1. The students: The students generally work hard, even many teenage classes. The adult classes are quite friendly and teachers tend to form positive and loyal bonds with their students over time. Many students travel from other towns for English class or have recently moved to Liberia so they can tell you about other parts of the country. Most teachers adore teaching the students here and are very sad to leave their students when the time comes.
2. The teachers: The number of teachers has varied between 9 and 10. The feel of the group varies a lot and the dynamics can change drastically, as with any small cohort of employees. The atmosphere is usually very positive, sometimes to a fault, and teachers tend to be very loyal to their contracts either out of a sense of due or out of pride/a need to prove that they can stick it out. A few of the teachers do genuinely love Liberia. There is a good chance that out of the 9 or 10, you'll get along with at least one other person.
3. The school: Most of the textbooks are quite good (they're all from Cambridge). The recent Google Drive project serves as a good resource for lesson planning. The teachers' resource room has a good assortment of things like crayons, chalk, dice, laminated games that previous teachers have created, some random toys and games like Twister and Monopoly, flash cards that go with the kids' books, and miscellaneous items. There is a large bookshelf with books in Spanish and English that have been accumulated, which is nice for the school community to peruse. The school wants to save money on ink so they strongly discourage printing of any kind. Teachers must use their laptop or students' phones instead for activities. This renders a lot of hands-on activities impossible, but ultimately is fine to work around once you get used to exploring other options.
The director of the English program, Brad, is a positive aspect of the company. Brad exhibits genuine care for the Estelar community, students and teachers alike. He will do his best to incorporate teachers' preferences into a difficult-to-manage schedule of classes when possible. He also makes it a priority to give teachers their promised 24 hours a week, assigning small projects when necessary. He often seems caught between a rock and a hard place because he genuinely listens to the teachers' concerns and does his best to solve problems. Unfortunately, he does not have much power and often gets shot down by the owner when he makes requests, and is often kept in the dark just as much as the teachers are. Despite being put in a frustrating position often, he never speaks poorly about his boss and does his best to build up his employees' morale and community. The other staff (such as receptionists) are very friendly and amazingly helpful.
4. The location: Liberia is not a great place for most people. If you just want to experience a new country and you are here for the beach and the heat, it may be great for you. Compared to almost any other place in the world where a traveling EFL teacher might settle, Liberia does not have much going for it. There is the square, a bull ring, and a bus station, and that's about it; it's certainly a small town with not a lot of atmosphere other than horse parades and drinking during the fiestas (which admittedly is a big deal and very popular). Liberia is home to monkeys and large toads so that's a plus. If you want to travel to other parts of Costa Rica, Liberia is an okay place to be based, but doesn't have direct buses to many of the attractions in the country. Because Sundays and Mondays are your only days off, it's hard to get to places other than the beach with having enough time to see the area. If you plan ahead and travel with multiple people it can help.
5. The pay/housing: The pay is okay; prices in Costa Rica are much higher than in the rest of Latin America, but it is a livable wage and if you don't buy anything other than groceries you can save enough to travel within the country (which is the reason most teachers come). Be prepared for high tourist prices for just about anything you do (waterfalls, rainforest walks, etc). The pay is better than a couple of other schools in the country as far as I know. The school recently bought its own housing for its foreign employees (previously they rented from a third party). The English teachers currently live there and it is still under construction. The compound is small, but breezy and bright, with monkeys living in neighbours' trees and surrounded by a tall concrete wall for safety, complete with a newly-constructed area to wash and hang laundry. The housing accumulates a new layer of dirt every few hours, so much that you have to wash your dishes again before using them, but that is partly just the region being extremely dry, hot, and dusty, even during rainy season. Estelar management comes in to each apartment weekly to monitor cleanliness and make sure you haven't stolen any of the furnishings, and you receive a warning if you're not up to code. Estelar advertises it as "furnished", but many of the furnishings don't work (e.g. stoves/ovens) or are very low quality (e.g. mattresses). The general manager (who oversees the English teacher housing and is the founder/owner's husband) attempts to fix many of these things, but lack of money is also often cited. The shared wifi is fast enough to teach online on the side.
6. The management and other concerns:
- There is a small but nagging feeling of dishonesty at times from the company. For example, the Spanish immersion program for foreigners advertises "cooking classes" and "dance classes", which are just led by a person who works at the school, not actual dance instructors or cooks. In the past, English teachers who take Spanish classes have been asked to write positive reviews of the company on websites as part of their paid hours. (With this being said, the Spanish classes are definitely not bad.)
- Employees are treated a bit paternalistically by the management. With respect to teachers, this included a meeting that was held under the guise of giving the teachers necessary information, which turned out to be a plea for teachers to volunteer to share rooms with each other due to management's hiring oversights and misbudgeting. Other meetings have been characterized by prompt shutting down of reasonable requests, admonishments to adapt to the culture, and implications that the teachers are entitled in their standards of cleanliness/safety or expectations of their employer. Teachers are sus*i*ious that this is a company problem, and not in fact a feature of Costa Rica.
- The provided housing is an advertised benefit that is part of the salary of working as an English teacher here. However, once you sign the contract the management refers to it as "free housing" and does not consider it an included benefit, but rather a generous gift. It is unclear if the management cares about cleanliness, having provided TVs for each house but not adequate mops, or if the weekly inspections are more a chance to monitor their employees and their property.
- There have been some issues of disrespect with the owner/founder, Bethany, recently. For example, when there was a serious incident involving neighbours and safety (in the previous housing), Bethany expressed little concern and wrote off the affected female teachers, doubting that they had locked their door properly. On the contrary, Brad expressed great concern and dedication to their safety. At one point the dilapidated floor of one apartment needed to be repainted, and in order to do this the general manager (Bethany's husband) moved all the tenants' belongings out of the house without informing them. Some was left outside, including a bed; some was pooped on by birds and not cleaned; and some was put back in the house in haphazard array. Bethany both claimed nothing to do with it and shrugged off this blatant lack of respect for property by reminding the teachers that her husband was "a guy" who can be messy. And the native-English management has gone out of its way to write the inspection contract solely in Spanish "because we are in a Spanish-speaking country." (Imagine a language institute in the UK or US refusing to write important documents for foreign employees in the language they speak and the language they are being paid to teach.)
Overall, I wish the best for Estelar because there is a need for English in the area and I want it to benefit the locals. But it is also necessary for incoming teachers to know what to expect before accepting a position here. It would be beneficial for both the company and prospective employees if there were more transparency. Everyone would be happier if they were better prepared for working and living with Estelar.