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  Expatriate Writing Contest  2015 3rd Place Winner
Expatriate Writing ContestExpatriate Writing Contest 3rd Place Winner

Teaching English and Living in Santiago, Chile

Andes mountains seen from Santiago, Chile.
The Andes mountains are a backdrop for Santiago, Chile.

To teach teenagers you have to think like a teenager. It’s been less than a decade since I was dealing with peer pressure, rotating best friends, and experiencing long, lingering sessions in front of the mirror. Even though I had a good idea about being a teenage girl, I was terrified when I received the request to teach a class of 13 private school girls in an upper-income Santiago neighborhood. I had never attended private school, nor had I ever been a teenager in Chile. The new environment was completely different from any previous experience, yet over time, I learned to adapt and even thrive.

How I Came to Chile

First, let me explain how I came to Chile and entered the Santiago ESL community.

Before the words were even out of my partner’s mouth announcing his upcoming internship at the Canadian Embassy, I was onboard. My Spanish professor at University was Chilean and always exceedingly proud of her country; the enthusiasm was infectious. Chile was a dream I had stored away in my imagination, only to stumble upon by accident years later. It wasn’t long before we had booked our flights that I started getting a bit worried about where we would live and what I would do. Everything I read online said it was better to wait until you’re actually in Santiago to start looking for a job and a place. While not totally convinced, that’s what I eventually did.

We arrived at the Arturo Benítez airport on an overnight flight, paid our reciprocity fees, and hopped into a taxi. The city is filled with modern buildings, with little remaining before the 1970s. The main reason for the lack of older architecture relates to the earthquakes, which are common and highly destructive. We saw parks everywhere! People were really using them too, from the young couple sneaking kisses under a palm tree to large families preparing afternoon barbecues or “asados.” While many people claim to feel the smog right away, we wouldn't notice it until weeks later when hiking up Santa Lucia hill. Pollution is an issue the current government is tackling, understandably, given that Santiago is surrounded by mountains along the Andes range and home to over six million people.

A central square in Santiago.
A central square in Santiago with a church and skyscraper in the background. Photo by Simon.

Once the taxi dropped us at Hostel Providencia, one of the best hostels by far in the city, we started looking for a place. One problem about obtaining a flat in a big city like Santiago is the sheer amount of “agents” who charge a sizeable fee just for showing apartments and then signing you up for daunting leases. We spent a few days going out with them, not knowing any better, before getting wind of some excellent online resources, including Room-mate and Flat Finder on Facebook. We had a place in less than 24 hours.

Exploring Santiago

Santiago is divided into dozens of neighborhoods, the most popular for expats being Providencia, Nuñoa, and Las Condes. These three neighborhoods are known to be on the safer side, boast a large number of restaurants/bars, and are accessible by public transit. The edgier student neighborhoods such as Barrio Brasil and Republica are situated downtown close to the red, green, and yellow metro lines. We ended up living in the center of the city, right next to La Moneda presidential palace. Street food was readily available, everything was in walking distance, and we felt oddly at peace knowing the city surrounded us on all sides.

Students in Santiago.
Students in Santiago are everywhere.

Being in a non-expat neighborhood saved us a bit of money, and we were still able to live comfortably. Rent, on average, is comparable to many mid-sized Canadian and American cities, but with the added benefit of a 24-hour doorman.

Taking a TEFL Course and Teaching Jobs

With a roof out of the way, I was free to concentrate on finishing an online teaching course. TEFL is not 100% essential for finding a teaching job in Santiago, but is required by the more reputable employers. Every institute has its strengths: some help with the visa process, others offer Spanish classes, and all have different schedules. As a result, I ended up working at two. Many teachers take this track or combine institute classes with private students, not because of any disloyalty or due to a desire for more money, but because it can be hard to gain sufficient hours from one source. As I said, Santiago isn’t a cheap city in which to live — in fact, it’s the most expensive in South America. Working two jobs seems like a small price to pay, however, when you consider its overall safety and high standard of living.

Back to the subject of teaching. I found my first job simply by walking in off the street with my resume and saying, “Hi, I’m hoping to get a job teaching English.” As skeptical as I was of ESL blogs I read before arriving in Santiago, they were right that hitting the pavement was the way to go. I soon had four students under my guidance, all from multinational corporations. I learned things about their industries and backgrounds I never thought I would, and the experience was fascinating. In addition, I was also taking weekly language and culture classes through the institute, which was an unanticipated bonus. I felt that there was, however, still room for more personal challenges.

After an interview and a demo class, I was hired at a second institute, which couldn’t have been more different from the first. Like I said, each institute has their strengths, and in this case, theirs was a diverse clientele. After proving myself during the initial months, I was offered the opportunity to teach at the all-girls catholic school deep within Las Condes. I had worked with little kids, between seven and ten years old, but never with teens. Ultimately, I figured I had come to Chile to challenge myself and learn something new, so what was there to lose? After being briefed on expectations, including a requirement for professional attire, the proper usage of language, learning all educational outcomes for students, I was ready to go.

Teaching Young Students

On my first day with the girls, I tried hard to straddle the line between taking a role as the cool older sister and the headmistress. It’s hard to relax in front of 26 unblinking, thoroughly bored eyes. After the class, which admittedly didn’t go badly, but certainly didn’t break any barriers, I decided to design the lessons according to the preferences of the girls. I discovered that they enjoyed the vast majority things that I had as a teenager, and actually still enjoy to this day. We even had similar music tastes, which was going to be the key to communication.

A good chunk of our classes for the rest of the semester revolved around music. This was a point of connection not just between teacher and student but also between the girls themselves. They were divided by personalities: some were quiet, studious girls who chatted amongst themselves, while the more rambunctious and extroverted stuck together, despite the fact that they all knew each other since primary school. Music was the perfect bridge between the students. After getting the hang of gap-fill listening exercises, while subconsciously absorbing gerunds, past participles, and future perfect, they were belting out lyrics in unison.

The 16 weeks that I spent at that school were a combination of uncontrollable laughter, cheers of encouragement, and the occasional dirty look when it was time to hand grades back. The highlight still remains as the day the girls, using their newly-formed English skills, wrote, and performed their own songs regarding the future. I had no idea that teaching teenagers would be such a rewarding and fun experience, a realization that has certainly since kept me open to a wider range of opportunities.

Planning a Return to Chile

Santiago is a unique city, and it’s no exaggeration to say Chileans are some of the nicest, most welcoming people you will ever meet. After receiving an invitation to the umpteenth asado (barbecue) during World Cup, I was ready to stay. Traveling outside of Santiago, all the way from the central region to Northern Patagonia, just further convinced me to return to Chile. In fact, I’ll be going back to the country in less than a month in search of a new experience. When you find a place you love, you can’t help but return over and over again.

More Helpful Links

Resources for Teaching English in Chile:

ESL cafe

English teachers Santiago de Chile Facebook page

Teaching Chile

TEFL certification: directory of Online TEFL certifcation courses.

Obtaining a Visa:

U.S. Embassy in Chile: Entry and Exit Requirements

Finding accommodations in Santiago:

Santiago Roommate and Flat-finder (request-based)

Craigslist: Santiago, Chile

Expat conversations and social events in Santiago:

Gringos/students/foreigners Facebook page

Internations Santiago community requires membership

Caitlyn O'Brien is a 26-year-old Canadian who has a passion for having passions. She loves travel, teaching, soccer (especially during World Cup), and making funny mistakes in other languages.

Related Topics
Teach English in Chile: Articles and Resources
Living in Chile: Articles and Resources
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