Judith from Scotland worked as an English teacher for seven years, including a 3 year spell in Ecuador, inspired by its cloud forests and charming people. Here she shares her experiences teaching and living in Quito.
How did you end up in Ecuador? It’s a long way from Scotland.
I’d always wanted to travel to South America. I’d already been teaching EFL for a couple of years before starting to make the arrangements, although in Poland and Greece, which are a bit closer to home. After some, I have to admit not very thorough, research I decided on either Ecuador or Peru because of the rainforests, cloud forests and the reputation of the people. Ecuador is smaller, so you could pretty much visit any part of the country from the capital during weekends, and I’d heard good reports from other travellers.
I found the job listed on an online job site and applied. I worked for a few months doing temp work in Glasgow in order to have enough money for the flight and immediate expenses. I communicated by phone and email with the school beforehand and they were very helpful. The manager of the school met me at the airport and had booked me into a reasonably cheap hotel to start with. I found my own accommodation a couple of weeks later.
As a British citizen I found that there was some red tape to get through, beforehand, on arrival and every year thereafter. You need a working visa for Ecuador, introduced in response to, I think, the United States’ immigration requirements, and it needs to be renewed every year. Aside from that, you can stay as long as you like. I think it is still possible to buy resident status (this is official, not a fat brown envelope passed to the authorities) but you’re talking thousands of dollars.
You say you made arrangements before you arrived. Would it be possible to just fly to Ecuador and find a job once you are there?
I think it would be possible and perhaps worth doing if you are well experienced in teaching English abroad, have excellent Spanish and enough money to tide you over for a few months. You might not get a job straight away. I think there is enough demand for English that building up a number of private clients for one-to-one teaching would also be possible, especially if you already know a few people there. I don’t recommend working illegally so you’d also have to sort out your own visa and ID card. Something to bear in mind, especially if you’re from Europe or Canada, is that Ecuador doesn’t really have a national health service. The larger schools have insurance for employees but if you’re self-employed, you’ll need to get your own insurance or be prepared for some hefty medical bills.
Do you need to speak Spanish before you get there?
I didn’t. I was planning to learn some but in the end arrived at the airport knowing about 6 words and had to learn the basics really quickly. Aside from it being a bit rude to expect people to speak English in their own country, it isn’t that widely spoken. In La Mariscal – the tourist part of Quito (nicknamed Gringolandia locally, not intended to be offensive, well, not very) people often know some, although that’s not guaranteed, but everywhere else you’ll need to speak at least phrasebook Spanish. You’d have an easier start and be able to socialize more if you can hold a conversation.
What are the schools like?
Most of the EFL teachers I met were teaching in private language schools catering mostly to adults. Teaching in Ecuadorian schools needs a specific set of qualifications, native speaker level Spanish (even if you’re teaching English) and isn’t very well paid. For academic jobs in the universities, you’ll need the same sort of background as you’d need for those jobs anywhere else. And of course perfect Spanish.
It is relatively easy to find work in the private language schools though. A CELTA, which is generally recognized in Ecuador as a good TEFL qualification, and/or an English degree helps as there is quite a lot of competition from both Ecuadorian teachers and other immigrants. Unlike some other countries, for example China at the moment, there are more people looking for TEFL jobs in Ecuador than there are jobs.
What is the teaching experience like?
Ecuadorian students expect their teachers to look professional, especially with regards to dress. Smart casual (including nice jeans) should be fine but you won’t get a good reception turning up for work in shorts, scruffy clothes or anything too skimpy. Flip flops are out in Quito no matter how nice the rest of the outfit but might be OK along the coast, which generally has a more casual culture.
Otherwise, lessons don’t need to be very formal. Students won’t like and won’t expect formal grammar lessons (except maybe in the state schools), although they will expect you to know your stuff. School children who have English classes after their usual school day are unlikely to want to be there and you really do need to make the lessons enjoyable. Language learning isn’t particularly interesting in itself and activities, games and music to get the point across go down really well here, with adults as well as younger learners.
Classes will probably end up very sociable all round. If you teach adults, you’ll almost certainly end up socialising with some of your students as well as your colleagues.
What about salaries and spending power as an English teacher? Can you bank some cash whilst down there?
In Quito, a starting salary in a language school runs at about $500-700 a month for full time work (6 or so hours of teaching a day plus preparation) and might include a lot of vacation time. The school I was in ran in two month cycles with a week or two weeks off in between and a long break in December – it was a nice deal. The better the qualifications and the more experience you have, the more compensation you’ll get in schools with set pay scales or be able to negotiate in others.
The big expense in Quito was rent. For a reasonable one person apartment this starts at about $300 a month and could go up to $1,000 or more for something really nice. If you don’t mind sharing, or living in somewhere very basic, you could budget somewhat less.
Furnished apartments usually include a fridge and a stove, but if you’re big on electrical appliances and other home comforts, don’t hold your breath. Washing machines and dishwashers rarely feature except in the very top end apartments. Public laundries are plentiful and cheap though and you can always wash your clothes by hand – many apartments have a separate sink arrangement for laundry. In the first apartment I had, this was a shallow sink thing with cold water on the balcony. Because Quito has a mild climate you don’t need (or have to pay the electricity for) heating or fans.
Other expenses are pretty minimal. Food will come to a few dollars a day at the most (for example, a three course set lunch costs about $1 to $2) and transport is very cheap, even for taxis or long distance buses.
How did you find the people?
Provided you are polite, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll accidentally offend anybody. Ecuadorians will usually understand a foreigner making a gaffe and although you might get teased, you won’t get a hard time.
Something that you might find a nuisance if you’re a young woman is the endless irritating comments on the streets. Everybody gets them, but the more foreign (i.e. tall and blonde) you look, the more you’ll get. They usually go along the lines of random men saying “hola” or “bonita” as you go past and aren’t particularly threatening, just annoying. If you’re walking by yourself, you’ll get lots. If you’re with another girl, you’ll get a few. If you’re in a group or with a man, you probably won’t get any, so if you find them particular infuriating it might be helpful to travel with a male friend.
Personal space is a bit smaller here than in North America or most of Europe. I think it’s helpful to try and remember this, especially in the classroom. The distance an American or Brit finds comfortable when speaking to somebody and the distance an Ecuadorian finds comfortable are different. Students might feel that you are standoffish, unfriendly or just really don’t like them if you keep unconsciously backing away when they speak to you.
People are generally very friendly, although by typical Latin American standards it could be said that Quito residents are a bit on the reserved side. This might be a plus point if you’re from North America or Europe because of it being less of a culture shock.
I loved living there but be prepared as it is completely different to living in the UK.