By: Susan Gerle

The first time I taught ESL (English As A Second Language) while traveling in Mexico was on an extended trip to the Mayan Riviera. I lived in a small seaside town called Puerto Morelos, which is situated between Cancun and Playa Del Carmen, for 4 months. A friend and I drove down from Canada. Neither one of us spoke any Spanish, so it was an interesting journey at times, but we managed with our little phrase book. Few people in non-tourist areas of Mexico have the opportunity or means to learn English.

Two young sisters, who spoke no English, ran the Mexican motel where we stayed. After many attempts at communicating I found out that the reason they didn’t learn English was a lack of resource materials. The cost of books was prohibitive and not readily available in Cancun. The women only made the equivalent of $14 CDN between them each day so books and writing materials were an expensive luxury. I had a lot of paper with me and I began helping them learn English. I had no formal training to teach ESL at that time, just a willingness to help. The 2 women and I actually wrote our own language book for Spanish speakers. When I returned to Canada, we published the book and then got friends to take copies to the young women to sell at a very low price or give away. The book is called Ingles Facil.

The next time I went to Mexico I took an ESL course in Canada before I left. The courses I recommend are at least 120 hours long with a 40-hour practicum follow-up at an established ESL school. Doing your practicum at an established school may also give you an opportunity to pick up some paid hours in Canada before you leave. You will have an opportunity to work with students from all over the world. Decide if you prefer to teach children or adults and do a practicum for each because they are so different. That will only give you the very basics but it is a start. If your Certificate of Completion is from a college or university it will be more acceptable by some of the Mexican States when you apply for official paperwork. The certificate should say TESL or TESOL.

I decided to teach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for my next experience. I went down without a job in place and with enough money to support myself for 3 months. It was a good thing because I only got enough hours that time to keep me in coffee money. While I was there though I took the opportunity to get really immersed in a Spanish community and travel a bit to the outlying areas.

When I returned to Canada, I worked in the ESL school system for 2 years. Then a job opportunity came up on the Internet for a primary teacher in Puerto Vallarta at a private bilingual school. I applied and was accepted. Most positions in Mexico require you to pay your own way down. You also enter on a tourist visa because the legal paperwork takes so long, or may not happen at all. If that happens, you have to get your visa extended, but the school will usually help with that if they are reputable. I was lucky enough to have Mexican accommodations included with my position. The schools will often help you find accommodations otherwise.

I also made sure I had extra medical coverage that was accepted by the Mexican hospitals for the first 6 weeks I was there. Some coverage isn’t accepted. See if the school you plan to work for will cover the costs if you get sick. My school was good that way and when I ended up in he hospital with stomach infection for 3 days, they covered all my costs.

Culture shock is huge, as is getting used to the humidity and rainy season and distance from home. I had it easy because I had already experienced some of it. Other teachers found it difficult at first and some couldn’t handle it at all and returned home in the first month.

Having a regular job, with a regular paycheck and days off was great. Every Friday afternoon I automatically went into holiday mode because we didn’t offer Saturday classes like many of the schools do. Many Mexicans work 6 days a week and many teachers are expected to do the same. The money is not great but it’s adequate to live on, unless you spend your life drinking and partying at the gringo places.

Kid's Day Celebrations in Puerto Vallarta

Kid's Day Celebrations in Puerto Vallarta

There were assignments to prepare and marking to be done but that didn’t stop me from playing tourist and traveling around the country as much as I could. The holidays the Mexicans celebrate give lots of opportunity for time off. You have a 2-week break at Christmas and Easter. Sometimes my plans changed at the last minute because there was a festival to attend in the evening or something we had to do for promotion that we hadn’t been informed about earlier. In Mexico, one has to be very flexible and time and scheduling is different from what we are used to in Canada.

Most of my travel was done by first class bus and they were leaving all the time to every destination. I spent Christmas in the colonial city of Morelia. On a couple of other long weekends, I had the opportunity to go to Guanajuato and Guadalajara. The only time I flew was when I went to see friends in Mexico City.

Because Puerto Vallarta is a coastal city catering to tourism I observed many of the cultural events, which I might have missed living in a smaller community. The trade-off though is the harassment by locals trying to promote everything from souvenirs to time-shares. It takes a month or two for you to blend in and become a local too.

Some of the schools offer the cost of your flight home if you stay for the full term. That may or may not happen. It’s part of the Mexican culture sometimes to promise things but not necessarily deliver. They really are serious when they first tell you. Accept it though if it doesn’t happen.

The most important thing to remember when teaching in Mexico, or anyplace else in the world, is you are working in a different culture. “When in Rome”….. Do your homework and find out something about the culture before you go. It will be a fantastic experience if you do!

About the Author:

Susan Gerle has enjoyed her teaching experiences in Mexico. She is over 60 years old. Watch for her story on teaching while traveling in China!