Teacher Trap in Paradise

 

Hello ISR, Your latest Newsletter Article, ISS VP Looks Back to the Future of International  Education, brought back some not-so-fond memories of my brief “Directorship” in Guatemala. When Mr. Ambrogi stresses the need to support and encourage small, locally owned schools my guess is he isn’t referring to quite the situation, and/or school, I found myself in.

.Here’s my story:

I’d been traveling through Mexico and Central America for several months when I arrived at a delightful destination, a magical, lake-side Guatemalan pueblo filled with spiritual energy and an indigenous population living side-by-side with a community of foreigners. I recognized it as one of those special places in the world and I was eager to stay put for a while.

A week or so after my arrival, I was sipping my morning coffee in a funky, outdoor venue overlooking the lake, when a hippie-type, middle-aged woman seated near me struck up a conversation. I soon learned Maggie (not her real name) was the “Board chairperson” of the local “International School.” Coincidentally, I’m a retired, credentialed teacher, “perfect for the job,” she said. As our conversation (i.e. informal interview) progressed, she insisted I drop by and consider the recently vacated Director’s position. Wow! Here was a chance to remain in paradise indefinitely…I took the bait!

The school, lodged in a big, old house, consisted of 42 kids. The front and backyards, replete with barnyard animals, slides, swings and a fun obstacle course, rounded out the facility. Three young teachers taught the various grade levels, all mixed into “homogeneous” groups. Expats from the lake community needed a place for their children to go to school and they had created this little “hidden gem of a school.” I decided to give it a go and settled into the job.

My salary was $900 US monthly and I soon found I could just scrape by, without dipping into my travel funds, if I kept it simple. I also found out, unfortunately, that I’d be worked like a dog (apologies to all dogs) from early morning to late afternoon. I was teacher, principal, head maintenance man, curriculum guru, teacher-support system, sympathetic ear for lonely parents, government red-tape expert, barnyard animal caretaker, coach and student support system…an overwhelmed indentured servant, in other words. Sweet, soft-spoken Maggie turned out to be a real task master!

What soon began to bother me was that I’d see the kids’ parents driving late-model cars while I walked or took the bus in the stifling heat of summer. The parents were eating and drinking in restaurants while I survived on rice and beans. They enjoyed their boats and hobbies while I tended to their kids on a salary I could barely survive on, and without a lick of air conditioning. I was supposed to be traveling, enjoying life’s adventures in my retirement and here I was stuck in paradise without a pleasurable moment, or dollar, to spare!

When I eventually broached the issue of a pay raise it was met with, “There just isn’t any money.” The 3 teachers were each paid $600 monthly, equaling $2700 in total staff expenses. Then $400 for the school-house rent, a couple hundred for electricity and incidentals and we’re talking about approximately $3,500 in monthly expenses for the entire school. Seems cheap to run a school, right?

I questioned why there was no money for higher wages with 42 kids in the school? It turned out tuition was only $100US a month! Apparently, the parents had banded together and created what simply amounted to a cheap child-care service, kept staffed with unsuspecting travelers, like me, who came and went on a regular basis. And that, my friends, was the very end of my “unsuspecting” dedication to the “education” of these 42 children.

My bet is Maggie was back in the coffee shop the morning I left, “interviewing” for the Director’s position, while I was relaxing in the sun, out on far side of the lake, fishing and considering my next retirement adventure.

My advice to travelers offered positions in little, local schools? Look carefully before you leap! Your time is your life, after all.

Has anyone had a similar experience?

Comments? Please scroll down

10 Responses to Teacher Trap in Paradise

  1. uhhh…I think my friend just took your old job…but he asked for more money ..Panajachel?

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  2. WestmeetEast says:

    Wow! That’s awful. Personally I’m more worried about how they treat their children. New teachers in the school so often means no stability nor continuity for the children. And what sort of playground is that for 42 children! No dedicated maintenance man then they should call on a local man. I think it’s awful and yes we should check and ask delicate questions should we find ourselves in “small village” schools.
    I think you did the right thing for you sir! And yes, you were on holiday to explore and enjoy yourself!
    Thanks for sharing your story.

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  3. The point here is not whether you can live on $900 a month, but whether that was a fair salary for the role. It appears as though the particulars of this job were not clearly outlined from the start, thus allowing the parent committee to take further advantage of the situation. It is one thing to take on a low-paying job in a charity school where you see daily the non-financial rewards that come from making the world a better place; it is entirely another matter if you are babysitting the children of wealthy expats who will neither support you nor respect you because of your inequitable pay scale. In my experience, school fees need to be high in order to command parent buy-in. People seldom heed free advice.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    The author reflecting on how hard he works for such little pay, while the parents were driving nice cars/affording a lifestyle he couldn’t seems so familiar to how many colleagues and I feel at some of my international schools as teachers. Parents pay $20,000 a year, students have nannies and driver, The director is making 3 digits yet are ineffective in managing/leading a school all while teachers are making 20,000-30,000 in an expensive location. Seems times haven’t changed much, except that directors lives have gotten better….(not to mention many are also collecting a teacher’s pension from their home country)

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  5. Who Me says:

    I was once offered a job at a similar school. I had been traveling and decided to check out the possibilities of getting a teaching job and staying put for a while. The actual international school in town was paying something close to the money I could have made back home. Getting a job at that school required going to an ISS conference. The home-grown school paid 1/4 what the big school paid but it was easy to get a position there, all you needed was 30 college unites. The job served me well. I loved the kids and I loved living in the city. I stayed for a school year. It was a wonderful experience. I wasn’t in it for the money. I was young, had no real responsibilities and was ready for an adventure. These schools can be good for both the kids and teachers.

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  6. omgarsenal says:

    I believe the author’s point is to verify all the conditions before signing on the dotted line, which he didn’t really do with his misadventure. Umut, unless you were in the same circumstances as the author was, you cannot criticize him for finding it hard to live on the salary he earned. I worked and lived in Mexico for 8 years and was unable to save anything, so it depends on where you work…the DF is expensive, San Miguel is a tourist trap so it might be more expensive. I lived in Queretaro and was able to make ends meet on a salary like yours…..but we didn’t eat out in restaurants and didn’t go on a lot of vacations either, but that was by choice more than necessity.

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    • Umut Karzai says:

      I didn’t mean to criticize the person I just meant that Mexico is more expensive than Guatemala and the situation seems very livable to, me. You are right you can’t really know the situation unless your in someone else’s shoes.
      One of the problems that I have with other expats is that they complain about things when they should know life will be different outside their own country and to tell you truth I go out to eat I travel inside Mexico and I’m still able to save money.. The part that really bothered me is when he complained of only being able to only affors rice and beans on $900.00 a month that is a copout. I’ve lived in Guatemala I could live on $700.00 a month there and still save maybe $50 to $75 a month. How you live has a lot to do with whether you should be an expat at all! I make just a few hundred more and I go out to eat 3 to 4 nights a week and I almost never eat rice and beans!
      People must check out what they are choosing to do and make an educated decision.

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      • Anonymous says:

        Deconstructing…

        “I didn’t mean to criticize the person I just meant that Mexico is more expensive than Guatemala and the situation seems very livable to, me. You are right you can’t really know the situation unless your in someone else’s shoes.”

        “One of the problems that I have with other expats…”

        “…they complain about things when they should know life will be different outside their own country…”

        “to tell you truth…”

        “I go out to eat I travel inside Mexico and I’m still able to save money…”

        “The part that really bothered me is…”

        “when he complained of only being able to only affors rice and beans on $900.00 a month that is a copout…”

        “I’ve lived in Guatemala…”

        “I could live on $700.00 a month there…”

        “How you live has a lot to do with whether you should be an expat at all!”

        “I make just a few hundred more and I go out to eat 3 to 4 nights a week”

        “I almost never eat rice and beans!”

        “People must check out what they are choosing to do and make an educated decision.”

        What do you consider to be the purpose of your response?

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  7. Umut Karzai says:

    First yes the salary is low, but 900.00 a month in Guatemala, it should have been enough to live rather well. I live in Mexico in San Miguel de Allende on a teachers salary of 1,150 plus 200.00 from the school to pay my rent. Guatemala is cheaper than Mexico I save 300.00 a month. This includes going out to eat at good restaurants 3 times a week. This includes going on vacation inside Mexico 3 times a year.
    I think, you need to know where you are what local expenses are before you take a job. I work 3 to 4.5 hours a day and save money in one of Mexico’s most expensive areas my typical monthly expenses come to $750 to $800 a month. my total income is 1,350.00 salary plus the room and board subsidy. Like I said I save $300.00 to $325.00 a month. You can live well on a little here in Mexico and my experience is that Guatemala is cheaper, but it depends what you want out of life. I also, don’t work like a dog. I teach, I’m not a nurse maid.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    Why would someone accept such a low salary? Does not the salary level indicate that there is something inappropriate about this situation/school?

    Like

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