Experience: 3 months (Peru) / 10 months (China)
Country of Origin: USA
Teaching Location: Cusco, Peru
Contract Length: 3 months
Qualifications: 120 hr In-Person TEFL Course /
Master’s Degree Library & Information Science (MLIS)
Andrew went to Cusco, Peru in November of 2012. While in-country he completed a 1-month (120 hour) TEFL course, finishing in December. After a quick visit home for Christmas he returned to Peru in January and began looking for accommodation and work; while also traveling and experiencing the Peruvian culture. He would end up teaching English classes from February to April of 2013 before accepting a 10 month contract in China.
This is Andrew’s account of his 3 months teaching in Peru. He holds a very unique perspective in the sense that he has taught in 2 different continents and has also taught adults versus children! The following interview took place in China towards the end of a 10-month teaching contract. He plans to continue teaching and traveling the world afterwords.
In this interview we focus on what it’s like to get an in-person TEFL certificate, teaching English in Peru, and discovering a first person account of living and working in South America.
— The following interview was conducted on April 18th, 2014 in Henan, China —
(Dan) — Briefly, what did you do prior to becoming a TEFL teacher and why did you decide to Teach English as a Foreign Language?
(Andrew) — After I graduated high school most of my time was spent working towards my education. I got my bachelors degree in 3 years and my masters degree in two years, so I devoted a lot of time to doing that. After graduating, I wasn’t in a full blown career or anything like that … I was just interning for the US National Archives at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library during the summer of 2012.
Up until that point, I had always wanted to go to Peru. While I was interning one day, I was listening to some (Peruvian) music and I decided then and there that when I graduated I was going to go to Peru. The best way to do that was to teach English so TEFL was a practical decision. When I first came to that conclusion though, I didn’t know anything about it. I just thought that it would be a good thing to do. So, over the next few months, and after I graduated, I did some more research and became more serious about it; eventually I went through with it.
What kind of obligations if any, did you have prior to leaving for your first teaching position (family, work, mortgage, etc)?
The only thing that I really had were student loans, but I had some money set aside to take care of that so it wasn’t a really big deal.
TEFL Course, Job Searching & Visas:
How did you find the TEFL Course you ended up taking?
I found them on Bridge TEFL. I chose them because Cusco was the city I wanted to live in and that was the program that I could find in the city.
So you knew specifically what city you wanted to go to and looked for TEFL courses in that city?
Yeah, pretty much. I ended up with a company called Maximo Nivel.
If you don’t mind me asking, how much money did they charge for a 120 hour in-person course?
I can’t remember. It was under $2,000. That included housing and meals, coursework, books, etc. If you compare it to a University course I don’t think it’s too bad.
Once you finished your TEFL course in Peru (in one month), did you start working immediately?
No. What happened was we finished about 4 days before Christmas and my parents wanted me to come back home. They actually paid for my ticket, so I went back home and returned to Peru in January. I decided to spend a week traveling to Iquitos (a city in the Amazon rain forest) just to see more of Peru. Then I started my job search and began really looking around January 20th.
Very cool! So you did some traveling and then did your job searching while in country?
When I went to Cusco the second time I did it entirely on my own. I found a hotel just off one of the main streets and stayed there for a few days. I bought a copy of the Rueda de Negocios (The local business classified ads). I found an apartment, talked to the landlord in Spanish, and set up a deal that worked for me. With a place to stay I could travel a bit and look for work.
So you speak Spanish and English? (Seethe section below “Knowing Spanish and Teaching English” for more on this topic.)
Yeah. Also Latin and a little bit of French … and some Muscogee Creek. My Spanish was good enough to get around in Peru.
Did the company that you did the TEFL course with, help with job searching at all?
Maximo Nivel is considered a very reputable company in Peru amongst Peruvians that go there. Among the people that actually work there though, it’s not exactly “on that level.” They do help you to an extent though; they don’t abandon you (upon completion of the course). They have teachers and classes there, but when I went to apply for a job I couldn’t get one. Just because you have a TEFL certificate from Maximo, doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a job placement afterwords.
I think that if I had not left Peru, I might have been able to get a job through Maximo. They did give me a list of a few places to try and I went to each of them. All the places were full and one place was actually really rude to me… that was the ICPNAC. They completely disrespected me and I think they even threw out my resume.
ICPNAC is a school?
It’s an institute or a private language center. In Cusco they don’t have so many schools for TEFL teachers so much as they have private institutes. There are a lot of places where people go and take 1-2 classes per week; it’s not like applying for work at a high school or a college.
You were traveling around in country with your TEFL certificate and looking for a job; were their any visa requirements to be there?
I had a tourist visa and I could re-new it every 3 months when I left the country. We were 12 hours away from Bolivia so it wasn’t a big deal.
Okay, so you looked up classifieds in the business ads and then started emailing employers? … Knocking on doors?
Yeah, emailing and actually going to places in person. The demand is high for English, but there are a lot of teachers flooding the market there. What I found was that the big reputable places were either full or had other issues. The smaller places didn’t want a native teacher necessarily, because a native teacher may not use their teaching methods. Some people thought that Peruvians could teach better English than native speakers.
Finding the Tumis Language Center:
What company did you end up with and how did you find them?
It was actually funny. I moved into my apartment and spent a week searching for places to work at. One day I walked down the street from my apartment and I saw a tiny little building and it said Tumis Language Center. I went in there and asked around to see if anyone was there. The place was run by one lady and I talked to her for awhile. She said that she ran the place and despite it being small, her methods brought out better results than the other leading schools (she said her students spoke better English).
The reason there is such a demand for English in Cusco is because that’s where a lot of tourists go. Machu Picchu is number 1 so the tour guides need good levels of English. The lady I was talking to at the Tumis Language Center said that after 6 months to a year her students could speak good English. So I talked to her about my situation and she said, “well it’s good to have a native speaker.”
So it was contract work? Did you have a set schedule?
I did have a set schedule but no contract. I was able to make enough money to pay for my apartment and some food and that justified me staying there. I wasn’t just leeching off my savings and teaching gave me something to do. I received compensation, 300 Soles per monthly class. 3 Soles is about $1 USD, so that’s about $100 per class.
Do you feel like you had support from Tumis?
The director there was very very good to me. There were days where she would have me and other people stay after class and we would just talk. We would drink a few beers and we would talk in Spanish and English about Peru, about learning languages, etc.
So you were making enough money to get by… did you have a little extra to travel with or not much?
Not that much. I had to rely on my own money to travel. If you go to Latin America to teach TEFL (again, this is my experience – maybe Chile, Argentina or Brazil is different), but you will probably lose money because there is no reimbursement for airfare, there’s no free housing, and you are paying for a lot of things out of pocket.
So it sounds like teaching in Latin America may be all about “the experience.”
Yeah. Just going to Latin America is a good experience. I also taught adults (as opposed to children) which was a positive experience.
The Classroom Environment:
How many adults did you teach per class?
There was suppose to be about 15-20, but I had about 10.
How many classes did you teach a week?
About 2 (1hr classes) per day… so 10 a week.
So would you say that was a fairly light schedule?
Did you get any training outside of Maximo Nivel? Did the Tumis Language Center provide any training?
The lady that ran it had a very precise method of how she wanted things done. So she explained it to me and it was fairly straightforward once I got the hang of what she wanted. The main difference between my teaching style at Tumis and what I learned at the TEFL course is that I actually taught in Spanish. Normally on my own I would insist upon not doing that, but she wanted me to teach in Spanish because it was First Level English (higher level courses were all taught in English).
Would you say you felt prepared for the first day of class?
No. It was kind of all over the place. Over all though, it went fairly well. The students seemed to like me., their pronunciation was improving, and they started gaining better speaking skills.
In terms of vocabulary, knowing Spanish and Latin helped immensely because so many of the words are similar. So that helped a lot with explaining new words.
During a typical week you were teaching 2 classes a day with about 10-15 adults. Were they the same people coming back each week or did the faces change?
Yeah. Some people left because they couldn’t pay or thought it was too hard. For the most part though, it was the same people.
Did you write your own lesson plans? Did they have a standard they wanted you to teach to?
It was a standard plan. She had oral classes where people would listen to a conversation and then fill in the words that were missing in a written part.
Other classes were more standard and I just taught out of a book. It was all set up for me. I did conversational-based classes and a regular intro to English class.
Did you use Microsoft Office, PowerPoint, Word, etc?
No, it was all from the book and very straight forward. What they explained to me was that Peruvians learn by dictating to people. That’s the system (repetition) that they have gone with.
That is not true in a lot of TEFL courses though. They would usually discourage that. So, I was kind of seeing a different perspective of teaching English. I wouldn’t necessarily say I liked those methods better or worse, they were just different.
Outside of the classroom, how many hours a week were you spending on preparation?
Again, it was all set up for us… so not very many. It wasn’t preparation that took up time outside of class though, it was grading exams or looking at homework.
What was the classroom like? Was there anything unique about it?
It was a standard classroom, nothing fancy. There was no computer, a TV that we never used, a desk, a chalkboard and chairs for the students.
Knowing Spanish and teaching English:
Would you say that speaking Spanish is a unique skill-set to have while teaching English in Peru? Do most people teaching in Peru have a background in Spanish?
A lot of them know Spanish but not that many people teach in Spanish. If anything, that would be held against you in a lot of places. The main benefits of knowing the local language, and I think that this is probably true anywhere, is that:
1. You know the mistakes and problems they are going to have based on their language.
2. You can get by easier yourself where you are living and that makes your circumstances significantly better.
So, knowing Spanish meant that I could travel all over the country and not have any issues with regard to language. I had business cards made on my own in Spanish, I found my apartment in the Spanish classifieds, I negotiated the price in Spanish and I went to the market and shopped in Spanish. When I went to Quillabamba, or any other place outside of Cusco, I used Spanish on the bus. Knowing Spanish made me able to do a lot on my own.
On a side-note, where did you learn Spanish?
I studied in University and then went to Mexico in college. I studied there for a semester (4 hours of Spanish class a day – immersion). I also read a lot of Spanish books and articles and watched a lot of Spanish movies. When I went to Peru I started using it again and decided that I would start learning more Spanish and get to the point where I could pass the DELE exam (the standard for if you want to show how good your Spanish skills are).
Peruvian Culture & Life Outside the Classroom:
What was the surrounding area like?
Cusco is a hard city to describe past the tourist areas. It’s very small and concentrated. You can walk the city in a few hours. It’s an old city, about 700-800 years old. In the past it was the capital city to the Inca Empire and other groups.
How receptive were the locals to you being there? Are they used to foreigners?
Oh yeah. Cusco is a very touristy area. They have a local culture that has taken in tourism as a part of life. They even have a local slang word called brichero that means “bridge person.” What that means is that many women are trying to find a person to marry to find a “bridge” back to America, Europe, or a wealthier country.
The tourism industry has been huge in Cusco since the 90’s. That’s when the Peruvian government finally started getting their act together. They started focusing on bringing in tourists and making it a better place.
What kind of things did you do in your off time?
I had language classes. I studied Spanish and I studied French which cost me money, but I did that in my free time. I got to walk around the city; I had some friends from Maximo Nivel and some people that I met at the language center.
A friend of mine, who wasn’t one of my students but studied at the language institute, actually took me to his home for his birthday once. His home was in a small city outside of Cusco called Quillabamba, and it is probably the most beautiful city I have ever been to. He took me to his family’s home and I spent the night in a guest room that they had. It was where the rain forest and the mountains meet and I just hung out there for a weekend.
That sounds like one of those experiences that makes traveling worth it!
Yeah, and it was also the tea capital of Peru which was pretty cool.
It sounds like you were very “plugged in” to the local culture?
Yeah, I was. That was one of the reasons I wanted to learn Spanish. I did a lot of local things; I went to a Mass at the local cathedral and I learned local songs in Spanish and Quechua (Native Inca Language) … I fell in love with the local culture.
Teaching Children vs. Adults & Cultural Differences:
I know you have taught children in China. How does teaching children versus adults compare?
It’s almost entirely a different world. My TEFL course mostly focused on adults with a very brief section on children. Most of the advice was to do games and do things to keep the children’s attention. The key was making sure that we understood that children learn very differently than adults.
I don’t mind teaching children. It can be fun and rewarding too, but I like teaching adults because:
1. They are going to be there because they want to be there. They are paying to take your class and they want to learn from you.
2. They can respect you in some ways, a lot more than children do. Adults respect that you are the teacher more.
The downside to teaching adults though, is that they can be more demanding at times.
What were some of the differences in the expectations of teaching children vs. adults?
The adults could usually tie their success in English into something more tangible and related to work. The incentive for a good grade is that it is something measurable. You can say I made this (grade) at this place and take that to a potential job. The lady who ran our language school emphasized to our students that she didn’t want people to hire them because they got good grades; she wanted people to hire them because when they heard them talk they could hear how good their English was. She was serious about it.
From Peru to China:
Overall you taught 3 months in Peru … what made you decide to leave?
There were several things:
1. I had money set aside and I was making some money from teaching; but it wouldn’t have been economically feasible to stay there for a very long period of time.
2. I wasn’t under contract so I wasn’t obligated to stay. If I left there weren’t any hard feelings because I worked month to month.
I know you decided to keep teaching English after Peru because you went to China. What made you decide to keep teaching?
Well, the other part of why I left Peru was because of some family issues. Some things were going on with my parents and I wanted to go back home. While I was back home I decided that I really liked living abroad. The reason I went to Peru was because I had always wanted to go there. So I chose to go to China next because I had always wanted to go there as well. I had an interest in Chinese culture, history, seeing things for myself, and accepting and knowing what the reality is really like.
I think people back home have images and stereotypes of what life in Cusco or China is like, and many times they are very wrong. So, I wanted to see things for myself and decide for myself.
So you went home for some family issues after 3 months in Peru. How long was it before you were teaching in China?
I came home in May and didn’t leave for China until October. I had originally planned on leaving around the end of August, but I rejected some other job offers and the school I ended up working for had to settle some things with my work visa that I had no control over.
You have a unique perspective of teaching English because you have taught in two continents. How does teaching English in Asia compare to teaching in South America?
It depends on what you want. If you want to make more money and live a more comfortable lifestyle then East Asia is probably the better option for you (Korea, China, Japan if you can pull it off). If there’s something that draws you to Latin America though, then go there. You will probably end up there anyways if you really want to go.
I would say that the actual teaching experience in China is much more serious. They will pay for your airfare and your apartment. They want you there and they are willing to put a lot more effort into getting you there. Whereas, in Latin America, you kind of just show up and you’re there.
Final Thoughts & Advice:
If you could give one piece of advice to someone who is considering going out and getting their TEFL certificate, what would you tell them?
Some people would say that the TEFL certificate is a waste of time and money. That is arguably true and you don’t necessarily need it to teach in Asia, from what I have seen. But in Latin America it can be a lot more important. You kind of need it to teach in a lot of places.
That being said I am glad that I took it. The TEFL course gave me a lot of ideas about language and how people think about teaching a language. I think the biggest issue I have with my TEFL degree and teaching in China is that my course was aimed at adults. Teaching is not the same with children.
Can you tell me more about how the TEFL course gave you experience and confidence before your first day of teaching?
We were all very nervous for practical teaching week (in Peru). Before then, we had taught brief mini-lessons every week, but the process of going in and teaching an actual class was pretty daunting. After the first week of teaching we realized that it wasn’t that bad though. I even had one friend who said that he took the course because he had issues with being nervous and speaking in front of people. So he overcame that through teaching.
Do you have any final comments?
Before I came into TEFL, from what I had read and what I understood about how things were set up … I don’t want to say that TEFL itself is sketchy… but it can be a sketchy industry. Not everything is glamourous and you need to understand how things actually work before doing it.
Some people may not like it. There’s a lot of issues in Latin America with how companies treat you. In Asia there are places that will try and give you the wrong visa so they don’t have to pay extra for the right visa. The advice I would give is to be careful with whatever job you take. Understand that there are some places that will really try to take advantage of you. You need to look out for certain signs.
What kinds of signs would you recommend that people look out for?
If you are working in China there is the passport and visa issue. Make sure you are getting the right visa for your passport. If they aren’t willing to get you the right visa (Z-Visa) and residency permit, I wouldn’t even consider them. If they can’t give you a straight answer about getting that visa BEFORE you get to China, it’s not worth your time.
In Latin America you want to look at your pay and the scheduling. I think a lot of the companies pay people on time and there aren’t issues with people getting short-changed on their salaries; but the scheduling was awful. My friend had classes spread out throughout the morning, afternoon and evening …. So he taught the same amount of hours as everyone but because they were spread out he never had time to rest.
Politics… You will meet some great people in TEFL and you meet some interesting people in TEFL. Most people are great but keep in mind this industry can attract people who may not have the best motives for living in another country. It’s always important to be careful, but my experiences have, for the most part been good.