doing your TEFL training abroad in Latin America can seem like a major – and expensive – commitment, but it’s important to look at it as an investment. Getting your certification in the kind of environment in which you hope to work will give you a better idea of what jobs there actually look like, as well as potentially connect you with the very people who can hire you as soon as you have that certification in your hands!
Written by Natalie Southwick, intern abroad expert with a particular penchant for all things Latin America. Connect with her at @nsouthwick or LinkedIn.
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