Teaching english in Santiago

Finally nearly a year after slogging away at a TEFL course in Johannesburg last September I started putting my English teacher training to use properly in August when I returned to Santiago from a month in Pasadena, California for my best friends wedding.

I am teaching English to business people through one of the many many English institutes in Santiago. The pay for English teaching in South America is really low compared to the likes of the Far or Middle East, however it is still OK to be able to live on and hopefully save a little bit towards my travels later in the year.

The English Institute where I have been working in Santiago

The benefit of the institute I am working for (Bridge) is that all classes have a prescribed textbook and so there is pretty much no prep needed before classes. In actual fact though, only about half of my classes are actually following a prescribed course and the other half are conversational classes for people who can speak fairly well and just need practice for various reasons. These classes are far more interesting for me, although I do have to think quite creatively about what to just talk about for 90 minutes.

My favourite conversational student is actually a guy working for Ernst & Young who is going on secondment to the Hague in the Netherlands for 18 months. I have taught him three times a week for the last 6 weeks or so and I feel like I too am living the excitement and anxiety of his impending move. I suppose I can relate to him fairly well as I have often picked up everything and moved to a new country/continent, only I have never had to think about moving a spouse and two kids with me…rather different to simply packing my 20kg bright red, badge-strewn backpack and heading off somewhere. But despite certain differences in our situation I think I have been as much his counselor as his English teacher. I have been able to tell him a little bit about his new country from my brief time in the Netherlands years ago and also from meeting many Dutch people in SA over the last year or so and have also been able to talk to him about various aspects of culture shock. I got quite passionate in our final lesson this week when I told him that he only has 18 months in Europe and that he has to make the most of every opportunity and chance to see new places, experience festivals and events and meet new people etc etc. Obviously he is going there to expand his career horizon, but the whole experience is far beyond just work. I am not too sure how much of my little speech sunk in though as he is not a very well traveled person and like many Chileans he was born and bred in Santiago and has never lived anywhere else in his own country, let alone the rest of the world. I have seen too many people waste their opportunities while living somewhere else for a short time, e.g. in Oxford and I find this incredibly sad. When telling him about my own travel plans for later in the year and teaching in San Pedro and moving onto Brazil, Peru, Bolivia etc, he asked me if I didn’t like Santiago enough to stay. I told him that I did like the city, but with only a year planned for this trip I had so many other places and things I wanted to experience and with 6 months gone already, I still have so much on my ‘to-do list’…

My other students are in a range of industries and businesses from consumer electronics (Philips), IT, pharmaceuticals and law to a local entrepeneur who brings big bands from the States and Europe to Chile for concerts. So every lesson is different and in many ways I think my 2+ years of working in the consulting environment at home is helping me bring a more business focused edge to my lessons. For instance I am helping one student prepare a presentation fo a conference in America which is all about sales targets and SWOT analyses etc – not what I thought I would be doing as an english teacher but it is far more interesting than verbs and tenses…

My favourite group class is with 5 people in the IT company and at the end of 90 minutes with them I feel like I have more energy than when I started which is strange as lessons usually take a lot out of me. They are so enthusiastic and keen and we end up having many laughs, especially over the many examples in English where different words sound exactly the same. This week they gave Bridge feedback on the lessons so far and they said they have far exceeded their expectations…But enough of blowing my own trumpet!

I have mentioned in other blogs that I will be facing a very different teaching situation in a few months time when I head to the desert in the north of Chile to teach some people in the local community while living with them too. San Pedro de Atacama is a tiny oasis in the middle of the driest desert in the world. It is overrun with tourists and tour companies, many of whom are not the most reputable and most of whom are people from other parts of the country or neighbouring countries. So the true local community who has lived in San Pedro for generations, long before it became the tourist hot spot it is now is not seeing any of the benefits of the tourist boom. For many reasons they are sidelined from the industry and a major barrier is their lack of English.

I was fortunate enough to meet a psychologist turned tour guide turned sustainable tourism advocate a few months ago when I was building emergency homes in Nancagua. We got talking and I told him about my English teaching and environmental background. Juan is involved with an NGO called Travolution that works with local communities in many countries to try and help them develop sustainable tourism models and act as a link between sustainability-minded backpackers and the communities themselves. It is a very interesting NGO (www.travolution.com) and I fully believe in what they are trying to do. So I am now trying to put together an English course for some members of the local community and I will live with a local family for free while I am there. It is interesting and daunting to try and put together a course for beginners, but I am trying to think creatively and with specific reference to their local situation. So without trying to reinvent the wheel (in this case there are so many English resources already out there on the web etc) I am trying to plan lessons for them around their specific situation and needs. Who knows if it will be successful or not and they certainly won’t be fluent or anything after 4 or 5 weeks of English, but hopefully it will be the foundation and that we can get other volunteers to come along and work after me…so if any of you out there want to teach English, live and experience real desert life in one of the most spectacular surroundings imaginable, let me know…

To end though, I have to say I am enjoying teaching English here, despite the low pay and fairly long hours. It is a great way to meet people and hear about their lives, jobs and experiences in Santiago and get further insights into this great country and people. I still have 6 weeks or so of teaching and already I am sad at the idea of ending with some of my classes…

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