My experiences as an English teacher in Peru;
Universidad Nacional del Altiplano (don't you just love that name?)

Advice for wannabe teachers

Below you will read about my personal experiences as a totally unqualified non-native speaker :-)

Short version

While travelling through Chile, Bolivia and Peru, our rapidly dwindling budget forced us to find a way of earning money. Neither of us were native English speakers, had any certificates, references or working visas, but we just shopped around schools and institutes and asked if they needed teachers. Some institutes asked for references and certificates showing our schooling and experience as a teacher, others did not. Some schools could offer us 20 hours a week, others only 4. Some schools pay little, some more.

At one particular school in Puno (Peru) they were down on their knees and practically begged us to come and work there. Pay was low for western standards, US$2.50 an hour, but quite a lot compared to the local salaries, and they could offer us 20 hours a week each. They also arranged free accommodation for us. We worked there for a month and were lucky to catch the yearly Candelaria festival held by thousands of Aymara Indians.

We had a great time!! The students we had in our groups were mostly our age and eager to learn. We used books provided by the school and added our own material in the shape of songs, transripts of lyrics, discussions, role plays, pronunciation classes. It took quite a bit more work than 20 hours a week because we also had to check homework and tests, and create our own exams, but it was a fun experience. After one month the improvements were clear to see in most students!

If you're interested in reading about all the details and all our experiences, continue reading below.

Festividades de la Virgen de la Candelaria, Puno, Feb. 1998

Extended version

Finding the job

Expensive Chile had eaten a big gap into our budget so we were beginning to panic a little. Four months still to go in South America... Our money wasn't going to last until the end if we continued on the same foot.

It crossed our minds to phone home and ask for money, like so many other travellers do. Our stubborn nature prevented us from doing so. We fantasised about performing mime or singing in the street, with a hat to catch the coins. Nahh... this was going nowhere.

Earlier on we had met a Dutch guy who had taught English in Buenos Aires at a private school. All he had to do was hold conversations and he got paid US$10 an hour. That sounded great! At a certain point while we were in Puno (Peru) for a trip to the islands in Lake Titicaca, we passed a school building and I saw a poster in the window recruiting students for their English courses. I thought to myself: if they need students, they may also need teachers! We just stepped inside and asked around. The first person we spoke to almost fell on her knees and begged us to come teach there. We were really surprised because we didn't have a working visa, no experience as English teachers, and English wasn't even our mother tongue (as you may have noticed!). But she introduced us to the head master and took us into a classroom that was undergoing a session and tried to convince us to stay. They said our English was much better than the English the local teachers spoke and it would be so good for the students. They offered us a few groups each, and $2.50 an hour pay, which is almost what a doctor in Peru earns. We were unsure whether this would be enough to restore our budget and preferred to teach in Cusco, so we did not commit ourselves but promised to call. We travelled on to Cusco, spent time there, looked for schools who'd be willing to hire us... but all we could find was a school offering us $3 an hour and only 4 hours a week (if we were lucky). All the other schools asked for resumés, certificates and references.

Arrival at the Centro de Idiomas

We phoned Puno and were still more than welcome. When we got there, the school had arranged accommodation for us inside the building that also contained the two classrooms we were supposed to use. The school gave us some money to buy a little electrical stove, a water boiler, and two pans (which we left behind when we departed). We had written parts of lyrics and small poems on big posters and hung them on the walls as decoration, much to the delight of certain students. It was an excellent little apartment with our own kitchen and bathroom, unfortunately the shower didn't work. We had to use the water heater to boil water, mix it with cold water in a large bucket, and wash ourselves and our hair by using this bucket. I will never forget the first warm shower I took in Arequipa after these five weeks in Puno! :-)

During the second week of February the yearly Candelaria Festival passed town.This is a festival that lasts for a week and is held by about 8000 Aymara Indians. They all dance in the streets in big parade groups, all dressed up and carrying the flag of their tribe. Our building was right on the street leading from Parque Pino in the centre of Puno, where all the dance parades of the Candelaria Festival passed. We were able to see all this from our balcony.

Festividades de la Virgen de la Candelaria, Puno, Feb. 1998

The school we were going to teach at was actually a language department (Centro de Idiomas), part of the university of Puno that goes by the wonderful name of "Universidad Nacional del Altiplano".

My students

Each of us had two groups of about 15-20 students, all of them were advanced English students so we could do it all in English (with the occasional translation or explanation in Spanish). My first group consisted of about four kids in the age of 13 to 15 years old; a few older guys who were history or philosophy teachers themselves, and the rest were students of my own age (somewhere between 20 and 25).

The second group were mostly students and one or two teachers.

Group 1 - 16:00-18:00h every day

Group 2 - 18:00-20:00h every day

The first group had class from Monday through Friday 16.00-18.00h; the second group from 18.00-20.00h. So I worked 20 hours per week in total. At $2.50 an hour, and with free accommodation, this was enough for us to buy food and have a few drinks every now and then, and save up enough extra cash to last us until the end of our South America trip! Life in Puno was very cheap.

Teaching English - what it was like

During the first week, the students showed up at least 15 minutes late, some even 45 or an hour late! We could not believe that this was the usual routine, since they only have 2 hours of class and they pay for it themselves. We decided to change this. We told everyone that class would start no longer than 5 minutes late and whoever was late, would miss the first bit. It took a few days but it actually worked. From the second week onward, people started showing up (almost) on time. Some would even stand there trampling impatiently 5 minutes before class started.
The funniest thing of all was that by the time we were leaving and other teachers had taken over our groups, the students would be all there waiting, but the teacher would be 20 or 30 minutes late!

We used books provided by the school. The teachers had extra pages with notes on how to conduct the lessons. These lessons didn't take very long to perform. We had so much spare time that we were able to bring in our own improvised subjects and lessons.

Some examples:
- (We stole this idea from another teacher: ) using the lyrics of songs, leaving some gaps in it, playing the music several times and having the students fill in the missing words.
- Discussing the meaning of lyrics of songs, for example by The Cranberries, Sade, The Fugees.
- Singing songs together.
- Copying articles from the internet, for example from Cosmo magazine, and discussing them in class.
- Copying a few paragraphs from famous books, for example by Roald Dahl, and discussing it in class.
- We made a list of books and magazines we recommended to the Peruvian students, for fun reading.
- Pronunciation classes. It was very necessary to drill them not to pronounce the -e- in words like "worked", "named", "cooked", etc. Words like "world", "with" and many others were also very hard for them to pronounce, so we practiced in class by reading aloud.
- We did role plays where they had to help so called tourists with questions, or be tourists in an English speaking country themselves. (Most of the students were learning English because they wanted to work in tourism.)
- We organised a day at the library for everyone who wanted to learn the basics about internet and Hotmail. We showed them some discussion groups and interesting web sites.

Our goal was to show the students that the English they learned could be used right away in everyday life; that it was not just theory, but very practical and real.

Cultural differences

The students in Peru were very meak and a little passive. Only the 13 to 15 year olds caused me some trouble sometimes, but they were easy to quiet down. Other than that they all listened and obeyed very well, to my big surprise and relief. A few cultural differences made for some interesting situations. For example the Peruvians are quite passive, so if you ask the whole group an open question, nobody will answer it. Asking it again doesn't help. The only thing that helps is pointing out someone who should answer the question.

They were also very shy to begin with, but the more roleplays and group discussions we held, the more they crawled out of their shells. Another small problem was that the students were embarrassed to tell you they didn't understand what you said. I always had to be very alert, make sure everbody had understood and heard what I said. I often repeated things and said them in various different ways and asked questions to test if they had understood. Especially in the beginning they had trouble with a teacher speaking only English.


After four weeks all the teachers had to create their own tests for this one month block. We had already given small tests every week, so the pupils were used to the type of questions we had in the test. Apart from the written test there was an oral test which caused many a nervous breakdown... it was endearing to see even the toughest guys crumble, blush and stutter. But since they'd known us for a month already I was able to make most of them feel comfortable, especially by saying that I had been paying attention to their performance in class and that it would not be a "photograph" of just this one moment.
Some students had hardly ever shown up for class and failed the written test, which meant they had to redo this one month block... some of their parents contacted the headmaster in a fury, how dared we, some foreigners, flunk their kid! (One of them even said: "But I am the ambassador of Bolivia!" as if this automatically meant that his daughter should pass the test even with a score of 2 out of 10.) But the headmaster trusted our judgement that these kids were not ready to proceed to the next level.

Collecting our salary

Collecting our salary at the end of the month was a whole adventure of its own. First we had to stand in line at the Centro de Idiomas to collect an official note. All the teachers and us then travelled through town for half an hour to an office where we had to stand in line again. When it was our turn we had to hand over the note and received another one. We had expected to get money here. We told the guy working there how in the Netherlands your salary is just deposited into your bank account. He thought that was a wonderful, novel idea! :-) But we just got this cheque-sort-of note that we'd have to take to the bank.

So on we went with all the teachers, to the bank that was only open for a few hours a day. (By this time we were already working for a few hours on getting our salary). The bank was absolutely stuffed with people and we had to wait in line for an hour or more. Some men tried to sneak in front because we were "only women", but our smiling yet convincing faces and words were able to send them back (with them smiling back as if nothing had happened). In contrast, a few Peruvian women stepped aside and urged us to go first, us refusing was no use so in the end we accepted and thanked them.
Some Dutch people who'd been living in Peru for a few years by then, had already told us of this unspoken rule of hierarchy: white men - white women - coloured men - coloured women (just above the dogs). Especially the gap between white males and coloured males is very big. Coloured men sometimes regard all women as dogs or lower, no matter what their colour of skin. A thing I also noticed: the darker your skin, the lower you are. So a very dark, creole Peruvian women was sneered at by other, lighter brown Peruvian women. They wrinkled their nose at her and made remarks. Unbelievable. Racism and discrimination are such human traits... it is found anywhere, in any country.

Anyway, after almost a full day's work we had finally collected our cash, in small denominations please. Phewww! Can you imagine spending a whole day every month collecting your salary!

All in all teaching in Peru was a wonderful, fun experience that we would have missed if we'd had enough money.

This notice proved that I was a teacher at the Universidad and allowed me to use the internet at 1 Sol an hour (approx. $0.30)

Advice for wannabe teachers

My advise to anyone out travelling in a developing country and looking for a job as a teacher: just ask around while you're there! I don't believe in trying to organise it from home. It does help if you have a TEFL or similar certificate, and/or a curriculum vitae (resumé) showing teaching experience, and/or references from schools or institutions you worked at before. But it's probably the small, independent schools that do not even have a website yet, that can offer you a job.

A great source of information, tips and material for old and new teachers (and jokes) is Jeremy's website.