I’ve been an English teacher in Chile for three years now and I’ve got some advice for those thinking of coming here in order to teach. I’ll tell you what to expect.
Small institutes are better than the big ones
I have worked with many different language institutes: from one-man shops where a dude basically sold classes to strangers and then found native speakers to teach them to massive institutes with decades of experience. By far the best working experience has been with small English institutes. At the big ones — such as Wall Street English, the Norteamericano, Open English or Berlitz — they treat teachers and students alike as cogs in their corporate balance sheets with little concern for your working or learning conditions. They will sell courses with group sessions where the students are of all different levels, meaning that the more advanced will be slowed down by the beginners and for beginners many things will go over their heads. It is true that they are well known but this is due to what they invest in marketing and advertising rather than a reputation for quality. They are like the overpriced fast food of English classes.
The big institutes are also notorious for not paying teachers on time. I had heard this but, in my quest to completely fulfill my schedule, I decided to take on work with one of them. The first couple months were OK though working there was certainly less personable than in the small institute where I had been previously. Then one month I received a pay check that was far less than what I was expecting. I had to argue with a handful of different people, all of whom stonewalled me and passed the buck on to someone else even though I had all the necessary documentation and the error was obvious to anyone who looked into the matter. What most drove me crazy is that nobody even bothered to review the evidence. They all told me there was nothing they could do and that I needed to speak to someone higher in the institute. Eventually I got all the way to director, who then in our meeting proceeded to call me out for a lack of respect. She said my accusation was serious and that this was a respectable institute. For me this was a total non-sequitur: they were in violation of the law and owed me money. After reviewing together all the documentation, it turned out they owed me even more money than I had thought! Needless to say, from this point I stopped accepting new classes and decided never again to work with a “big-name” institute.
The pay is just enough
As an English teacher in Santiago you can earn enough to live in a nice neighborhood, go out on the weekends with friends and save for a vacation. You will NOT, however, make enough to buy a car or a house or invest. You will comfortably but essentially pay-check to pay-check. Now, you could move to a cheaper neighborhood, not go out and not travel but, as a “first worlder” there is a certain quality of life that you are used to and you probably came to South America with expectations of travelling – not slaving away in a mediocre job.
It is precarious
You will be “boleteando”. This means that you are paid on a per class basis and you don’t have a contract. You don’t get health insurance or paid vacation. There is also no guarantee of a minimum number of classes so some months, such as February when almost everyone is on vacation, your pay is going to be much less. You can be let go at any time at no cost to the institute and there is no unemployment insurance. Essentially: zero job security and zero benefits.
While this sucks, there are some good things. Your employer cannot require you to take on a class you don’t want. You can take as much vacation as you want, but of course this depends on the money you have saved. You choose the hours you work. Don’t want classes in the morning? Always reject them. Don’t want to work Fridays? Then only accept Monday-Wednesday or Tuesday-Thursday classes.
There are few opportunities to move up
Let’s say you have worked for a couple years and you are now a really good English teacher. At the institutes, there is no difference in pay for better teachers. The 22-year-old who just graduated from college and has no experience will be paid the same as you. I know of no examples of pay raises for experience. Maybe the institute where you work will offer you some administrative work, but these types of jobs are very poorly paid in Chile. They make far less on a per hour basis than teachers do, though they do usually work under contract and receive benefits. But remember that job benefits in Chile are already minimal. Most people get out of teaching after the first year. These institutes depend on the constant renewal of their teaching corps. Foreigner teachers come, scape by for a year while having their South American experience, and then return home to being their “real life”. The best you can do, really, as an English teacher in Chile is to get a job a university. But these are difficult to come by and suffer from many of the same problems as the profession in general.
You learn a lot from your students
I’ve had an interesting range of students: college kids preparing for the TOEFL or improving their English before going abroad; workers who receive a government subsidy that allows them to study English almost free; corporate executives who meet with investors in the US; government officials who travel internationally to give speeches at conferences. I approach my job with a certain mentality. Officially I am teaching English, but I also like to think of myself as sociological researcher. While its not a totally representative cross-section of Chilean society, my students come from a variety of backgrounds and each has taught me something. Teaching English also implies teaching English-language culture. Inevitabily this leads to reflection by students of their own culture, and this same process applies to me as a teacher. I am more self aware about the US and the perceptions of its society from the eyes of outsiders. This is the greatest non-monetary benefit of the job, in my opinion.
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