Teaching as a “Paid Volunteer”

A visit to Monte Albán during a long-weekend trip to Oaxaca with my co-teachers. Caroline Cassard

Written by  April 20, 2017

It sounds oxymoronic. Full-time "employment" for minimal pay? Here's how it works.

"Well, technically. . ."

This is how I begin my response to the work question. I tell my friends at home that I’m teaching in Mexico. I tell new friends in Mexico that I’m volunteering. The truth is, I’m a “paid volunteer” for an English language program. This means that I live with a host family (a trade with the school so that one of the children receives free tuition), and I’m given a meagre weekly stipend. It’s just enough to live off of, covering food, bus fare, and a few beers on the weekend—but not enough to buy a new outfit if I spill a tacos contents down the front of my shirt during my lunch break. (In the latter scenario, I’ll have to flip the tank top inside out and layer it with someone else’s cardigan.)

I floated around a lot last year: teaching children, teens, and adults in Medellín, Colombia in a shuffled-together schedule at two language academies and privately arranged lessons at a bank. Then I made my way to Panama to volunteer-teach in an indigenous community. To cover the costs, I supplemented my income (or lack thereof) by teaching online courses through a company called Cambly.

Now, I’m one of few resident gringos in a tiny city south of Mexico City called Tehuacán. On paper, I’m pretending to be a tourist. Schools will often pay in cash to avoid the visa hassle. No foreign bank account, no extra fees. Is it a secure long-term job? No. But for new teachers looking to gain valuable industry experience and hesitant to commit to year or two-year contracts, it’s a comfortable, albeit ironic, option.

While any school will boast about opportunities for “professional development,” I honestly feel that I lucked out, and my resume is expanding. Here’s what my day looks like:

I teach at a private high school in the mornings, with a curriculum modelled after that of IB (International Baccalaureate) which is an methodology used in international schools. IB is an entirely new course design for me. This means I have to consider factual, conceptual, and debatable questions for my students while modelling the course with a global context that is also applicable to teenagers’ individual lives. Oh, and I’m preparing students for the Cambridge exam (a new test format that I hadn’t had the opportunity to instruct previously). In other words, while I’m getting the hang of this curriculum, the course planning is devouring my time.

It’s a lot of work (and at times, messy) for very little cash. But at the end of the day, I’m also in Mexico.

In the evening, I teach advanced level courses using Gateway textbooks, and later on, instruct a TOEFL prep course (another exam I’d had to become familiar with quite quickly). For a few weeks, I even tutored an ILETS student. Between my mornings and evenings, that makes for three curricula and instruction in three different standardized tests. If I’m not careful to take time for myself, it’s easy to let a full 12-hour day pass, spending every free moment teaching myself so that I can turn around and teach others.

It’s a lot of work (and at times, messy) for very little cash. But at the end of the day, I’m also in Mexico. I get to see ruins, visit pyramids and waterfalls, eat spicy foods, and work with an incredible team of teachers from all over—like Scotland, Romania, and the Czech Republic, for starters. I get to practice my Spanish and test my navigational skills on a solo trip during spring break. And as I remind myself, I’m only 23. I’m new to this, and just like my students, I’m figuring it out, day by day.

For now, this confusing “paid volunteer” status is working for me. And the lovely thing about travelling and teaching abroad is that when you feel that you’ve outgrown a position, a school or a city, it’s okay to leave. There’s always something new ahead.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Caroline Cassard

Caroline Cassard is a travel and food-enthused English language teacher from the U.S. Excited to explore Latin America and beyond, she scavenges for vegetarian meals and attempts to pick up the local language between classes.

Website: carocrunch.com

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