As an ESL teacher with some experience teaching abroad, I would like to share with you my experience of this program. It is a good program to do whether you are a newly certified ESL teacher, or a seasoned one. It brings together a good amount of teaching time, with the community life in Costa Rica, and the knowledge that you are making a real difference in students lives. It’s great to see the students being enthusiastic and learning, they want to do their best and you are helping them to make the most out of a great situation. They get to learn English through the Costa Rican government, and you are helping them achieve this and more with the opportunities the language will provide them in the future. I was already in Central America when I was informed about this opportunity, and was very happy to begin on a new adventure!
It is still a very new program. The interview process, and submission of documents were simple and fast. It was done through Greenheart travel and I was assisted by Lauren, she was very friendly and helpful and I received some introduction materials prior to the start of the program. There were a lot of useful materials in there and good guidelines for what to expect while in Costa Rica. If it is your first time travelling overseas, it will be super useful for you, but even as a seasoned traveller I found the information very good. I liked how the insurance and housing is provided within the program too. The only thing you need to worry about is your teaching.
Once the program had started, I went to San Jose to do the orientation. The orientation and program are run by an organisation called Aliarse in Costa Rica. It is still a new program so some of the pieces are still being put together. You will be told about your placement location and host family during the orientation. The orientation itself was detailed and we were told what to expect in the classroom, and were given lesson plans. We also had the opportunity to print our resources ready for the first week. We had a mock lesson with opportunities for feedback on our teaching methods, which was also very useful.
I liked that they were putting a good emphasis on the overall needs of the student because they really wanted their students to succeed and stay in the program and to also help them once the program finished in securing a job. I really like that this was a socially responsible program, and it is what the heart of volunteering is all about. I believed in the work that I was about to do, so I was feeling excited to do it!
With that said, we were told that our orientation would be for one week, but it was actually quite rushed, and within the second day I was told I’d be reaching my placement location - the very NEXT day ready to teach! We left early enough to reach my town and begin teaching straight away, it was quite overwhelming being taken to my placement that quickly. Additionally, the host family that I would stay with were also not confirmed until after we reached my placement town.
What the lessons are like:
Once we arrived in my placement location, I was introduced to my class and the rules were explained to the students in Spanish. (TIP: It’s going to be the best thing for you to learn at least a basic level of Spanish, even though you will learn very quickly while here, it’s going to be a greater experience if you already have an understanding of the language. Babbel and Duo lingo are good and easy ways to learn, but ideally you should practise your Spanish with a teacher before submersing yourself in this experience in Central America.)
The teaching materials are all provided through the program. Lesson plans are ready and there are many good materials for you to use. You can come in as a complete beginner with little experience, and still have the plans laid out waiting for you, you need to personalise them of course to make the best of the lesson ;)
You are teaching on average a total of 6 hours a day, with breaks as well. You teach four days a week, with Friday’s for planning and making copies of materials for the students. You can expect to do a lot of planning and marking, it is a full workload for sure. The cost of the copies are provided for by the organisation as well as the transport to the school so you don’t have other costs. I chose to walk to my school in the mornings because that was my preference in the little hilly town where I stayed.
The people of Costa Rica are very “Pura vida” :) That means relaxed and easy going. They all are warm and good folks. When I entered my host family’s place, it was a nice feeling when we were welcomed with breakfast. And while getting to know them on my first day, they picked me up from my classroom to have lunch with them at home on my lunch break and then dropped me back to class. They were a big family of four, and very festive and loud. They loved singing and karaoke, and are a musical family with many dogs and one cat! I loved how they all got together to do things like that. You are treated like one of their own, and introduced to many more family members, grandfathers, uncles, cousins and so on.
With many international exchanges, it’s completely normal to sometimes have a miscommunication if you aren’t completely fluent in the host language. My program director and social worker were really helpful to me in a situation where there was some misunderstanding. It was nice to know that I would have help here, when you are in a new country without your regular support systems in place, it can be a little bit tricky to understand how to navigate situations. You’re in a new culture, with new folks, and many new customs to understand, and of course it is a lot to understand! They were available for me to talk to if I needed that. My host family showed me Tamale’s which are a traditional special occasion food eaten in Costa Rica, and I showed them Pavlova, a dessert from New Zealand where I am from.
One of the things that appealed to me about this program was that you were not going to be placed alone. I really liked that we would have a social worker and an English co-ordinator in the classroom, and also one other fellow volunteer in the same town as you. I was happy about that! So far, in my town I am actually the only volunteer here and it wasn’t until a few weeks after starting that my social worker arrived in my placement town. We don’t have an English co-ordinator either. It is still a very new program so I can understand that some of the things are not yet in place, however it was very difficult for me in the first few weeks of starting this program. I didn’t know anyone here, my Spanish is not perfect and I was the only person in the classroom, it is a lot of work - and without the support in the beginning it was very hard. It was different to what I was told we would have in the program. I think that this might change as more pieces come together in future, and I also know that in other placement towns that there are more volunteers.
If you speak Spanish, are interested about teaching English to adults that want to learn and will do all they can to study AND if you are excited about travelling to a “pura vida” place like Costa Rica, I think that you will have a good time :) Keep in mind it is a new program, and things are still happening for the better. You will have a good time, and have a fun experience. Gracias!