Opinion

Can I actually live comfortably in Santiago teaching English?

To make light of the risks of trying to establish yourself as an English teacher in Santiago can be detrimental or, at the very least, unfair to someone who’s trying to make a rational decision about uprooting their life to move here.

I like Santiago. I really do. I genuinely enjoy the people, the culture, and the language. The truth is, I don’t want to sugarcoat the challenges of moving here and teaching English. To make light of the risks of trying to establish yourself as an English teacher in Santiago can be detrimental or, at the very least, unfair to someone who’s trying to make a rational decision about uprooting their life to move here.

First, finding work at an institute is super easy if…

You are from an English-speaking country and have a bachelor’s degree and TEFL certification. Starting out with a quality institute and a full class load of 24 hours, you can earn up to 960.000 CLP/month (approx. $1540 USD) if you’re working for a good institute. Not bad, considering renting a room in a shared apartment in a safe, comfortable part of the city only puts you out about $400 USD a month. If you can take home that 960.000 CLP every month, life is good. You can order all of the pisco sours and afford all of the vacations to the south that your heart desires (well, within reason).

However…

What if you aren’t a native English speaker, you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, and/or you move to Santiago in the middle of the school year? The cards might be stacked against you, and out of desperation, you could very well find yourself working for a real sleazehole. Those 24 classroom hours might only fetch you 480.000 CLP/month (approx. $770 USD). Many institutes simply won’t consider candidates who aren’t native English speakers, even if those teacher candidates are highly qualified. It sucks, but for many Chilean students, it’s all about achieving that perfect accent.

I know you might be thinking…

24 classroom hours is full time? Sounds like a walk in the park! Actually, when you factor in the class prep time (many institutes don’t provide you with curriculum) and travel time on public transportation that you’re often not reimbursed for, a 1.5-hour class suddenly becomes 4 hours of your day.

Even if you have a full course load with a good institute, you’re going to get hit with some unavoidable, hefty fees. If you’re lucky enough to work for an institute that helps you acquire a temporary residency visa, you’ll pay the equivalent of $470 USD if you’re a U.S. citizen*. And that visa is only valid for one year. I also had to pay for the privilege of working legally while waiting for that visa to be processed (another $300 USD), though as of April 2018 this is no longer an option.

If you’re unlucky enough to get hit with a string of illnesses much like I did and many newcomers do in the first few months after arrival, expect to pay 30.000 CLP or so for a doctor’s visit (not bad compared to an uninsured visit to the doc in the U.S., but on a teacher’s salary forking over even pocket change can be painful). And, though rent is reasonable, in other ways—such as eating out and buying clothing/necessities—the cost of living in Santiago is surprisingly high. A growing economy in Santiago means the U.S. dollar doesn’t stretch as far as it might in, say, Colombia or Peru.

I want to emphasize that the take-home pay you receive each month is very inconsistent, usually by no fault of the institute. Students will cancel on you, often last minute. Such is the nature of working with adult professionals: everyone wants to learn English, but very few can actually make it a priority. They have family emergencies and impromptu business engagements. Like normal people, they celebrate national holidays and take family vacations. And some students are just downright flaky. It’s a rare week that I actually meet with every single student as previously scheduled. The bottom line is, that 960.000 CLP a month? Don’t count on it.

Fortunately, your institute and your students don’t have to govern you. Maybe you felt like a pawn in your home country, but you are in charge of your own success or failure in Santiago. There are plenty of ways to make money on the side if you’re creative, persistent, and entrepreneurial. I have friends who teach for online companies without leaving the comfort of their apartments. I have friends who do freelance copywriting. I have friends who teach yoga classes. And I have friends who drummed up enough private students that they were able to part ways with the institute and go solo or even start their own institutes. The beautiful thing about Santiago is that it embraces this entrepreneurial spirit. But, you do have to hustle.

If you don’t have a cushion of savings that you can dip into for unexpected expenses or during slow teaching months, or if you’re paying off debt, you might want to reconsider Santiago. If your objective is to live comfortably and save money while teaching, you’re better off heading to China or South Korea. However, if you have a few thousand in savings that you can fall back on, are looking for a good, first-world standard of living in a bustling metropolitan, and want a home base while you affordably explore South America, Santiago might be your best bet in Latin America.

In short, my advice? Finish your bachelor’s degree, save your money before heading to Santiago and hustle once you get here.

 

*Data accurate as of February 2018

 

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