Teaching English in Costa Rica: Teresa

Rainbow looking out on the community of Cerro Plano from Teresa’s bedroom window

After studying the Spanish language at Swarthmore College, Teresa Kelley relocated to the lush mountains of Costa Rica to teach English. Teresa shares her experience of working in an environmentally-minded school, navigating the country’s public health system, enjoying both salsa and English country dancing, and soaking up all the greenery in the well-named town of Monteverde.

Teresa, how did you end up teaching English in Costa Rica? Was it difficult to find a position?

I wanted to teach at a bilingual school in Latin America, and a professor of mine recommended the Cloud Forest School, since Swarthmore College’s education department was developing a study abroad program there. I applied directly to the school as a full-time teacher, and was hired to teach ESL to students who were newly enrolled in the school and needed more support in English to be successful at higher levels.

A strangler fig; these trees grow around a host tree,
which eventually dies and leaves them hollow

Exciting! I’m very curious to hear about your work at a bilingual school. How was the school system structured? (I.e. schedule, dress code, course offerings, extracurricular activities, etc.)

The Cloud Forest School (CEC by its Spanish initials) was on its own schedule, starting in late August, and we had roughly six weeks on and one week off through June.

In pre-school, classes were co-taught by a Costa Rican and a native English teacher.

In the Escuela (1-6), the lead teacher responsible for reading, writing, math, science and social studies was a native English speaker, and all classes were in English. Students also spent time daily with their (Costa Rican) Spanish and Civics teacher (two shared across the Escuela level), and the PE teacher was also Spanish. CEC has an environmental focus. An English-speaking Environmental Education coordinator and Costa Rican land steward developed activities for students to learn about their unique ecosystem, including hands-on work in reforestation around the school’s campus.

In the Colegio (7-11), each subject was taught by a different teacher, with English, Math, Science and Environmental Education taught in English. Spanish, Civics/Social Studies, and P.E. were taught in Spanish.

School uniforms were any golf shirt or t-shirt with the school logo, and generally jeans and sneakers. Typically, blue in the escuela and green in the colegio, but there was a rainbow of colors: teal, black, pink, orange…

Bastoneras practicing for the 15 de septiembre parade in school uniform

There were not really after-school activities, since students were bused in and out from around the mountain. Wednesday afternoon in the colegio was time for talleres (workshops), which drew on teachers and volunteers from the area to teach things like drama, journalism, art, music, etc. For the first month of school, classes ended early to give time for the band to practice for the Independence Day parade on September fifteenth.

Lighting the torch to celebrate Independence Day. This is run from
Guatemala to Costa Rica to symbolize the news of independence
traveling through Central America. Students from each school drive
down to the Panamerican highway to meet the torch, and take turns
running it up the mountain throughout the night. There is a ceremony
in the town center, then it is run to each school, and guarded by
students in shifts throughout the day.

It’s interesting that, in addition, to offering bilingual education, the school had a clear emphasis on environmentalism. How common is bilingual education in Costa Rica? What sort of students went to your school?

There was another private bilingual school in the town of Monteverde, and all Costa Rican students are required to study English and pass a national test in order to graduate. (See Teresa’s blog post on English in Monteverde here.) There is a strong emphasis on learning English, since it is a clear link to better job opportunities. We had a range of students, from wealthy to scholarship students. Our school benefitted from a U.S.-based foundation that was able to support many families. A lot of families worked in the tourism industry around Monteverde (in restaurants, hotels, or zip line tours), but not all.

What ages or levels did you teach? Did you also give private English lessons?

I worked with students from first through tenth grade individually or in groups of up to six. Initially, I did a lot more pull-out classes with students who were newly enrolled, and I transitioned into more in-class support. I also taught some of the Costa Rican staff after school, and I did some private lessons with a university student doing a correspondence course and a middle schooler doing home schooling via France’s educational system (his mom was French).

Whew, you were busy! What activities did you participate in when you had free time? Also, where did you live? 

I lived in a cabina, then a small two-story house at the bottom of the school’s hill. I shared with two other U.S. teachers. I liked to go on walks, cook, bake, have potlucks, play ultimate Frisbee, salsa at one of three bars, and English country dance at the Quaker meeting house. During the week-long vacations, I would often travel with other teachers off the mountain to see some of the beaches around the country.

Teresa’s classroom: each class was a separate building, and the “hallways”
were dirt and gravel paths

Wow, English country dancing in Costa Rica? I never would have guessed you would list that! When you weren’t enjoying beaches, Frisbee games, and salsa-ing, what things did you miss from home? On the other hand, what are the things you now miss about Costa Rica?

From the U.S., I missed people most. I missed the fall, and leaves changing colors. Monteverde really lives up to its name. There are loads of trees, and they are GREEN. And I missed having easy access to whatever I might want to buy at the store, and fast internet connection.

Things I miss about Costa Rica, again are the people. I miss having really excellent tropical fruits (mangos!), and walking through dairy farms for Mary Rockwell’s homemade peanut butter. I miss the almost daily rainbows. I miss climbing up strangler fig trees, and wandering in the woods. My friend Dana visited for a few months and volunteered at the Butterfly Garden. She wrote this song, Unpaved Road, inspired by her time in Monteverde.

Teresa picking out fresh mangos from the weekly farmers’ market in a public school gym

What were some of your most challenging moments abroad?

The most challenging was probably getting sick and navigating the system at the public Clínica. You had to get up early and get in line in order to get an appointment and come back later in the day. If you had an emergency, there was a shorter waiting area. I’d liken it to having to go to the ER at a U.S. hospital, lots of waiting and not a whole lot of information when you do get to see a doctor. Then, they write your prescription and you can pick it up at the pharmacy window. Just about every time I went, I was prescribed a shot of steroids in the butt (You have a sore throat? Steroids. Swollen eye? Steroids.), which was a different line to wait in. I skipped that step when I had to visit again. As confusing as it was, I was thankful that it was free.

Yikes! That’s a handy tip; what general advice do you have for teachers interested in working in Costa Rica?

There is no nationalized government program like the teaching assistants in Europe or Japan’s JET program. As an un-certified teacher, you can apply as a volunteer (and often pay to do so), and there are programs for this. As a certified teacher, you can find postings by individual schools; check Idealist or Costa Rica’s Craiglist.

Finally, can you tell us a funny anecdote about a classroom situation?

Teachers go by their first names in Costa Rica, and for the first few days, my tenth grade students would repeat my name in what sounded like an exaggerated English accent and start laughing. At first, I assumed they were amused by a familiar name pronounced with different vowels. Then, I realized that my pronunciation sounds like the Spanish “tu risa” (your laughter). My students stretched this a bit farther and called me “Tu ja ja”.

Teresa shows that strangler figs are perfect for climbing

Many thanks to Teresa for sharing her experience teaching at a bilingual school in Costa Rica. Check out thoughts from her year abroad on her blog entitled–what else?–Tu Risa. Pura vida!

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  1. This is awesome! Thanks so much for posting this. I want to make it to central or south america eventually to teach EFL… I’ll keep this in mind when I start the job search.

    Pura vida !!

  2. Paul Davidson

    Thanks for the excellent post! I’m interested in teaching there and this was handy information, Any chance you could post how much you made?

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