Updated: Feb 12
There's a great line in the movie "The Hunt For Red October". Admiral Painter (played by Fred Dalton Thompson) is talking to Jack Ryan (Alex Baldwin) about Soviet Captain Ramius. Ryan thinks he's defecting. Painter is sceptical, and thinks he's gone mad:
Admiral Painter: "What's his plan?"
Jack Ryan: "His plan?"
Admiral Painter: "Russians don't take a dump, son, without a plan."
At the beginning of 2019 I quit my job in IT Management. I'd been at it a long time; the pay was good, many of the people I worked with became good friends. Some were inspiring. Many of them, however - including some of my new Executive - weren't. The stress was off the charts, and I was in danger of suffering a mental breakdown. I needed a change.
But before I threw in the towel on a 30-year career, like Ramius, I figured I needed a plan. It might go awry, it might change, but I had to have some kind of vision.
What's The Plan, Stan?
By sheer luck/divine providence, just over a year ago Mrs Wench and I got together. Her situation was similar to mine, and she'd come to similar conclusions. Pooling our resources, and after months of chewing on it, we eventually came up with this:
Quit the job
Retrain as English teachers
Move somewhere warm with a low cost of living
Rent out my place back home for some guaranteed income
Work online initially, and look for private/school work
(Right off the bat, I know that everyone doesn't have the luxury of a place to rent out. But then this isn't one of those "YOU TO CAN TRAVEL THE WORLD AND LIVE AS ENGLISH TEACHER CLICK HERE TO KNOW HOW!!!" blogs 😀 )
It's absolutely possible to do it. It's easier if you're younger, have few or no commitments, and you're less picky than I am about some of the compromises you're prepared to make (particularly about accommodation). But you're never going to get rich doing it.
Seriously. If you're after top dollar, teaching is not for you. In many parts of the world you can get by on it, but you're not going to be donating to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation any time soon.
In my case, I figured I wanted to be earning around US$600-$700 a month to live fairly well. That would cover my mortgage back home, and put something towards day-to-day living expenses.
Quitting the job was remarkably easy. My boss was supportive and understood my reasons, and she worked to make it as straightforward as possible. I went home that night, not with "What the f*** have I just done?" cramps in the pit of my stomach, but with a calm feeling that I'd made the right call.
So - Why Teaching?
I'd been kvetching for years that I was unhappy in my career. Good friends had asked helpful questions, such as: "If you won the lottery, and didn't have to work ever again, what would you do?" Unfortunately, I'd never had much luck answering that 🙁
I tried again.
Over the last few years, I've done a few month-long trips. Canada, the US, Barbados, Chile, Easter Island. I realised I genuinely love travelling. When I was in Santiago on a walking tour, there were a couple of American gap-year students in the party. They'd been in Chile for a couple of weeks, were heading south to Patagonia, and after that? They hadn't decided 🤷🏻♂️
I tried to tell myself that I was older, wiser, more solvent. In fact, I was horribly envious of them.
So let's put travelling on the list. What else?
I've always loved language. I consider English to be a remarkable stylus: harsh with raging Anglo-Saxon brutality, when called upon; peerlessly mellifluous and smooth, when charmed into service; concise or expansive, as the need dictates. And universal.
English is not only the de facto language of the internet, movies, and popular music. It's the lingua franca for IT professionals worldwide. I've spent hundreds of hours on video calls with engineers from Romania, Greece, India, Poland, Israel... the common interface - the API, in software parlance - is English.
I also somehow still remember schoolboy French to conversational level ("...vachement bien francais!"), have a passable grasp of beginners' Spanish, and learned Serbo-Croat in my early 40s. Also - whisper it - I enjoy the rules of grammar. It's the engineer in me.
Let's add language.
Working in IT, there were two things that really got me stoked. One was delivering projects: getting things done, being told something was unachievable, and then doing it anyway. (Pro Tip: A great way to motivate engineers is to tell them something is impossible. No charge 👍🏻)
The other thing I enjoyed was mentoring junior members of the team. Hiring someone fresh or inexperienced, coaching them on the technical stuff, as well as how business works; seeing them grow and develop into a more rounded person... to me, that was probably the single best thing about being a manager.
Coaching and mentoring people, and watching them grow.
What kind of job lets you travel, work with languages, coach and help develop people?
So - Exactly How Do You Become a Teacher?
I'm glad you asked.
Some people have the idea that all you need is a passport, an Essex accent, and a £5 Groupon TEFL certificate to teach English. And it's partly true; there are, in fact, plenty of kids who head out to Foreign Parts, with little more than enthusiasm and native speaker credentials.
But I didn't want to tick a box; I actually wanted to learn how to teach. The gold standard for teaching English as a foreign language is the CELTA certificate, accredited by Cambridge University, and offered in schools around the world.
It's not an easy option. It's a four-week intensive course - and I mean intensive. All day in the school, assignments, giving lessons, preparing for lessons, working-evenings-and-weekends intensive. "Tell all your friends you're going off-grid, and cancel your social life for a month" intensive.
Costs vary, but in the UK I found them between £1,000 (Dundee and Angus College - bizarrely in my birth city) and about £1,750. Prices overseas are broadly similar, maybe a little cheaper. We considered moving and then doing the course. In hindsight I think we made the right choice doing it in the UK.
We opted to do it in London, at International House. They're one of the largest and most prestigious language schools in Europe. The course was excellent. Don't worry about trying to learn grammar and tenses by rote - the course teaches you teaching, not English. The grammar and other technical elements that you need, you learn as you teach.
I was invited to be interviewed before and after my CELTA, as part of IH's promotional activities. I'd no hesitation in agreeing:
Figuring Out Where To Go - Not Stressful At All
Freshly minted teachers, certificates in paw, we now needed to work out where to go.
It involved a spreadsheet. Mrs Wench is allergic to spreadsheets. I'm an engineering manager, so they're second nature to me.
We wanted somewhere warm, with a low cost of living, a decent income for teachers relative to that cost of living; somewhere with decent affordable healthcare. It also had to be fairly safe (natural disasters, political stability, street safety). Oh, and Mrs Wench insisted it be on the coast. That limited things even further; I don't mind the heat, but high humidity kills me. It's the Scottish DNA. And where there is water, there is humidity.
This spreadsheet was working overtime looking for these Goldilocks locales.
We finally narrowed down the list for our first stop to two countries: Mexico and Costa Rica.
Costa Rica has excellent Language Schools in the Central Valley around San José. It has some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet, rain forests, volcanos, and a very relaxed way of life - ¡Pura vida!
It's a bit more expensive than Mexico, and the weather is pretty good... but in the Central Valley, the rainy season lasts about 5 months of the year.
We may still get there, but not right now.
Merida in the Yucatan was a slam dunk, apart from the heat. It's an amazing old colonial city, in the middle of rain forest; it has cenotes to dive and swim in; incredible culture and Mayan history; sadly, it's also one of the hottest and most humid places in Mexico. Even the locals head out of town in the middle of summer.
We were (and are still) considering the colonial highland cities. Oaxaca and Guadalajara are large and have lots of work, decent weather, a nice climate; unfortunately both are miles away from the coast.
[Feb 2020 Update: We are now in Guadalajara!]
First Stop - La Paz, Baja California Sur
La Paz on the Baja ticked all the boxes. It's a little small though, and there's not a lot of teaching work. What there is is very poorly paid by EU/US/Canadian standards. It's between the desert and the sea, which means you have the heat, but not the worst of the humidity. That's where we are now.
As of today, we're staying in an Airbnb in La Paz, half a mile from the ocean. Our accommodation is a one-bed apartment with a small kitchen, wet room and a walk-in closet (about which Mrs Wench got very excited 😀) There's fast internet and a panoramic view from the roof - across town to the sea, round to the mountains out to the south and east of town. We love it.
It works out at around £400/month between us. You can easily get cheaper places to stay if you ask around, but as I said earlier, there are certain things I'm not prepared to take risks with while things are still fairly fluid.
I'm working online. It's flexible, and although the pay isn't great, it's fairly easy work and a lot compared to what Mexicans earn. It also has the advantage that as I'm working with companies based out of the US, it's legal to do it here. On a tourist ticket you cannot legally work in Mexico. People do it, but it's against the law, and there's an outside risk of being deported.
A full-time job offer from a language school can come with sponsorship to work legally for the duration. Alternatively, if we find a place / school we like, the option is open to apply for Temporary Residency, and subsequently for a work permit. We'll see how it goes.
If you're looking for the moral of the story - well, there isn't one, really 😉 All I can say is if you'd told me a year ago that I'd be sitting in Mexico now, writing this blog between teaching, wandering along the malecón, and deciding when to go to the beach next, I would of course have asked what you were smoking. Yet here I am.
I've read lots of articles like this over the last few years. They mainly seem to consist of the same "Power of Positivity" spiel; after all, who doesn't want to ditch the rat race, at least occasionally?
Like I say: it can be done, but don't underestimate how tough it is. It takes months and months of planning. It means moving house(s), selling stuff, more eBay auctions than I can remember. The course is tough. (Honestly). Not to mention the sheer tedium of faffing around with the utilities, bank accounts, currency charges... And the setup costs aren't trivial. You need to be sure you can afford to live off savings for a few months, and have a Plan B if it goes tits up.
All that said, I take a lot of pride in my decision to jump ship, and at the way we both planned and executed it. I've discovered I really enjoy teaching - one of my niches is helping English learners prepare for job interviews. So far I've helped 4 people get jobs. When they tell you they got it, it makes your day 😀
I don't miss my old life and job - at all. I'm broke, but I'm happy. I'm travelling with someone who shares my joy at the simple things. I'm seeing new people, sights and cultures every day. I mean... where else would you come across an inflatable Santa Claus wearing a sombrero, shaking his maracas, in 30° sunshine?
Mexico, that's where.
And it sure as hell beats end-of-year budget reviews 👍🏻
(NB: The teacher on the story is a stock photo - and far more handsome than me 😉)
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