Number one for English language teachers

Mexico: Working and living

Mark Arthur falls in love with the colonial architecture of Queretaro but leaves his heart in Morelia.

I arrived in Mexico in the summer of 2000 fresh from a Trinity TESL course. I’d taken a job in the city of Queretaro in central Mexico after a 20-minute telephone interview with the school's Swiss owner. I didn’t really know what to expect but was just looking forward to something new…something different.

On arrival in Queretaro I was amazed. I found myself in one of the most beautiful cities I’d ever been in - full of beautiful Spanish colonial architecture, terrace bars and restaurants, plazas with ample seating and beautiful fountains full of families in the evenings, narrow winding streets with vendors selling all kinds food and local handcrafts and grand old houses with beautiful, open 'patios'. With so much history around me, it felt like I was walking around a movie set. I felt incredibly lucky to have ended up in such a place but was soon to find out that Mexico is full of equally wonderful cities.

At 7am Monday morning however, I remembered that I was here to work. The school was smaller than I’d expected, as was the system of teaching. I was told that I’d be teaching classes of no more than four students of more or less the same level but that they’d probably each be doing a different chapter from the book. Later, I came to realize that buzz words or phrases in the marketing English institutes in Mexico are 'native teachers' and 'small classes' and that various other schools in the city offered very similar systems.

The first few weeks flew by trying to teach three or four different grammar topics in one hour. After a month it felt like I’d taught everything in the book. I realized that in fact it was impossible for a student to possibly understand how we use, for example, the present perfect simple after their 15 minute explanation from me but that this wasn’t my problem. Too keep myself motivated I started trying to think of imaginative, 'student centred' ways to present the topics and thus keep the students engaged even if they weren’t exactly learning what I was supposed to teach them.

Within the first month the school converted my FMT tourist visa to an FM3 working visa and paid the $1700 pesos to the immigration department. I would just say to anyone who is thinking of coming here to get your TEFL certificate, birth certificate and degree certificate notarized back home first otherwise you won’t get the visa.

Furthermore, I was getting paid my $6000 pesos per month on time and occasionally received a bonus. The pay was enough to rent a room in a house in a good neighborhood, eat out several times a week and go out at the weekends. I couldn’t save too much and couldn’t travel very far, but that didn’t matter too much as I had no time to go anywhere.

The students were great and I made some good friends. They ranged from business professionals, university and high school students to bored housewives. The small classes meant that I was able to get to know some of them quite well. I found myself invited to all kinds of parties and celebrations and got a great insight into Mexican life (at least an affluent, middle class version).

In general my students seemed quite motivated – most of them needed English to find good jobs or to enhance their chances of promotion in their existing jobs. The demand for English as a foreign language in Mexico stems the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. NAFTA meant that many north American companies set up plants the in industrial areas of Mexico such as Monterrey in the north, Mexico City, and the Bajio region in central Mexico which encompasses the cities of Queretaro, Leon and Celaya.

The only problem was that I was exhausted after teaching 8 hours a day plus Saturday mornings. The shifts were split; the mornings began at 7am and the afternoons ran until 9pm. I also began to notice that the morale amongst the staff was pretty low. Everyone felt the same about the system and the hours. As the months went by, teachers came and went…few stuck out their year contracts. I kept working, realizing that the system at the school wasn’t the greatest but that I was learning a bit of Spanish, traveling a little and getting to know the local area and its people. I’d taken a risk going there, my relationship with my boss was good and I was enjoying life.

After a year, strangely, I found myself as the most experienced teacher in the school just because I’d stuck it out. My boss offered me the opportunity to become the academic director of one of his new schools in the smaller city of Celaya, which is about 45 minutes from Queretaro. My pay was doubled but the hours got longer. More money meant I could rent my own apartment and live more like I would back in England. It also meant that my Spanish got a kick start as I suddenly became responsible for selling courses when people came in for information and dealing with my secretary who didn’t speak any English. On the plus side, it gave me an opportunity to shape the teaching system and change some of the materials and more generally develop a more effective learning environment.

Another year went by and things were good. My boss asked me to move to Morelia, another beautiful colonial city three hours away, and open a new school for him. I got another pay rise. Once again I found myself in another beautiful place, this time closer to the pacific coast. Things were good. I realized that I’d got lucky in Mexico.

After a year in Morelia I returned to Queretaro, back where I’d started. This time I was to work as a teacher trainer. I did for six months but realized that my heart was still in Morelia. In February 2004 I returned to Morelia and started working freelance, teaching business English in-company and running TOEFL preparation courses in the evening. Mexico has been good to me and is a wonderful country to live and work in. The historic cities have beautiful colonial architecture, there are mountain ranges, forests, jungle and desert-like climates. There are beaches to cater for all tastes, from undeveloped virgin stretches of coasts to luxury resorts. Traveling long distance in Mexico by bus is cheap and comfortable, although not always fast, which means that teachers here are able to really enjoy what Mexico has to offer. Mexican culture is rich in variety which manifests itself in the countless festivals and national holidays such as the Day of the Dead and Independence Day. The people are warm and friendly although more conservative and religious than I’d imagined and are very family-centered. Sadly, there is a deep divide between the rich and the poor. English classes in private institutes are obviously for the better off and this means that living and working in affluent neighbourhoods where most institutes are situated. This gives you a rather unbalanced view of life here.

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