An English Teacher Dreams of Costa Rica
Costa Rica Dreams
Interview with Bethany Kirk, currently the Director and CEO of Instituto Estelar Bilingue, a language school based in Liberia, Costa Rica. I interviewed Bethany on the first anniversary of the opening of her school.
Part One: How she got here
Five years ago, Bethany and her then-husband came to Costa Rica with dreams of an ideal life. As newlyweds they shared the plan of getting away from California to travel and work in a Latin-American country. They chose Costa Rica because of its beaches and because they could improve their Spanish speaking skills, and, since Bethany had an M.A. in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages), it was a no-brainer that she was well-qualified to teach English in any situation that presented itself to her.
They planned for two years before finally making their dream a reality. During that time, Bethany unexpectedly inherited some money, which helped them to achieve their goal a little sooner and, later, helped her to establish the language school.
Although they had both been looking forward to making this move, at the last minute Bethany’s husband got cold feet and didn’t want to follow through. She encouraged him by assuring him that he could spend the first six months writing his novel. Because of her recent windfall, they could afford to live on her modest income as an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher until his book was published. But this proved to be a disastrous idea. He stayed home alone all day with his writing, while she was under the constant pressure of adjusting to a new language and culture. Bethany would come home after work, eager to talk to her husband. The first thing she would ask him was, “So, what did you write today?” After awhile, that was all they had to talk about because he wasn’t interested in learning Spanish or exploring the country.
At the end of the six months, Bethany came home from work one day and found her husband’s bags packed and ready, by the door. He had bought his return ticket to California and gave her a days’ notice that he was leaving. Bethany was suddenly alone with her dream of living in Costa Rica.
This very painful experience taught Bethany that some people really hate living in Costa Rica. While travel advertisements lure people to Costa Rica with visions of the pura vida, in reality, Costa Rica is hard on relationships. Only those couples who come here with similar goals and realistic, positive perspectives will survive the pressures. Her advice: Don’t come to Costa Rica expecting to find lasting love.
Bethany is now enjoying success as the founder and director of her own language school, but this did not happen overnight. She began as a part-time English teacher at Idiomas International, one of many private language schools based in the central valley. Bethany found this job while planning her trip to Costa Rica via internet searches and interviews. During the first six months working with Idiomas International, she only taught eight or nine hours per week, and after getting a teaching contract this was increased to 20 hours/wk, which was still not enough to live on.
To supplement her income she did office work that paid around $5/hr. Through this, she discovered that she had a knack for administration and creating curriculum manuals. This talent paid off when she was offered a position as director of II, with a year’s contract. Although the job paid quite a bit more than that of a part-time teacher, she became unhappy with working in San Jose. It was a tough job, but she stayed the year. Then she found a position as director of Intercultura, Centro de Idiomas, in Heredia, which is a smaller, nicer city than San Jose.
Part Two: How I met her
This is where I come into the story.
Unbeknownst to me, my desire to come to Costa Rica for adventure and teaching experience was not an original idea. I was following a well-worn path that many others, like Bethany, had already traveled before me. In my search for a dream life in Costa Rica, I, too, found the Web site of Idiomas International and contacted them to inquire about a teaching job. Lo and behold, it was Bethany who contacted me to set up and conduct the interview. She was friendly and frank. In fact, my impression of her at that time was that not only did she not paint a rosy picture of Costa Rica; she did just the opposite. Bethany was extremely honest--to a fault--about the drawbacks of living in Costa Rica. She said that San Jose was noisy, dirty and dangerous, and that I should think long and hard before deciding to live in a third world city. She sent me a fact sheet of information about the cost of living and things I should know about the foods and lifestyle there.
Perhaps Bethany was doing something new in her field: warning idealists like me not to listen to all the tourist hype about international living.
I owe Bethany the credit for my first real introduction to Costa Rica. Our interview ended up as a friendly conversation in which I tried to encourage her to find some solutions to her dissatisfaction with San Jose. “Maybe you can go to the pool and walk in the park more?”
I had no idea that Bethany would eventually become one of my best and most dependable friends there.
After our interview, I took Bethany’s advice and did some real soul-searching about the offer to work in San Jose. I decided I wanted to give it a try in spite of her caveats. But when I contacted her about two weeks later to say, “Definitely Yes!” I received an automatic email response that she was no longer working at Idiomas International. This should have been my initiation into how quickly things can change in Costa Rica. The message referred me to Bethany’s new email address at Intercultura, so I contacted her again.
Bethany replied to me from her new job at Intercultura, but things were complicated. She said that, since she had originally interviewed me for the previous school, I would now have to go through a whole new hiring process for Intercultura. And unfortunately, Intercultura was not currently hiring teachers, because it was mid-term in the school year….Would I like to come to see her and have an interview when I arrived in Heredia?
So that’s what I did. As it turned out, my Costa Rica contact lived in Heredia, so I decided to share an apartment with her and try my luck as an itinerant English teacher. During my second or third venture into Heredia Centro, I found Intercultura Centro de Idiomas. There was Bethany, sitting at her desk in the Director’s office with a sunny smile, dressed in colorful, summery clothes and handcrafted jewelry. It was a refreshing experience to meet an American acquaintance in this strange world. We had a friendly chat first, and then a professional interview. The next afternoon she hired me to teach a few evening classes.
Intercultura Centro de Idiomas, Heredia, Costa Rica
But I soon became too busy commuting to two other language schools in the area, and some of my classes at Intercultura were cancelled. Bethany and I got to know one another a little bit while I taught at Intercultura, but my other job was far away in Santa Ana and demanded more of me, so after a couple of months at her school, I resigned. I was stressed out and too busy—commuting all over the place, six days a week for 16-hour days. Bethany was very nice and handled my resignation very tactfully. In other words, we parted on good terms. After I left Intercultura, Bethany and I bumped into each other occasionally at the town pool or on the street.
As the months passed, I moved on to new adventures. I was hired to teach at the National University, in Heredia, as a visiting professor. By then I had been in Costa Rica for six months, and the early nightfall and rainy season were getting to me. One, long evening I emailed Bethany to ask her if she wanted to meet in town for a beer. She was also ready for a friendship. We finally found some time to meet after hours to share some Imperial and compare notes about our experiences as English teachers and single women in this strange culture. Our friendship is history.
Part Three: What now?
Why she stays; what advice she has for others.
For the rest of the time we lived in the central valley, Bethany and I met weekly for an intercambio with her Columbian friend, Lily. We “Three Musketeers,” the name we gave ourselves, encouraged one another through all the ups and downs of our parallel journeys in Costa Rica. Lily, bilingual in English and Spanish, had been living in Costa Rica for ten years, working at Hewlett Packard in the customer service department. Bethany had a Tico boyfriend who lived in Guanacaste. She started thinking about moving to be near him and start her own language school with his help. At our intercambios Bethany would update us on the progress of her new business venture. She found a building for the school, and in October Lily and I, along with Mandy, another teacher at Intercultura (we three were elected as Bethany’s Board of Directors), spent a weekend in Liberia helping to paint and clean Bethany’s new school.
Members of the Board, November 2010
The rest is history. Instituto Estelar Bilingue opened last January and now has 115 students!
Bethany is following her five-year plan to stay in Costa Rica to see how the school progresses.
What gave Bethany the courage to take this new risk in a foreign country, all alone?
During her years as director of two language schools she gained a lot of expertise in teaching and administration. Finally she decided to take a risk and open her own school. And, her father has been very supportive in offering sage business advice. Finally, after a cancer scare, she realized that “life is too short,” and decided to follow her dream.
Her Tico novio was instrumental in helping her move toward this dream, but when she decided not to make him her business partner, the relationship began to unravel. So here she is, one year later, the director of a growing and vibrant language school. Her next project is to expand the Spanish language school component for Americans who come to Costa Rica as tourists.
Bethany, Director of Instituto Estelar Bilingue, at its first graduation ceremony
I asked Bethany what advice she would offer to prospective English teachers in search of adventure in Costa Rica. She says, “There are no shortages of people who come here. The people who do come here, after all my warnings, are either not listening, or they are really tough.”
Like me. And, like a few other teachers who’ve come to stay. But be warned: English teachers rarely stay longer than a year. If they do stay, usually they move on to other, more secure employment…or, marry Ticos. But, Bethany warns, bicultural relationships have their own challenges.
I owe a lot to Bethany.
In fact, I don’t think I would have survived in Costa Rica as long as I did had we not become friends along the way.
And, now I am the one offering advice:
Don’t come to Costa Rica looking for a relationship.
Don’t come to Costa Rica expecting an easy life.
Don’t come to Costa Rica with a get-rich-quick scheme.
If you come here at all, come to learn about yourself and to change your life.
Finally, accept the people as they are, and adapt to the culture; don’t expect to change it.
You’ll be a lot happier living in a second world country if you come with low expectations and openness to accepting different ways of doing things. For example, there is no mail delivery because there are no street addresses. This is actually wonderful—because there is no junk mail!
There are many good things about living here.
The life is simple. People take things one day at a time and enjoy the moment, en este momento.
The air and light are pure. The landscape is charming and the beaches are fabulous. The weekly farmers’ markets offer the widest variety of the freshest foods you could possibly imagine. Buying food from local vendors and sodas is safe, wholesome and fun. The people are friendly, polite, gentle and good-humored. There is no need for air conditioning or heating because the temperature is just perfect (except sometimes in Guanacaste). Life is lived mostly out of doors and the windows are always open because mosquitoes and flies are not a problem.
So, if you are not afraid of loneliness and insecurity and a long rainy season, life can be a delightful adventure!
Take a virtual visit to Bethany’s school: