It feels like a looooong time ago that we were ending 2019 and launching into 2020!
We had a great Christmas Party at an Argentinian steakhouse in Escazú and then went up the mountain for a zarpe to end the evening and close out 2019. When we came back from our paid Christmas vacation time, we hit the ground running!
The new year kicked off with several new staff members joining our team. We also launched a new automated and recorded speaking assessment policy to enhance the program for our teachers and students. And we started several new accounts and even added some wonderful clients to our community!
In early March 2020, we had just finished up another successful year as the strategic language evaluations partner for the CINDE Job Fair, where we evaluate over 10,000 job candidates’ language levels in English, French and Portuguese. At this same time, the news and first case of COVID-19 were hitting Costa Rica quite hard.
On Monday, March 9th, the Costa Rican government started taking action against the Covid-19 virus as the first case in CR hit just days before. On Tuesday, March 10th, the Idioma Internacional team decided to close our physical offices and transfer all of our classes to virtual, online platforms. By that next day, the entire team and operations were up and running 100% virtually and with very few bumps along the way.
I have to credit the teaching team the most for making this transition happen so quickly and so smoothly. Prior to the pandemic, we were already operating with around 25% of our classes in a virtual or hybrid (part onsite and part virtual) modality; therefore, all of the teachers were already trained and prepared as virtual instructors, save one or two of the newer teachers, and were ready to lead our students into a fully virtual educational experience from one day to the next. This quick and efficient transition to a completely virtual working and teaching environment by the Idioma teaching team is truly one of the most remarkable efforts that Idioma Internacional, in its 20+ years, has seen.
Of course, nothing is easy, nor should it be. Our team has been working hard to optimize this experience and embrace it as an opportunity.
The curriculum team has overhauled our Virtual Learning Platform to more than double the amount of asynchronous, online resources for students’ learning, available 24 hours, 7 days a week, from anywhere with an internet connection.
The recruiting team adjusted to expand our hiring reach to teachers outside of Costa Rica and our team now includes teachers in Costa Rica and several other countries around the world, adding to the diversity and the ‘internacional’ part of our name and identity.
Our marketing and sales team offered flexible solutions to our teaching projects, all of which help people get employed in an increasingly tight labor market worldwide.
For now, we are following the Minister of Health and President Carlos Alvarado’s guidelines and we are firing on all cylinders in this new and exciting virtual world. With the beaches now partially open and things slowly resuming to a new “normal” due to Costa Rica’s swift and unified handling of this pandemic, we are anxious to start dipping our toes back into this country’s gorgeous oceans and once again hang out as a team, be it on the beach or at a café in the capital. We know Costa Rica will soon return to being one of the best locations to visit and live in the world.
Back in the day, as they say, the Idioma team used to get together every Sunday evening to have dinner as a team, and always at the home of the first academic director, Joy. At that time, we all lived in the same neighborhood and we were a much smaller operation.
Fast forward to 2019 and having nearly tripled in size, we now live all around the central valley, counting four of the seven provinces as home to Idioma and its team.
Nonetheless, the passion for spending time together and eating together has never been far from Idioma; it was in this spirit, to take some time outside of work to share, laugh, eat and enjoy the rich diversity on our team that we organized a mid-year potluck in the late afternoon on Sunday, June 30th.
At 4pm precisely, the hour that we started the potluck, it began to downpour…torrentially and so much so that within minutes, the road gutter in front of our current academic director’s apartment, between the road and the door to his apartment, was filled with a half-foot deep, six-foot wide rushing ‘river!’ It’s a good thing that everyone arrived on Tico time and not on time! By 4:30pm when people started showing up, the downpour downgraded to just heavy rain and the ‘river’ was crossable by way of a leap and we all made it upstairs to start warming up food and eating!
We had shrimp and grits along with sausage and fried apples from some of the southerners on staff. We had fruit salad and a huge pineapple for a more Tico flair. And no potluck is complete without a couple of potato dishes, as in mashed potatoes and home fries!
We all took turns grazing through the food line in Brendan’s tiny kitchen and the chatter and clatter soon took a downward turn as the silence of good-eatin’ commenced! There was enough food for seconds (and thirds for some, who shall remain nameless!) and a surplus to take to the office for some Monday munching.
Add we enjoyed some guitar strummin’ and singing in an impromptu session before we capped the evening off early but very full, full of international fare, Idioma friends and the Costa Rican Pura Vida vibe.
Our Idioma Cares kick-off event of the year was as inspiring as it was fun. Good things come to those who show up. And, including brand new members of the team, we had a solid group show up to help our own community.
We have done a park clean-up in Parque de La Paz, but this was a beautification outside our actual doorstep. It was satisfying being able to clean up what we see every day, what is our home, and what is home to many others.
This was an Idioma Cares event with a dual purpose, to start the year off with committing to action and community with cleaning up our surrounding streets, but it stemmed from the philosophy of Idioma Internacional itself, of building a family. So we combined our clean-up event with a BBQ as a team to celebrate our commitment and dedication. We are all here from another land as appreciators of different cultures, specifically Costa Rica. We are not just finding purpose, but making a purpose by giving back to the country that has hosted us.
We grabbed our bags and gloves and spread out across the neighborhood to grab trash and recycling that was left behind. We enjoyed working side by side with our co-teachers and admin comrades, and we also knew there was a delicious barbeque on the other side.
After the clean-up, we proceeded to the beautiful University for Peace Park to grill out with hot dogs and hamburgers and all the snacks and drinks we could take with us (we didn’t have our vegetarians or vegans with us, but we were prepared for their dietary needs).
There was a beautiful February sun, soccer fields, a forest to explore and good company to have. One thing I enjoy a lot about our team is how easy and fun it is to just hang out, and shoot the… you know. TEFL teachers have so many things in common, and as many differences that the stories we share are always something to enjoy and learn from.
We cooked together, drank together, played games together, and hiked together. We all came here to teach English, and in so doing, make a difference, but we also get to make a difference in our personal relationships. When you have picked up trash with a friend it is that much easier to laugh about crazy hostel experiences in a beach town.
New members of the team made us laugh while getting to know them as we jammed to music. We played soccer with the locals as if we could hold a candle to their talent. And as we piled into the cars to exit before the sun went down, it was refreshing to see that our team took the time out of their Sunday to spend it together. We made our front door prettier and safer, and we did it all in the comradery that makes living abroad so necessary and awesome.
Our start of the year was as successful as the rest of our year. Now we get to walk into the difference we want to make, and the friendships we are here to have. Because they are waiting for us, and good things come to those that show up.
Wow! December was a packed month at Idioma Internacional.
As we began to wind down another great year, we had a lot to celebrate and a lot to be thankful for.
We actually kicked off December by having our annual Idioma Christmas party! We started the night off with a gift exchange at our office. As usual, a lot of the gifts were consumable (food and drink alike) and there were a few favorites that got stolen until they couldn’t be stolen again.
We took some pictures at the office and then loaded up in a private shuttle to head up to the mountains of Heredia and have the famous paella at La Lluna de Valencia. The night was replete with flamenco guitar and dancing, a fire show and the proprietor coming around with his famous bota full of wine! We ate, drank and had a really fun and warm Christmas celebration as a team.
December festivities continued with our 2nd annual Gingerbread House night! We got into teams and put on some villancicos to put us in the Christmas spirit while we got to work building our Gingerbread Houses.
All of this only brought us to the middle of December! We still had some events to go, not the least of which is our 2nd annual Christmas Pie in the Face Raffle.
At the end of every year, we choose a charity to support and raise money for by selling raffle tickets to our students. Our students can buy a raffle ticket and with it buy a chance for their teacher to get a pie to the face!
This year, we have been working closely with an organization called Boy with a Ball for which we raised 134,215.00 colones as a team! And with such a remarkable turnout, Idioma Internacional was able to match that amount and double the funds we were able to donate!
We picked the raffle ticket at random to find our lucky winner to get a pie in the face and sure enough, our teacher, Brian, who sold the most actually won!
And of course, each year an Administrator is also chose at random to participate because the only thing better than one person getting a pie in the face is two people getting a pie in the face!
With all the December and end-of-the-year activities behind us, we all hopped on planes, busses and in some cases, motorcycles, and headed out to enjoy some paid vacation time over the holidays. Here is a quick snapshot of the last sunset of 2018 in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica…
Over two different Friday mornings toward the end of October, our teaching staff gathered for the second Retreat of 2018.
We had a healthy breakfast of granola, yogurt, fruit, bread and spreads, juice and coffee to get us started on both days. Our professional development activities focused on our core values of Excellence, Sound Character and Innovation and were complemented by some fun team-building activities.
After the two mornings of professional development, we all met up at Bol Cariari for a Sunday afternoon of wings, beers and bowling shoes! For this Retreat Event, we decided to keep things a bit closer to home and indoors, which was a great idea given the massive aguacero that dumped all afternoon.
Many of us wish we had had bumpers in our lanes to help improve our scores; however, proudly there were a few of us who actually broke the 100-mark! As more beers were cracked open, our scores tended to increase as well.
While we may not have a career in professional bowling ahead of us, we are certainly aficionados of snacking, drinking, laughing and lofting gutter balls one after another.
Little compares to the sense of purpose and drive you feel when you’re part of a team. Add that to the festival-like atmosphere of a city-wide race, with music, volunteers passing out water, and people on the sides of the streets cheering you on, and you have the recipe for a gorgeous day in the Costa Rican sun.
Some of us like racing and fitness, some of us are simply volunteers at heart and love participating, and for some of us it was deeply personal — we were there for the same reason the Anna Ross Fundraiser was created, because someone dear to us had been affected by breast cancer. Regardless of our reasons, we were all there together, an Idioma Cares team of eight, with that sense of purpose and drive multiplied by thousands who were side by side with us, same uniform and everything.
We made our way as a group to the start of the race on Paseo Colón, a stone’s throw away from our office. A fire engine that blew bubbles out of it seemed like the best pre-race photo op, before the sweat and sunscreen drenched our faces.
When the race began we knew that we wouldn’t stay side by side for long, but we had the same goal and destination. Regardless of our time or distance we all ended in the heart of Sabana Park and were met with cheers and medals. We designated a spot by the pond behind the main stage for us to all meet at afterwards. After enjoying our newly found deep breaths and congratulatory Latin dance music from the stage behind us, we exited the park as a team, knowing we had accomplished our shared goal separately, yet together.
Shortly after gathering our things at the office, we were clinking our bottles together with a well-earned salud and enjoying some much-anticipated food and drink in a cantina at the foot of an Escazú mountain, a simple bus ride away from the office where a lot of the teachers live. What I really love about Idioma Cares is that the comraderie of contributing to a cause doesn’t stop at a single event. It’s part of who we are. At our most recent staff retreat, one of the group’s proposed definitions of “excellence” was, “setting a high standard, meeting that goal, high fiving, then setting a new standard.” Enjoying an ice cold Imperial with my teammates was the exact high five I was looking for after running a 5K. And if that’s how we end a day of sun and sweat together, I know we’re all looking forward to the next new standard.
On a Saturday, many of the staff were coming from teaching their respective colegio (high-school) classes, and began to arrive individually. Some of us, the author included, came straight from the class they had just taught. These days are never short. It is often difficult to find energy for anything after. However, this special Saturday gave each of us something to look forward to: THE COMPANY HOLIDAY PARTY!
We knew we were going to a restaurant. We knew there would be paella. We knew we had to dress nice. We didn’t know anything else. We met at the office. We greeted each other with the same exhausted expressions as most Saturdays, but there was a glint, a spark of excitement that came from knowing we were all going to be together for the night. We so rarely get the whole crew together.
I arrived a little early, around 5 pm, and only one other teacher was there. He and I watched some comedy, and I opened my first beer. I took a quick shower and dressed for the occasion. As I finished getting ready, the others began to arrive. Each and every one of the crew looked fantastic in their ‘dinner attire.’ Everything began to move a little faster. Multiple greetings, hugs, handshakes, backslaps, beers cracked, wine poured laughter, adoring voices. All of a sudden it was time to line up for the group photos. In typical fashion, we took one nice photo and several frivolous ones. The frivolous ones are always more of a true representation of our inner strangeness. Now that the pictures were taken, we loaded the cooler, double checked for bags and purses and packed into the buseta (mini-bus).
On the ride to our still mostly unknown destination, chosen and planned by the ‘elusive’ administrative staff, we found our inner children that hide just below our professional surfaces. With the excitement of going on an elementary school field trip, we began singing 90’s pop songs, laughing out of our seats, and exchanging the jovial stories of the season. I am sure the bus driver hated us.
As we neared the destination, the city gave way to some really incredible views of the central valley from our windows. You could see the city’s glow. The lights timed perfectly for our Holiday spirits. After what seemed a long time, since most of us needed to use the restroom, we arrived at the restaurant: La Lluna de Valencia. http://lallunadevalencia.com/
We exited the bus in the street and walked through a brick and wooden garden. It was already past dark, and we couldn’t see much, but you could tell it was beautiful. Once inside, the atmosphere livened and we all immediately became aware of the incredible establishment we had entered. The lofty, wood-beamed ceilings, classic Spanish decorations, polished wooden tables, and rich warm lighting invoked a sense of home, comfort, and peace.
As everyone found their seats around one of the two large tables that were reserved, the wine and sangria began to flow in torrents. Our general manager was quick to provide a beautiful toast, thanking all of us and officially beginning the party.
The entire crew feeling comfortable, delighted, and hungry began to tell stories and jokes. Laughter could be heard all around. We were a cacophony of merriment. Wine in nearly every glass, the first course was brought out. I wish I could tell you what the first course was. I wish that at some point I could recall the look, taste, and feel of that course. However, what actually has stuck in my mind is when our gracious host arrived to greet us. Vincente Aguilar Cerezo is the type of man that could easily have a novel written about him. His incredible positivity, charming presence, and booming voice and laughter deserve their own story. For now, suffice it to say that he made the experience perfect for us.
Vincente brought a wine skein with him. He taught us the ways to use the skein. We had to slap the leather pouch, and squeeze a stream of wine into our mouths. He first demonstrated this by making a round of our entire group and doing the pouring for us. If he believed you could handle it, he would pour it from your nose into your mouth. Strange, I know. But, as they say, when in Rome. I doubt you could deny him even if you wanted to. His demeanor was intoxicating all on its own.
The next course arrived, sardines with oil and garlic on delicious bread. We continued our joyful satisfaction of each other’s company. The mood was increasingly more fun, we got louder, the food was passed around and consumed. After a few more refills, the main dish was delivered: massive, piping-hot pans of traditional paella. Vincente, our amazing host, served every plate whether it was vegetarian, pescatarian, or the fully traditional chicken variety.
Once the entire room had been served their dinner portions, the lights began to grow dimmer and flicker out. A giant bowl was placed on a stage in the center of the room, and Vincente took his place. The final lights were extinguished, and Vincente lit the bowl on fire. The blue glow of the flames danced in the bowl and the host began to stir and lift the flaming liquid high into the air. A waterfall of fire was the only illumination in the room as Vincente ladled his mysterious wizard’s potion. The show was something to admire indeed. This flaming liquor was then divided among the guests and a toast was given by the bearded Vincente like it was straight out of a storybook. This was the perfect culmination of hospitality and grace.
Afterwards, the lights were restored, and the party continued with a delicious caramelized pudding for dessert. Our group then revealed the Secret Santa gifts. This was special in so many ways. One by one, we delivered our gifts with hugs, laughter, and love. The party could not have ended any better. We all felt loved as though we were all family.
Our buseta ride back to the office was more of the same: loud laughter, singing, story-telling, and general joy. I won’t lie, it felt a lot shorter than the way to the restaurant. This night was incredible in every way. We continued to build these rare and amazing friendships that will be remembered for the rest of our lives. There are no ways to truly express how unbelievable it feels to be part of a team that can share such great memories and experiences. With every gathering, we truly become more like family, and since most of us have left ours in our respective motherlands, this feeling really creates an unmatchable joy in our usually busy lives. I will forever be grateful for the companionship we have developed. SALUD!
Part 1: Professional and Personal Development
Twice each year, Idioma Internacional holds an all-company retreat. There are always two parts to the retreat. The first day begins with an in-office professional development where we build skills to help the entire staff become better educators and administrators. Second, on another day, we gather for a lunch and information session, then we leave the office for an afternoon of fun, bonding, and usually drinks!
The most recent retreat was my first experience. I had heard about them, but there is almost no way to truly explain all the activities and development that we covered. So being that this will barely glimpse the actuality of the retreat, let’s begin with the in-office development day.
We arrived at the office at 8 am and were greeted by a casual buffet-style breakfast, hot coffee, and Irish Cream (you know, the good stuff). After everyone was prepared with a full stomach and clear head, we went outside for the first of many activities. We were using our second (sometimes 3rd, 4th, 5th) language to play a game about giving instructions. These kinds of things really give the staff some perspective on how we instruct. This kind of perspective in invaluable as it leads to better understanding of what our students have to do on a daily basis.
After the outdoor game, we headed back into the office and continued with more activities that encouraged each of us to create and adapt goals, both personal and professional for the remainder of our time here at Idioma Internacional. This was immediately followed up by a reminder of goals that were set previously (either at the last retreat or when we finished our mentor program). This way we could compare our own goals, and also see our progress. We were also given some of the comments that our own students had said about us. It is an unbelievable feeling to see the kind of impact that we can make as educators. The student quote I received was so heart-warming that it was difficult not to cry.
Next, we took an off-campus lunch at a fantastic Mexican restaurant near the office. It was another way to bond and be in each other’s company for a little while, not having to discuss work unless we chose to. This is always rare, because schedules are so varied that it is hard to get the whole group together. However, these moments help us realize the support we all provide for each other.
When we got back to the office, we had another round of professional development workshops that are fun, light-hearted, and still very informative in many ways. Most of the workshops that I have attended in the past are boring and can be redundant. These were exceptional, covering topics that we all want improvement upon, and offer new ideas to keep our classrooms evolving. We covered many different topics that will truly help us develop into fantastic teachers.
Lastly, after all of the professional development had concluded, the coolers were brought out with beer and wine. They were emptied, refilled, and emptied again. All members of staff were encouraged to hang out as long as they wished. Most of us did stay until late in the evening. These moments in the company of the other staff members are excellent for building bonds between co-workers, which then leads to some incredible and lasting friendships. We found our similarities, differences, and helped each other become stronger teachers, better educators, and most importantly great friends. Our relationships grew, changed, and impacted each of us in ways that we can take with us for the rest of our lives.
Part 2: Company Progress and Healthy Competition
As said at the beginning of this, the next part of the retreat is a day of healthy competition, fun, bonding, and drinks. These events take us off-campus and let us play in the company of our colleagues. This most recent retreat, we went go-karting!
The day began with a lunch at the office. It was catered, fancy, and was very appreciated by the entire staff. (Food has always had a way of bringing people together!) While we prepared for our incredible feast, we listened to music, drank sangria or beer, and socialized. It was a great start to the day.
After our well rounded and delicious meal, we were then treated to some great announcements about the progress of the company. There was an old video presentation with hairstyles and young faces of the most senior members of staff that had the entire room laughing viciously. After the laughing subsided, we were all treated to the administrators’ speeches about how this company is successful because of the entire staff working together in so many amazing ways.
Next, it was time to pack into Uber cars and head to the main event of the day: GO-KARTS! Once we arrived at the track, we all signed up for at least three separate times to race with the team. Each person was their own worst enemy, trying to beat their own times. Of course, we all challenged each other for the best time, and of course we were talking trash with each other.
On my first trip, I remember the smell of exhaust, sweat, and rubber. It was exhilarating. I had not driven a go-kart for the better part of a decade. I was fitted into my helmet and buckled into my car. As the green light flashed, I felt the need for speed. It wasn’t long before I was being warned about my aggressive driving. I think that if I had not been warned, I would have wasted my time.
Each member of staff experienced their own love for the track. We were all smiles, laughter, and cheers. Everyone was looking for the best times, or at least enjoying the really friendly competition. Some of the staff had never been go-karting before and were delighted to experience it with the camaraderie of this particular staff.
The social bond that we built during these events is the kind of atmosphere all professionals desire. We were able to really grow as individuals and professionals, while having fun, sharing stories, competing in exciting and healthy ways, and creating lasting friendships. This last part is what separates Idioma Internacional from others in our field. Everyone is grateful for the chance to meet so many people from completely different backgrounds and cultures. We were able to learn through fun and exciting means, while still maintaining an air of professionalism. The entire staff benefited greatly from these activities and will remember their experiences forever. As we continue to grow in this career, we can only hope to take these experiences with us to share with the rest of the world.