Confessions of a Former English Teacher

As my current tax season job winds to a close, I am reminded of the fact that just one year ago, I was waking up at 4:30 every morning to begin the arduous commute to my rewarding, but short-lived, job as an English teacher in Mexico City.

I have mentioned that job before in passing, but wanted to share some humorous anecdotes with you, Loyal Reader – albeit in a more structured manner than the few bullet points I shared here about my current gig as a tax company waver and marketer.

Today’s entry will be longer, as I taught English in Mexico for 18 months and simply have more stories to tell.

How I got the gig

I spent my first few weeks in Mexico City getting a better lay of the land; I’d traveled extensively through DF before settling down there but had still given entire swaths of the city a miss – either intentionally or unintentionally. One afternoon of conversation with a long-time Mexican friend introduced me to a new contact in Diane, who was second-in-command at a long-running English school. Diane expressed interest in meeting with me, and scheduled a time for me to come in. It was one of those job interviews that I love but seldom find – conversational in tone, casual, and with an atmosphere of mutual respect. Diane seemed impressed by my background – a combination of corporate work, world travel, and a hunger to learn languages on my own terms – and even though she had to get her boss’s approval, I knew that I would be offered the job before I left that day.

I was hired in late 2012 but started in early 2013, immediately after returning from Christmas and New Year’s in the U.S. In between, I studied a few teaching modules online, and enrolled in Level One of a whirlwind TEFL (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language) course, to be taught by The Anglo on a part-time basis that winter. The Anglo is considered by many to be the best school of its kind in Mexico. It was an immersive experience – I found myself teaching on the second day of class – but it was more about grammar review than anything else. Seeing as I could barely remember what defined “Present Progressive” or “Past Perfect,” it was a good refresher.

The job itself

It was serendipitous for me to land this particular job because it paid more than the average TEFL job. This was in part because of our client base – respectable corporations with professionals needing fluent English for their jobs. One example: the Mexico City-based, Latin American headquarters of a U.S. retailer. Another example: the Mexico City manufacturing center of a U.S. pharmaceutical firm. And yes, there was the occasional one-on-one, walk-in-off-the-streets client as well.

My first week on the job was what I call “baptism by fire.” I was informed that I’d be teaching five days a week at 7 a.m. in Santa Fe, the modern business district in the extreme west end of Mexico City. Santa Fe is all high rise buildings – some of them quite impressive, and with real estate prices as high as the number of floors – and it was built over the city’s biggest garbage dump. What the city did with all that trash is anybody’s guess. It is a 75-minute commute to Santa Fe for most Chilangos. My commute was even longer, as I don’t have a car. I remember a few Friday commutes that took two hours!

Santa Fe 10

For my first day of class, my boss and I shared a taxi from her office to the client site. She introduced me to a class of 11 Intermedio Superior (Upper Intermediate) students that I would take over myself the next day. Diane led the class and I chimed in with a few pronunciation tips or idiomatic expressions that the students seemed to appreciate. It appeared easy enough, and the 90 minutes passed by in a flash.

Diane and I took public transport back to the office so that I know specifically where to board the bus – and what kind of bus to board – when I tried it myself the following morning. I already had exposure to the fact that in Mexico City, simply knowing the metro station to alight at and catch a connecting bus is not enough; some metro stations have six or eight separate exits!

I left 30 minutes earlier the next day, at 5:15 in the morning. I found the bus station without issue, but my jaw dropped at the sight of some 250 people queuing in two separate lines! I asked around and learned that the longer line is for people who want a seat, while the shorter line is for passengers who are willing to stand for the duration of the ride. Seated passengers board first, followed by standing riders, who literally pack as tight as sardines for journey. Buses leave every five minutes, and I caught the fifth one, after 25 minutes of waiting in line.

I was mortified to finally arrive at class at exactly 7:08. The wide eyes of 11 students stared at me in complete silence. I apologized profusely for being late and vowed that it would never happen again – and it didn’t. This hardly mattered, though, because I later learned that my students claimed to be even more nervous than I was!

I made just one mistake that day (aside from arriving late). One of our exercises was about the differences business buzzwords and jargon. For example, is the IT term “firewall” jargon or is it just a trendy buzzword? We were supposed to speak only in English, but I remember that one student didn’t understand the meaning of “buzzword” and she asked, “Teacher, does the word mean ‘palabra de moda’ in Spanish?’” I panicked. Not only did I not know what “palabra de moda” meant in Spanish – let alone in English – but I simply couldn’t understand what she said. Like other students, she was a bit shy, and didn’t speak loud enough. I asked her to repeat the word, and she did. I was still confused, and simply nodded and said “yes, that’s right.” She smiled, satisfied, and we moved on…but I always felt guilty about that one.

With time, I learned of other bus routes, and of ways to feel like a proper Mexico City commuter – eating guajalotas (tamale sandwiches) for breakfast from vendors who sell them out of the trunks of their cars, for example. As I took on additional classes held later in the day in other parts of the city, I found myself with just enough time on my hands to explore Santa Fe and other points of interest along my commuting route. For example, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon nearby Centro Santa Fe. At 400,000 square meters, CSF is the largest shopping mall in Latin America. Sometimes I would kick back in one of its plush chairs between classes, plug in my laptop, and work on a lesson plan. Other times, I would stroll through Mexico City’s grandest park, Chapultepec, which was conveniently located near a bus route and metro line that I would often travel.

The students

I quickly grew to love my job. Although most classes had a general end point in goal, I was nevertheless given considerable autonomy by my boss to “do my own thing.” In other words, I was allowed the occasional diversion along the way if I felt that the students’ attention was wandering following too many weeks of studying the same workbook. Often, the students’ eyes would seemingly glaze over following several weeks of plugging away through the workbook. I would take a class session or two and change the subject. The students enjoyed sporadic icebreakers as well, even though such exercises would immediately suss out who was shy and who was not.

Several patterns emerged almost immediately. The same students would be consistently on time, late, etc. Homework was seldom assigned, as the students seldom completed it – but those who did complete it were the same ones who always arrived on time and never missed a class. Whenever it came time for students to make individual presentations, the usual slackers “just so happened” to call in sick that day. 🙂 Of course, I tried never to take this personally; these were all working professionals, and I have no doubt that some had more on their proverbial plates than others.

Teaching English was a learning experience for me as well. In addition to learning my way around more of Mexico City, I also learned much about the finer points of doing business in Mexico. For one thing, I learned that Fridays were casual but that everyone wore a suit most other days (as did I). For another thing, I discovered that professional relationships build very slowly. You may have a conversation about expectations during your first meeting with someone, only to have to repeat it six weeks later because, despite any small talk and pleasantries in the meantime, you’ve barely made inroads. Despite (or because of) this, greetings are very formal. I always told my students to call me “Scott,” but most of them insisted on addressing me as “teacher,” “profe,” or “maestro.” (I rather like that one.) Also, the workday starts early – 7 a.m. for many people – but I eventually realized that lunch seldom happens before 1:30 p.m., so most employees take numerous breakfast and coffee breaks between those hours.

Chapultepec Seccion 1a-30

Without a doubt, the favorite part of my job was interacting with students and watching them improve. One student, an operations manager, used his English skills to score a job transfer (and promotion) to a new office that was opening in Europe! Another student’s wife was so impressed by her husband’s improved use of everyday English expressions that the couple offered me the opportunity to give private lessons to their children!

Of course, these testimonies have their polar opposites as well. I taught one Monday class of five Intermedio (Intermediate) students in which none of them showed up three weeks in a row! In 2014, I was given a one-on-one student who wished to improve her English in order to get a better job. There was something “off” about our chemistry, and after five weeks she not only requested a new instructor, but also left my boss several pages of detailed, margin-to-margin notes about why I was a horrible teacher! Ouch.

My boss told me early on that it was important not to form friendships with my students. This makes sense and is in the interest of keeping things professional. It can surprisingly difficult to obey, however. I loved my students…even the ones who consistently arrived late. It takes a real commitment to tackle language classes in addition to a normal full-time workload. Many of my students had children as well. In general, they were a good group, and I want to single out a few of them for their kindness outside the classroom:

  • Mario. I met Mario on my own, not through my boss. Mario overheard me flirting unsuccessfully one evening with a girl on the metro, and he followed me as I disembarked at my usual station to ask me if I could help him prepare for the notorious TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam. Mario insisted on paying me more than my asking rate, which is something that never happens. He remains one of my best Mexican friends.
  • Monroy. Teetotaler Monroy was one of my first students to complete the Avanzado (Advanced) Course. She passed with flying colors. We struck up a friendship as our classes together wound to a close, and are still in contact today. Last January, Monroy invited me on a day trip to the Pueblo Mágico (magical town) of Tequisquiapan.
  • Fátima. I think Fátima may have been “hot for teacher.” Although she never said much, she always sat next to me in class. Once, our class held an animated discussion about food, and when one of my students asked me if I had managed to try any particularly exotic Mexican food, I gave my usual answer of “chapulines” (fried grasshoppers). Fátima hails from Oaxaca State – where chapulines are harvested – and the next time I saw her, she gave me a huge sack of the tastiest chapulines I’ve ever had.  Thanks Fátima!
  • William. A one-on-one student, William deserves special mention. He is the finance director for a wealthy pharmaceutical company, and he requested that I come to his house for lessons. Suffice to say, he may be the second-richest Chilango after Carlos Slim. His astonishing home backs onto the university’s botanic gardens, and he has a full-time staff of people living with him and his family. I will always remember playing fetch with William’s excitable golden retrievers in his manicured back yard.

What’s next?

I want these final paragraphs to act as a sort of postscript to this blog entry. A sucker for nostalgia, I sometimes look back on my brief stint as an English teacher in Mexico City with melancholy. The commute sucked and I never got used to the early bird hours, but my boss was great, my students were cool, the pay was fair, and my assignments were among the cushiest that our language school had to offer.

It was 11 months ago when I made the decision to not renew my Mexican work visa. As much as I still love that complicated city, my final months in Mexico City found me being torn in a million different emotional directions. As such, it was good for my soul to give Chilangolandia a break. Still, I miss my teaching job.

People tell me that I should try to find work teaching English stateside, at the high school or university level. This is sound advice…but it is not advice that I am likely to follow. Jobs like the one that I had, with its unique mix of students, corporations, and circumstances, are one in a million.

Maybe I’ll return. I am wiser now than I was when I started this blog two-and-a-half years ago, and at the risk of “vaguebooking,” I know that I still have to right the ship that is my life. But who knows what the future holds? If my boss’s final words to me upon leaving were true, then my old job will be waiting for me should I choose to return. My old students will have moved on by then, but a new crop of shy, nervous students will surely be waiting take their place.

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

5 thoughts on “Confessions of a Former English Teacher”

  1. As a retired Spanish teacher I found your reflections on teaching very interesting, although your experience teaching adults is far different from teaching teenagers in a public high school! I had a lot of great years teaching, and I do not regret having chosen a career in education. But after 30 years I was eager to retire, and I have not looked back since.

    1. Thanks for commenting – I taught a few children in addition to adults, and they were great kids…although I’m not sure I’m ready for a whole high school’s worth of them. 🙂

  2. Santa Fe’s business district was built *on* the landfill, which is a quite common practice in urban planning, actually. The garbage is still there, buried underneath.

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