Teaching English in Costa Rica

So. You’re thinking about moving to Costa Rica to teach English. Or perhaps you just want to travel and teaching English seems like a good way to pay the way.

I’m going to be brutally honest about my time teaching English in Costa Rica. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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San Jose: where, if we’re honest, you’ll be spending most of your time

The Good: 

There are so many options for finding a teaching job, especially in San Jose, the capital. San Jose is pretty centrally located for you to go to the Pacific beaches or the Caribbean beaches and there’s buses to take you pretty much anywhere you want to go.

There are two main kinds of jobs you’ll find: private academies for adults and private schools for kids. I’ll be mostly talking about private ESL academies, since that is where I have experience. You’ll never find yourself lacking a job, especially if you are a halfway decent teacher.

Pay ranges from around $6 an hour to $12, depending on the currency exchange. In colones, the local currency, I made between 3,000-5,500 an hour. If you work in just one academy, you’ll usually get between 12-30 hours a week based on your experience and availability of classes. I averaged around 15 hours a week. If you have a savings account and have affordable housing, it’s not bad. If you’re paying off college loans…it’s a bit tighter. You’re not sending too much money home on your salary. But you can get by in the country on that pay.

Compared to other countries in Central America, you’ll definitely make more money here, than anywhere else. You’ll also have more access to some of the comforts you’re used to, like malls, Starbucks, and fast food.

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The not edited version of San Jose.

The Bad: 

San Jose is ugly. There are pretty parts, sure. But it isn’t going to be a Cuzco, Peru or an Antigua, Guatemala. It has very little colonial architecture left, which is a shame because what it does have left is beautiful. It’s also really crowded, which means a lot of people looking to learn English, but also means a lot of pollution, garbage, and traffic.

The air in the mountains is terrific. The air in the valley is full of bus smoke and people smell. It’s not as odorous as Beijing or Granada, but there are some days that just have a funk. Thankfully, Costa Rica passed legislature several years ago banning smoking in public establishments, like restaurants and bars. That made a LOT of difference, let me tell you. San Jose also has some pretty tall mountains around it, which are beautiful to see (especially since you can see them in almost any direction), but have a bad habit of trapping pollution in.

The garbage situation is also pretty bad, though I’ve definitely seen worse in other countries. But Costa Rica doesn’t have quite the developed garbage infrastructure that we have in the United States. There are no cans, so animals (and people) can get into your garbage and make a mess. There are trucks that pick it up, but if someone has ripped your bags, they usually won’t pick it up.

Traffic is exceptionally terrible. Getting anywhere in bus takes at least an hour, even if it’s close, and often takes up to two hours. Imagine four hours of commute a day, but many people do it. When I teach at any location not in my house, it takes me a minimum of an hour to an hour and a half.

Let me straight, there are a million breathtakingly beautiful scenes in Costa Rica. They just aren’t in San Jose. So if you’re going to live here, you have to make sure  you escape to the mountains or the beach as often as possible. Or you will suffocate, emotionally.

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Not the worst view, but you see lots of bars and barbed wire. The road, however, is exceptional in that it doesn’t have potholes.

The Ugly: 

For me, the aesthetic aspect of San Jose, isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. As I said before, there are so many amazing places that are easily accessible by bus. You might even get lucky and find a job outside of San Jose.

No. For me, the deal breaker with San Jose are the ESL academies. I know a lot of teachers and a lot of students, and therefore, I believe I can speak about the majority of ESL academies. Yes, there may be some where the following doesn’t apply, but I haven’t found them, not in three years working here.

The academies are run by people who, usually, don’t care all that much about teaching. They saw an opportunity to make money and took it. They’re business people (if you’re lucky) and you can’t hate them too much for that. But too many academies treat their teachers like disposable resources.

For example, when you start out at an academy, they’ll give you a really nice schedule, with plenty of hours, but after the first couple months, they’ll give you fewer classes and don’t seem to care so much if you’re hurting for money. They tend to be pretty authoritarian too.

I had a really bad experience where I started working, to the point where they lied to me about taxes, which could have gotten me in a lot of trouble.

They also don’t like to help you with work permits. Most don’t require you have them, so you can still work, but you’ll have to leave the country every 3 months, which can be a pain.

Many students have a hard time with the academies too, which is why it is very common to find students who have bounced around from academy to academy without ever feeling very satisfied.

Again, this is about ESL academies. I don’t have experience teaching in private schools, so it could be better…though teaching a class of 25 eight year old’s personally sounds like hell. To each her own.

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Volcan Arenal: Personally my favorite region of Costa Rica.

What to do? 

So maybe you find yourself in a position where you have to come to Costa Rica. Or maybe the beauty of the jungle, mountains, and beaches are enough to balance the rest. Personally, I had little choice in where I lived, so I had to make do.

How did I make do?

I left the ESL academy where I was teaching and starting teaching my own classes. I now work around 30-40 hours a week teaching private and group classes in my house as well as a handful of business classes (which is really what sustains me economically). This is already a long post, so I won’t go into detail about this here, but you can look to future blog posts to see how I did it.

Feel free to comment with any other questions you have about teaching in Costa Rica and expect my open, honest answers.

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