At the end of August, I left England for Chile to embark on a year-long placement as an English Language Assistant (ELA) with British Council. I’d loved au-pairing in Italy and teaching in China, and with no post-grad plans on the horizon, I applied on a whim. The programme was appealing: you can live and work abroad, improve your language skills, and experience a different culture. The applications for the 2019-20 academic year will open shortly, so I’ve compiled this mini-guide on what exactly the placement is and what to expect from the application process.
British Council is a UK governmental organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, founded in 1934. They actually offer a whole range of various programmes to study and work outside the UK, including internships in China and volunteering in Ukraine (a full list can be found here). One of their most popular programmes is their ELA placement which involves teaching English abroad. You can choose from 15 countries to apply for: Mexico, Spain, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, France, Senegal, Canada, Belgium, China, Austria, Italy, Germany and Switzerland.
To be eligible for most countries, you need to:
– own an EU passport
– be a native-English speaker
– have completed at least two years of university
– possess skills in the language spoken in your chosen country
Most countries ask for B1 level, although Spain only requires A2 and China doesn’t require any language skills. The level is assessed through the European language framework (you can assess yourself here). You don’t necessarily need a formal qualification, but it’s in your interest to meet the minimum requirements as you will need them on arrival. They may also test your language ability in the assessment stages.
For some countries there are also minimum and maximum age requirements. While most ELAs are students on their year abroad, graduates are welcome to apply and are not necessarily at a disadvantage. However, some countries do prioritize certain applicants. For example, Argentina is a 6-month post and therefore favours dual-language undergraduates who need two posts to make up their year abroad. Italy also prioritises undergrads studying Italian who need to undertake a year abroad. These aren’t exclusive requirements though, so if you feel like these countries are perfect for you, don’t be deterred!
THE role of an english language assistant
Your role will vary depending on where you are based. In general, ELAs can expect to introduce UK culture and support the teaching of English in their institution. You do not need to have a teaching qualification to apply, but some countries do want their ELAs to take on a more independent role than just assisting. Therefore, it’s important to do your research on the British Council website to ensure that the country you are applying for is a good fit for you. In these cases, you could have your own class of students, whose progress you’re responsible for monitoring.
ELAs work between 12-20 hours a week, and do get paid, although salaries vary. They are enough to cover basic living expenses, but not to live luxuriously. With the exception of China, you are responsible for covering the costs of flights, visas, and other pre-departure necessities. You also need to make sure you have enough money to support yourself on arrival for up to two months as salary payments can be delayed in the beginning.
Which type of educational institution you will be placed in varies from country to country. For example, you could be in a primary school, a language centre, or a university to name a few. I’m working at a university as are the majority of ELAs in Chile. Most posts run for an academic year, although some are only for six months. The amount of assistantships in each country also varies drastically (Ecuador only has two available!). Some countries are definitely more competitive than others, which is the case for Latin American counties.
When applications open, you can apply online. You do not have to complete it in one sitting. It’s possible to come back to it, redraft it and then submit it in your own time. You will need to provide personal information, a supporting statement, and a reference. Then, you list your three top countries in order of priority, along with other preferences such as preferred regions and age-ranges. The supporting statement last year needed to be a minimum of 1,500 characters and a maximum of 6,000 characters. It asked the applicant to cover the following:
Outline your reasons for applying to the programme and explain your motivation to be an English Language Assistant. This could include any relevance to future career plans (if known) and what you would bring to the role. Describe relevant previous experience such as teaching or working with children/young people. This could include both formal and informal examples such as work experience, babysitting, mentoring, sports clubs, brownies/scouts etc. Demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of your first-choice country and its culture.
I would definitely recommend sending your draft to a personal tutor or a friend to receive objective feedback before submitting. This application is a job application and you should treat it as such. Posts in places like Latin America are extremely competitive and you need to ensure you’re answering the question in the best way you can. If you are successful at this stage, you might advance straight to the allocation process. Or, you will progress to a telephone or web-based video interview for further assessment, usually in February or March.
As an applicant for a Latin American country, the latter was applicable for me. The interview took place through a program online which displayed the question, gave you time to prepare, then automatically started recording your answer for an allotted amount of time. You have the chance to practise this process, before beginning for real. In my opinion, the interview definitely required preparation. I trawled through GlassDoor looking at previous questions and researched the answers before I did the interview.
If I remember correctly, they asked me the expected questions regarding my previous experience/suitability followed by a couple of tougher ones. They were along the lines of: if you arrived at your host-university to encounter ongoing strikes during the first six weeks which showed no signs of stopping, what would you do? Bearing the culture and political context of your first-choice country in mind, which topics would you avoid teaching? Other tricky questions that the application could ask include:
- You are in a remote village and have to teach a night class, how would you get to the school safely, what steps could you take?
- What would you do if there were warnings of a tsunami? (Or other natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods)
- If you were in a position in which you were not able to contact British Council staff during a state emergency, what would you do?
If you are successful during the further assessment stage, then British Council will put you forward to their partner agencies. This occurs during their matching meetings which take place from March to May. It was at this point that they informed me my application for Argentina (my original first choice) had been unsuccessful. However, they said that they thought my application would be more appropriate for Chile, and transferred me.
A couple of months later they will inform you of the outcome of the matching meetings. An allocation, a place on the waiting-list, or a rejection. They usually manage to match everyone, so don’t fret too much about this stage. Then, you will be invited to a pre-departure briefing and begin undertaking preparations to move.
I will address the whirlwind of pre-departure prep in another blog post. For Chile, it involved racing the clock to obtain visas, health reports, ICPC certificates and vaccinations!
Until then, the British Council website is a good place to start your research.