Teaching English and Living in Costa Rica
A Break-Even Paradise
By Constance W Foss
|A young private student in Puerto Viejo practices writing sentences in her home after school. Parents are eager for their children to learn English in Costa Rica.
While planning my move to Costa Rica in 2009, I asked questions of everyone I knew who had ever traveled to the land. I wanted to know all the pros and cons before making such a huge commitment of time, money, and effort. A friend who was observing my careful planning labeled me a calculated risk-taker. Making a decision to live and work abroad requires equal amounts of careful planning and bold risk-taking.
Every person I interviewed told me the same thing about Costa Rica: “It is fabulous! I loved it! The best place in the world! I did not want to come back!” But in all the interviews, I did not encounter anyone who had lived in Costa Rica as an English teacher. So, the decision to go to Costa Rica to teach English ultimately required a bold risk.
Tourists generally will only see the most positive aspects of Costa Rica. It is a country famous for its mild climate, its many accessible beaches, its friendly natives, and its eco-tourism. But actually living and working there can be difficult. The rainy season in itself is something to contend with, especially when you are taking buses and walking to classes every afternoon. Now that I have been there and back again many times over the past decade, here is the advice I wish someone had offered me.
First word of advice: moving to Costa Rica to teach English is not for the faint of heart, but it is the place to go if you wish to live life to the fullest. In the words of the Minimalists, in order to live life to the fullest “we must seek different perspectives, no matter how uncomfortable they make us.” Living in Costa Rica will transform your worldview and change your life, and working there as an English teacher makes it possible.
Second word of advice: Do not depend on the job you find online. From the very start, I received mixed messages about teaching in Costa Rica from contacts I made through an online search for language schools. The first school I contacted was in San José. During our Skype interview, I had the feeling the director was trying to talk me out of coming to Costa Rica. By the time I emailed her with my decision (yes), her email bounced back: she was no longer with that school, which meant I did not have the job. The next school I contacted set up a Skype interview with me, but the director failed to show up—twice. Eventually we did have our interview and he assured me that he wanted to hire me. But when I arrived in Costa Rica a month or so later and came to the school to meet him, he told me that he did not have many hours for me right away and that I wouldn’t begin teaching for at least two more weeks. That left me with plenty of time to get acquainted with my new home and my new expat roommate, whom I had met through a neighbor back home.
The "Three Stages of Costa Rica"
|A rustic lodge in the jungle.
I was lucky to find my first apartment and job through networking. Within days of arriving in Costa Rica I was introduced by my roommate to the director of a private, on-site language school in Heredia whose teachers gave classes at various multinational companies. He seemed very eager to hire me because he had recently lost a teacher. When we met for a face-to-face interview, this friendly expat director made a point of explaining to me what he called the “three stages of Costa Rica”: honeymoon, hostility, and adjustment. He explained that it was normal to experience culture shock in any new place—even in a paradise such as Costa Rica—and assured me that if I remained patient and determined enough to hang on through the first six months, things would smooth out and I would feel at home in the country. I wasn’t quite sure how to take this advice, but I remembered the time frame he had mentioned: six months. He was correct. It did take about three months for me to make the decision to stay, but it was six months before I was receiving a steady income.
Within three weeks I was teaching part-time in three different language schools at once in order to have enough teaching hours to bring in a trickle of weekly income. I had the opportunity to meet many other expat teachers who were eager to share their own stories. These twenty-something through middle-forties native English speakers—mainly from North America, Europe, and Australia—had come to Costa Rica for many different reasons: some were gap year college graduates; some were surfers or travelers who were stopping in Costa Rica to make some extra cash between trips; some were in relationships with ticos or ticas and the only jobs open to them in Costa Rica were in private language schools. Many, like me, were mid-career professional teachers who wanted experience teaching abroad, to start a business, or to test the waters to see if Costa Rica could become home. And there were the retirees who wanted to do something meaningful with their extra time. All of us had come to change our lives, whether intentionally or by surprise.
|Coffee and fruit tree permaculture near Turrialba.
After I had lived in Costa Rica for about nine months I understood that there is another reason to live in the land, and perhaps the most important reason of all: to reduce our carbon footprint. I originally came to Costa Rica to experience a change of routine, to reduce stress, to live more simply. But I didn’t know that I would reduce my carbon footprint from something the size of Big Foot to the bare brush of a feather. There are very few places in the Northern Hemisphere where it is possible to live without a car for transportation, or artificial heating and cooling in our homes, not to mention hot water for showers and laundry and dishes, four types of clothing for the four distinct seasons, and the necessary excess of eating fresh produce in February. It took living in Costa Rica through the cycle of seasons to become aware of the contrasts between the shocking wastefulness of the typical North American lifestyle and the beautifully simple sustainability of Costa Rican life.
In Costa Rica, it is advisable not to have a car. The government provides an extensive bus network throughout the country, even in the most remote areas, and fares are reasonable even by Costa Rican standards. Those who depend on cars for their transportation are at a disadvantage: traffic congestion in San José makes travel sluggish, and taxation and regulations for owning and maintaining a private vehicle quickly become prohibitive.
While living the typical American life of the working adult, I longed to reconnect with my childhood pal, Nature. To my surprise, this happened in Costa Rica. If Costa Rica has a culture, it is the cult of Mother Earth. Because of the temperate climate, there are lots of windows, and they are always open. Although Dengue fever is present, typical architecture features open-air courtyards and screen-less windows. And because everything is closer and walking is the norm, the average person spends much of the day outdoors.
|The author at home at Playa Chiquita back in 2012.
Costa Rica is a narrow isthmus, which means it is possible to watch the sunrise on the Atlantic coast and reach the Pacific in time to see the sunset.
|Sunrise on the Caribbean coast.
|You can cross the isthmus to see sunrise on the Atlantic and sunset on the Pacific within the same day.
There is no need for refrigerated tractor-trailer trucks that travel 3,000 miles to reach city markets: at the weekly feria in every village, local growers bring their fresh produce within hours of harvesting. Orotina, the region where mangoes grow, is within two hours of San José; while Cartago and Turrialba, a few hours in the opposite direction, grow the cool-weather vegetables.
The typical Costa Rican diet is plant-based, including just a small portion of meat, dairy, or fish in the Daily Plate of the five food categories. The casado is the cheap, wholesome, plate of the day enjoyed by everyone—the great social equalizer. Depending on where you go, a casado can cost between $4 and $8 USD—more expensive in tourist areas—and is the principal meal of the day. (Put into context, the average wage in Costa Rica is $3.50 - $8.00 per hour. Would you pay $25 for lunch every day?)
Some of the Many Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint in Costa Rica
- People walk to the corner pulperia each day to buy the day’s groceries—including freshly baked bread and pastries.
- Produce stands and street food are everywhere, and cheap. No need to drive anywhere to buy groceries. And no food deserts.
- Because of the easy access to fresh foods, it is even possible to get along without a refrigerator or microwave.
- Every town has a weekly feria that offers everything imaginable. Produce prices have not increased substantially in the last decade; it is possible to buy all you need for $20 a trip.
|You can't help but feel happy at the weekly feria.
- Having a car is a liability; taking a bus or a taxi—or walking—is the best option. Taxi drivers are friendly, safe, and honest (mostly).
- Costa Rica is a small country that provides endless tourism options.
|Buses are named by neighborhood. Mercedes Norte is a village above Heredia. I took this bus to my job at the national university..
Energy Needs: Cooling — Heating — Cooking — Showering
- There is no need for hot water. The typical tico cooks, washes dishes and clothes, and showers in cold water. Showers have a "hot water on demand" feature that is turned on and off with each shower.
- There is no need for furnaces or air conditioners.
- Some homes and apartments have stoves equipped with ovens, but most cooking is prepared using small appliances such as hot plates, rice cookers, microwaves, and electric kettles for making coffee the tico way — with a choreador.
|Small appliances in the typical kitchen. The Spanish tortilla is a popular dish in Costa Rica, imported by Spanish expats.
- Although Costa Rica has several micro-climates, the average temperature is so mild that heavy coats or blankets are never necessary. The same clothing may be worn year-round, with the addition of a rain jacket and umbrella during the rainy season and lighter clothing during the dry season or on the coasts.
- Clothes dryers do not exist, nor do Laundromats; clotheslines are the norm (only gringos and hotels use dryers). Tico washing machines are simple to use, and every dwelling has an outdoor sink and clothesline, but if you prefer having your laundry done there are lavanderias that wash and press clothing for a premium.
- Ropa Americana thrift stores are everywhere: no need to buy new clothing or household goods, especially if you are not planning to stay permanently.
|Life goes on as usual even when it's raining.
- There is no mail delivery in Costa Rica, which means there is no stack of unwanted junk mail in your mailbox every single day. Think of how many trees have been and will be saved! The down-side to this reduction in wasted paper is the slight inconvenience of having to pay a fee for international mail service (such as Aerocasillas) if you want to receive important papers from your home country, but at least it does not send junk mail. Many expats opt for the public mail service, which is a literal “post office box” at the local post office.
In Costa Rica, simple living is the norm. Where the lives of many people in the United States involve conspicuous consumerism, the typical Costa Rican is frugal and resourceful in a way that Americans have not practiced since the Great Depression. Although it is possible to maintain a typical American lifestyle and live in a gated community, English teachers tend to live frugally from paycheck to paycheck because they are paid in Costa Rica wages. They need to conserve their money for quarterly visa renewal trips and for the two-month vacations each year.
Still Interested in Going to Costa Rica to Teach English?
Ask yourself candidly why you want to teach English in Costa Rica. What is your purpose? Attitude is everything. Those who go abroad with specific expectations are often the ones who become disillusioned and do not stay.
The ability to reduce our carbon footprint is one good reason for living in Costa Rica. Also, living abroad will change your perspective. I found myself asking big questions about what makes a person happy. How much, I asked myself, did I require to survive, and what did I need to live comfortably. You may find after a couple of years that you cannot be happy anywhere else but in Costa Rica. But beware: the cost of living is not cheap, and wages are not high; most schools advise teachers to be aware that the cost of living and the salary are equal (on average, between $700 - $1,000 a month). In other words, you will break even—if you are lucky. But in Costa Rica everyone feels lucky. One eco-lodge owner told me, “My goal is just not to go broke.”
If you still want to teach English in Costa Rica, what is the next step?
What do you need to teach English in Costa Rica?
- At least a Bachelor’s Degree
- A TESOL/TEFL Certificate from an accredited institution
- Teaching experience is preferred
- Time: A nine months’ to one-year time commitment
- Money: three to six months’ living expenses ($2,000 bare minimum)
- If you want to continue teaching or want to work at a k-12 school or a university, you must obtain a work permit, which requires extensive paperwork (see link in Resources section).
How do you get a teaching job? If you don’t have a TESOL certificate already, you have several options:
- major in TESOL/ESL
- minor in a certificate course at a university
- take an online course
- spend four to six weeks in Costa Rica at an on-site TESOL school. There are several to choose from (see links at the end of this section).
Pros and Cons to each of these Choices:
A university diploma in TESOL is with you for life and can be used anywhere in the world. If you decide to stay in Costa Rica and pursue a tenured position in a university, an equivalent diploma is required. (I did this in 2011 and now have a diploma as Maestria Profesional; a simple certificate would have disqualified me.) Taking an online certification course is convenient and less expensive than traveling to a destination TESOL school, as you can continue working and saving money in preparation for moving to Costa Rica. However, be sure the course is from an accredited institution, and be advised that some Costa Rican schools require a specific brand of certificate. For this reason, it is advisable to do some investigation before you proceed with an online course.
There are many on-site TESOL schools in Costa Rica. The advantage of obtaining your certificate this way is that it gets you there and provides some teaching experience as well as Spanish immersion. However, even though these education businesses guarantee job-finding support, things don’t always turn out as expected; by now you have spent at least a month of unpaid time away from work, not to mention money on the course and additional living expenses (a general cost estimate is $2,000 – $3,000). What if you do not get a job right away? I have heard some true stories about optimistic young teachers getting stuck in Costa Rica with no money for plane fare back home. Be advised that TESOL schools are in business to make a profit; their contracts state “no refunds.”
Where to Find a TESOL Certificate
The International TEFL Academy in Costa Rica hires graduates of their courses to teach in affiliated schools.
Oxford Seminars is a globally recognized certification course that offers online as well as on site courses in the U.S. and Canada.
You Have the Certificate, Time to Look for a Job!
Spend time searching and interviewing online. However, many good schools do not advertise, and those who do often hesitate to offer you a contract until you get there. Taking this online search path can be risky. It is common for Costa Rican schools not to answer your email queries; they expect you to apply in person.
With the on-site TESOL course, you will have the benefit of support with the job search, but since you’ve spent at least a month there, you may feel the urgency to find a job immediately. Be sure to find out whether the course ends at the right time for school hiring, and whether schools will be in full swing or winding down for the holidays. (Most k-12 schools begin in early February, so you will need to get hired by January; private language schools hire year-round, but late fall sees a drop in enrollment and slower hiring.)
Take a 3-week vacation in Costa Rica for a Spanish language immersion program. While there, you will have the opportunity to network for jobs within these schools. Many of these Spanish immersion programs have an English school component, hire Spanish school graduates, and provide an opportunity for teaching experience through extra-curricular activities. Intercultura and Instituto Estelar Bilingüe are examples of dual-language schools (see links at end).
|Intercultura is in Heredia, in the central valley.
Or you can do it in a more relaxed and organic way by taking the slow route. Take a vacation to visit different towns and regions to get an idea of where you want to live. While there, investigate the schools and teaching prospects in those areas. Then go home and wrap up your affairs, and return when you are sure you want to commit to teaching for at least one school year. Many schools do not hire teachers remotely; they expect job seekers to apply in person. If you are familiar with Costa Rica and speak Spanish, you are more likely to win their favor.
|Sixth Graders in Cahuita Complementaria.
Hybrid/Networking: Connect with a private language school online, get a tentative hire, then go there and work while you continue to look for a more permanent job elsewhere. This is what I did the first time. I began by teaching in private language schools while networking with new neighbors and friends in search of other options. After a few months, I applied at the national university and was hired to teach full-time for the following year.
If you are ready to retire, you can obtain permanent residency status by proving at least $1,000 per month lifetime income. Then, you can find a school near where you live and either volunteer or work there part-time.
When to Come to Costa Rica
|Rainy season lasts from May to November in lush Costa Rica, but has its advantages.
Some people are fortunate enough to find jobs through an exchange between educational institutions in the United States and Costa Rica, or through a volunteer organization like the Peace Corps that can eventually become a link to a paying job and residency status. But if you are striking out on your own, the best time to come to Costa Rica is between October and January when schools are hiring for the following year. The problem with this is that you may be unemployed until early February when the school year begins.
In my own experience, I was both unlucky and lucky in my choice to arrive in mid-September. Arriving in Costa Rica in the late fall means the worst of the rainy season, with heavy rainfall every single afternoon while you are out either looking for a job or walking to a class. It also means that only private language schools are hiring, but student attendance drops toward the end of the school year, which means teaching hours may be few (which is why I accepted jobs at three language schools for those first few months). However, arriving in late fall means you have plenty of time to look for teaching jobs and to decide where you want to live—as long as you have enough money to wait for several months before receiving any income. This is why anyone who wants to live and work abroad is advised to have at least three months’ savings on hand and expect to spend it all.
In the meantime, while you are putting in applications, setting up interviews, and waiting for the school year to begin, it is a good idea to get acquainted with your neighbors. Let them know you are offering classes. Teaching private students can actually be the best way to make a living in Costa Rica. While I was teaching at a university in Heredia, some neighbors were coming to my back patio several times a week for conversational English. I not only paid my rent in this way but also developed a close family friendship that has continued for a decade.
|Private students become family friends.
Where Do You Want to Live? How Do You Find Out?
|Kayakers on the Caribbean.
It is a good idea to read some Costa Rica guides and decide which region you prefer. The central valley, of course, has the most jobs and probably the highest paying opportunities, although if you teach at an international school or a university in another major city such as Liberia or Grecia, wages may be equivalent to those in San José.
Another factor in choosing to live in San José is the mild climate. While you may find a job in the Guanacaste region, the weather can be oppressive during the dry months. However, Guanacaste also has many beautiful beaches and parks within easy reach.
If you prefer living in a remote jungle and want to be involved in ecotourism, be aware that the more undeveloped regions of Costa Rica lack infrastructure so there are fewer private schools that pay more than average wages. These areas are served by volunteer programs such as the Peace Corps, where students receive sporadic English teaching, and qualified teachers cannot expect to be paid equitably. Public schools will not hire foreign teachers without a work permit, which cannot be obtained without a letter of invitation from a school—this sounds like a Catch 22, and it is! However, with the 2018 Bilingual Alliance of the Costa Rican government (see links below), the situation may become easier for expat English teachers.
What Kinds of Schools will Hire You?
- Private language schools are the most eager to hire new teachers and are always hiring.
- International and American schools hire expats. The clientele is wealthier Costa Ricans and expats; schools may favor hiring professionals with k-12 teaching credentials.
- Private preschools and bilingual k-12 schools welcome native expat teachers and may help them with the work permit process.
- Private universities that have EFL programs seek native English speakers but hire them conditionally, requiring all teachers to obtain a legal work permit within a limited time frame. Policies are strict.
- Complementarias (the equivalent of Charter Schools) are affiliated with the local public school system; but because expat parents direct the curriculum, this allows the hiring of expat teachers. Each school has different policies, depending on the director.
- Home school associations, new in Costa Rica, are seeking leadership.
- Many multi-national businesses contract private teachers for on-site classes.
- Private students are an excellent resource. If you are friendly and open-minded, you will always be in demand as an English teacher. In exchange, you will make many friends and experience the vida of Costa Rica.
Things My Students Taught Me
|Students in the Required English Class at UNA.
As a teacher, it is better not to bring along extra baggage as that can project a sense of superiority regarding American culture and language. Costa Ricans are very proud of their legacy of peace and condemn the United States for its culture of war. I assumed that English teachers did not have to know Spanish, but in fact, Costa Rican students will not respect a teacher who does not speak Spanish; bilingualism is common in Costa Rica, and teachers are supposed to be smarter than their students. I quickly learned that my role as an English teacher was as much about intercultural exchange as it was about teaching grammar and vocabulary.
Some words have no cultural equivalent. My students explained to me that the words for winter and autumn do not exist in Costa Rica, where there are only two seasons—wet and dry. A humorous way of saying this is with a pun:
“En Costa Rica, hay dos estaciones: el tren, y la lluvia.”
Two stations: the train station and the rain station (literal translation is “season” – which stays so long it seems to be stationary, unmovable).
Another insight my female students and colleagues provided me is about ticos. Costa Rican women may well be more feminist than their North American counterparts. Marriage is looked upon as optional, important mainly when it comes to owning property. These female friends did not want me to fall in love with a Costa Rican man. If you do, they warned me, first ask him three questions: 1) Do you have your own money? 2) Do you own property? 3) Do you want to live in the United States?
It is common for a Costa Rican to marry an expat for an ulterior motive. But perhaps our cultures are not so different after all, because many expats come to Costa Rica hoping to fall in love, too—with the people, and with the place.
One last thing I learned: Few people grow rich while working in Costa Rica. But there are more important things in life than money.
Constance White Foss' first experience traveling abroad was to Brazil in 2008 while researching a Master’s
thesis in Sociolinguistics. She taught family literacy and
workplace English to refugees in Louisville, Kentucky, and
Korean English teachers and Saudi Arabians in Intensive English
programs at universities. In 2009, she moved to Costa Rica,
where she taught English at the national university and several
private language schools in the central valley. Later, she
lived in the Caribbean region and taught English in bilingual
schools. In 2013 she was offered the opportunity to teach at
a university in China. In 2015, she served as an English Language
Fellow in Mexico. Although teaching has been a career, writing
about culture and the expat life is a vocation. Currently,
she is looking for an agent to publish her first book about
living and working in Costa Rica. She plans to retire to Costa