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What's It Like To Teach And Volunteer In Costa Rica?


Teach and volunteer abroad winner Hannah Pitts

Last week Hannah Pitts, our Teach and Volunteer Abroad Scholarship recipient, shared how she’s been prepping to volunteer in Costa Rica - juggling our online TEFL course while traveling through Latin America! This week she’s back to share how she’s settling in to life as a volunteer teacher in San Jose…

I arrived at San Jose airport on Friday afternoon feeling a bit flustered, a bit stinky, and absolutely exhausted. Mi primera compa (my first pal) was Andre, the driver who picked me up from the airport. He was marvelously friendly and full of helpful advice for making the most of my time in Costa Rica. We spent the 40 minute drive practicing my Spanish and his English, until eventually we arrived at IVHQ’s local office. I had a quick guided tour, connected to the Wi-Fi (first things first!) and then headed to my accommodation to meet my host family.

My mama tica (Costa Rica mum) is actually only a few years older than me, and doesn’t speak English, so I know there will be a lot of charades and sub-par Spanish on my part in the coming weeks. She is lovely though, and I am so glad to have somewhere to call home after two months of living out of a backpack in South America. My room is bright blue with a pink bed, a little cupboard and a few shelves. I’m also sharing the house with my mama’s 10 year old daughter, and their tiny little puppy Princessa, who is desperate for a cuddle 24 hours a day.

Sunset in Costa Rica

On Saturday I spent the day wandering around town, getting things I needed and exploring a bit. I found sodas (a cheap, set menu lunch deal), batidos (delicious fruit smoothies) and roadside fruit carts. I spent a fair bit of time trying to get my head around the local currency- roughly 500 colones to a dollar. At one point I tried to pay ten times the asking price for a punnet of strawberries, and couldn’t understand why the man wouldn’t take my 10,000 colones bill. The most exciting adventure of the day was attempting to get home using the local buses. I was 20 minutes into the journey when I suddenly had an enormous panic attack. It went a little something like this:

“I don’t recognize anything on this road. I must be on the wrong bus. I have no idea where I’m going. Or more importantly, how to get back. It’s getting dark. My Spanish is terrible. Help!”

Luckily, I was on the right bus, and I eventually made it home.

After a lazy Sunday getting in touch with family and friends, Monday morning was a bright and early start for 8am orientation. It was so great to finally meet some other volunteers, from a wide range of projects like childcare, teaching English and even turtle conservation. Our orientation answered pretty much every question we could think to ask, and we had a chance to sit a Spanish placement test and sign up for classes. Afterwards we went on a walking tour of the town centre, to suss out all the best spots for food, drinks, fun and some practical things like money exchange and laundry service. On a side note, I can confirm that the best rollos de canela (cinnamon rolls) on the planet are to be found at Canela bakery – Qué rico! (‘How delicious’). We went out for lunch together and spent some time looking around at graffiti art and visiting the university campus.

Later that evening the Teaching English volunteers met for a ‘crash course in ESL’ with Gabe from the local staff. It was all feeling a bit overwhelming at that stage, as I hadn’t been to my school yet and had been asked to prepare materials for the next day! Gabe assured me that once I had visited the school and met the kids I would relax and everything would be fine, but as the type of person who needs to feel prepared and in-the-know, I was NOT relaxing! I tried my best to take his advice though, and went to a free salsa dancing class. It was loads of fun and a good laugh, but let’s just say… I hope I’m better at teaching English than I am at salsa!

On Tuesday I had my first day of work. We took two buses to travel out to Coronado, the name of the area and the project I’ll be working on. It’s not actually a school; rather a community project run out of a church building, as they have no permanent building of their own. There are limited resources available, other than a couple of whiteboards. Coronado is a fantastic initiative supported by the local staff, IVHQ and local people. There are no permanent teachers, so the program relies entirely on international volunteers.

Volunteer teaching placement - Cornado

When we arrived, I met the three girls already volunteering there, and was able to see how they ran their lessons. Students were in three groups – adults, teenagers and children. I spent most of my time helping Heather with the teenagers’ group, and absolutely loved it. We played games and did some written activities. The emphasis in ESL classes is on student talk time, so we spent a fair chunk of the class chatting with each other and building relationships with the students. We had four girls in our group today. Attendance is not always regular; during the week I may have a different group of students each day, and it could be two girls or eight boys. This is Heather’s last week, so the group will be my responsibility from next Monday.

There are advantages and challenges associated with volunteering on a project like this, as opposed to a regular school. Obviously the group sizes are tiny, which makes it easier to provide focused instruction and provide for the individual needs of my students. The Coronado project only runs in the afternoon, so I have time in the mornings to do some detailed planning and be well prepared. However, it is challenging to have three different groups in the one space, and the range of ages and levels within the groups is enormous. There are not many resources to work with, and we need to carry any equipment or materials that we want to use with us on the buses. Additionally, it will be difficult to build momentum and monitor progress when the students do not always attend regularly.

I’m excited to be working on a project like Coronado though, as the kids are gorgeous and the local people supporting the program are so lovely and welcoming. People attend because they want to, and there is a family atmosphere that makes it so special. On Thursday, some of the adult students took us for a tour of the area in a minibus. We visited la Iglesia de Coronado (the Church of Coronado), went to a lookout point for a beautiful view, walked through a rose farm, and had a delicious afternoon tea back at the church building. It was amazing to feel so welcomed, like we were already a part of the community.

Visiting the Church of Coronado as an IVHQ volunteer

Living in San Jose has been very interesting so far! They mentioned in orientation that it’s best not to be offended when people are late, as Costa Rica runs on ‘tica time’. It is not uncommon for things to run 45 minutes behind schedule. So, on Friday morning when I found myself waiting for an hour outside the mall before it opened, I had to smile and accept it as part of life around here. I have loved trying all the bizarre fruits for sale on the side of the road and at my homestay, like mamechino and zapote. There are plenty of things to do in and around San Jose, and there are so many beautiful places less than four hours away by bus. This weekend I’m heading to Monte Verde with some friends; looking forward to ziplining across the cloud forest, walking through the canopy on hanging bridges and hopefully seeing a sloth! Pura vida!

To learn more about volunteering in Costa Rica, see our range of project opportunities here. Or if you’re interested in learning more about the online TEFL course Hannah took to prepare for teaching in Costa Rica, visit our TEFL course page. Read part three of Hannah’s journey here.

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