TEFL Success Stories – Part 14


There appears to be a divide between the experiences of the other South American contributors to this section. On the one hand, native teachers having to contend with apathy in their public school classes due to poverty, and finding the need to instil motivation an integral part of teaching. On the other, TEFL teachers from overseas working in large private institutes where the only necessary motivation is results. My experiences in Bolivia come somewhere in the middle of this divide.

There is obviously a great deal of poverty in Bolivia, and for most, learning English is of minor importance. The poorest are the indigenous campesinos who number half the population and speak the native languages of Aymara and Quechua. When they come to the cities they settle on the outskirts and are generally employed in street trade. Learning Spanish is their main concern. English is of little use to the majority so they don’t learn it. In fact, many of the poorer children forego education entirely to earn a living on the streets.


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Of the Spanish speaking population, most have a little money and a family home. Only those involved in government are truly rich. Although not troubled by poverty, even people in respected professions such as law or medicine earn comparatively little and can afford few luxuries. This, I soon learned, extends to English textbooks, which I could not afford either on my teacher’s wages.

Few will get the opportunity to leave Bolivia, and out with the top Government jobs, or tourism or teaching, there is little requirement for English. Yet people do learn, mainly for reasons of self-improvement or prestige. English is studied only at very low levels, or not at all, in public schools, so they have to go to independent English schools.

As results are usually more for personal satisfaction than academic purposes, motivation is largely based on ones own determination to do well. Coupled with the Latino laid-back tendency, this manifests itself in students’ behaviour. Most will wait until two weeks into the term to enrol, and when they have, will not think it strange to miss several classes or arrive up to half an hour into a lesson. I also soon found that many were not used to a class where they had to do some of the work themselves. They wanted to be told everything.

I travelled to Bolivia without a job lined up. I knew it was the poorest country in South America and that wages would be comparatively low, yet I assumed that jobs would be relatively easy to come by. In fact, there were fewer schools than I imagined. A handful of larger private institutes – and therefore the best employment and pay prospects – exist in the largest population centres of La Paz, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, especially the capital. I headed instead for the relative tranquillity and blissful climate of Sucre. Despite the grandeur of its colonial centre, the old capital is much poorer than its larger neighbours, with little industry and high unemployment. Even so, as the so-called student capital of Bolivia I was surprised to find only three potential places to teach, and no daytime hours.

One noble venture was specifically set up to teach the less well off for the purposes of tourism, such as taxi drivers. However it can only afford to pay $0.60 an hour – not nearly enough to live on as a foreigner, and I had to leave it to untrained volunteers. The place to try, they said, was the “rich kids’ school” – the Centro Boliviano Americano.

There is a CBA in every major city so it’s one of the best places to look for work, especially if you want to travel in-between, although wages may vary. Despite being termed rich, even here the students all use photocopies of the textbooks, as the originals are too expensive. It’s mainly for children, whose parents send them to every conceivable after school class. After a long school day, with results largely unimportant to their academic record and using out of date books, motivation is unsurprisingly lacking. It is certainly a challenge holding the attention of children who are too young to appreciate the opportunities they have, and would rather be playing.

Finally, there are extension courses at the university. Open to all, teenagers, students or professionals, they charge only a token amount, as universities are largely state funded. There are limited teaching hours available, but by far the best wages in town. Although lower levels follow books, at more advanced levels there isn’t a strict syllabus and you are free to create your own exams based on what you have done. I was lucky enough to become the first native speaker to teach there and it is a highly recommended institution, both for students and teachers.


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