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So You Want to Teach in Argentina, Do You?
Report From Buenos Aires on the Current Situation

Caroline GwatkinCaroline Gwatkin has trained teachers, lectured extensively and published in Argentina since 1981, when she arrived there from the United Kingdom. In 1990, she opened "The Place," offering general English for adolescents and ESP courses for adults. Ms. Gwatkin is also the co-founder of the "Advanced Studies Centre," a teacher development centre which offers internationally validated courses for teachers, including distance in-service and online e-mail modules in Argentina and abroad. She has worked as an examiner for both the Cambridge Examinations Syndicate and the British Council. Ms. Gwatkin has a Dip. Ed. and an R.S.A. in TEFL.

When I first arrived in Argentina in the early 1980s just at the end of the military dictatorship, I had a romantic notion that I was coming to the country of 'fiestas and siestas'. The streets were clean, no begging, and I didn't come across a shantytown during the first year I was here. In those days the fact of being a 'native speaker' guaranteed work, whether one was qualified to teach or not. There was an institute on almost every street corner, demand for classes was phenomenal and it was possible to pick and choose classes and/or students. The EFL market was huge and growing by the minute! My first inflation-linked salary was around 5 million pesos, rents were cheap, eating out the norm and I felt on top of the world!

Nowadays Argentina hits the headlines either playing football or when things really get out of hand. As a result, instead of being famous for barbecues and red wine, world-wide TV audiences see Spanish food packages being held up by red tape (bribes) in the ports and rotting on wharves. The scandalous double-dealings with the IMF show up the sleazy side of the money market tarnishing the whole population as a band of brigands out to line their pockets with public money. Things have changed since the early eighties; with unemployment running at around 35% (today's figure) it is normal to be asked for money in the street, on trains, in cafes, in fact just about anywhere. Add to this the manipulations and wrong doings of unscrupulous politicians and one has the receipt for economic disaster.

Yet life goes on, how one sees a problem has a great deal to do with how one sets about solving it. The case of the freelance EFL teacher paints a very different picture. Most freelancers work in a number of different places, becoming what are commonly known as 'taxi teachers' (though most of them cannot afford taxis these days, but use public transport). Rushing from one place to another, teaching a variety of levels and age groups, lugging books around and trying always to start classes with a smile is no easy task. To cut down on stress and insecurity teachers split their time between institutes and private classes. If it is true to say that you are judged by the people you are connected with, then the first hurdle for the freelance EFL teacher is choosing where to work. In general, institutes advertise for staff in local English language newspapers or professional magazines, though most rely on referrals and recommendations. As yet there are very few organisations in Argentina that institutes can join in order to ensure quality of service and employment.

Gone are the 'Golden Days' (Thank God) when anybody who happened to speak English could start 'teaching'. An increasingly demanding and sophisticated market is the consequence of better-informed clients. 'Travellers of the South American Trail', a euphemism for backpackers, can no longer pick up easy teaching, except perhaps with schools or institutes that pay 'in black': that is to say, illegally, or those who want 'a native' for 'conversation practice'. These places usually pay very low fees, cut corners as well as costs, and teachers often work long hours only to find that, at the end of the day, the institution cannot, or will not pay them.

So what information does an EFL teacher need before coming here? Let's start with a little bit of 'background' concerning working conditions. The academic year begins in March/April and ends in November/ December, which of course clashes drastically with that of the US and the UK. Teachers arriving in July onwards have very little hope of getting regular work but those arriving in February have time to get their papers in order and attend interviews. "Oh-oh! Papers!" I can hear you saying to yourself. Argentine Consulates in most countries will insist that the only way to be able to work here is on a contract from an education institution, the original of which has to be presented to them to confirm their authenticity. In theory this is true. What is not mentioned is that only the top bilingual schools will contract staff from abroad (there are about seven of them) and International House! At the moment there is a loophole in the law which is exploitable by foreign teachers. To cut a long story short, it is much easier to arrange work papers here.

The country is divided into two main geographical areas, teaching in the provinces and teaching in the capital, Buenos Aires. This in turn is divided into two main types of work, teaching in private schools and teaching in private institutes. Teaching in the state sector is not really feasible as one needs an 'official' i.e. national teaching certificate and the rates of pay are abysmal (approx. 400 pesos p/m). This dual system affects everything; conditions of work, rates of pay, levels to teach and, more importantly, students' reasons for learning the language.

Another difficulty is housing. Apartments are rented on two-year contracts backed by one, sometimes two local guarantors. The cost is approximately (depending on the area) 450 pesos p/m for two rooms. Without two local guarantors it is almost impossible to rent. This leaves various alternatives: (a) sharing (not very common), (b) renting a room in a private house, costing approximately 400 pesos p/m (becoming more common), or (c) renting a room in a student hostel, cost approximately 330 pesos p/m (which is what most people do).

Up to last year getting part time freelance employment in Buenos Aires was quite easy for those who had the necessary teaching skills to offer. But, at the time of writing (30/5/2002) this is, to quote a colleague, "... a country which is in 'flames'. Last December one US dollar = one Argentine peso. Nowadays one dollar is 3 or 4 pesos or maybe 5 pesos on Monday. This may sound crazy but it's real." This volatile economic situation is affecting every sector; some parents, finding that they are unable to continue to pay school fees stop doing so, knowing that schools are bound by law to keep students until the end of the academic year. The schools then lacking funds fall behind with salaries, leaving teachers with a dilemma.. to continue in the hope of getting paid one day, or cut their losses and look for another job.

This is not the case with institutes; theirs is a different reality. Many of the smaller ones are offering courses at half price in order to keep the classrooms full and keep their teachers in employment. Most institutes which specialize in executive teaching are finding that through company downsizing (45% in the banking sector, 70% in advertising), small and medium sized companies going to the wall and foreign investment pulling out, the EFL work load has dropped by up to 80%. Freelance teachers are having to fall back on 'private classes' taught in homes, cafes and the like. Many of these well-established teachers engender strong client loyalty through low prices and individual attention. This is the sector which is doing well.

So why are we EFL teachers still here? Dealing with crisis situations really shows the true character of a nation. My clients are wonderful in the way they cope with the rapidly changing situation and they are as open, spontaneous and generous as they have always been. There is nothing that can keep the Latin temperament down for long! Self help groups have sprung up in every walk of life. The one we run at the institute is ironically called 'Monthly Surgery', it's where everyone helps and shares and gives support where needed. But most important of all, English language teachers can make a difference. In a country which has no unemployment or social security benefits we can, through our classes, give people the tools they need to have the opportunity to stay in work and keep their families together. We can improve people's ability to communicate with the rest of the world and in doing so create tolerance for others, understanding of differences and acceptance of new ideas. In other words, we can touch their lives forever.

By Caroline Gwatkin
Buenos Aires, Argentina

2002 ESL MiniConference Online