True tales of teaching abroad part two: When things go terribly wrong

(Photo by  Renato Ganoza )

Teaching English abroad can be a great experience. But take it from me, beware of placement agencies out to scam you.

It’s been said many times, by many people, that you can never go home again. After two years of teaching in Japan, I found out this was true.

Returning to Wisconsin was one of my more brutal experiences of reverse culture shock (probably because I never really loved it to begin with).

So it was no surprise that 6 months later I was booking a ticket for Santiago, Chile.

During my time in Japan, I’d learned to love the classroom more than I ever had as a student. I liked coming up with lesson plans and working with youth.

Japan had paid me well, so I took a big chunk of my savings and decided to invest it in getting a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification. In those days I was still averse to grad school so the TEFL seemed like a shorter, less painful way to get from A to B. Plus it meant I could finally travel to South America.

I got online and started researching programs. There were so many, I had no idea where to go. In the end I selected a company called Global Education Corporation because they had several programs in South America with home stay and job placements. That way I could be working and earning money while getting my certification.

An empty classroom in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by  Ryan Greenberg )
An empty classroom in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Ryan Greenberg )

In hindsight, I probably should have looked them up with the Better Business Bureau or wondered why there weren’t tons of testimonials about the company.

But I was in my twenties then and still high from the beautiful adventure of living and teaching in Japan. So I packed up my belongings and got on a plane to Santiago. My home stay family met me at the airport.

That was the only thing that went according to plan.

There were four other people in my program who arrived at the same time I did. Of those four, I was the only one fortunate enough to actually have someone meet them at the airport.

Though we had each received binders for our TEFL course, there was no actual class. I was one of the few who had a job placement, but instead of receiving a stipend of $500 a month, I was offered $80 a month. Big difference.

Also, my home stay family had been informed that I was going to stay with them for 2 weeks, not 6 months, so as you can imagine after the second week we had to have a very awkward conversation.

The timing was perfect because it also coincided with me getting robbed.

The family I was living with had hired a new cleaning lady. She went through my suitcase when I was at school and took all of my money, leaving two bills wrapped around a wad of paper, so I wouldn’t notice right away. Then she quit.

So there I was, with no money, working at a school that barely paid me, living with a family that chose to keep me out of the kindness of their heart, because not only was I not able to pay them, but the company that was supposed to be paying them never sent any money either.

This was not the experience I had in mind.

After indulging in a day of sobbing panic, I decided against begging my parents to fly me home. (Yes, returning to Wisconsin really held less appeal than being destitute in Chile.)

The next morning, I put on my classiest business suit, printed out my resume and walked from one end of Providencia to the other until I had secured a second job. A week later I got a third job.

The author (center) with friends she made in Santiago. (Photo courtesy Reagan Jackson)
The author (center) with friends she made in Santiago. (Photo courtesy Reagan Jackson)

For the next 6 months, I worked about 6 days a week, up to 12 hours a day tandem teaching at a private high school, giving small group all-age lessons at an English Institute, and singing songs in English with some very energetic Kindergarteners.

The Institute where I worked served everyone from businessmen to retirees to high school students. Mostly I taught small group classes. I would receive a list of the class levels that I would be teaching that day with a stack of files on each student on what they had studied. Then I would have five minutes to figure out the least common denominator of what they already learned and to plan an hour long lesson.

There were days where I would get through the first five minutes and have a student say “I did that last time” which meant I had to completely come up with a new class on the spot. And then there were my high school classes and my darling Kindergarteners with so much energy and zero attention span. I began to dream of dry erase boards or verb conjugations.

Some days I would teach a half day at the high school and then have 6 classes in a row at the Institute with barely time to go to the bathroom. I would sprint to the subway station to make the very last train to the bus, just to walk the rest of the way home, too tired too be scared of what danger lay in wait for me in the dark. All of this and I was making less than WA state minimum wage.

I have never worked harder for less, but I learned some lessons I will never forget:

1. Always do the extra research. Always talk to people who have been through the program. Any reputable program should be able to provide you with a list of alumni who can tell you what it’s really like.

2. Always show love to any teacher you meet. It is not easy.

3. I can survive anything.

Check out True tales of teaching abroad part one: Why it’s worth it


  1. What a great story! I’ve had similar experiences but not quite as intense and not all coming at the same time – I think you did really well to stick it out and make it work! Great article!

  2. A very good piece that should serve as a cautionary tale of what can happen when you’re not in Kansas anymore…or Wisconsin. Still, as you say, the experiences, even the unpleasant ones (maybe especially the unpleasant ones), are invaluable.

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